It seems increasingly apparent that screen comedy will never again reach the heights hit during the silent era and Hollywood's golden age of screwball comedy. Filmmakers generally seem afraid of full-blown farce, with a notable exception being Peter Bogdanovich. In 1972, Bogdanovich had the smarts and—let's face it—balls to attempt to make his own version of an old-school Howard Hawks comedy. Specifically he had in mind what many consider the ne plus ultra of the screwball form: Hawks' Bringing up Baby, starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. Now, no one is going to match Grant and Hepburn, but Ryan O'Neal and Barbra Streisand give it the ol' college try in the criminally entertaining What's Up, Doc?
A hard-working comedy that never lets you see it sweat, What's Up, Doc? is actually a hybrid of three similar genres: screwball comedy, slapstick farce, and the Looney Tunes cartoon, the latter proved when Streisand's "daffy dame" Judy Maxwell delivers the titular greeting to O'Neal's "square professor" Dr. Howard Bannister while she's chomping on a carrot. Bannister and his prissy fiancée Eunice Burns (Madeline Kahn, utterly brilliant in her screen debut) have arrived in San Francisco so Howard can attend the Congress of American Musicologists' Convention, show off his Pre-Paleozoic igneous Tambulu rocks, and score much-needed grant money from Frederick Larrabee (Austin Pendleton). In Bannister's way is nefarious Croatian competitor Hugh Simon (Kenneth Mars). On his side is Judy, a perfect stranger whose idea of aiding Howard may give him a nervous breakdown. Calling Howard "Steve," Judy is an inveterate flirt who won't take "no" for an answer. Brash and infuriatingly always right, Judy improves Howard's standing with Larrabee by pretending to be Eunice (as Howard looks into camera and plaintively says, "Help"). Both the straight-laced scientist and the sexy gadabout are whip-smart, though he's absent-minded and she's totally present.
Over the course of three acts, Howard unavoidably gravitates to Judy's gravitational center. That's the crux of the screwball form, though ostensibly the plot is built on the nonsense of four identical plaid overnight cases, respectively containing clothing, jewels, something resembling "the Pentagon Papers" and the aforementioned igneous rocks. The first act builds to a hotel-room disaster comparable in comic escalation to the "stateroom scene" in A Night at the Opera. The second act climaxes in an extended chase up and down San Francisco streets (including Chinatown and the infamously windy Lombard Street). The swift third act is a pitch-perfect paragon of the zany courtroom scene—with Liam Dunn (Blazing Saddles) absolutely killing as the judge—followed by an airport denouement. I wouldn't dream of ruining the film's killer punchline, but it helps to know something about O'Neal (whose mother Patricia looks on from nearby).
Bogdanovich collaborated on the script with David Newman & Robert Benton (Bonnie and Clyde), before the script was largely rewritten by Buck Henry (The Graduate); that's a screenwriting foursome not to be trifled with, and indeed, they produce a stream of patter that delightfully tests the tongue twisting of the cast and Streisand in particular. The crack cast includes Michael Murphy, Graham Jarvis, John Hillerman, Randy Quaid, and M. Emmet Walsh; the limber cinematography comes courtesy of László Kovács (Easy Rider); and the musical lift is provided by Herman Hupfeld (whose immortal "As Time Goes By" Streisand croons atop a piano), and Cole Porter, whose “You’re the Top” Streisand sings over the opening and closing titles (O'Neal joining in on the latter). O'Neal adopts some of Cary Grant's mannerisms, but also some of Harold Lloyd's; in memory of the silent comics, What's Up, Doc? is filled with outrageous stunts, and indeed it's apparently the first Hollywood film ever to credit its stunt performers. Bogdanovich would revisit elaborate door-slamming farce with 1992's Noises Off, but as romantic comedies filmed in color go, it's tough to top What's Up, Doc? for sheer laughs.
Thanks the fine folks at Warner Home Video for prioritizing comic gem What's Up, Doc? for a hi-def upgrade in their latest wave of comedy titles. In a lovely hi-def transfer, the film has never looked better: the source is clean and stable, and the colors are noticably more vibrant. Endemic softness in the source isn't a bother, but part of the film's authentic look; besides, texture and detail are at their sharpest in this Blu-ray edition. Happily, the film grain hasn't been scrubbed away; rather, we get a faithful representation of László Kovács's original photography. The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track isn't going to win the hearts of rabid audiophiles, but it does deliver the dialogue with crucial clarity (and the songs don't sound bad, either).
The Blu-ray edition retains all of the DVD extras, beginning with an outstanding feature commentary by Peter Bogdanovich. The writer-director discusses the influence of Howard Hawks and Buster Keaton, origins of specific gags, shooting in San Francisco, how he and the cast would joke around on the set, Cary Grant’s advice to O’Neal, and much more.
The screen-specific commentary by Barbra Streisand (12:13, SD) is a disappointment, with the star not having anything of interest to say about the film or her work in it, other than giving a vague sense of displeasure at getting too many line readings and demonstrations from Bogdanovich. Still, it's nice that someone tried to get results from Streisand, and even nicer that the screen-specific format means not suffering through a feature commentary with obscenely long gaps in it.
“Screwball Comedies…Remember Them?” (8:37, SD) is a nifty vintage featurette about the film's making, and the unusual “Theatrical Trailer” (3:46, SD) also includes behind-the-scenes footage of Bogdanovich directing.
Anyone "serious" about screen comedy must see What's Up, Doc? and probably repeatedly; short of a big-screen revival, there's no better way than this fine special edition Blu-ray.
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