Between 1938 and 1972, seismic cultural shifts took place in America. The speed of change was unprecedented, thanks in part to mass communication, including movies. But the movie industry was as much a subject of these changes as it was an instigator. The newest generation simply wasn’t going to do things in accordance with the old system, aesthetically or politically. An entire accent vanished. Where Old Hollywood still exerted some influence over New Hollywood was within the sturdy structure of genre. Science fiction, gangster movies and westerns were being tackled with a fresh seriousness in the late 60s and early 70s. Romantic comedies, meanwhile, were expressing nostalgia for the 1930s, when the so-called screwball comedies epitomized that genre’s finest moment. So it is that a torn jacket links the years 1938 and 1972.
What’s Up, Doc?, like many New Hollywood films, is saturated with film history, including cartoons as the title implies. The dynamic between the two main characters was lifted from Howard Hawks’ masterpiece of the screwball form, Bringing Up Baby: a socially awkward scientist affianced to an overbearing woman finds himself drifting away from her when confronted with an equally commanding but infinitely more whimsical woman who won’t leave him alone. The “meet cute” and preliminary antagonism are familiar enough, but what Hawks captured, and what Peter Bogdanovich tried to recapture, was the sensation of love as a vortex of chaos. Everything in the man’s world is thrown out of whack, but he enjoys it, whether he’ll admit as much or not.
Beyond this basic set-up, the two films don’t match each other very often. So when I say that one of them consistently makes me laugh while the other does not, it isn’t enough to point at individual moments that weren’t recreated. Still, there are three fundamental elements handled deftly in Bringing Up Baby that correlate with less successful elements in What’s Up, Doc? They are simplicity, parity, and performance.
When it comes to MacGuffins, the two films have an almost identical number of them. It’s how they’re used that’s different. In Bringing Up Baby, the objects of desire are a pet leopard, a newly discovered dinosaur bone (and later the dog that buried it), and a million-dollar grant. In What’s Up, Doc?, the items are cheekily placed in identical traveling cases: the musicologist’s rock samples, “top secret” documents, and expensive jewelry. The musicologist is also seeking a grant, so the MacGuffins all line up, with the leopard matching with the traveling cases themselves as agents of chaos. A single potent symbol is thus exchanged for a set of ill-defined concepts. Other than adding thin layers of political thriller and heist movie to the generic structure, the documents and jewels mean nothing. The cases prompt some impressive choreography as various parties sneak around a hotel hallway in search of them. The items all get mixed up, obviously. There must have been a great deal of planning involved in the leopard scenes in Baby, as well, but the presence of a wild animal creates a welcome feeling of spontaneity. Doc ups the ante as far as how many players are involved in the plot — much of the humor grows from the fact that they’re all so focused on their own goals that they miss what’s happening around them — but it ends up feeling overthought. The same goes for the obfuscating dialogue that both movies have in spades. In Baby, the use of words for evasion rather than clarity is executed simply, with common phrases that are just vague enough to be misinterpreted. Doc, by contrast, throws up an array of fancy jargon and dictionary definitions. The funniest lines tend to be the simplest, such as the “I adore Emerson” and “I am Hugh” exchanges.
Related to its simplicity is the efficiency with which Baby establishes its rejected fiancée character, Miss Swallow. She appears in a total of three scenes. In practically that many lines of dialogue, the movie sums up her character as imperious and humorless, but far from a buffoon. Granted, the expansion of Madeline Kahn’s analogous role in Doc may be partially due to her tremendous talent. But I think the movie goes to excessive pains to humiliate her. Screenwriters Robert Benton and David Newman might be to blame, seeing how their filmographies are also burdened with a Blanche Barrow who’s a shrieking nag and a Lois Lane who can’t spell. Kahn’s Eunice sticks around as a punching bag so that Barbra Streisand’s Judy can exert even more dominance in the film. In Baby, Katharine Hepburn’s Susan kicks up a whirlwind that Cary Grant’s David can’t escape. The amazing thing is that he ends up pulling her in with him, as night falls and the all-important leopard is on the loose. She only regains mastery over the situation from behind bars. Judy doesn’t fall victim to the madness around her in the same way. She is, to employ a now-overused phrase, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, never expressing the kinds of dreams and fears that Susan does.
Streisand shows a wonderful grasp of comic timing in What’s Up, Doc? and combines natural allure with a gamine’s resourcefulness. That she doesn’t hold a candle to Hepburn is more a testament to just how awe-inspiring Hepburn’s work is than any shortcomings in Streisand. Hepburn’s electric personality energizes the whole film, and her ability to shift emotional registers mid-scene never falters, not even once. She is matched by some of the funniest work Grant ever did. His variation on Clark Kent has “straight man” written all over him, were it not for the genuine rage, frustration, and surrender that Grant conveys in repeating cycles. The character’s inner fire is so startling that it make sense some of the other characters would think he’s insane. Compared to that, Ryan O’Neal’s work as Howard in Doc only crosses the minimum threshold. He’s befuddled and helpless. O’Neal can’t seem to manage much more than that.
Distinguishing good comedy from bad comedy risks stumbling into the kind of platitudes skewered in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (“if it bends, it’s funny; if it breaks…”). I’m much more comfortable gravitating toward the line in the Seinfeld episode: “[comedy is] like gossamer, and one doesn’t dissect gossamer.” But I think the differences between Bringing Up Baby and What’s Up, Doc? are clear. There’s a once-removed quality to the latter that makes its jokes feel more calculated to me. Too many punchlines are telegraphed. The earlier film is more committed to leading its characters down the rabbit hole and not merely on a merry chase. Its structure is so flawless that the very best image is saved for last. Almost last, anyway; both films end with the ideal romantic comedy resolution, these two crazy kids finally arriving where they belong.