Friday, July 8, 2011

WHAT'S UP, DOC? 1972

Getting two people to agree on what is, or is not, funny is as difficult as finding someone who actually thinks Bob Hope was funny.
I've never been much of a fan of the kind of 1930's screwball comedy that Peter Bogdanovich pays homage to in "What's Up Doc?" (I find them exhausting), so it surprises me that this film ranks so high on my list of all-time favorite movies. Well, it's not that much of a surprise. For no matter how you categorize it, "What's Up Doc?" is one of the most consistently funny movies I've ever seen. And it remains so after multiple viewings. Mercifully, "What's Up Doc?" owes merely a polite nod to the screwball romantic comedy genre and is stylistically closer in tone to the absurdist, anarchic slapstick of The Marx Brothers and Bugs Bunny. 
In fact, in attempting to recapture the comedy style of a bygone era, "What's Up Doc?" should be credited with, if not exactly originating, at least spearheading that unique brand of comedy that found great popularity in the 70s: the zany, self-referential, genre spoof.  Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder mastered in this sort of thing throughout the 70s, and come the 80s, Jim Abrahams and the Zucker Brothers took it to a whole new level with "Airplane."

What is so hilariously off-kilter about "What's Up, Doc?", and what ultimately works so well to its advantage, is the incongruity of seeing the hip, laid-back stars of the 70s (whose stylistic conceit was a lack of any discernible style at all) shoehorned into the rigidly stylized, almost vaudevillian conventions of 30s anarchic comedy. Though it is clearly set in the here and now, the characters all behave as if they've never seen a Three Stooges or Laurel & Hardy movie before. We in the audience anticipate the familiar  comedy set-ups and farcical comings and goings, but the people onscreen are so comically surprised and put out by the absurdity of the circumstances they find themselves in that an unexpected layer of funny takes over.
Funny is Serious Business
Even the film's location (San Francisco, a city so full of vertical angles and winding roads that it looks like it was designed by a Warner Bros. cartoonist) adds to the feel of the contemporary clashing with the old-fashioned. Whether intentional or not, "What's Up, Doc?" works so well because the destruction of order - the raison d'etre  of anarchic comedy - occurs not only within the plot (which revolves around identical suitcases and a non-identical case of mistaken identity), but in the basic construct of the film itself: The tightly-wound wackiness of studio-bound 1930s comedy wreaks havoc on Hollywood's most relaxed film era in America's most notoriously laid-back city. 

I think this is one of the (many) reasons why Bogdanovich's "At Long Last Love" failed so miserably. Setting that 1930s screwball musical comedy actually in the 1930s only served to emphasize how poorly our contemporary stars (in this case, Burt Reynolds & Cybill Shepherd) withstood comparison to their 30s counterparts. The fun of "What's Up Doc?" is seeing the very contemporary Barbra Streisand (at her least grating here. She's really quite charming when others around her are allowed to be funny, too) and Ryan O'Neal thrust into a riotously retro comedy and rising to the occasion with nary a wink to the audience (whereas "At Long Last Love" was one long, protracted "Aren't we clever?" wink).
  Barbra Streisand as Judy Maxwell
  Ryan O'Neal   as Howard Bannister
  Madeline Kahn as Eunice Burns
  Kenneth Mars as Hugh Simon

  Austin Pendleton as Frederick Larrabee 
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
I don't pretend to understand comedy. I have no idea why some things are only funny once (like most SNL skits), while others (episodes of "I Love Lucy", for instance) can make me laugh even after they've grown so familiar I know every punchline by heart. One thing I do know is that the dissection of comedy is seldom effective except by example, so here are a few screen caps of scenes that never fail to crack me up:
"Use your charm."
The Destroyed Hotel Room
  "Don't you dare strike that brave, unbalanced woman!"
"Thieves! Robbers!"

PERFORMANCES:
I like Barbra Streisand a great deal, but a little of her can go a long way. Her screen persona is so strong that it can easily (and often does) overwhelm a film. The toned-down Streisand of  "What's Up, Doc?" is my favorite. Bogdanovich somehow gets her to actually interact with her co-stars and she and the film are all the better for it. Ryan O'Neal is fine, but you sort of wish that Bogdanovich could  have eased up on his Cary Grant fixation enough to give the actor an opportunity to find a comedy rhythm of his own. After all, Ryan O'Neal is already pretty stiff and prone to underplaying, so why hem him in further by having him imitate (badly) as inimitable a star as Grant?  Happily, "Paper Moon," released the following year, would show O'Neal off to better comic advantage. Of course, the real comedy prizes of "What's Up, Doc?" go to the late-great Madeline Kahn and the riotously eccentric Kenneth Mars. Both are such idiosyncratically inventive comic actors that you keep discovering new, brilliant bits of genius in their performances on each viewing.
O'Neal affecting the "Cary Grant Lean"
THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
My predilection for movies with actors turned into unearthly gods and goddesses by gifted cinematographers (in this instance,  Lazlo Kovacks of "Shampoo" and "New York, New York") rears its head once again. Streisand and O'Neal look positively gorgeous in this movie and are burnished to a high movie star gloss thanks to their super-dark 70s tans. Really, both are photographed so lovingly they look airbrushed.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
The escalating laughs of "What's Up, Doc?" reach something of a deafening crescendo during the film's final third, which is comprised wholly of a pull-out-all-the-stops, cross-town, entire-cast, slapstick chase scene to end all chase scenes. The sheer number of stunts and gags that follow one after another in quick succession begs a repeat viewing just to take it all in. Ingenious, breathtaking, and refreshingly free of CGI, it's one of those rapidly vanishing movie thrills: the live-action action scene. And if you don't think this kind of thing is easy to pull off, dig up a copy of  Steven Spielberg's woefully unfunny chaotic comedy "1941." Talk about a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Surprisingly (at least to me, anyway), "What's Up, Doc?" was the first Barbra Streisand film I ever saw. When I was a kid, I had this image of her as a contemporary of Judy Garland and Peggy Lee, a possibly middle-aged woman who wore gowns and piled-up hair on these boring TV specials where she didn't do anything but stand there and sing slow songs. She didn't dance or wear mini skirts like Nancy Sinatra or Lulu, so I got it in my mind that she was an entertainer for "old people" (more Hollywood Palace than American Bandstand). It wasn't until 1971 when her single "Stoney End" started to be played on the radio that I even realized she was a young woman. Since that time I've seen all of Streisand's films, but this movie still stands out as my favorite.
In "What's Up, Doc?" Superstar Streisand is a Team Player

In the intervening years since "What's Up, Doc?", it seems a sense of desperation has crept into contemporary comedies. Filmmakers clueless to the intricacies of the genre invariably resort to the easy out of the gross and scatological, or they lazily attempt to pad out a one-joke TV skit to feature film length.  
Because it's so deliriously silly and effortlessly funny, it's easy to overlook the fact that "What's Up, Doc?" is the result of a razor sharp screenplay; precise editing; a meticulous, painstaking director, and a great deal of talent both in front of and behind the camera. Comedy rarely gets its due when assessed alongside dramatic films, but it's about time for "What's Up, Doc?", to be recognized for the comedy classic it is.
That's All, Folks!

14 comments:

  1. I never gave a thought to Barbra Streisand except when a friend of mine would talk about her occasionally (she was a huge fan). Then, last summer, I picked up "Funny Girl" for reasons lost to me now and I have not been able to stop listening to and watching her. This, though, is easily one of my favorite films of hers. And I completely agree that Kahn and Mars are fantastic characters, with the way they speak and the way their hair is made up! It also appeals to the side of me that is a fan of Warner Bros. cartoons, especially the wackiness of those directed by Bob Clampett.

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  2. @ Anonymous
    Like a lot of iconic stars, I think Streisand did her best work before she became an institution. Like you, once I discovered her, I found myself wanting to see her more and more. I was ultimately surprised that her later work didn't show the versatility she seemed to be reaching for in films like this and "The Owl & the Pussycat". I admire that she even allowed herself to be in the same film as Madeline Kahn. That woman was something else! Thanks for taking the time to comment!

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  3. One of the funniest I've seen ever. So many great exchanges.

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    1. Yes! And, amazingly, the exchanges remain funny after multiple viewings. Don't know how Bogdanovich pulled it off but everything just seemed to come together in this film. Thanks for commenting!

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  4. Hello Ken!

    Interesting comparison you made between "What's up Doc?" and "At Long Last Love"! You are so right! The latter film was trying too hard to be 30's comedy while it was something new to have young 70's stars in a screwball comedy.

    "At Long Last Love" is a guilty pleasure of mine. It would be great if you would disect that film! I can't help it, I like Cybill Shepherd - even when she's miscast!
    Could the film have worked if it were set in the 70's?

    Thanks for reviewing the very funny "What's up Doc"!
    -Wille

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    1. Hi Wille!
      In a weird way, I'm somewhat fond of "At Long Last Love" too. I love the music, I enjoy Eileen Brennan and John Hillerman, and I could watch it exclusively for the duet Cybil Shepherd and Madeline Khan sing during that beautiful single take tracking shot. While I love so many things about it, personally, I just find the tone to be so smug it ruins it all a bit.
      You're right, I really do need to write about that film. I've seen it many times in spite of its limitations. (I also have the soundtrack, so once again Wille, if you're interested...
      "What's Up, Doc?" however, is bliss. I'm crazy about this movie. It's sharp as a tack, and always makes me laugh.
      And Thank YOU for continuing to stop by!

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    2. I must watch "Doc" and "At Long..." again soon! Thank you so much, Ken, but I was lucky enough to find the soundtrack album of "At Long..." on vinyl a few years ago and to be able to tape it on video when it was televised. Is it released on dvd yet?

      I must reassess my opinion Cybill once more. Was she misunderstood in the 70's? She is one of those actresses I like but that I constantly worry about being believable in a role in a movie. Candice Bergen is another one who is always on the verge of showing her limitations.

      -Wille

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    3. I know "At Long Last Love" is available on Netflix streaming, but I don't know if it's out on DVD.
      I think your memories of it and fondness for it are correct and don't need any reassessment. It's just not completely my taste, although I have spoken with others who love it.
      I think Cybill Shepherd is so amazing in "Last Picture Show" and I liked her in "Taxi Driver" and even enjoyed Daisy Miller, but something about "At Long Last Love" rankles me. Perhaps because I grew up on so many old musicals and knew how many hours of backbreaking rehearsal folks like Debbie Reynolds and Gene Kelly put in to make the films. Everyone seems to be taking it so easy in "At Long Last Love" it feels like an insult to the music and the genre. Like they are above it.
      I agree with you about Bergen, too. But around the time both actresses really started to show their ability, Hollywood didn't know what to do with them because they were no longer young.
      All this talk of "AT Long Last Love" makes me want to revisit it, too!

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  5. Ken I have just discovered this site and have had three nights of no sleep from reading your amazingly incisive and charmingly personal reviews. I feel like I have made a new friend (cheesy perhaps but true nonetheless). It is remarkable how much your opinions mirror my own (with a few notable exceptions!). I revel in your personal recollections of your first time seeing various favourites of mine and I delight in your witty, truthful and insightful reviews. Thank you! I am a 36 year old from Cork in Ireland and it is massively refreshing to read such wonderfully enthusiastic paeans to films I love (and love to hate) from a true buff! I have many friends but few who share my love for good cinema! Two points I must note: I think you should check out the new Blu Ray release of At Long Last Love. It contains some wonderful work by Cybill Shepherd and Madeline Kahn and absolutely restores this once reviled film to classic status. AND.....I know you despise Grease and I agree the message is awful...but I love it! Great music and a lovely Olivia Newton-John performance.

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    1. Hi Aaron
      Can't think when I've received a more charming and complimentary comment! Thank you so much!
      It's always my hope to reach people on a level where it feels as if we are having a (one sided, alas) conversation. And if a side-effect is that you feel we have become friends ... well, I can't help but feel humbled by it. Thanks.
      In reading some of my responses to comments, you'll perhaps have gleaned that I fully know my reactions to film are subjective, reflective of me and my personal tastes, and in no way are intended to convey anything factually about a film's merit.
      I don't happen to enjoy "Grease" or "At Long Last Love" (although I must say, the single-take musical number "I Loved Him" is one of my all time favorite musical moments EVER. It's just beautifully sung and shot) but i do enjoy hearing what other folks find appealing about them. I'm so old i rarely change my mind, but I do have an open mind.
      Should you read any of my other posts and wish to share personal observations - both similar and opposing - I would welcome it. Thank you very much. your sleepless nights have made my day!

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  6. Hi Ken,

    I love this movie and like you still laugh out loud at most of it despite having seen it enough times to know what's coming in every scene.

    Barbra has never been looser and more relaxed on screen than here, I think the more control she took over her projects her spontaneity decreased in equal measure. I'm a huge fan of hers but even with her small output of films I find I only return to a select few, Funny Girl, The Way We Were, On a Clear Day and this with any regularity and I don't think I've watched anything she made after Funny Lady more than once, that includes, for me, the headache inducing Yentl. She was appealingly, and refreshingly, relaxed in the recent The Guilt Trip but the movie was a stinker.

    You know she at the top of her game when she goes toe to toe with Madeline Kahn and is not blown right out of the water. Every line out of Madeline's mouth is gold none more so than "I am not A Eunice Burns, I am THE Eunice Burns!" Kenneth Mars is also an MVP but really there is no weak link in the entire cast. Even one scene players like John Hillerman's hotel manager or Liam Dunn's judge hit the bullseye.

    You mentioned as did some commenters a cockeyed affection for At Long Last Love. On that I can't concur. I watched it once and found it a glue footed travesty with only old pros Mildred Natwick, John Hillerman and too a lesser extent Eileen Brennan emerging with their dignity intact. Madeleine Kahn tries her best and isn't terrible but the songs aren't suited to her unique brand of talent and the direction does her no favors. I really like Cybill Shepard and have for years, I was an avid Moonlighting fan so thank goodness this wasn't my first exposure to her. By the Moonlighting days she was able to deliver a song with some polish and brio but not here nor could she dance and her fine sense of comedy had not yet emerged, she's hopelessly out of her depth and the movie stops dead whenever she's on screen. That's just me though, I know others enjoy it. That's what's so great about film it's so subjective.

    Enjoying working my way through the archives, it will take me quite some time which is great! Look forward to whatever you have for us next.

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    1. Hi Joel
      Yes, Streisand is so much more appealing here than in a great many of her more serious roles, or as you not, the ones where she exerts a steel-grip claw of control over her image and performance.
      She is so great sharing the comedy load, and in this film I too don't think she's ever been better.
      She's grown so much more bearable in her old age, that's why "the Guilt Trip" was such a wasted opportunity for me. The writing in that film...

      And "At Long Last Love" is a mixed bag. As much as I like it, I find Reynolds insufferably smug, and the film as a whole, far too pleased with itself. But I have nostalgia working on me (it has a very 70s vibe, and brings back a lot of my own discovery of the music off Cole Porter and the retro movie classics it pays homage to).
      Glad to hear this is a favorite, and always a joy to know what particular bits of business strike a funny bone. Thanks, Joel. Flattered you're making your way through these older posts!

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  7. Hello Ken! Yes, Streisand works so well in ensemble - case in point - HELLO, DOLLY! (one of my *favorite* all time movies!) She's laughing, singing and dancing with her co-stars and it's so appealing to watch. In fact, I wish you'd do an article on DOLLY one of these days.

    I've shied away from AT LONG LAST LOVE from all that I've heard about it, but now that it's on bluray, I'll take a look.

    Love your blog!
    Mike

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    1. Hi Michael
      It pleases me no small amount that you've found this blog and enjoy it. Thank you.
      "Hello Dolly!" is a BIG favorite with many people I know, and the older it gets, it seems to be one of those films that improves with time. As i own a copy of the film, i'm pretty certain I'll write about it someday. So cool that someone would be interested in what I have to say about it, though.

      I'd be interested in seeing a pristine copy of "At Long Last Love" myself. It certainly is a beautifully shot film, and who knows, after so many years my opinion of it may have softened. Happy viewing!

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