Saturday, March 22, 2014

What's Up Doc?


I have returned home to Chateau Maine from my jaunt to Bluefield, West Virginia; this lovely little town was the second stop on my Sink For Your Supper concert tour. The Bluefield Kazoo and Fiddle Philharmonic were exceedingly gracious hosts, putting me up in the local five star Hampton Inn. I was in fine voice, the program went off without a hitch, but I'm afraid this will not be the performance preserved on a live concert album. The audience consisted of theater parties from all the local civic organizations. The Moose were in the front row, the Elks on the left side of the mezzanine, the Kiwanis on the right; all came directly from Happy Hour at Applebee's and were a noisy crew. When the lights dimmed and I appeared, in my shimmering white Gaultier on the iceberg, there were choruses of wolf whistles; then, as I broke into song, the entire audience decided to sing along, one measure behind and a half a tone flat. I could barely hear the kazoo accompaniment. I suppose I could release a recording as Vicki Lester and the Alte Kocher Chorus but I don't think the critics would approve.

The only nasty moment came during the grand finale; I was supposed to stick to the backdrop while my motorized iceberg carried my skirts away. Unfortunately, I had miscalculated the amount of Velcro that would be necessary to hold me in position and, in the middle of my tessitura on My Heart Will Go On ; I came loose and fell into the timpani. There is a large bruise on my posterior and a larger one on my ego, but I salvaged the moment with a brief tap solo. After the concert, I was presented with the key to the city and a souvenir lump of coal. Local dignitaries arranged for me to return to the airport in a restored turn of the century coal wagon. It was all very colorful. I finally arrived at LAX after an uneventful flight to find that US Air had lost all 72 pieces of my matching Vuitton luggage.

Returning home, I kissed Norman, adjusted his medication, and retired to the home theater in evil humor. As lost luggage was on my mind, I decided I needed a film starring a suitcase and pulled out Peter Bogdanovich's What's Up Doc? from 1972. Bogdanovich, after his great success with The Last Picture Show the year before, entered a phase of recreating 1930s movie genres; this one was his homage to the screwball comedies of Howard Hawks, Frank Capra and Preston Sturges. Rather than recreate a 1930s world, Bogdanovich and co-writer Buck Henry took stock situations and characters and applied them to 1972 (now sweetly dated) in a rip-roaring hotel farce of the Feydeau variety. They then gathered a supporting cast of inspired clowns (especially Madeline Kahn and Austin Pendleton) and put the young Ryan O'Neal and Barbra Streisand in the romantic leads – Streisand is Judy Maxwell, the madcap kooky young woman who seems to inspire disaster wherever she goes, following in the footsteps of Katherine Hepburn and Carole Lombard, while O'Neal as Howard Bannister, the frazzled young man who needs to be liberated, has the Cary Grant part.

The setting is San Francisco, during the annual musicologists (!) convention at the Hotel Bristol. Various guests arrive to stay at the hotel, several with matching plaid suitcases. One contains secret documents that are being tussled over by a pair of spies. One contains the priceless jewel collection of an aging socialite; the hotel staff is trying to make off with this one. One contains O'Neal's igneous rocks (he's trying to show that primitive man made music by banging rocks together). One contains Streisand's clothes. It doesn't take long before bags are switched, doors bang, people end up in each other’s rooms, in and out of their clothes, and all hell breaks loose. As the film opens, Streisand spies O'Neal, decides he's the man for her and becomes a one-woman disaster area trying to win him away from his controlling fiancée, Eunice (a brilliant Madeline Kahn). O'Neal keeps trying to escape her and put his life back together. His musicologist rival (Kenneth Mars) keeps trying to steal his thunder and his prize from a wealthy patron (Austin Pendleton). Towards the end of the film, the entire cast is chasing each other across the city of San Francisco in everything from delivery carts to Volkswagen Beetles as the plot complications get wilder and wilder.

Bogdanovich references many classics of the genre here. The basic plot structure is lifted from Bringing Up Baby only using suitcases, rather than leopards. The hotel mix-ups are traditional comic situations, which have been used time and again since the time of Plautus. Streisand gets two vocals – Cole Porter's You're the Top for the credits sequences (a wonderful interpretation) and As Time Goes By as a relatively quiet romantic interlude for her and O'Neal. Both are standards of the thirties. The chase scene references everything from the Keystone Kops to Bullitt and includes such hoary gags as the glaziers crossing the street with the large pane of window glass, but the timing and pacing makes even these moments work.

Farce is one of the most difficult of genres to balance properly as there is a very narrow knife-edge between the comedy and the desperate tragedy of many of the characters and situations. Under the buffoonery of naked people, mistaken identities, switched props, silly costumes, and physical shtick, there must be real human wants and needs or the comedy is empty. We must have empathy for these folk or it veers into comedy of humiliation, popular at the moment in film, but much more painful for the audience to watch than truly funny. Bogdanovich, for the most part, succeeds in the balancing act. Even the broadest characters, like Madeline Kahn's Eunice, have a human center. The biggest problem seems to be O'Neal, who seems to have been directed to be as laconic as possible, even when he should be providing the energy for the scene. This forces most of the rest to turn up the wattage and throws things a bit off kilter. Even when he's blowing off steam, in a riotous hotel room sequence that suggests the Marx Brothers, he comes across as a bit insipid, and certainly not worthy of Streisand's interest.

Barbra Streisand plays Judy Maxwell, the heroine, as a wacky naïf who seems completely oblivious to the chaos that descends in her wake. She's good in the part, but rather than Rosalind Russell or Carole Lombard, what comes to mind is Fanny Brice as Baby Snooks. Part of it is conceptualization of Judy as a young free spirit rather than a member of the upper crust, but I think it would have worked a little better if she weren't quite so casual. She's at her best when she crashes a formal dinner party, dressed up and impersonating someone else. Then we get a sense of her regarding herself as queen of the world, the attitude these kinds of parts need in their underpinnings.

Bogdanovich continued his take on the 30s through several more films, most notably Paper Moon before he came a cropper with his ersatz 30s musical, At Long Last Love , starring the great song and dance team of Burt Reynolds and Cybil Shepherd. Its failure sent his career into a tailspin from which it has never fully recovered. A sometime actor, he was recently seen on The Sopranos as Lorraine Bracco's psychiatrist.

Elderly lady in go-go boots. Golf club dumping. Under the table meetings. Gratuitous bubble bath. Red flip wigs. Elderly maid with gun. Home invasion. Swimming in San Francisco Bay. Young Randy Quaid. Chinese dragon. Durillo street visit.

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