What's Up, Doc? Review
A whole new generation now has the chance to enjoy the Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal comedy from 1972, ‘What’s Up Doc?’ thanks to its release on Region free Blu-ray. It’s a film that receives healthy respect from many film makers as it’s held up as a successful reincarnation of the screwball comedies of the 1930s.
The term ‘screwball comedy’ is one that we’re all assumed to understand and maybe we would if we were all American, but we Brits with our fine traditions of Ealing comedies and ‘Carry on’ films sometimes struggle to get it. For the ‘yoof’ of today, it means nothing more than a comedy where people run around frantically getting involved in increasingly ridiculous situations while talking and wisecracking very quickly. Think of the Marx Brothers movies or some early Cary Grant farces and you won’t be far wrong.
Director Peter Bogdanovich also wanted the film to be a kind of tribute to the Warner Bros ‘Looney Tunes’ cartoons which featured such luminaries as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig. If you think about the behaviour of the characters in ‘What’s Up Doc?’ their traits are very reminiscent of some of the great cel animation creations. Barbra Streisand is very obviously the wise cracking, smart alec Bugs Bunny. Ryan O’Neal is the straight man that Bugs would wind up and run rings around. Kenneth Mars’ character displays the same pomposity as Daffy Duck in some of his more aerated moments just before he’s brought back to earth with a resounding crash.
‘What’s Up Doc’ is one of those movies that keeps you smiling for most of the picture while it builds up to several set piece scenes that have you anticipating their outcome. It’s not mentally challenging, you just have to sit and watch as the events unfold on the screen but there’s enough going on to entertain and hold your interest.
Okay, so what’s the plot?
Well, four different people converge on the same hotel, all carrying the same type of red tartan case. Dr. Howard Bannister (Ryan O'Neal) has come for a musicology conference and his tartan case is full of prehistoric rocks. Judy Maxwell (Streisand) is a con-woman who fast talks her way into situations in order to get freebies and her case contains ladies’ underwear. A rich old lady books into the hotel with her case full of precious jewellery. Finally, a man who is about to reveal top secret government information checks in with his case full of sensitive documents.
Now it doesn’t take a whole headful of brains to work out that the bags get mixed up and the comedy is drawn from the resulting chaos as the characters try to retrieve their own case. It’s a very simple vehicle for a whole load of fun and its success comes from how well done it is rather than any CGI display. It’s all about timing.
For those who haven’t seen the film and who don’t find the above synopsis appealing, I’d offer my own memory of showing a rather scratched 16mm print of ‘What’s Up Doc’ on a big screen to a large audience. I’d never before heard so many people laughing uproariously as each situation built on the last. Some people laughed at things I never knew were funny, but it all goes to prove there’s a big wide world out there full of people with differing senses of humour. Now we can watch a pristine looking Blu-ray of the film at home without the need for a Bell & Howell 16mm Arc projector clacking away in a projection booth. The film is a wonderful mix of sight gags, situation comedy and clever dialogue. It’s really a pick n’mix with something to tickle almost everyone’s funny bone.
I was never a great Barbra Streisand fan, but she looks quite beautiful here with her amazing big blue eyes. She carries off her quick fire dialogue scenes in a way that would make Bugs Bunny proud and the script by Buck Henry is witty and full of surprises. It’s a bit like delving into a sweetie jar and pulling out one of your favourites.
Ryan O’Neal plays the henpecked Dr Bannister with an exhausted, defeated look as his girlfriend Eunice (the great Madeline Kahn) berates him. The audience feels for him and sees Judy (Streisand) as a way out to a more happy life.
The film benefits from the Cole Porter song ‘You’re the Top’ performed over the main titles by Ms Streisand and the purity of her voice is very pleasing to the ears.
The title sequence itself harks back to the days when a hand would turn the pages of a book. Later on in the movie she also performs ‘As Time Goes By’ stretched out atop a piano.
As the movie has been around since the early seventies, it’s no great surprise that many of the set pieces have been copied many times since but, mostly, without great success. It’s worth remembering that the ideas used in the film were also ‘borrowed’ from the screwball comedies of yesteryear as well as from the Warner Bros cartoons. Well, if you’re going to steal then steal from the best.
My own favourite sequence is the one near the end of the movie where, in the midst of a frantic car chase, a couple of workers are carrying a large sheet of plate glass across the road. As they dodge the hurtling automobiles, the director plays with the audience as it looks as if each of the cars in turn is going to go through the glass. There’s also a man up a ladder putting up a banner who’s more than a little concerned by the activity going on below...
I’ll say no more as it’s worth seeing for the first time – or even if you haven’t seen it for a long time. It’s so reminiscent of a scene from a Roadrunner & Wile E. Coyote cartoon and always gets a big laugh.
In the words of the incomparable Porky Pig “A dee, a dee, a dee ...That’s all folks!”