It’s a wonderful thing, when you come back to a film that you remember with such affection from your childhood, to find that age has not only not deteriorated it, but if anything, made it even better. Such was the case when I watched Peter Bogdanovich‘s What’s Up, Doc? (1972) with the Divine C a week or so ago, for the first time since I last watched it, with my Grandma, on Boxing Day 1987, if memory serves.
Before that, you’d have to go back to the late 1970s for my first viewing – thankfully, it is not a film that I have watched to death, as has tended to be my habit over the years, so my third watch was every bit as fresh as if I had seen it at its premiere, way back in the day.
Peter Bogdanovich, who was one of the 70s’ leading directors until he made the disastrous bomb of a musical, At Long Last Love (1975), also co-wrote the movie with Buck Henry, David Newman and Robert Benton, and the team obviously had its heart set on making a ‘screwball’ comedy – for those not in the know, screwball was a principally American genre that became popular during the Great Depression, originating in the early 1930s and thriving until the early 1940s. As a genre, it shares similarities with the film noir, but is also largely characterized by a female who dominates the relationship with the male central character, as well as fast-paced witty dialogue, farcical situations, escapist themes and plot lines involving courtship and marriage.
And What’s Up, Doc? has all of the above in spades – the highly intelligent, absent-minded and hapless Dr Howard Bannister (Ryan O’Neal) is one of two researchers who have arrived in San Francisco to compete for a research grant in music. Bannister’s plaid overnight bag contains his igneous rocks, which he believes illustrate that ancient man discovered music far earlier than was previously thought. His fiancée, Eunice Burns (Madeline Kahn), is more than something of a scold, and then the beautiful Judy Maxwell (Barbra Streisand) takes a liking to him, and hell follows with her. At the same time, a woman has her jewels stolen, while a government whistle-blower arrives with his stolen top-secret papers and all of them, naturally, have the same style and colour overnight bag as Bannister.
The joy of the film, of course, lies in its dialogue – check out the following exchange between hotel manager Mr Kaltenborn (John Hillerman) and Bannister, after his hotel room has been wrecked through absolutely no fault of his own:
Howard: Good morning.
Mr Kaltenborn: No, I don’t think so. I’m Mr Kaltenborn, the manager of what’s left of the hotel.
Howard: I’m sorry about all this whole mess here. Usually this doesn’t happen.
Mr Kaltenborn: Dr Bannister, I have a message for you from the staff of the hotel.
Howard: What is it?
Mr Kaltenborn: Goodbye.
Howard: That’s the entire message?
Mr Kaltenborn: We would appreciate it if you would check out.
Mr Kaltenborn: Yesterday.
Howard: That soon?
Combine this with perfectly pitched performances from all participants, a central pairing between Streisand and O’Neal that manages to be hilarious, sexy and truly heartwarming, and you have the kind of film that bank holidays were created for – you’ll never see its like again.