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“What’s Up, Doc?” is an old-school comedy in a New Hollywood of loony toons

UW Cinematheque celebrates the 50th anniversary of Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 screwball romance with a 35mm screening on March 11.

UW Cinematheque celebrates the 50th anniversary of Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 screwball romance with a 35mm screening on March 11.

Header Image: Howard Bannister (Ryan O’Neal) rides on the storage chest of a bicycle hotdog stand while looking apprehensive, while Judy Maxwell (Barbra Streisand) steers the bicycle down a busy San Francisco street, also looking apprehensive.

Bugs Bunny is incarnated in the body of a horny and determined Jewish woman. The woman? None other than Judy Maxwell, portrayed by the multi-talented Barbra Streisand. The object of her affection? The chiseled good looks of a man, Howard Bannister, who has his head filled with rocks (Ryan O’Neal, not quite approximating Elmer Fudd but certainly befuddled). He’s a musicology professor attending a San Francisco conference in the hopes of winning a grant to prove the musical resonance of ancient igneous rock formations, which follows in the tradition of such fanciful Old Hollywood plot devices as the sugar plastic from Sabrina (1955) or airplane parking net from The Palm Beach Story (1942).

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Four more MacGuffins are added into the mix in the form of several identical handbags that get swapped three-card-monte-style among the various characters caught in the tidal wave of Maxwell’s pursuit of Bannister. The result is Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972), screening on 35mm at UW Cinematheque on Friday, March 11, at 7 p.m.

Bogdanovich, who passed away earlier this year, shows his reverence for the modes of the generation before him. In contrast to something like Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977), which seeks to infuse New Hollywood anti-heroics into the classic musical mode, Bogdanovich simply adds some contemporary details to an update of Bringing Up Baby (1938). Hippies are part of the landscape in ’70s San Francisco, and one of the aforementioned handbags contains proof of government corruption.

Famously, Bogdanovich was friendly with the revered directors he grew up watching—John Ford, Howard Hawks, and especially Orson Welles. He compared himself to directors he admired rather than to his contemporaries, and he was unconcerned with the psychologically tortured men that fascinated Scorsese, Coppola, Lumet, and their ilk. Bogdanovich seemed to have the same attitude in many aspects of life, pressing on after leaving his wife and production designer Polly Platt for the much younger Cybill Shepherd during his production of The Last Picture Show (1971), and responding to the flop of his 1975 film At Long Last Love by taking out full page ads that apologized for making it.

He continued to have career difficulties into the ’80s, compounded by the tragic murder of his girlfriend Dorothy Stratten by her estranged husband in 1980, the tabloid coverage of marrying her younger sister Louise Stratten less than a decade later, and suing Universal Studios for switching out Bruce Springsteen for Bob Seger in 1985’s Mask. In other words, Bogdanovich was cantankerous, hedonistic, and certainly a little arrogant in his heyday. Let he who is without horniness cast the first stone (preferably igneous).

As for What’s Up, Doc?, it’s Bogdanovich’s first foray into a genre he would return to more than any other in his career (with 1981’s They All Laughed, 1988’s Illegally Yours, 1992’s Noises Off!, and his final feature film in 2014, She’s Funny That Way). While it may suffer a tiny bit from what Roger Ebert called the “idiot plot”—if anyone could actually explain themselves, the movie would be over—it embraces and overcomes it by having the story hinge upon O’Neal’s himbo.

Bannister needs constant reminders that most people have social interactions on a daily basis, and he isn’t given enough time to catch a breath or complete a sentence before being faced with a new problem. The film even features a scene where he is called upon in court to explain what led to a high-speed and destructive car chase. By this time, the plot threads are so hilariously tangled and hopelessly unintelligible, a coherent resolution has no chance. A certain future California beachfront property owner tries to hide behind the dozen characters who’ve been arrested after they drive into the ocean to recapture their respective handbags. Of course, any attempt to slink away only focuses the spotlight squarely on Streisand’s Maxwell as the only explanation.

Following one of the cardinal rules of comedy, especially one channeling a cartoon, nobody learns anything or faces any consequences. Our two leads fly off to Ohio with the tacit acknowledgement that having someone around to bother you is more important than any kind of goal. Romanticism once again triumphs over reality. That’s all, folks!

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