What's Up, Doc? (1972)
June 21, 2023 12:01 AM - Subscribe

The accidental mix-up of four identical plaid overnight bags leads to a series of increasingly wild and wacky situations.

Two researchers have come to San Francisco to compete for a research grant in music. The man seems a bit distracted, and that was before he met a strange woman who has devoted her life to confusing and embarrassing him. At the same time a woman has her jewels stolen and a government whistle blower arrives with his stolen top secret papers.

Meg Walters: What ever happened to the sharp-witted, girl-pesters-absent-minded-boy-into-state-of-indignation rom-coms of old? While some contemporary filmmakers have attempted to update the screwball genre, few have come as close as Bogdanovich, the flawed and much-disputed exceptions being films like Mistress America and Down With Love.

Watching What’s Up, Doc? today, it’s hard not to be struck with a double dose of nostalgia for a kind of movie romance that has largely disappeared from our screens. The particular brand of slapstick comedy and barbed romance in What’s Up, Doc? is an homage to a bygone era of Hollywood cinema that in 1972 was considered outdated. But Bogdanovich embraced it without irony.

After all, why not give Streisand the fearless one-liners of a daffy dame extraordinaire? Why not lace the script with 1930s slang? Why not fill the soundtrack with the jazzy sounds of Cole Porter? Why not create a plot so farcical that even the film’s own stars couldn’t be bothered to follow it? Modern attempts at the screwball are not so brave. Fifty years on, the correct response to What’s Up, Doc? remains: “I can’t believe he’s doing this!”

Priscilla Page: In an interview at the American Film Institute, Bogdanovich explained that the film’s comedy worked on the “principle of threes”: “You set up something with a laugh, you get another laugh with it, then you top it. There’s a scene where there are cars all making a U-turn and they each smash into this Volkswagen bus which is parked along the curb. Each time it gets a bigger laugh. The topper is when the guy who obviously owns the bus runs out from his house, opens the door of the thing and the whole bus falls over into the street. That’s the big laugh.” If Bogdanovich hadn’t built to the moment when the glass breaks, arguably the chase’s best joke, the gag would have felt trite. And if he hadn’t broken the glass at all, the audience would’ve been disappointed, waiting for a payoff that never came. Bogdanovich said the problem with modern comedy is that “nobody understands the principle of topping a joke.”

. . .

Barbra Streisand told Newsday when What’s Up, Doc? came out that she, “hated it with a passion. I thought it was infantile humor.” But Streisand may have been the only person who didn’t love the film at the time—What’s Up, Doc? was a hit, and it remains Peter Bogdanovich’s most popular picture. According to Bogdanovich, people lined up around the block to see it, the theater shook with laughter, and you could hear them across the street. “When I made What’s Up, Doc? I called Cary Grant to tell him that it was opening at the Radio City Music Hall in New York. He told me to stand at the back and listen to 6,500 people laugh at what you did. He was right. It was one of the most exciting experiences I have ever had.”

Cláudio Alves: While the script and direction help, the miracle of Eunice owes a lot to Kahn's pitch-perfect characterization and comic instincts. Part of her success comes from the fact that Eunice isn't any saner than Judy, she just suffers from a different breed of movie madness. Kahn may look strict, her wig as stiff as her quilted housecoat, but there's a fury hiding behind the mask of propriety. Frustrate her enough and Eunice explodes, something that the actress keeps in mind even in the most peaceful of scenes. That's why her somersaulting temperament never comes off as unnatural. It feels like an organic reaction that Kahn plays to its natural extremes.

Madeline Kahn thus takes Eunice's plight seriously but delivers it with great timing. Even when her squeaky hollering is downplayed and we get to see Eunice legitimately scared for her life, Kahn makes it hilarious with her body language. There are few sights funnier than this irritated woman walking away from a macabre surprise or the way she brandishes a gun in the air and immediately drops it when it fires. In summation, What's Up, Doc? is a laugh-fest of the highest caliber and Madeline Kahn is a goddess of comedy delivering a portrait of tragic anxiety turned to farce.

posted by Carillon (14 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I feel a bit conflicted with this one. There's a lot to like here, the script really works I think, though the plotting is crazy, there were a lot of unexpected laugh moments that were generally pretty subtle. Streisand is good, O'Neal is good, Kahn is just great. Very much see the similarities between this and her role in Young Frankenstein. But she's amazing. I just wish we got more context on why Judy decides to pretty much ruin Howard's life. In Bringing Up Baby, or The Lady Eve there's always a reason or a justification, maybe paper-thin, but at least it's there. This doesn't really have one and it affected my viewing of the film more than I expected. Maybe rewatching it again would help, but I came away from the beginning saying, but why? a lot. It does eventually come together and is pretty good, but I wish we'd got even a token of a motivation beyond chaos goblin. I guess it's mirroring Bugs' energy? But that feels different to me as it is a cartoon.
posted by Carillon at 12:07 AM on June 21, 2023 [2 favorites]

This is one of those movies I'm just gaga over. The scene with the piano. Sigh. And: "I have a message from the owners and staff of the hotel." "Really, what's that?" "Goodbye." I don't think it's so much that Judy intends to ruin his life, rather that she likes him and attaches herself to him, and where she goes, craziness follows.
posted by jabah at 7:05 AM on June 21, 2023 [3 favorites]

I wonder how much Polly Platt contributed to the success of this picture? Because every movie Bogdanovich made without her was junk.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:22 AM on June 21, 2023 [4 favorites]

I guess it's mirroring Bugs' energy?

where [Judy] goes, craziness follows.

She is an agent of chaos, deliberately in the style of Bugs Bunny. I watched that movie an embarrassing number of times before the blatantly obvious clues of the title and the Elmer/Bugs cartoon at the very end finally sunk in.

This movie has made me laugh out loud many times over the years at its brilliant comic touches and the performances of Kahn, Streisand, and O'Neal. I still quote lines from it.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:32 AM on June 21, 2023 [3 favorites]

This is one of my partner's favorite films, so it gets watched at least once a year in our house. And Liam Dunn's Judge Maxwell gets quoted pretty frequently.

Judge: You see this yellow pill? You know what it's for? To remind me to take this blue pill!
Bailiff: What's the blue one for, Judge?
Judge: I don't know. They're afraid to tell me.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 11:00 AM on June 21, 2023 [1 favorite]

"I am not repeating myself, I am not repeating myself; oh god I'm repeating myself!"

And oh man, how could I forget to mention Kenneth Mars' performance??

"I am 'ugh".
"You are me??"
"No! I am Hugh!"
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:05 PM on June 21, 2023 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I think Judy is basically just chaotic neutral. She doesn't mean to cause all this trouble. She just does. This is a delight from beginning to end and the chase through the streets of San Francisco is so much fun.

Kahn is so funny here. Eunice would come across as kind as an uptight nag in anyone else's hands, but Kahn brings a sweetness to her. Yes, she's kind of micromanaging Howard but he also needs it.

I used to think I really liked Bogdanovich as director, but no, it turns out what I liked was Polly Platt. I think she was probably a "ghost" director on the movies they worked on together (and I suspect on a lot of other movies she worked on). I've liked a few of his movies post-Platt but she was truly the force in his greatness.
posted by edencosmic at 1:58 PM on June 21, 2023 [6 favorites]

Polly Platt gets her own separate credit page as "Production Designer" at 2:28 in the intro...
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:17 PM on June 21, 2023 [1 favorite]

Whoa, that is certainly a style of movie trailer. I like when they say "no more the crass slapdash of the Old Hollywood" and immediately following it with classic old school slapstick.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:10 AM on June 22, 2023 [1 favorite]

I saw this a year or so ago really hoping to like it. I didn't, really. It has a few moments. All the actors are good. It looks good. But it's overall not very funny, and kind of forgettable.
posted by SoberHighland at 5:28 PM on June 22, 2023 [2 favorites]

I haven't seen this in probably more than forty years. I was two when it was released. They used to play it all the time on UHF, and then early cable TV. I remember thinking it was one of the funniest movies ever, right up there with the Blues Brothers and Animal House, and It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.

Now all I can remember is an uptight Ryan O'Neal and a fast-talking Streisand. And an awesome car chase. But none of the plot. I could go for watching it again.
posted by not_on_display at 11:50 PM on June 23, 2023

It's been a while since I've seen this but what I most remember is Streisand charming all the people at O'Neal's conference with the flair of a con artist (which she kind of is).

I always feel sorry for characters like Kahn, funny as she was, it never seemed quite fair what happened to her.

It's a good combo with my all-time favorite wackadoodle Streisand movieOn a Clear Day You Can See Forever.
posted by emjaybee at 7:21 PM on June 24, 2023

I just saw this a couple months ago. I really liked it. Many of the jokes are bad but there's enough of them, and the plot is absurd enough, that I could kind of float along with a smile on my face anyway and get pleased when the good ones hit. Also it was fun to let myself forget which bag was which then figuring it out again. I'm sure I'll watch this again some day.

This is the only Streisand movie I've seen, somehow.
posted by fleacircus at 2:47 AM on June 28, 2023

I remember seeing this on tv as a kid and laughing my head off. I didn't know whether I would like it as an adult. Ended up watching it with my two teenage kids and we all cried laughing. If you like slapstick at all, it's for you.
posted by Lookinguppy at 9:32 AM on July 5, 2023

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