Musical gags in “What’s Up, Doc?”

Movie poster: musical gags in What's Up Doc?Musical gags abound in the 1972 screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc? directed by Peter Bogdanovich and written by Buck Henry, David Newman, and Robert Benton. The American Film Institute lists the movie in the top 100 greatest American comedies. In classic farce fashion, the story involves mistaken identities, mix-ups, and fast-paced action. Over opening credits, Barbra Streisand sings Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top.” The song’s clever turns of phrase and double entendre (“If, baby, I’m the bottom, you’re the top”) perfectly set up the film’s theme.

Musicologist Howard Banister (Ryan O’Neal), one of two finalists for a foundation’s research grant, theorizes that early man used igneous rocks as musical instruments. When he checks in to a San Francisco hotel with controlling, up-tight fiancĂ©e Eunice Burns (Madeline Kahn), he tells the chagrined clerk that the desk bell is flat. Almost right off the bat, we get a musical gag.

Searching for aspirin in the hotel’s pharmacy, he encounters Judy Maxwell (Streisand), who leaves a wake of mishaps everywhere she goes. Judy becomes smitten with Howard, and her pursuit leads to all manner of bedlam. She tells the pharmacy cashier that her “husband,” the hapless Howard, will pay for a radio. When Howard brings the aspirin to the counter, he gets the cashier’s assurance that it is buffered. The cashier rings up the purchase, but Howard becomes dumbfounded to hear that his purchase costs over sixty dollars. So he asks how much is the non-buffered.

A Musical Joke

Judy decides to impersonate Eunice and crashes the dinner party honoring the two grant finalists. She charms the foundation’s head, Mr. Larrabee, who ignores Howard’s protestations that she is not the real Eunice. At one point, Larrabee invites Howard to discuss his theory about rocks and prehistoric music. Judy then spins a tale that Leonard Bernstein has been in conversation with Howard about conducting an avalanche in E-flat.

A Musical Gag in a Song

Hotel management asks Howard to leave the premises after his room is destroyed. He ends up on a top floor construction area and sits down to play the piano. Judy has been sleeping atop the piano beneath a tarp, since she has no money for food or a room. She induces him to play “As Time Goes By.” Just as she moves in for a romantic kiss while singing the line “No matter what the future brings,” the piano bench collapses, sending them both sprawling on the floor. This humorous interruption of the song reflects the chaos that plagues Judy.

A Car Chase

In the meantime, four identical traveling bags—containing Howard’s rocks, Judy’s clothing, a wealthy matron’s diamond jewelry, and secret government documents—get mixed up with the inept antics of crooks, secret agents, and whistleblowers. The climax involves a wild car chase through San Francisco that cleverly uses the city’s iconic hilly streets, cable cars, and landmarks. Howard and Judy, fleeing with all four bags in a stolen delivery boy’s bicycle, crash into a parade in Chinatown. They become lodged in the head of a dragon. The contrast between the festive parade music and the duo in their improbable get-away vehicle enhances the comedic moment.

Another Music Gag in a Song

Later, during the closing credits, Streisand reprises “Youre the Top,” this time as a duet with O’Neal. At one point, he sings the line “You’re the nose…of the great Durante.” Streisand, who once credited her prominent nose with giving her voice its distinctive sound, interrupts him mid-phrase with “Hey, watch it,” then laughs. She’s not above poking fun at herself.

This comedy, centered on a musicologist, uses a number of musical gags and jokes in its grab bag of comedic elements.

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