“The Perfect Double-Feature” [What’s Up Doc? vs. His Girl Friday]

Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal in What's Up, Doc?, 1972.

When day-dreaming about the “perfect double-feature film-screening” – a pass-time most film-geeks are guilty of – it’s hard to imagine a more natural pairing than 1940’s His Girl Friday (directed by Howard Hawks and written by Charles Lederer, Ben Hecht, and Charles MacArthur) and 1972’s What’s Up, Doc? (directed by Peter Bogdanovich and written by Buck Henry, David Newman, and Robert Benton).

Both films are remarkably similar, mirroring each other in their plots and their character dynamics, and I believe they beg for direct comparison. But, they still contrast one-another in enough dramatic and surprising ways to merit some examination on their own terms.

Lets start with a little background on the 1940’s screw-ball comedy His Girl Friday, which would ultimately come to be remembered as a staple of the genre. The screenplay was penned by Walter Burns, using the play The Front Page as source-material, and directed by Howard Hawks, following his lesser-classic Only Angels Have Wings.

I’m going to quote the following straight from the trivia section of His Girl Friday‘s IMDb page. Apologies for not paraphrasing. “Howard Hawks was hosting a dinner party when the topic of dialogue was brought up. He pulled out a copy of The Front Page to demonstrate the snappy exchanges between characters, taking the role of Burns himself. A female guest took the role of Hildy. Hawks realized the dialogue sounded much better with a female reading, and quickly secured the rights for the film from Howard Hughes. Ben Hecht (the author of The Front Page) approved the gender change and the screenplay was put into production.”

The story-line follows Walter Burns, successful editor of a Chicago news-paper, and his top reporter, Hildy Johnson, who plans to leave her job to marry Bruce Baldwin, an insurance salesman. Walter tempts Hildy to stay with one last big story, but that is by no means the end of the trickery he has in store for her. Eventually seduced by the allure of the big story, Hildy leaves her husband to continue the adventure of news-paper journalism.

Now, lets compare and contrast.

The most obvious difference is that His Girl Friday was a screwball comedy, where-as What’s Up, Doc? was a sort-of post-screwball comedy. It’s the same genre distinction I would use to separate 1974’s Chinatown (directed by Roman Polanski and written by Robert Towne) from the film-nor’s that inspired it. Much like Chinatown, What’s Up, Doc? imitates its predecessors so well, it’s easy to mistake it for the genuine article at times. It disguises its modernity effortlessly, and by doing so, it feels as timeless as any of the screw-ball comedies of the 40’s– actually, perhaps more so.

Another key difference is the tone and comedic-delivery of each film, but to talk about that with any detail, I’ll first need to out-line the two types of slap-stick (or screwball) humour. To do this, I’m going to use Looney Toons and Tom & Jerry as examples of the two different, but equally successful, approaches.

When it comes it comedic-timing, Tom & Jerry is the king. Any animator or comedy-writer worth his weight in anvils will tell you so. Watching Jerry smash Tom in the face with a wooden-hammer will always be more satisfying than seeing Wile E. Coyote realize he’s just run of a cliff, then plummet to his dismay. This is because of the timing of the character’s reactions, as-well as the way the “moment of impact” is depicted. Wile E. Coyote is flattened like a pancake when he lands (not very interesting or physically-relatable), where-as Jerry’s hammer leaves a perfect indent in Tom’s face (a more interesting and more relatable form of pain). Tom flinches away seconds before he is hit (relatable), but Wile E. Coyote is happy to stand still with his eyes wide-open and watch his own missile hit him in the face.

But, Looney Toons does compensate for this by having a large cast of very likeable characters and interspersed scenes of frivolous dialog. Tom & Jerry achieved a far tighter joke-construction, but it never had the sense of joy that Looney Toons seemed to have. It’s still funny when Wile E. Coyote falls of the cliff, because we actually care about him catching the road-runner. We are emotionally engaged with his perpetual struggles to prove himself. The tireless, creative and hair-brained schemes he attempts are simultaneously tragic, sympathetic and admirable.

In simple terms, Tom & Jerry was intellectual to a certain degree, but Looney Toons operated off of emotion, instead. With that clear, I think I’m ready to go back to the two films at hand and explain the biggest difference I see between them.

His Girl Friday feels akin to Tom & Jerry. Its humor is primarily derived from pitch-perfect timing and a keen understanding of on-screen presence and motion. If you need an exact example from the film, think about the swarm of newspaper-men in the office, and how their seemingly chaotic movement complements the framing – and focuses the comedic-attention – through-out almost every scene they are in, without every feeling forced or gimmicky. The slap-stick sequences in His Girl Friday feel clear and crisp, like a well-tuned piano. Every loud beat and every quite note is nailed with exact timing.

What’s Up, Doc? looks sloppy by comparison, much like Looney Toons does in the shadow of Tom & Jerry‘s animation and timing prowess. It’d be obvious after watching any randomly selected scene from each film which had had more intensive blocking and which had been filmed “run-and-gun”. Slap-stick in What’s Up, Doc? feels far more off-the-cuff and raw. It delights in being spontaneous and keeping its audience in a state of euphoric, blissful uncertainty. I didn’t have time to realize how by-the-numbers and route the “man on a ladder” sequence during the car chase was, because the film didn’t give me a second to think about it. It felt immediate and uneasily engaging, more like watching America’s Funniest Home Movies or Jackass than His Girl Friday.

The duo of His Girl Friday (Cary Grants as ‘Walter Burns’ and Rosalind Russel as ‘Hildy’) are about as compelling as that cat and mouse who never get-along. Their relationship holds no gravity to me. It’s empty and propelled only by the plot. Compare this to Ryan O’Neal (as ‘Howard Bannister’) and Barbra Streisand (as ‘Judy Maxwell’) in What’s Up, Doc?. It’s hard to find a more engaging on-screen couple! From the moment they meet in the hotel’s gift-shop, you are rooting to see them together, no matter the destruction it might wrought. Their reunion at the end of the film is admittedly contrived and a bit obvious, but that doesn’t take away one ounce of it’s dramatic pathos. I was grinning ear-to-ear, it’s as simple as that.

To use simple terms again, His Girl Friday was an intellectual experience, but What’s Up, Doc? operated off of my emotions. His Girl Friday may have satisfied the technical film-maker in-side me, but it left me feeling cold and indifferent to its characters and its story after viewing it. What’s Up, Doc? embeds its large cast of lively characters into your imagination instantly. You’ll find your-self (if you’re anything like me) imitating the various voices in What’s Up, Doc? to your friends endlessly, the same way you’d quote Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck.

The best, and most precise example of this difference of heart is the “third-wheel” character is each film. His Girl Friday has ‘Bruce’ (played by Ralph Bellamy) and What’s Up, Doc? has ‘Eunice’ (played by Madeline Kahn). The way these characters are treated by the end of their respective films says a lot about the script’s intentions. ‘Bruce’ is cast aside by the end, rendered useless by the plot. ‘Eunice’ rides off into the sun-set, nagging her new lover (‘Frederick Larrabee’, played by Austin Pendleton, a fine match for her). What’s Up, Doc? doesn’t even have the heart to give its villain a sad ending. ‘Bruce’ got no ending at all. I felt bad for him.

It’s impossible to argue that His Girl Friday isn’t a tighter-conceived script; that the blocking isn’t as precise as a German-made watch; or that it doesn’t deliver on every promise a screwball comedy makes. (Screwball comedies aren’t known for and typically never strived to have a great deal of heart, so by no means do I level this against the film as a major complaint). But when I next plan my perfect “double-feature”, I’ll make sure What’s Up, Doc? goes after His Girl Friday, because it left me with a bigger smile.

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