Video Vault

The best (and worst) classic flicks and cult favorites

“What’s Up, Doc?”
Warner Brothers, 1972
Starring: Barbra Streisand, Ryan O’Neal, Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton, John Hillerman, Liam Dunn
Director: Peter Bogdanovich

The plot: Four identical plaid traveling bags all end up, by coincidence, at the same San Francisco hotel. The first, containing igneous rock formations, belongs to musicologist Howard Bannister (O’Neal), an obtuse academic attending a convention with his prim and proper fiancée, Eunice (Kahn, in her screen debut). The next contains top-secret government documents purloined by one shady character who’s being chased by another. The third holds priceless jewels and the fourth a change of clothes and dictionary belonging to wacky perennial college student Judy (Streisand). Howard is vying for a grant to be bestowed by Mr. Larrabee (Pendleton), but he’s in competition with a Croatian pompous ass named Hugh Simon (Mars). As the bags get repeatedly switched, the insanity, action, and comedy increase exponentially.

Why it’s good: This is the screwball comedy to end them all. The plot is complex but comprehensible, the pacing impressive, the one-liners and dialogue diamond-polished, the performances pitch-perfect, the romance and action top-tier, and the direction and editing inspired. Streisand sings Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top” over the opening credits and a slow, steamy rendition of “As Time Goes By” while she seduces O’Neal. San Francisco is showcased so captivatingly that “What’s up, Doc?” settles any argument about whether it’s America’s most beautiful city. Streisand has never looked sexier, and that’s saying something. Our finest movie critic, Pauline Kael, turned up her nose, but everybody else loved it, and it was the year’s top grosser after “The Godfather” and “The Poseidon Adventure.”

Should I watch it? Bogdanovich wanted to make a film like Howard Hawks’ “Bringing Up Baby” and the terrific comedies of Preston Sturges. He commissioned the writing duo of David Newman and Robert Benton (“Bonnie and Clyde”) to craft it. When he found the tightly plotted script insufficiently hilarious, he hired Buck Henry to punch it up, which he did with the touch of a master. The brilliant exchanges are too numerous to list, but the first meeting between Streisand and O’Neal in a drugstore, the banquet scene where Streisand passes herself off as Eunice, the morning-after sequence where the manager of the hotel (Hillerman) evicts O’Neal from the room he has destroyed, and the final, tour-de-force night court scene where all the principals are hauled in front of Judge Maxwell (Dunn) are a few highlights. The masterfully choreographed car chase (involving a delivery wagon and a Chinese dragon, among other vehicles), a send-up of “Bullitt,” took a fourth of the film’s $4 million budget, and ended magnificently in San Francisco Bay. Bogdanovich was on a roll: he preceded this with “The Last Picture Show” and followed it with “Paper Moon” before descending into some legendary self-indulgence. The DVD has several special features, including commentary by Bogdanovich and Streisand.