Saturday, October 20, 2012

Movie – What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

The movie What’s Up, Doc? is a love letter to the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s.  Co-writer/director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show) sets this film in San Francisco and makes inventive use of a number of famous locations in the city, most of them during an extended and very funny chase scene involving dozens of characters.  This film touches on, or even reproduces, many of the events from classic screwball comedies.  But by making the movie in the 1970s Bogdanovich was able to get away with some jokes that would not have been allowed back in the 1930s.

The plot is actually quite complex.  There are four sets of identical suitcases, belonging to four different people, which end up getting switched, re-switched, and confused during the first part of the movie.  These four cases contain clothes, prehistoric rocks, valuable jewels, and top secret government documents.  Thieves are after the jewels, spies are after the documents, and the owner of the clothes is after the owner of the rocks.  If you can keep track of exactly where each case is, and what is in that case, then you are doing very well.  In fact, you would do better than one of the screenwriters, who was found flipping back through the script he had been working on because he had “lost” one of the cases.  Ultimately, all four cases come together, so you don’t have to pay exact attention to which one is which if you find you can’t.

This movie uses the classic nerdy professor (Ryan O’Neal as Howard) meeting the free spirited woman (Barbra Streisand as Judy) who turns his life around.  (Think Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire or Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby.)  In fact, at one point O’Neal’s character even says “Judy Judy Judy”, which is a reference to the “classic” Cary Grant line – which he never actually said in any film, but which people would utter to do a Grant impression.

Howard (rocks) and Judy (clothes) own two of the cases.  They meet in a shop when Howard moves an object, Judy’s face appears, and she asks him, “What’s Up, Doc?”  In addition to screwball comedies, this movie is also in some ways a live action Bugs Bunny cartoon, with Streisand playing Bugs and O’Neal playing Elmer Fudd.  This is appropriate since Bugs Bunny was partially modeled on Clark Gable’s character in It Happened One Night, the film that is considered to be the first screwball comedy.

Howard is in the city to compete for a Musicology grant.  His prehistoric rocks were used by early man to make music, or so he believes.  Judy inserts herself into his life to his bewilderment, and to his uptight, controlling fiancée’s horror.  Madeline Kahn (Young Frankenstein) plays Eunice, the fiancée.  It is her first film role and she received a Golden Globe nomination for it.  In addition to Kahn there are a number of other familiar faces from the comedies of that era, including John Hillerman (Magnum, P.I.), Sorrell Booke (The Dukes of Hazzard), Kenneth Mars (The Producers), Liam Dunn (Blazing Saddles), and mimic John Byner.  Also watch for early appearances by Michael Murphy, Randy Quaid, and M. Emmett Walsh.

Eventually everyone concerned with every case ends up at the same place.  In all the chaos Judy and Howard make off with all four cases.  Once they get away they will try to straighten everything out.  That’s easier said than done.  They first steal a bicycle with Judy pedaling and Howard on the handlebars…on the hills of San Francisco.  They then end up in a Volkswagen, while everyone else is chasing them in their own cars.  The chase involves a Chinatown parade (which is improbably playing La Cucaracha), a still wet concrete surface, a large pain of glass being carried by two men, Lombard Street, the concrete steps at Alta Plaza Park (which still show damage to this day from the filming), a man on a very tall stepladder hanging a banner, San Francisco Bay, and a bunch of knocked over trash cans which echo the rock slide in Seven Chances (1925).

The chase scenes were so involved that they took a month to film.  Bogdanovich ended up including in the closing credits all of the stunt people that made those scenes work – the first film to ever do so.

Even after the chase is over there is a great capper where every single person ends up in the courtroom of a judge with a nervous condition.  He tries to sort through all the insanity, while multiple people attempt to explain just what the hell happened.  The explanations by themselves are comedy gold, but there is a fantastic reaction when everything gets traced back to Judy.

There is one joke in this movie that may be lost on a modern audience.  Just prior to making this film, Ryan O’Neal had starred in the tear jerker Love Story (1970), which had the famous line “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”  There is a great call back to that in this movie when Judy says it to Howard and his response is decidedly not the same as in his prior movie.

What’s Up, Doc? is a very funny movie, especially the climax with the chase scene and the aftermath in the courtroom.  In fact, I’m going to go pop in the DVD and watch the chase sequences again right after I post this.  Unless you hate screwball comedies, I highly recommend this film.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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  1. Saw it this year, I agree about 4/5 rating, loved the chase scene, didn't know took a month to film! was enjoyable fun. A small issue was I wish the dialogue wasn't so incredibly fast-paced, is this normal for screwball comedies? I also remember the lightning speed of dialogue bothering me in screwball comedy His Girl Friday (1940)

    1. "A small issue was I wish the dialogue wasn't so incredibly fast-paced, is this normal for screwball comedies? I also remember the lightning speed of dialogue bothering me in screwball comedy His Girl Friday (1940)"

      Actually, I think that that is exactly what they were going for. They copied other aspects of famous screwball comedies, so copying the fast dialogue from His Girl Friday would be right in keeping with the rest.

  2. Absolutely one of the best films ever! It's amazing to me how many people I've introduced to What's Up Doc that have said "How come I've never heard of this film before?"

    1. I agree. I first saw it many years ago as an evening movie when broadcast TV was still showing theatrical films.

  3. I've loved this movie ever since its original release. Heard that the chase sequence either parodies or pays homage to many previous chase sequences but the only one I can identify is the way they come down the stairs, which reminds me of the famous Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkim (obviously not a comedy). You mention the rock slide in Seven Chances (which I will now have to chase down and watch!)

    I'm wondering if you, Chip, or any readers of your blog, can tell me which other parts of the chase sequence might reference which other movies?

    1. While it doesn't directly answer your question, IMDB has a "Movie Connections" option on a film's main page. People can submit connections like these that you are asking about. They are usually not complete, though, since IMDB relies on people submitting them. Here is a link to that page for What's Up, Doc:

      I definitely recommend Seven Chances. You can read my review of that here:

      In fact, I reviewed both films as part of my Funny Chases category. You can read the parent post, which has links to all of the films like this that I reviewed, here: