Six Damn Fine Degrees #63: What’s Up Doc?

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

A lot is written about Hollywood’s tendency for remakes. And a lot of it seems needlessly negative in my opinion. There’s nothing wrong with having another spin at an old success, it’s a formula as old as Hollywood. Often it fails, but sometimes it’s worth the effort. I’ve not crunched the numbers but I’m pretty sure the ratio of few successes/mostly failures is probably the same as for brand new films.

But alongside the Hollywood remake there’s another interesting beast. The film that is so clearly inspired by another, which doesn’t so much wear the influence on its sleeves as don the exact same influence tuxedo. It’s not a remake because it doesn’t do anything so obvious as try to recreate the plot, or the characters but instead takes as the starting point what the film’s makers loved about the earlier film and tries to find ways to make that work in a brand new context.

Within this admittedly small field of films, one stands out. Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 film What’s Up Doc? is a glorious love letter to Howard Hawks’ 1938 screwball classic Bringing Up Baby. From the moment you realise that Barbra Streisand’s Judy is going to woo Ryan O’Neill’s stuffy Doctor Howard Bannister through the unorthodox (yet surprisingly effective) tactic of destroying his life, the parallels between the films keep coming.

More time has passed since Bogdanovich’s hit film than passed between it and its inspiration, so watching the two films now back-to-back is an odd experience. Both now belong to another era, with neither feeling in any way modern. They depict social hijinks in a society that now seem strange and faraway to us, a comedy of manners when manners were different. Bogdanovich’s film also seems to indulge the seventies penchant for somehow finding car crashes funny, where a vehicle harmlessly colliding with another is seen as a good enough punchline for a chase (a seventies comedy staple mercilessly lampooned – and celebrated- by 1980’s The Blues Brothers).

The earlier film makes great use of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, playing to their strengths as comic performers and audience expectations for the type of roles they play. What’s Up Doc trades on Streisland’s charm – her freewheeling early ’70s Bohemian far removed from the Hepburn type. This leaves Ryan O’Neill with probably the hardest role of the lot. I wouldn’t wish stepping into a “Cary Grant” role on my worst enemy but not only does O’Neill have that challenge but he’s trying to create laughs from the same set-up, an uptight professor whose life is descending into chaos. There’s a moment in the film where O’Neill looks to the camera, as if asking the audience to sympathise at his predicament – including, I imagine, “Yes, I am basically Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby here – please send help!”

The inevitable thought from watching both films together though is whether, now, in 2022 there is maybe scope for another go. To make a modern screwball comedy that wears the influence of both its influences on its sleeve. To watch Aubrey Plaza seduce a stuffy Chris Hemsworth by becoming an agent of chaos in his life? Maybe it could work, maybe not. But as with remakes, I’d probably say, “Go for it!” The chances of success probably aren’t any worse than any other film.

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