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What's Up, Doc?(1972)
What's Up, Doc? joyously recaptures the bubbly style of 1930's screwball comedies - and firmly establishes Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal as a romantic duo uniquely endearing in screen history. Included are a daffy luggage mixup plot, dippy dialogue exchanges, a marvelous example of the art of hotel-room demolition and one of the funniest chase sequences ever, all over San Francisco.
For more about What's Up, Doc? and the What's Up, Doc? Blu-ray release, see What's Up, Doc? Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on August 7, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Starring: Barbra Streisand, Ryan O'Neal, Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton, Michael Murphy
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
» See full cast & crew
What's Up, Doc? Blu-ray Review
Still crazy—and absolutely hilarious—after all these years.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, August 7, 2010
When screwball comedy became an identifiable genre in the 1930's, the United States was still knee-deep in the throes of the Great Depression, and audiences flocked to movie houses in a desperate attempt to escape the grim realities of their everyday lives. Watching the madcap antics of glamorous movie stars doing patently silly things in completely outrageous situations helped alleviate the stresses and worries of the day, and screwball became one of the lasting cultural contributions of film of the 1930's and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the 1940's. By the time we entered the post-World War II era, and the bloated, largely comfortable 1950's (despite the hysteria surrounding anti-Communism and the threat of nuclear annihilation), screwball had passed into the history books. Though screwball usually has some readily identifiable features (the strong willed woman, the harried and easily confused man), the idiom really can be a bit harder to define than you might imagine. In fact I was rather amazed several years to find an oversized, coffee table book on screwball which had a long segment devoted to an actress I've spent decades researching, Frances Farmer, and her work in the Howard Hawks co-directed (with William Wyler) Come and Get It. The author of that book actually made some cogent arguments about at least the first segment of this Edna Ferber cross-generational drama having classic screwball elements, something that never in a million years would have occurred to me. Hawks of course contributed at least one bona fide classic to the screwball genre, 1938's Bringing Up Baby, and several of his other comedies bear strong consideration as screwball standouts. Baby is one of several films which obviously influenced screenwriters Buck Henry, David Newman and Robert Benton, as they attempted to resurrect the screwball genre in the early 1970's with What's Up, Doc?, one of the most fondly remembered comedies of its era. While some comedies deflate over time, losing a lot of their sparkle and insouciance, Doc has managed to weather the storms of the intervening decades since its original release, and in fact often seems funnier today than perhaps it did almost 40 years ago (can it really have been that long?).
There's at least a little confusion, if not outright disagreement, about how Doc got its greenlight. Streisand, as is perhaps her wont, implies in passing in her scene-specific commentary, that it was all her idea and she got director Peter Bogdanovich hired. Bogdanovich, as perhaps is not surprising, is on record saying he got the ball rolling, after getting involved in a contretemps on another, eventually abandoned Warner project ironically starring Streisand's ex, Elliott Gould, the infamous A Glimpse of Tiger. However the film ultimately got written and filmed is ultimately irrelevant, because What's Up, Doc? is a rare confluence of talents working together to create a modern masterpiece of mayhem. Streisand is the ultimate kook, albeit one with a strangely savant side (she lists off factoids about everything from musicology to advanced mathematics throughout the film), one Judy Maxwell. Ryan O'Neal is a Harold Lloyd cum Cary Grant stand-in, discombobulated musicologist Howard Bannister ("as in sliding down the. . .," one of the great lines from late in the film). The bulk of the film is a combination of two long chases, one romantic, as Judy attempts to get Harold to realize she's what he needs. The other involves a hysterically farcical mixup over four identical plaid bags, one containing Howard's musicological "rocks," the other containing purloined government secrets (think the Pentagon Papers, then a front-page item), the third containing priceless jewels belonging to a batty grande dame (the hilarious Mabel Albertson in one of her finest screen performances), and the fourth containing. . .Judy Maxwell's underwear.
Doc is simply a treasure trove of incredibly wonderful supporting performances. These are character actors the likes of which we'll unfortunately probably never see again. The ineffable Madeline Kahn (in her first film) simply owns the screen as Howard's distraught fiancée Eunice Burns, who sees Howard slowly (actually, rather quickly) slipping into the grasp of Judy. Kenneth Mars, who would soon (like Kahn) become a semi-regular in the Mel Brooks cadre of loons, is outrageously pompous and largely indecipherable as Bannister's competitior for a $20,000 grant, Hugh Simon. Austin Pendleton, Randy Quaid, Michael Murphy, Sorrell Booke, M. Emmet Walsh, John Hillerman and Liam Dunn all show up and turn in perfectly nuanced (within the lunatic confines of the film) performances.
Though Streisand states explicitly on her brief commentary that she never understood what What's Up, Doc? was about, specifically with regard to the craziness surrounding the four identical bags, Bogdanovich actually does a brilliant job in directing attention exactly where it needs to be. The audience may never in fact know exactly which bag is where, but it's clear all four have gotten hopelessly confused, and that's all that matters. Bogdanovich also is perfectly adroit at staging the hilarious set pieces. These can be writ small—as in the laugh out loud scene of Albertson and Booke stumbling down a long hotel hallway, or writ large—as in the breathlessly hilarious San Francisco car chase which serves as the film's climax. Though Streisand is perhaps a tad (well, perhaps more than a tad) mannered, it's understandable in terms of Judy's character, and O'Neal makes a picture perfect, harried foil for her. There's not a false note in the rest of the performances, and the laughs are insane and also brilliantly character driven a lot of the time.
One of the wonderful things about Doc is the supposedly "minor" stuff that's there to catch on repeated viewings, but which may not catch the viewer's attention the first (or even the tenth) time through the manic proceedings. I've seen What's Up, Doc? more times than I can count, and I'm still finding little gems in it I've never previously noticed. Look, for example, at the spy and his golf clubs after the hotel fire—it's a small moment, not pointed out directorially or indicated in performance, but it's a sight gag of supreme madness and hilarity.
I lamented in two recent, rather disparate reviews—As You Like It and The Legend of Fong Sai Yuk—that these two quasi-farces didn't benefit from the French trope of slamming doors. There are slamming doors aplenty in the no holds barred world of What's Up, Doc?, a clear harkening back to the film's farcical antecedents, but even better, there are clearly and brilliantly drawn characters from whom all of the comedy flows. George Bernard Shaw famously said on his deathbed, "Dying is easy, comedy is hard." It's something of a miracle when comedy this over the top, yet grounded in character (albeit with more than a smattering of schtick and slapstick), can seem as easy as taking a breath. What's Up, Doc? is that rare film that's at least as funny today as the day audiences first started laughing at it nearly 40 years ago.
What's Up, Doc? Blu-ray, Video Quality
What's Up, Doc? is a relic of its era, so I'm sure there will be critics who find this new Blu-ray release unappealing, expecting it to have a digital sharpness and clarity which is simply not inherent in the source elements. Like a lot of early-1970's films, this has an overall soft quality, with noticeable if not overwhelming grain, that somehow seems to drive a lot of videophiles crazy, despite the fact that this is exactly how the film looked upon its original theatrical release. Delivered via a VC-1 encode, in full 1080p and in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, What's Up, Doc? may not in fact reveal eye popping new detail in this Blu-ray release, but there is a noticeable improvement in image sharpness and especially color saturation over the previously released SD-DVD. Several fanstastic sight gags which were muddy in previous home video releases now are at the very least visible, if not screaming out in high definition splendor. Look, for example, at the scuff marks left by Kahn's feet as she's dragged out of the ballroom. Or (without spoiling a great gag), the golf clubs after the fire alluded to above—a moment I never saw before in any home video release, which is now abundantly on display. Detail is sharpest of course in close-ups, where Streisand's luminous eyes flash with color, and every rumpled hair on O'Neal's head is discernable. Medium range and far shots do suffer more from softness, but overall this is a splendid presentation, if one takes the film's generational "look" into consideration.
What's Up, Doc? Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Bogdanovich is a director who crafted at least the first part of his career on retro, nostalgically themed pieces like The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon (both famously black and white projects in a time when that was out of the ordinary, to say the least), and his own ode to silent film, Nickelodeon. Of course that trend also includes What's Up, Doc?, a film patently based on the famous 1930's idiom of screwball comedy. Why this brief overview of Bogdanovich's directorial proclivities? Because What's Up, Doc? contains only mono sound mixes, something equally unusual for a film from the early 1970's. I'm frankly not sure if Bogdanovich was attempting to recreate the aural experience of a 1930's film, along with the general zeitgeist of madcap comedy in general, but one way or the other, this Blu-ray offers a DTS-HD Master Audio Mono mix (as well as several foreign language Dolby Digital mono mixes) which is appealing and crisp, if obviously delivering a narrow and focused soundfield. This is a film of quicksilver dialogue, and it's all easy to hear, even in the Hawks-esque overlapping sequences. Sound effects and the often very subtly hilarious source cues (pay attention to little things like the Chinese Dragon music) are also mixed very well. This is in no way a socko aural experience, but everything from Barbra's lovely take on Cole Porter's "You're the Top," to her snippet of "As Time Goes By," to the film's laugh out loud dialogue, is on display with good fidelity and excellent clarity.
What's Up, Doc? Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
A pretty paltry array of SD supplements is included, all ported over from the previous Collector's Edition DVD. The best offering is the Commentary by Bogdanovich. While the director, in his "stylish" ascot and semi-snooty ambience, is a frequent, and often annoying, talking head on other directors' film's supplements, here he's pretty low key and informative. In fact, he may be a bit too low key at times, with long pauses in between some of his ruminations. Also on tap is a silly Scene Specific Commentary (12:13) by Babs herself, where she offers such scintillating insights as "Oh, my God!" several times. A vintage 1972 featurette called Screwball Comedies—Remember Them? (8:36) is also on tap, and features some mugging by Bogdanovich, Streisand and O'Neal. The Theatrical Trailer (including a fun snippet of Bogdanovich demonstrating to Streisand how to "sing") is also included.
What's Up, Doc? Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
What's Up, Doc? is that rare homage which actually rises to the same giddy heights of its forebears. Streisand, O'Neal, and an absolutely unmatched array of supporting talent all offer perfect screwball lunacy, and it's stylishly and unobtrusively directed by Bogdanovich. This Blu-ray looks soft (just like the original theatrical release), but is a noticeable improvement over the SD-DVD. Even with that softness, this film couldn't come more highly recommended.
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What's Up, Doc? Blu-ray, News and Updates
• This Week on Blu-ray - August 10-16 - August 10, 2010
There are no guarantees in Hollywood, but casting two of the hottest comics on TV as leads in your next comedy definitely increases the odds of success. Steve Carell – star of the Golden Globe and Emmy-award winning television show The Office - and Tina Fey – star ...
• Warner Announces Comedies on Blu-ray for August - April 22, 2010
Warner Home Video has announced three comedy movies for release on Blu-ray on August 10: Peter Bogdanovich's 1972 hit What's Up, Doc? and two 1980s Chevy Chase vehicles, National Lampoon's Vacation and National Lampoon's European Vacation. Note that the latter ...
• Warner Catalog Blu-ray Slate for 2010 Revealed - January 27, 2010
Veteran site DVD Town has published a post revealing the release dates for many titles that Warner Home Video intends to release on Blu-ray during all of 2010, including some bona fide classics, a comedy wave in August, science-fiction in September, a couple of ...
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