For many people attending the Redford Theatre’s September 7, 2012 screening of the 1972 comedy What’s Up, Doc?, much of the fun came from seeing familiar faces from television shows and other movies.
There were chuckles of recognition for such actors as John Hillerman (Magnum, P.I.), Randy Quaid (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation), and Graham Jarvis (Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman). Several other actors would later appear in the movie Young Frankenstein (Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, and Liam Dunn).
What’s Up, Doc? also included Austin Pendleton, whose unique style and appearance have been featured in many films and television shows. There were also Sorrell Booke (Boss Hogg on The Dukes of Hazzard) and Michael Murphy (Nashville and Manhattan).
And of course, there were the stars, Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal, who were both at peaks of popularity when What’s Up, Doc? was released in early 1972. Both had entered the movie business in the previous five years, after success in other entertainment fields. Streisand was a major singing star and O’Neal had gotten people’s attention with his work in the TV soap opera Peyton Place.
O’Neal had become a movie star two years earlier in the 1970 romantic drama Love Story. At the end of What’s Up, Doc?, O’Neal makes an ironic reference to the most famous line in Love Story (“Love means never having to say you’re sorry”). That drew laughter from the relatively small part of the Redford audience that understood the reference.
What’s Up, Doc? itself took advantage of its early 1970s audience’s familiarity with movie history and the Warner Brothers studio, which released the movie. The movie title refers to the favorite line of Bugs Bunny, one of many famous cartoon characters created by Warner Brothers.
One pivotal scene in What’s Up, Doc? featured Barbra Streisand singing “As Time Goes By” to Ryan O’Neal. That song was featured in one of Warner Brother’s biggest triumphs, Casablanca, which recently was screened at both the Redford and the Michigan Theater. As I watched Streisand sing “As Time Goes By,” I tried to appreciate the movie’s attempt to bring back the feeling of the moments in Casablanca when that song is sung. But as well as Streisand performed the song, you realized it was impossible to recreate those moments, and that’s what makes movies like Casablanca so special.
What’s Up, Doc? was advertised as a screwball comedy like those that came out in the late 1930s. The chemistry between the serious O’Neal and the zany Streisand reminded me a lot of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing up Baby, which the Michigan recently showed as part of its 2012 Summer Classic Film Series.
What’s Up, Doc? was directed by Peter Bogdanovich, who in the 1970s was constantly revisiting the style and content of older movies through films like The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, Daisy Miller, At Long Last Love, and Nickelodeon. Bogdanovich’s movies became a type of film archive, and his interest in movie history has gone in different directions, including books and hosting “The Essentials” program on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel.
Looking back, Bogdanovich’s movies seemed to have been part of a formal effort in the 1970s to hold on to a movie past that got more distant with each new release. The films of those years were important parts of American culture, and they couldn’t just disappear from people’s movie experiences.
That revival effort included important steps in the 1970s by the Detroit Film Theatre, Redford Theatre, and Michigan Theater towards preserving classic cinema on the big screen for generations to enjoy. That programming continues this fall, in a variety of creative ways, with the DFT hosting a series of Russian silent movies from the pre-Revolution years. The Michigan will be screening a 1912 film about Queen Elizabeth. And the Redford will be showing the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock thriller The Birds, complete with a special live appearance by Birds star Tippi Hedren.
Copyright © 2012 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.