Britnee: As far as screwball, madcap comedies go, Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 film, What’s Up, Doc? is up there with the greats. It’s also, in my opinion, the greatest Barbra Streisand film of all time. Yes, it’s even better than Yentl. Streisand was quite the “funny lady” from the late 1960’s through the 1970’s, and Judy Maxwell is by far one of her most hilarious roles. The film also stars a young Ryan O’Neal, who is Judy’s depressed and confused love interest, Dr. Howard Bannister. Both leading characters have such conflicting personalities: Judy is a free-spirit who gets off on starting trouble between strangers, and Howard is a walking zombie in an unhealthy relationship. There’s not much romantic chemistry between the two, but they are a great comedy duo.
The main plot of the film revolves around a mix-up between several identical bags that belong to completely different individuals that are staying at the same hotel in San Franscicso (Bristol Hotel). The bag mix-up is so confusing that it’s almost impossible to explain, but in all honesty, the whole film is confusing because there are loads of plot lines occurring at the same time. I’ve seen this movie at least 30 times, and I didn’t really put all the pieces together until about the 5th viewing. Strangely enough, the confusion of the film is one of the things I love most about it. You could watch What’s Up, Doc? over and over again without getting bored. There’s always something different to focus on.
Actually, after watching it for Movie of the Month, I realized how horrible Madeline Kahn’s character, Eunice Burns, was treated. Seriously, this poor woman was put through hell for this entire movie, and she’s made to look like the bad guy. She’s Howard’s fiancé, and while the two aren’t in the best relationship, Judy randomly swoops into their lives and basically steals Eunice’s identity. After Eunice is made a fool of in front of an entire banquet of people, kidnapped and most likely assaulted by a group of mobsters, etc., it’s difficult to see her as the annoying fiancé she’s portrayed to be.
Boomer, what are your thoughts on the real Eunice Burns? Did you feel any sympathy towards her? Did you feel as though she was portrayed to be a villain when she was actually a victim?
Boomer: I didn’t realize that the audience was supposed to see Eunice as unattractive until the end, when the Judge responded to Eunice’s complaints that she had been inappropriately touched by the jewel fences with “That’s . . . unbelievable.” Because, I mean, come on, Khan’s a knock-out. That unusual perception is not unique to her character, however, as Ryan O’Neal is probably the most tan, studly, and barrel-chested hunk of man to ever play a milquetoast Iowan academic.
As to whether she’s made out to be a villain or a victim, I’m less sure. It’s unusual for me to sympathize with a character like Judy, a kind of proto-Manic Pixie Dream Girl who also happens to be a whirlwind of disaster, but Streisand plays her with enough aplomb and likability that Judy comes off as charming. This was a bit of a surprise for me, as someone who only really thinks of Streisand as a face on a CD cover in a stack of albums sitting next to the stereo of a deeply closeted Baton Rouge hair stylist (you know who you are). I also have nothing but love for Khan, and as such I think I might have been more inclined to sympathize with her than the producers intended, given that she was a complete unknown cast as the romantic rival to the more well-known Streisand. Eunice is certainly demanding and a poor match for Howard, but I read her as more of a Shakespearean archetype of a woman who appears to be a shrew only because of the character with whom she is paired but who will fit seamlessly with someone else, which is essentially exactly what happened with her arc.
So, I suppose I didn’t find her to be a villain or even presented as one, nor did I find Judy to be a “bad guy” either, even though her entire story resolves around falling for an engaged man and doing everything in her power to subvert Eunice in her “rightful” place as Howard’s lady love. I can’t even quite put my finger on it, but there’s something about Judy that makes her eminently likable despite her objective villainy. Alli, did you feel the same way, or not? If you agree, perhaps you’re better able to articulate why?
Alli: I also liked Judy against my better judgement. She’s entitled, disrespectful, and dangerous, but somehow still endearing. Probably because she’s free and she’s got a great sense of humor, which is able to shine through because of her stunted, immature nature. I think the thing about Judy isn’t that she’s a villain so much as she’s just chaotic, and there’s something charming about chaos. Reasonable people would never rip around the town impulsively, but we all have flashes of that instinct. Judy is the embodiment of that instinct, free from society’s pretensions and facades.
A major theme here is sort of a clash between absolute chaos and rigid order, the inner child vs “propriety.” Not to get too pretentious here, but this movie almost seems to be about the old debate over “the state of nature” vs society and reason. Eunice is order, “reason,” Judy obviously pandemonium, “savagery,” and Howard is the neutral ground that they’re fighting over. But at its heart What’s Up, Doc? is a wacky, briefcase switching comedy and I doubt that the intent was a debate about the true nature of humanity and society. It’s hard to take away any serious dramatic themes in a movie this cartoonishly bizarre.
The world it’s set in, while relatively realistic, is simultaneously surreal. There’s exaggerated sound effects, slapstick, and just a general bending of rules. One of my favorite examples of this is when they’re at the banquet underneath the table and Eunice gets dragged away, leaving skid marks and squeaking. Brandon, did any moments to you stand out as particularly cartoonish? Do you have a favorite?
Brandon: If nothing else, “cartoonish” is such a perfect word to describe what Barbara Streisand’s doing in this movie as Judy. At this early, most successful stage of Peter Bogdanovich’s career, the director scored a string of hits dripping with nostalgia for the cinema of his youth, with What’s Up, Doc? being sandwiched between fellow classics The Last Picture Show & Paper Moon. The interesting thing to me about What’s Up, Doc? that distinguishes it from those other two films is that it not only calls back to madcap mix-up comedies of the 1930s, which are traditionally staged at these grand hotels, but it also pulls influence from a much more unexpected source: Looney Tunes. Judy’s role as a benign source of comedic chaos is 100% Bugs Bunny tomfoolery and the film winds up feeling just as much equal parts Tex Avery as Bringing Up Baby. It makes this influence as explicit as possible too, with one of Judy’s first comedic moments being staged around her eating a carrot and her final exchange with her hunky Elmer Fudd (Ryan O’Neal) including the titular line, “What’s up, Doc?” The film even closes out with Porky Pig stuttering his way through “That’s all, folks!” on an airplane television. So, yeah, while we might not want Judy mucking up our lives with her literally cartoonish antics, it’s easy to see why we wouldn’t find her any more villainous than Bugs Bunny or his obvious source of inspiration, Groucho Marx.
Bogdanovich’s choice to bring in the surreal slapstick of Looney Tunes to disrupt the relatively realistic world of traditionalist screwball comedy was a brilliant move, mostly because screwball comedies are already pretty damn cartoonish in their own right. Although I found Babs’s Bugs Bunny antics as Judy to be a large part of the movie’s charm, she actually had very little involvement in my favorite gag from the film. There’s a scene about midway through What’s Up, Doc? where Howard is trying to hide Judy’s presence in his hotel room from Eunice by asking her to hang perilously off the balcony. The combination of Eunice’s interrogation, Judy’s demands to re-enter the room, other guests frantically trying to steal their desired variation of the identical luggage, and a waiter calmly preparing a meal Judy ordered as room service reaches a comedic fever pitch where Howard’s hotel room is destroyed in a fire, a moment that had me howling. Now, this visual punchline is much more closely tied to the film’s 1930s screwball roots than anything related to its cartoonish surrealism, but it’s also so absurdly over the top in its gradual escalation that it’s a great insight into why those two aesthetics were so easy to marry into one humorous feature.
Something that felt a little less natural & easy to me were the motivations for the two sides of that coin. Judy’s motivation for pursuing Howard as a romantic partner is a little muddled for most of the picture. Her instant attraction to him is oddly intense, making it unclear whether she’s genuinely into seducing him or if she’s just an opportunist who needs a place to stay and is having fun toying with a milquetoast, but handsome pushover in the meantime. The engine that drives the screwball humor was also a little confusing, as the identical cases of luggage (one containing diamonds, one containing Top Secret government documents, and one containing, I don’t know, more carrots for Judy to chew on like a cigar) were difficult to keep track of. Some of that confusion was obviously deliberate, but it didn’t help at all that the two thieves attempting to steal the luggage were both bald schlubs I couldn’t really tell apart because the film was far more interested in the machinations of the Judy-Howard-Eunice love triangle (and rightly so).
Britnee, considering that you selected the tonally similar, hotel-set 1930s throwback comedy Big Business for a Movie of the Month last year, it seems that you’re somewhat of a fan of this kind of Old Hollywood madcap humor. For you, does the exact, clear status of who’s in possession of which bag at what time and who’s trying to steal what from whom matter at all in these kinds of stories? Without the luggage mix-up and the thieves that follow, there’d be less people involved in this film’s insane, climactic car chase through the streets of San Francisco, which would definitely be a shame. Do the mix-up or the motivations of the romance need to be any more clear or necessary than that for you to find them worthwhile or is it enough that they provide a backdrop for the comedic antics of a Barbara Streisand or a Better Midler or whoever the particular film’s de facto Bugs Bunny/Groucho Marx happens to be?
Britnee: It’s never dawned on me until now that I have a thing for hotel comedies. Just yesterday, I recommended Four Rooms to a friend as a fun weekend movie. There’s just something hilarious about hotel settings, and I really think it has a lot to do with the gaudiness of hotels. All that brass, ridiculous patterned carpet, and over-the-top chandeliers are just oozing with tackiness, making it the perfect background for a comedy. Hotels are also perfect for a trashy murder mystery for the same reason (1972’s Private Parts particularly comes to mind).
As for the mystery of the bag mix-up, finding out if each bag makes it back to their owner doesn’t really matter. It’s strange because I usually find satisfaction watching belongings find their way back to their owner in a film, but I honestly could not have cared less if Judy ended up losing her underwear and became stuck with top secret documents or if Howard lost his rocks and ended up with a buttload of fancy jewels. It doesn’t really matter because the humor would still be there. The same goes with the romance between Judy and Howard. Who cares if they end up getting together in the end? The comedy wouldn’t suffer if they didn’t get together, and that’s really all that matters in films like this one. If the romance and bag mix-up were to be stripped away from What’s Up, Doc? without taking away the funny characters, shenanigans, and of course, the comedy of Streisand, the film wouldn’t suffer one bit.
Although the romance and bag mix-up are not very important to the film’s success, the San Fransisco setting is. The car chase throughout the city’s steep streets (especially Lombard Street), the run-in with the Chinese dragon during the Chinatown parade, and the cars running off the pier are just a few funny moments that wouldn’t be the same if the film wasn’t set in San Fransisco.
Boomer, do you think that the film’s San Fransisco setting was important? Would any other location have made a big difference in the film?
Boomer: I have to admit that I didn’t give much thought to the film’s setting initially. When the climactic show-stopping car chase began, I thought “Oh, it’s in San Francisco because of Bullit.” That film likewise centers around a final car chase through the famously hilly city, and I assumed that Bogdanovich had merely been inspired to make a more comedic version of said vehicular pursuit. Reading a little more about the film, it looks like that was, in fact, the reasoning: this homage is merely one of many that occur in the film, and as it relates to a contemporary piece of pop culture that is less well-known than some of the older (but more culturally revered and thus more “permanent” fixtures in our cultural landscape) references, like to Looney Tunes. For instance, there was an ad that touted the VW Bug’s real ability to float in water, as seen at the end of the film when Howard and Judy launch into the bay; the reference was more pertinent and familiar in its day, but still works as a sight gag even without that knowledge.
Of course, the placement of the film in San Francisco also allowed for some nice touches that would have been lacking had the film been set elsewhere, like New York or Los Angeles (i.e. the two places where probably 85% of American media is set). The scene with the Chinese New Year parade, and the resultant accidental theft of the parade’s crafted dragon, could only take place in SF, for instance. As noted above, the hills of the city make for a particularly interesting place for car chases, here used as they had been in Bullitt, to more comedic–if no less thrilling–effect. Larrabee himself is distinctively West Coast in that his mannerisms are unconventional and excited; he rolls with the punches. One could even argue that, since his personality clashes so strongly with the unlikable (but no less comically delightful) Hugh Simon, and since that character is a parody of New York’s most unpleasable (and most unpleasant) critic John Simon, a criticism of this artistic and individual dissonance between East and West Coast is made implicit in the text.
There’s a scene in one of the early episodes of Scream Queens in which a character is breaking into an office and uses a glass cutter to cut a hole in the in-door window, through which they attempt to reach in and unlock the door; after a protracted time of s-l-o-w-l-y cutting, the character reaches through, and the glass shatters. Every time I see it, I have to rewind because of how hard I’m laughing. It’s a great sight gag, and the build-up is great; it’s just so pure. It’s one of the best jokes in the whole series, and is inarguably the best non-quip laugh the show elicits. The two-men-carrying-a-pane-of-glass gag in What’s Up Doc? is similar but writ large, and is the best such visual joke I’ve ever seen. Alli, can you think of any other contenders for the top version of the TMCAPOG gag? And could you better put into words why this version of the cliché works so well?
Alli: I’m going to have to come clean here and say that while that gag is in everyone’s mind and feels so pervasive in popular culture this might be the only time I’ve actually seen it used in context. (It makes me wonder where it even came from and why we all know it.) Given it’s prevalence and predictability (there’s a sheet of glass therefore it will shatter inevitably), it’s impressive that What’s Up, Doc? manages to still make it so funny. The problem with this movie and its humor is that it’s very difficult to try to explain what is so funny about it. There’s so many old gags and silly one liners, but they just work. I think maybe it has to do with the pacing. It’s just spitfire. There’s just joke after joke, so if one doesn’t land the next one probably will.
Not to use the played out, “They don’t make them like they used to,” but you don’t see a lot of this sense of humor in movies anymore and I miss it. The jokes are so carefree and for the most part inoffensive, minus the jabs at Eunice. Probably why I’ve never actually seen the sheet of glass gag in action is because it’s not used as much anymore. When’s the last time a movie had an earnest pie in the face? A lot of comedy these days seems to rely on crude, gross, or vulgar humor. I don’t really have a problem with tastes changing, but there’s such a timelessness and charm to so many of the gags in this film.
Brandon, you mentioned the nostalgia aspect of What’s Up, Doc? Do you think more movies could benefit from more of the nostalgic impulse? Have you seen any recent comedies that remind you of this one in any way?
Brandon: It’d probably be a little foolish to ask for more nostalgia in our current pop culture climate, but I do believe revision & tradition has been a part of cinema as long as cinema has been around. Current comedies seem to be looking back to the absurdist gross-out humor directors would have enjoyed in their 80s & 90s youth, just as Bogdanovich would have been fondly looking back to Marx Brothers/Bringing Up Baby-type hotel mix-ups when he made What’s Up Doc? in the 1970s. I don’t think the classic screwball tradition is at all dead, though. It’s just moved away from broad, commercial films to what we’d be more likely to consider “smart” comedies. Filmmakers like Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, and the Coen Brothers all work in various forms of comedy that draw from the same influences as Bogdanovich (and likely from Bogdanovich himself as well), but dress up their screwball antics in enough meticulous visual craft & tonal melancholy that they’re considered “art house” instead of commercial humor.
For specific examples from the last decade, I suppose Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel would be a great reference point, considering its setting & ensemble cast structure. Baumbach collaborator Rebecca Miller’s recent film Maggie’s Plan also has a sort of screwball structure to it, including a mix-up at a hotel conference between emotionally immature academics. I’ve also recently watched the British ensemble comedy Death at a Funeral for the first time, which reminded me if this kind of old-fashioned comedic tradition in that all the attendees at what should be a quiet, civil event are trying to keep their goofball antics under wraps to not draw attention to themselves, only for it all to blow up spectacularly at the climax. The Coens’ recent triumph Hail, Caesar! also makes nods to the genre (along with every other Old Hollywood genre imaginable), right down to the convoluted luggage heist.
What distinguishes these comedies from the kinds of works that would be headlined by a Melissa McCarthy, a Seth Rogen, or a Kevin Hart is that they’re just more openly conscious of their participation in cinematic tradition. What’s Up, Doc?‘s spirit, borrowed wholesale from its own set of traditional works, is still alive in our current comedic landscape. Keeping it alive is in itself a kind of scholarly, traditionalist act, though, so the films where you’d hear its echoes are often considered to be stuffy, highbrow art films, despite being as absurdly goofy in tone as the genre originally was in the 1930s.
Alli: I just want to say how much I liked this movie. Immediately after watching it, I ended up recommending it to people. I think it’s been a weird, rough month for a lot of us and it was good to unwind with something charming and hilarious. It was my first Barbara Streisand movie, and now I feel like I really need to watch more.
Brandon: Of the handful of Barbara Streisand films I’ve seen, this is the only one I’d consider to be a strict comedy, so I wasn’t at all prepared for how little singing there’d be. I have a habit of picking up her movie soundtracks long before I actually see their corresponding films (Streisand vinyl is oddly ubiquitous at thrift stores), so now I have to wonder what a What’s Up, Doc? soundtrack would even be. Besides a brief duet with Ryan O’Neal on piano, I don’t remember any other musical numbers. Is this indicative of the way her comedies usually go? I’m curious to look into it.
Britnee: The outfits in What’s Up, Doc? are absolutely amazing! I know that they blend in well with the fashion of the time, but of all the films I’ve seen that take place in the early 1970s, nothing compares to the costume design of What’s Up, Doc? Basically, I want to own everything in Judy’s closet, no offense to Eunice.
Boomer: I also noticed the similarity between this film and Big Business, with each film having a 20th Century Diva, a hotel setting with a sardonic and world-weary desk clerk, and shenanigans that come from mistaking identical people/bags. I thought Britnee was pulling a long con on us. Further, I also was annoyed by the lack of visual differentiation between Harry and Mr. Jones, as Brandon was, given that the other characters were much more distinct in appearance. Finally, depending upon how much you hate yourself, you can find John Simon’s hold-nothing-back blog here, or just enjoy this fun batch of excerpts.
Upcoming Movies of the Month
April: Boomer presents Head Over Heels (2001)
May: Alli presents Mikey and Nicky (1976)
June: Brandon presents Cool As Ice (1991)
-The Swampflix Crew