“Time it was, and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence…”
Simon & Garfunkel
What a Time it Was
“When I was a kid, I’d never seen a screwball comedy. So for me [What's Up, Doc?] was just this mind-blowing, new type comedy. …I went bananas for it.”
Bridesmaid director Paul Feig
Watch This: Paul Feig’s Eclectic Must-See Movies on NPR
My first date movie was What’s Up, Doc? I remember it well. The date, not the movie. But cut me some slack, I was ten years old.
The 1972 film starred Ryan O’Neal and Barbra Streisand and was directed by Peter Bogdanovich, but I wouldn’t have been interested in them in fourth grade. I was much more interested in Paulette, my FGF—fourth grade friend.
But since I’ve been writing about Bogdanovich for the past week I thought I would revisit the film for the first time in 41 years. I can’t say that I remembered a single scene—or even line—from the film. And actually my viewing of movies was pretty limited in elementary school back in the pre-VHS/DVD/Blu-Ray/Cable TV days.
In 1972, I was much more focused on playing football & baseball (or watching Dallas Cowboys or Cincinnati Reds play) than going to movies. In fact, I only remember a few movies that I even saw in movie theaters before What’s Up, Doc? But I remember fragments of all of those. The little kid looking for his friend at the end of The Green Beret, the car flying up Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the planes flying down in Tora, Tora, Tora, and the kid falling in chocolate in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.
But in What’s Up Doc?—I only remember Paulette. And how we bolted from my mom (who had driven us to the theater and stayed for the movie) and sat alone.
So last night I watched the movie and bet I loved that film as much as anyone when it first came out. The film was #3 at the box office in ’72. (Behind The Godfather and The Poseidon Adventure.) According to Bogdanovich on the What’s Up, Doc? director’s commentary it broke a 33 year old house record when it opened at the 6,500 seat Radio City Music Hall. (Imagine a screening with 6,500 people.)
It’s worth noting that when the G-rated What’s Up, Doc? premiered that three of top ten money makers of 1972 according to Wikipedia were X-Rated films. Perhaps nothing signaled the past and the future more than What’s Up, Doc? and Deep Throat being released in the same year.
“What’s Up, Doc? opened yesterday at the Radio City Music Hall, which seems a perfect place for it if the audience with which I saw it is any indication. There were lots of children on hand to fall apart with laughter during the chases and the hoverings on hotel ledges seventeen floors above the street, but the real mean age of most of the others was, I’d estimate, about fifty-two and three months. With their pearl earrings and crunchy, purple-hued beehives, they didn’t always laugh as much as they might, but they did feel secure in the evocation of a past remembered as innocent.”
New York Times review March 10. 1972
The movie was Bogdanovich’s nod back to the screwball comedies of the ’30s. The Depression era when people needed a good laugh. And while I wasn’t familiar with movies like Bringing Up Baby, I did enjoy silliness found on TV in the late 60s and early 70s such as Gilligan’s Island. The Dick Van Dyke Show, Hogan’s Heroes, The Monekees, Bewitched, Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. and reruns of Mr. Ed, Get Smart and I love Lucy. And characters like Red Skelton and Bugs Bunny. For me, it was in fact, the wonder years.
In viewing the film again the thing that most jumped out at me most was the contrast between What’s Up Doc? and The Last Picture Show. The Bogdanovich directed The Last Picture was a leisurely paced drama/character study shot in black and white with a small cast in a dying small town in Texas set in the 50s. What’s Up, Doc? is a big, colorful, fast tempoed comedy set in contemporary San Francisco that employed 28 stunt men along with a large cast of characters.
A second thing that jumped out at me was the cast of characters behind the scene that I am much more familiar with now. What’s Up, Doc? (based on a story from Bogdanovich) was written by Oscar-nominated David Newman (Bonnie and Clyde), and two-time Oscar nominated Buck Henry (The Graduate, Heaven Can Wait), and three-time Oscar-winner Robert Benton (Kramer vs Kramer, Nobody’s Fool, Places in the Heart). The director of photography was Laszlo Kovacs (who in 2002 won a ASC Lifetime Achievement Award), the editor was Oscar-winner Verna Fields (Jaws) and the assistant to the producer was five-time Oscar-nominated producer Frank Marshall known now for his work on Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Goonies, The Sixth Sense, The Bourne Ultimatum, Seabiscuit and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. (And for good measure, director John Ford visited the set one day.)
So What’s Up, Doc? had some fire power. In 1973, it won “Best Comedy Written for the Screen” from the Writers Guild of America. It’s also had some staying power as it was listed at #61 on AFI’s America’s Funniest Movies.
I must also point out the in the movie Howard (Ryan O’Neal) and his fiance Eunice (Madeline Kahn) are from Ames, Iowa, where he is a musicologist/professor. “Not at the University. The Conservatory of Music. You never heard of it? Well, it’s a small conservatory, but there are those who love it.” Wonder which screenwriter landed on Ames, Iowa and how it made it into the film. All roads lead to Iowa.
And lastly, when I started this Peter Bogdanovich thread last week I didn’t know that it would extend a whole week and land on his birthday today. So happy birthday, Peter Bogdanovich. What’s up?
P.S. For what it’s worth, What’s Up, Doc? was the last picture show that Paulette and I saw together.
P.P.S. Actors born in 1972, the year What’s Up Doc? was released; Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Affeck, Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Garner, Amanda Peet.
Scott W. Smith
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