When Corman Taught Bogdanovich How to Mine the Past

Peter Bogdanovich built his best works on the sturdy shoulders of nostalgia. Titles like The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, and (March’s Movie of the MonthWhat’s Up, Doc? all gaze backwards to cinema’s cobwebbed past for their tragic, romantic, and comedic thrills. To be able to earn the opportunity to go on that major studio hot streak, though, Bogdanovich had to pay his dues under the wing of a producer who jump-started the careers of many New Hollywood hotshots, living legend Roger Corman. Corman found Bogdanovich while he was a young film critic & historian and eased him into filmmaking as a craft through the editing room before affording him the opportunity to direct his first two features in dirt cheap productions that eventually became Targets & Journey to the Planet of Prehistoric Women. While films like What’s Up, Doc? find Bogdanovich working unrestrained in his nostalgic love letters to the past, Targets asks what happens when he’s pressured into making a violent, exploitative thriller in a contemporary context. Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women asks even more of the director, having him cobble together a barely coherent picture out of premade Soviet sci-fi films. The resulting discomfort Bogdanovich shows for his material in both cases might be antithetical to the spirit of his usual M.O., but they do bring an interesting contempt for and disinterest in modern culture to the surface, a seething, disgusted anger that in part informs his usual choice to live & work in the past.

“To whom it may concern: It is now 11:40 A.M. My wife is still asleep, but when she wakes up I am going to kill her. Then I am going to kill my mother. I know they will get me, but there will be more killing before I die.”

One of the most immediately interesting things about Targets is the boundaries Roger Corman put on the project from the outset. Bogdanovich was instructed that he could make any movie he wanted as long as he cast horror legend Boris Karloff, who owed Corman two days’ work, and used footage from the (utterly incomprehensible) Corman production The Terror. Knowing the way Corman used to plan & promote his films at the time, I assume Bogdanovich was also expected to include some kind of exploitative element, of either the sex or violence variety, to get some coveted butts in seats. The fact that Targets is even half as great as it is, despite these parameters, points to a tremendous talent on Bogdanovich’s end. Corman was no stranger to cannibalizing scraps of his own work to squeeze a quick picture out of little more than thin air (which is largely why The Terror exists in the first place), but the results were rarely, if ever, as good as the minor miracle a young Bogdanovich pulls off here. Karloff was so impressed with the film’s script that he put in an extra three days’ work unpaid to see it to completion (which would sadly be his last appearance in a widely-distributed Hollywood film). Instead of distributing the film independently through AIP, Corman pushed to have Targets picked up by a major studio player for a wide release, a decision that paid off wonderfully. Bogdanovich turned the crumbs of films he seemingly didn’t even like into an enduring work that’s still discussed favorably decades later. And he did it with an open contempt for a culture he seemed to see as spiritually bankrupt.

Targets is essentially two films running simultaneously, but separately, until they violently clash in the third act. One film is the recognizable Peter Bogdanovich work that drowns in its own rose-tinted nostalgia for the past. The director himself plays a young filmmaker begging Boris Karloff’s aging horror actor to make one last film before retirement. Within this meta context, the two old-timers (one in his 70s and the other in his 20s) spout nostalgic platitudes about why cinema is dead and how modern culture has gone to shit. You can hear background characters exclaiming things like, “Antonioni is a genius.” Bogdanovich himself complains, “All the good movies have been made,” and goes out of his way to point out 1931’s The Criminal Code as it plays on TV, declaring, “Howard Hawks made this! He really knows how to tell a story,” a precursor to his full length love letter to Hawks in What’s Up, Doc?, I suppose. Karloff, who appeared as an actor in The Criminal Code, echoes these sentiments, lamenting that his style of old school horror is now treated as high camp and that Vincent Price had more or less replaced him in the public consciousness (which would become especially true once Price also started starring in meta works like Madhouse Theatre of Blood). The second, competing film that runs in tandem with this Back In The Day gab fest is a cold-hearted gun control thriller about a Vietnam veteran who snaps and calmly murders his family (once leaving the note transcribed above) before moving on to murder large numbers of complete strangers, seemingly just because he can. It’s a dialogue-light subplot that deliberately recalls then-recent national tragedies like the University of Texas sniper & the assassination of JFK, while addressing both gun control laws & the mental toll of war on the nation’s youth. While the Karloff/Bogdanovich half recalls a culture that supposedly used to be robust and nostalgia-worthy, the titular half of Targets (excuse the expression) takes aim at exactly why modern culture is such a sickly, inferior alternative.

“The motion picture you are about to see can be called today a fantasy of the future, but one day, maybe not too far distant, audiences will be able to look back on it in the same spirit in which we view pictures about the first covered wagons crossing the plains.”

Before Bogdanovich could move onto the big studio successes that followed Targets, Corman squeezed one more rapid fire production out of the director. With an even cheaper production budget and even more ludicrous restraints & conditions, Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women is likely the most passionless effort Bogdanovich has ever put in as a filmmaker. It’s a quick, dirty job, far from the spirited political skewering of modernity in Targets, that only helps to define the then-budding auteur as someone completely disinterested in genre films & camp. When Corman first hired Bogdanovich, he employed the young critic in the editing room for Soviet sci-fi pictures he purchased for distribution in American drive-ins. Bogdanovich & then-nobody Francis Ford Coppola would re-edit the Soviet schlock to remove any obvious anti-American sentiment from its Space Race imagery and retell their central stories through drastic editing & dialogue-dubbing. It’s through this process that Corman asked Bogdanovich to direct his second feature. The young filmmaker was tasked with combining footage from two Soviet pictures, Planet Bur & Nebo Zovyat, into a single narrative and then adding new footage of attractive women to the formula, since AIP refused to distribute it otherwise. The result is a tamer version of Nude on the Moon by way of the incomprehensible production The Terror, a compromised mess so dispassionate Bogdanovich wouldn’t even accept credit for the work, billing Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women as being “directed by Derek Thomas.

Here’s Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women‘s plot synopsis according to IMDb: “Astronauts landing on Venus encounter dangerous creatures and almost meet some sexy Venusian women who like to sun-bathe in hip-hugging skin-tight pants and seashell brassieres.” The reason the astronauts almost meet the Venusian beauties, of course, is that the women’s scenes were filmed & inserted after-the-fact. There was no danger of them ever coming in contact with the astronauts in a shared space. Like Targets, this work feels like two entirely separate films running their course simultaneously, except in this case they’re afforded no opportunity to collide for any thematic significance. In the futuristic space exploration timeline, the 1998 space travellers fight a wide range of alien terrain monsters (with some legitimately cool special effects work backing them up), which eventually include a pterodactyl. This flying dino is the talisman meant to connect the film’s two disparate storylines, as the sunbathing Venusian babes worshipped the now-dead pterodactyl as a god. They declare the invading Earth men to be “demons” and vow their revenge for that rude-at-best faux pas of god-killing, but they obviously never follow through on that impulse. Lead by Marilyn Monroe knockoff Mimie Van Doren, the women mostly just lounge on a seaside beach in their clam shell bras & cheap blonde wigs, patiently waiting for the film to end & looking cute doing it. Corman initially didn’t want to pay for sound mixing in the picture, so Bogdanovich had the women communicate through body language & facial expression, a choice that reportedly turned the film into incomprehensible garbage. To help make a clear storyline at all intelligible, the director later added voiceover “telepathy” to their communication dynamic as well as an overall narration track (recorded by Bogdanovich himself) that often plays simultaneously with the film’s dialogue. Overall, it’s a half-hearted mess of a picture Bogdanovich barely imprinted any of his own personality on (outside his voice and love for young, busty blondes), but obviously took a lot away from in terms of how to build a story in the editing room and how to assemble entirely new pictures out of the scraps of already-produced media.

Bogdanovich is not at all subtle about his distaste for modernity and his nostalgia for The Good Old Days in Targets. Nor does he attempt to hide his disinterest in sci-fi schlock in Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women. When passionately singing the praises of Bringing Up Baby in What’s Up, Doc?, he lovingly conjures images & comedic tones of the past with such a soft hand it could nearly go unnoticed that his Barbara Streisand comedy is practically a beat for beat remake of the Katherine Hepburn classic. With Targets, he’s much less tactful. He announces himselfon camera, that Howard Hawks was a great filmmaker and then proceeds to deliver a slice of self-loathing exploitation cinema where a young, handsome, square-jawed killer snipes unsuspecting movie-goers at a drive-in theater. Shots of the killer’s guns & ammo are directly juxtaposed with images of whirring film strips in the projection booth. And if his feelings on the subject weren’t already clear, he directs a literal specter from the Old World, Karloff, to stop the killer by physically slapping some sense into him, thus saving the day. Targets finds Bogdanovich young & angry, ready at a second’s notice to throw a punch at a culture he felt he was decreasing at value at an exponential rate. It’s fascinating to see someone who usually works with a much softer hand lashing out within the confines of a genre he likely has no personal interest in: the ultra-violent thriller. Instead of making the violence of his film tantalizing or entertaining, he delivers what must have been uncomfortable trip to the drive-in, considering the location & the cold brutality of Targets‘s bloody climax.

It’s amazing that Targets is even watchable, taking into account the limitations of its production, but the film was so good that it launched Bogdanovich’s career, making works like What’s Up, Doc? financially possible. Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women is much less successful in its triumphs over production restraints and finds Bogdanovich in the rare position of uncaring workman filmmaker. Besides the obvious novelty of the director of What’s Up, Doc? having ever made a violent thriller or a sexed-up sci-fi adventure pic in the first place, both films are interesting in the way they likely informed how Bogdanovich would continue to mine past, already-established works for a new, recycled purpose. The Roger Corman film school process was infamously a sink or swim, learn by doing affair and it’s fascinating to watch Bogdanovich learn how to put his obsession with the past on film through the lens of two especially-cheap Corman productions before he even knew how to tread water.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, the throwback screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc?, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and this look at how it found inspiration in Bringing Up Baby (1938), and last week’s discussion of why it’s the spiritual inverse of Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968).

-Brandon Ledet

Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968) as the Inverse of What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

There’s a fun section in Jason Zinoman’s narrative history of the creation of modern horror Shock Value that discusses the creation of Peter Bogdanovich’s first film, Targets. After working for years as the film programmer for MoMA and doing some AD/second unit work, Bogdanovich met notorious producer/director Roger Corman at a premiere, and Corman offered the younger man the opportunity to direct a movie, with a few caveats. First, the film had to star Boris Karloff. Second, Bogdanovich had to include a fair amount of footage from another film project, The Terror, which also starred Karloff; further, Bogdanovich would only have Karloff for two more days of shooting, which he owed Corman for contractual reasons. Finally, Bogdanovich would only have ten more days to film the rest of the movie. When he scoffed, Corman  supposedly said “I’ve shot whole pictures in two days!” If you’ve ever seen a Corman movie, you know that’s probably not hyperbole, and is in fact equal parts boast and threat.

Bogdanovich then drafted a script that Karloff enjoyed so much that he committed a full five days to the film that would, ultimately, be his swan song. Karloff stars as Byron Orloff, a kind of elder statesman of the silver screen and a thinly veiled version of himself. Orloff is a former horror icon who suddenly decides to retire after a screening of his latest flick, much to the chagrin of young director Sammy Michaels (Bogdanovich), who has finally written something that he feels is actually worthy of Orloff’s stature and ability. Orloff’s classy and witty assistant Jenny (Nancy Hsueh, think Janine from Ghostbusters but warmer and more stylish) is also unenthusiastic about this decision, given her genuine affection for both her boss and for Sammy. Worse still, Orloff completely dismisses the idea that he attend a premiere of the new film, despite already committing to the event. Meanwhile, Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) is across the street buying a rifle, which he adds to a veritable armory that he’s building in the trunk of his sporty convertible.

Bobby returns to the home that he and his wife share with his parents, and he tells them about seeing Orloff, but his joy about this is short lived. We see that baby-faced Bobby is a veteran, and he tries but ultimately fails to find the words to tell his wife that there’s something wrong inside of him that he can’t voice. As the Thompsons chuckle at Laugh-In and they bathe in the light and radiation of the television set, a drunken Orloff likewise watches his own TV, which is playing one of his (really Karloff’s) earliest films, The Criminal Code. He also entertains an equally inebriated Sammy when the latter appears at his doorstep; the two watch the film together and praise Howard Hawks. Sammy has come to convince the actor to read his script; Orloff, however, calls himself an anachronism. His horror is of the past, he says, and the reinterpretation of his work as “high camp” wounds him. He picks up a newspaper and shows Sammy the headline, about a shooting of six people by a “youth” with a rifle: this is the real terror, Orloff says. The two eventually pass out, and when Jenny arrives the next morning, a hungover Orloff, apparently moved by Sammy’s pleas, relents to attend the premiere. Across town, Bobby’s killing spree begins, as he and Orloff both set an inevitable course toward the same drive-in theater.

For a first film, and especially one made with such bizarre constraints, Targets is astonishingly well-made. There are directors who, in their entire career, never manage to paint the screen with light and color the way that Bogdanovich does here. The Thompson home is one of severe shadows juxtaposed with lavender walls and immaculate countertops, with a camera that weaves through the house like a cobra, catching every cold detail of Bobby’s seemingly perfect life and observing the Thompsons through a doorway, watching them while they in turn watch TV. Full of one-shots, swinging doors, and first person perspective: the view of Bobby’s ostensibly warm and fulfilled life is ironically cold and clinical, and the eye that follows him is documentarian and removed. Orloff’s home, by contrast, is empty and silent, the elderly actor kept company by the sound of his earlier work, but the camera treats him like a friend and not a subject. It’s stunning. The role of light even takes on an important part of the narrative at the end of the film, as the attendees of Orloff’s drive-in appearance attract the sniper’s attention when they activate their interior lights or headlamps.

The subtleties of the script are so faintly traced that you can see the critic’s eye in Bogdanovich’s work. This is most notable with the Thompsons, as the only possible clue that gives us any insight into Bobby’s motivations is his unusually deferential and devotional attitude toward his father, whom he addresses as “sir” and looks up to in a childlike reverence (Mr. Thompson also bosses his wife around brusquely). The subtext never becomes textual enough to provide you any real insight, and it wouldn’t matter if it did; Bobby is cold-blooded, a killer, and there’s no excusing him. The parallelism between Bobby and Orloff is masterfully handled, with each bound up in the expectations of others and a monster in their own unique way, one with a bright future and one whose days are fewer ahead than behind, but the two exchange fates when they meet beneath the flickering of the projector.

When we discussed What’s Up, Doc?, we talked about the way that the film felt timeless in its incorporation of references to films, cartoons, songs, and narrative devices of the past. Despite its age, that later Bogdanovich film feels fresh, and it’s undeniably a good thing. Targets is the inverse, a film that reflected forward rather than backward, a strangely prophetic and disturbingly prescient look at the future of gun violence. There’s almost no reference to gun culture, but the film drew inspiration from the University of Texas tower shooting that had happened a mere two years previously, and we’ve seen that narrative play out again and again and again in recent years, including the particularly relevant shooting at the Aurora movie theater. Further, Bobby looks like the perpetrators of this domestic terrorism: he’s boyishly handsome, blond and charming; he comes from an ostensibly Christian home (based upon the family’s pre-meal prayer) and has a close relationship with his doting parents. His crimes are completely unmotivated, which was a sticking point for contemporary critics who failed to realize that this didn’t detract from the terror but in fact contributed to it. It, too, is timeless, but for all the wrong reasons.

Even without that context, however, Targets is effective in the way that its antagonist’s dispassionate spree killing is horrifying and unnerving. My roommate was fascinated by the film’s humanity and the way that the victims of the shooter are defined by their reactions to this event that’s unfolding around them, comparing the movie to a Coen Brothers film, which is a strong point of contact. It’s a strong effort for a first-time director and is terrifically fascinating in its subject matter and composition; once can only hope it will become less relevant in years to come, but I doubt it.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, the throwback screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc?, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at how it found inspiration in Bringing Up Baby (1938).

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Bringing Up Petey: Hawks’s Immeasurable Influence on Bogdanovich

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.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, the throwback screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc?, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Alli, Boomer, and Brandon watch What’s Up, Doc? (1972).

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.

Lagniappe

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