What’s Up Doc? (1972) a (incredibly) belated review

A while back TCM played the 1972 Peter Bogdanovich directed screwball comedy homage What’s Up Doc? Here’s the movie’s trailer/behind the scenes:

I had warm memories of the film but, frankly, hadn’t seen it in at least twenty plus years. I wondered if it was as good as I recalled. The DVR was set, the film recorded, and then a couple of months later and with my wife and daughter sat down to see it.

It wasn’t easy getting those two to sit in!

After some twenty minutes, my daughter bailed. She doesn’t have a lot of patience for “old” films and, frankly, I can’t totally blame her. Nowadays films have a quicker pace to them, and this film certainly started “slow” compared to more recent works.

My wife found at least some of what she saw humorous enough and held on, but I think during those early minutes she too was “touch and go”.

But then, once the movie’s finished with the preliminaries and into the story proper, as well as the slapstick that’s to come, What’s Up Doc? becomes a truly wonderful comedy and very worthy of my pleasant memories.

The plot is complex but never complicated: There are four identical traveling bags held by four different characters.

Two of the suitcases carry totally innocuous items: Judy Maxwell (Barbara Streisand, equally sexy and off the wall as a walking hurricane of a character) has a suitcase of clothing. Howard Bannister (Ryan O’Neal doing his best to emulate a stuttering, stuffy Cary Grant who, along with his fiancé –Madeline Kahn in her film debut- is headed to a music convention in the hopes of getting a grant to study… Neanderthal music?) carries igneous rocks.

The two other cases contain something far more interesting: Mr. Smith (Michael Murphy) carries a suitcase full of top secret documents. He’s being pursed by a U.S. agent. The last suitcase, owned by Mrs. Van Hoskins (Mabel Albertson), contains a treasure in jewels.

The jewels catch the eye of the shady Hotel Clerk and equally shady Hotel Detective who plan to steal it. The U.S. Government agent, who Mr. Smith quickly gets wise to, wants to retrieve the top secret documents. And all four suitcases wind up, with their owners, in four separate rooms on the 17th floor of the Hotel they are staying at. This results in mass confusion and considerable hilarity.

The movie plays out, for the most part, like a slapstick stage play, with characters talking in and around each other while the identical suitcases move from room to room and character to character while Judy Maxwell takes a liking to her opposite, character-wise, in Howard Bannister.

The set pieces wind up working terrifically, each bigger and better than the other, followed by a breather before getting into the next comedic set piece. I feel the final big set piece, involving Liam Dunn (I won’t give away too much here, for fear of SPOILING a …gulp… 47 year old film) is a perfect climax and the proverbial cherry on top of the pie. Mr. Dunn, best known for appearances on Mel Brooks films, is but one of the people who would go on from this film to work in two of Mel Brooks’ most famous films. He, along with Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, and John Hillerman would go on to appear in Blazing Saddles. All but Mr. Hillerman would also show up in Young Frankenstein.

In conclusion, if you don’t mind seeing “old” films and/or can put up with a few slow minutes in this movie’s opening act (assuming you’re spoiled on the more speedy pace of modern films), What’s Up Doc? is a no-brainer. A hilarious, albeit strangely forgotten, film that stands up quite well with some of the better comedies out there.

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