These are two of my favorite films of all time, and the saddest thing is that no-one seems to know about them! I mention them to people and no-one has ever watched the films. They’ve been overlooked and forgotten over time.
Peter Bogdanovich, being a huge film fan, loved the screwball comedies of old. A very good example of this type of film is Bringing Up Baby (1938) which has 5 main elements that make for a very successful screwball comedy; Cary Grant, the bumbling absentminded professor type, Katherine Hepburn, the smart crafty and manipulative woman that wants the Cary Grant character to fall in love with her at all costs, the object the Cary Grant character is after, in this case, a dinosaur bone, this is where number four comes in, the giant mix-up (helps to have a dog and leopard for this) and then last is very fast dialogue.
This formula has been repeated multiple times since and soon after developed it’s own genre within comedy, the screwball. I would argue that this wasn’t the first screwball comedy, Twentieth Century (1934) may have been first, but I’m not entirely sure if all the elements were in place. I will give credit to figuring out the formula to Howard Hawks, who really seemed to be great at putting together the right elements, just think about how he changed the Hildy Johnson role in the play The Front Page into a woman (Hildebrand turned into Hildegard) instead of a man and turned it into another fantastic film, His Girl Friday (1940) as an example of truly how good he was at it. I’m giving credit to the term screwball comedy due to the fact that to even be considered to be a so-called “screwball comedy” director Howard Hawks thought there couldn’t be any “normal” people in the movie, and that everyone had to be a “screwball.”
Now, let me take the opportunity to say that these elements are my opinion, but to me, seemed to be the five elements that make for a successful screwball comedy. If a screwball comedy is missing one of these items, it can still be a screwball but will be less successful.
All these elements are in What’s Up, Doc? and it’s no surprise that the title even includes “up” in both movies. The bumbling absent-minded professor is Ryan O’Neal, Barbra Streisand is the smart crafty manipulative woman, the object Ryan is after is a suitcase full of igneous rocks, the mix-up includes 3 other identical suitcases that include secret documents, diamonds, or just plain clothes, and finally it also has the incredibly fast dialogue.
As a side note, Barbra Streisand has gone on record to say she didn’t get this movie at all and thought the comedy wouldn’t work, she said she never knew what was really going on. She said recently, “I was just a hired actress on that film. Just following orders.” Which is truly a shame, because I think she was brilliant in this movie and really is a natural at comedy! Her instincts are dead on and she could have had a huge career in the comedy genre, but since she always felt a little awkward in the genre, concentrated on drama and thus we only have her in a handful of comedies. I think she could have rivaled Lucille Ball at comedy if she would have decided to go that way early on in her career. Not to say it hurt her at all, she’s a fantastic dramatic actor as well, I just wish we had more comedies from her.
It’s interesting to me that Katherine Hepburn had a similar experience on her film, Bringing Up Baby. She initially was so bad at comedy it drove Howard Hawkes crazy. They brought several people in to help her with her comedic timing, including Walter Catlett and even silent film comedian Harold Lloyd. She was a very fast learner, although, and Howard Hawks grew to respect Katharine Hepburn tremendously for her comic timing, ad-libbing skills and physical control. He would tell the press, “She has an amazing body – like a boxer. It’s hard for her to make a wrong turn. She’s always in perfect balance. She has that beautiful coordination that allows you to stop and make a turn and never fall off balance. This gives her an amazing sense of timing. I’ve never seen a girl that had that odd rhythm and control.”
As for Ryan O’Neal, his character being inspired by the stuffy professor played by Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, Ryan O’Neal had a chance to meet and speak with Grant. They had a great time talking, but the only advice he received in shooting the movie was to wear silk underpants. Both Grant’s and O’Neal’s characters were visually modeled after the silent film comedian Harold Lloyd. Another interesting note is Christopher Reeve based his performance as Clark Kent in four “Superman” movies on Cary Grant’s “David Huxley” from Bringing Up Baby, so you can make an argument that Clark Kent is also Harold Lloyd.
The final chase scene, an idea they had because of the one from the then recent movie Bullitt (1968) which was also filmed in San Francisco, cost $1 million to shoot (a quarter of the total budget), 19 days to shoot requiring 32 stuntmen resulting in 11 minutes of screen time. The segment with the giant pane of glass alone took four or five days to film. The plate glass bit was filmed at the junction of Balboa and 23rd Avenue in San Francisco’s Richmond District.
The fender bender Judy causes as she crosses the street to the Bristol Hotel was added on the spur of the moment. When no stunt cars were available, Peter Bogdanovich instructed a crew member to rent two cars and make sure he got collision insurance. Then he staged the wreck before returning the battered cars. If you see the moment in the film, it’s actually really scary to think how close they could have come to hitting Barbra, if they were just off by a few seconds.
This film has been given recognition as the first American film to have the stunt people listed in the credits at the end of the movie (the first film over all to have done this is the British movie, Moonraker). I’m not sure if this is entirely correct, as the stunt people over the years have just been given different credits as actors or such, but as for the actual “Stunts” credit, this may be true.
Now for the initial releases of these movies, Bringing Up Baby, was an unmitigated flop, going so far as to have Katherine Hepburn branded “Box Office Poison” the next year, but has since gained a following and made it’s money back. It’s now considered by many to be Howard Hawk’s best film. What’s Up, Doc? itself, was incredibly successful the year it was released, coming in third to The Godfather and The Poseidon Adventure, but sadly has been virtually forgotten over time.
Things to look up on IMDB:
- Howard Hawks
- Peter Bogdanovich
- Katherine Hepburn
- Cary Grant
- Barbra Streisand
- Ryan O’Neal
- Harold Lloyd
- Walter Catlett
- Bringing Up Baby
- What’s Up, Doc?
- His Girl Friday