When I first read that our Movie of the Month, What’s Up, Doc?, was directly influenced by the classic Howard Hawks comedy Bringing Up Baby, the connection instinctively made a lot of sense. Bogdanovich’s nostalgic eye is a large part of his filmmaking aesthetic, so it’s only natural that his big budget screwball comedy starring Barbara Streisand as a chaotic hellraiser would look back to lavish big studio comedies of the 30s & 40s for direct inspiration. Bringing Up Baby just seemed like a recognizable title to cite that typified the era. What I didn’t realize until I revisited Bringing Up Baby after watching What’s Up, Doc? was just how deep its influences run. In fact, the first two thirds of the Howard Hawks classic makes What’s Up, Doc? look like a beat-for-beat remake. Bogdanovich didn’t look back to Bringing Up Baby for just its sense of comedic tone. It also mined the work for its basic narrative plot.
Instead of watching the chaotically whimsical Barbara Streisand wreck the life of hunky nerd Ryan O’Neal, Bringing Up Baby follows the chaotically whimsical Katherine Hepburn as she wrecks the life of hunky nerd Cary Grant. A nagging fiancée more interested in financial success than genuine romance pressures Grant’s pushover scientist into chasing grant money from a big shot financial donor to fund his research. The potential marriage & awarding of the grant are disrupted when the reclusive nerd is steamrolled by the chaotic presence of a total stranger, played by a breathlessly energetic Hepburn. This is more or less the exact same plot as What’s Up, Doc? except that instead of collecting rocks, Grant’s scientist studies dinosaur bones and instead of invading his hotel room, Hepburn steals his car. After the first two acts, the films part ways in their respective plots. Bringing Up Baby gets distracted by the comings and goings of its titular leopard, while What’s Up, Doc? gets wrapped up in a Bullit-spoofing car chase and both films have varying interest paid to the shrewish fiancée threatening to cool off the central romance. (She more or less disappears from Bringing Up Baby, while Madeline Kahn’s performance as Eunice is afforded a more humanizing dose of screentime.) However, by the time their central mix-ups are sorted out by perplexed authorities in their overly chatty stabs at denouement (in a police station and before a judge’s bench, respectively) the two films’ mildly varied plots sync back up for a final bow.
Initially a financial flop, Bringing Up Baby was derided by The New York Times for being cliché-ridden, derivative drivel. Hawks was dropped from his RKO contract & Hepburn was labeled “box office poison.” The esteem for the film has obviously risen since then and extends far beyond Bogdanovich reflecting its mirror image in What’s Up, Doc?. What I find funny about that initial backlash, though, is that Hawks’s work was already being shot down as too traditionalist and derivative at the time of its release, yet the film has endured as a consistently cited landmark of comedic cinema. I think that kind of cultural longevity is entirely dependent on the manic energy of Hepburn’s breathlessly frantic performance, which is all wreckless chaos and no pause for concern. Streisand does her best to match that energy in What’s Up, Doc? (with a little bit of Bugs Bunny thrown in for good measure) and she’s charming in the role, but even she can’t approach what Hepburn achieves in what seems to be an effortless act of constant destruction. By looking back to that performance and the chaotic film that barely contained it, Bogdanovich was not only recreating a work he fell in love with as a youngster, but also participating in a tradition Hawks was also consciously keeping alive his own work.
Before he got his start in filmmaking under the guiding hand of legendary producer Roger Corman, Peter Bogdanovich was already a film critic & historian. As such, he has been loudly vocal about his appreciation of Bringing Up Baby since the release of his Barbara Streisand comedy and has made that film’s deep-running influence on the work as well known as he can. In an interview between the directors collected in the book Who the Devil Made It?, Hawks even joked, “You made a mistake in telling ’em where you stole it from. I didn’t tell ’em where I stole it from.” What’s Up, Doc?‘s blatant appropriation of Bringing Up Baby‘s basic structure extends far beyond minor details like ripped coattails & tormented academics in lavish hotel settings, though. Bogdanovich gets to the real heart of the Hawks film in his admittedly derivative work. In his commentary track for the Bringing Up Baby DVD, he explains, “That’s what the movie is: Cary’s downward spiral into normality. In Hawks’s view, she’s the one who’s more normal, in the sense that he’s living a completely closed life and she’s at least engaged.” Most actual remakes that announce themselves as faithful cover versions of an already established work don’t bother to get that kind of spiritual essence of the film they’re recreating down. Bogdanovich nailed the exact tone & romantic dynamic of Bringing Up Baby in What’s Up, Doc? and does such a subtle job of borrowing from & updating the formula that you have to watch them back to back to catch exactly how deep Hawks’s influence runs.