Friday, March 10, 2017

On the Loose in San Francisco

Judy (Barbra Streisand): I know I'm different, but from now on I'm going to try and be the same.

Howard (Ryan O'Neal): The same as what?

Judy: The same as people who aren't different.

Peter Bogdanovich's "What's Up, Doc?" which premiered on this day in 1972, was inspired lunacy. It was a screwball comedy in the proud tradition of screwball comedies.

I will always remember the first time I saw it. I saw it on the big screen with my parents and my brother.

When I was growing up, I could always tell when something truly amused my father. If he was only mildly amused — or if he wasn't really amused but wanted to be polite — he would chuckle lightly. But if something really struck him as funny, he would laugh a full–throated, no–holds–barred laugh.

The latter was the way he laughed when we saw "What's Up, Doc?"

Oh, sure, it was pure silliness. But it was the kind of silliness that is seen less and less these days.

At some point along film's evolution, the humor in slapstick grew to rely on bathroom jokes and what used to be called four–letter words; obviously there is some overlap of the two. Not so with "What's Up, Doc?"

Granted, I think most, if not all, of this shift came along after "What's Up, Doc?" was showing in movie theaters, and that might have been why there was so little of either in that movie.

I recall few four–letter words in the dialogue, and the only bathroom humor occurred when Streisand was caught taking a bath in O'Neal's bathroom.

It had a rapid–fire script with one–liners that you could easily miss if you were laughing. That meant that you had to see it a second time — and perhaps a third or fourth time and keep the urge to laugh in check — to get the full benefit of the writing.

I have seen it many times since that first viewing. I never get tired of the snappy dialogue or the acting. The last time I saw it, it seemed to me that the dialogue was still as fresh and funny as it was 45 years ago.

As it always is in truly good screwball comedies, the premise was simple. A musicologist (Ryan O'Neal) and his fiancee (Madeline Kahn) were in San Francisco where O'Neal's character was to receive a grant. This grant was intended to help him study his theory of ancient man's use of rocks in making music.

O'Neal had a plaid overnight bag in which he carried his collection of prehistoric rocks that he used in his studies. The story centered around that bag and three others that looked just like it. One belonged to Barbra Streisand, who played what appeared to be a bit of a drifter. Her bag seemed to contain nothing but underwear. One belonged to a wealthy hotel guest who carried her jewels in it — and, consequently, had attracted the attention of a thief — and the fourth belonged to an apparent whistle blower who had top–secret documents in his bag — and someone was trying to take the papers from him.

All four wound up at the same hotel in San Francisco.

From there, it was probably best for the viewer to simply watch things unfold and not dwell on the details. Things moved too fast to ponder details for too long.

It's that rapid pace that made "What's Up, Doc?" such a pleasure to watch. As critic Roger Ebert observed, "[Y]ou can't direct comedy at a snail's pace. It has to move and crackle."

And Bogdanovich certainly didn't direct at a snail's pace. Ostensibly his intent was to pay homage to Howard Hawks and the screwball comedies of his day. In that regard, he certainly succeeded. But Bogdanovich had studied the form well and had his own ideas so the movie was a delightful blend of familiar screwball devices and new ones.

My favorite scene has always been when O'Neal's hotel room had been destroyed in screwball comedyesque fashion, and he was visited the next morning by the manager of the hotel (the always droll John Hillerman), who introduced himself to O'Neal as "the manager of what's left of the hotel."

He told O'Neal he had a message for him from the staff of the hotel. What is it? O'Neal wanted to know.

"Goodbye," the manager replied.

"That's the entire message?" O'Neal asked.

"Yes," Hillerman replied. "We would appreciate it if you would check out."

"When?" O'Neal asked.


Kahn made her first feature–film appearance in "What's Up, Doc?" and gave audiences a taste of her considerable talent and the many great performances to come. Sadly her life and career were cut short by ovarian cancer in 1999.

Kahn's character was, in Ebert's word, "spinsterish," and she played it very well, considering she was only about 30 at the time. And she really stood out when she was on the screen, but I don't recall her being much of a factor in the climactic sequence of the film.

I guess no screwball comedy would be complete without some kind of chase (typically car, I suppose), and "What's Up, Doc?" had one with all the characters from the various subplots racing in various types of automobiles through the streets of San Francisco and nearly all ending up in San Francisco Bay.

Car chases are fairly traditional movie elements, but again, Bogdanovich put his own spin on things. For awhile, Streisand and O'Neal were on a delivery boy's bicycle that wound up, somehow, inside a Chinese dragon. You need to watch the movie to see how that was accomplished.

Some of the more delightful elements of "What's Up, Doc?" do require some explanation because only a select group of people will get them otherwise.

Most of these elements were musical. "What's Up, Doc?" was not a musical, but it had a lot of musical references — which was appropriate since it was centered on a musicologists' convention.

The most obvious was the use of the Cole Porter song "You're the Top" in the opening and closing sequences. Less obvious to most would be the other Porter songs that could be heard in the hotel lobby.

In the chase scene, remember when I mentioned the Chinese dragon? Well, in that scene, the Chinese marching band played "La Cucaracha" on German glockenspiels.

Screwy, huh?

And then there were Bogdanovich's nods to the movie industry. The best ones came at the end. While looking for Streisand (whose name in the movie was Judy), O'Neal said, "Judy? Judy? Judy?" a nod to a phrase that is often associated with Cary Grant, the star of "Bringing Up Baby," a classic screwball comedy.

Grant never said the line. But Humphrey Bogart did say, "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine." In "What's Up, Doc?" Streisand did, too, substituting "he" for "she" but using an acceptable Bogart voice.

And in the best movie homage, Streisand told O'Neal, "Love means never having to say you're sorry." That, of course, was Ali MacGraw's famous line in "Love Story," the movie that made O'Neal a star. In "What's Up, Doc?" his response was, "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard."