For the month of December—to keep things on the festive side—the Asheville Film Society has an all-comedy (well, one’s a comedy/mystery) lineup, starting with Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972) starring Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal. A G-rated reimagining of the classic screwball comedy was about the last thing anyone expected from Bogdanovich. In fact, it was a pretty radical idea from every angle. Yet this free reinvention of Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938) in 1972 terms worked. It gave Bogdanovich one of his biggest hits, was nationally reissued in the mid-1970s and holds up today as one of Bogdanovich’s best films. Certainly, it’s his funniest—and, as a bonus, it contains a spot-on vicious caricature of über-mean-spirited critic John Simon (played by Kenneth Mars as “Hugh Simon”).
Conceptually, the notion was simple enough. Take the basic premise of Bringing Up Baby—unworldly professor in search of a grant being pursued by ditsy girl who proceeds to screw up his life—change it around a little (a missing dinosaur bone becomes an overnight bag containing “musical” rocks), complicate it a bit and graft on some elements from Hawks’ His Girl Friday—et voilà! Of course, doing that and having it actually work are two very different things, but here it did. I’ll even heretically confess that I find What’s Up, Doc? preferable to Bringing Up Baby, not in the least because keeping the professor’s intolerable fiancée (Madeline Kahn) on the scene (à la Ralph Bellamy in His Girl Friday) makes it easier to side with the girl who’s chasing him.
One of the biggest surprises about the film is how good Streisand (as the ditsy girl) and O’Neal (as the unworldly professor) are at comedy and at witty banter—and how much chemistry they have. There was no reason to suspect this at the time the film was made. Wisely, they don’t try to imitate Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant—which may be why Bogdanovich reportedly screened Preston Strurges’ The Lady Eve (1941) for them. They bring their own styles to the proceedings, and it works out very much in everyone’s favor.
To top the film off, Bogdanovich makes a huge departure from his models and gives us a large-scale chase scene—supposedly a quarter of the film’s budget went to this one section of the movie. Unlike many such attempts at big-budget mayhem, this one really works. (In fact, it earned the praise of Alfred Hitchcock.) It’s not hard to understand why if you examine the scene. It doesn’t just go for “big,” it remembers to bring in memorable characters along the way and pepper the action with clever dialogue and one-liners. In fact, this scene contains one of my favorite absurd lines (one which is incomprehensible out of context): “Well, there’s not much to see actually, we’re inside a Chinese dragon.” What more could you ask?