“It’s a beautiful city Howard, isn’t it? I’d like to come here on our honeymoon.”– Eunice Burns (Madeline Kahn), What’s Up, Doc?
That beautiful city that Eunice Burns is talking about is, indeed, one of the most inspiring places in the United States: San FranciscoIt might inspire a honeymoon as it is the case for Eunice, your first solo trip as it was the case for me back in 2015. Most of all, San Francisco’s magic is present in numerous films. New York is another one, but both cities have their distinctive vibes. When thinking of San Francisco on film, the Film Noir movement of the 40s and the 50s often is what comes to people minds with films like The Maltese Falcon (John Huson, 1941), Dark Passage (Delmer Daves, 1947) or The House on Telegraph Hill (Robert Wise, 1951). If these films give a dark vibe to the steep streets of the Westcoast city, lighter stories and comedies also used the city to its full potential. One of the best examples of that is, without a doubt, Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 comedy What’s Up, Doc?, and it’s this film we’ll get interested in with today’s article.
I’m writing What’s Up, Doc? and the city of San Francisco for The Celluloid Road Trip Blogathon. Annette from Hometowns to Hollywood, a specialist when it comes to discussing locations related to films or film stars, hosts the blogathon. The objective of this blogathon is to “focus upon Hollywood depictions of cities throughout the United States”. (Hometowns to Hollywood) And that even though the film was shot in the city depicted or not. But, in my opinion, it’s even better if it has! Each participant chose a different place to discuss and a film associated with this place. It wasn’t always necessarily a city, but it could also be a state, a lake. There were many options. And, as I’ve said, my final choice was What’s Up, Doc? and the city of San Francisco. That is not the first time I’m discussing the representation of San Francisco in a film, as I already did it with Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958). Curiously, not a long time ago, I thought of doing a blog series discussing the various places I’ve visited in my life and the films associated with these locations. I put the idea aside, but this blogathon could be a proper way to kick things off!
My objective is to focus on the representation of San Francisco in What’s Up, Doc? How the film depicts the city, how it contributes to the story and such. For a more “regular” film review, I guess you’ll have to wait! Nevertheless, I believe a little synopsis necessary to let you know what we are talking about, after all.
Before going on with the plot, let’s mention that What’s Up, Doc? is like an unofficial remake of the also excellent Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938). The main characters are 70s’ depictions of Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) and David Huxley (Cary Grant). There are some similar gags, such as the torn vest. But, other than that, there’s no leopard, and the whole story is different. So, I wouldn’t call it a remake. However, one thing is sure – and many will agree- it’s a beautiful tribute to screwball comedy.
The HQ of What’s Up, Doc? is the Hotel Bristol, a fictional place set in San Francisco. In reality, it’s the Hilton San Francisco Union Square Hotel located at 333 O’Farrell Street. Ok, before I go on, can I say that San Francisco and Bristol, UK are two cities that rhyme with “cool”. So, the fact that the hotel is called Bristol Hotel is, in my opinion, totally appropriate. Anyway, the Bristol welcomes different individuals, all carrying identical suitcases. One of them, Mr Smith (Michael Murphy), is carrying top-secrets government papers. Mr Jones (Philip Roth), a man from the government who has for mission to recover the papers, follows him.The next one to carry a similar suitcase is Howard Bannister (Ryan O’Neal), a musicologist from the Iowa Conservatory of Music. He uses it to carry his igneous “tambula” rocks. He is in San Francisco hoping to obtain a grant offered by Frederick Larrabee (Austin Pendleton). He is travelling with his fiancee that we have mentioned before, Eunice Burns (Madeline Kahn). Then, there is Judy Maxwell (Barbra Streisand), who carries clothes and a dictionary. She’s a unique person, to say the least. She has never finished any college education for constantly being expelled, but she happens to be quite cultivated, nonetheless. But, being the careless and carefree person she is, where Judy goes, troubles follow. Finally, the fourth suitcase belongs to the wealthy Mrs Van Hoskins (Mabel Albertson), who has chosen it to carry her valuable jewellery collection. Two of the hotel’s employees, Harry (Sorrell Booke) and Fritz (Stefan Gierasch), have given themselves the mission to steal the jewels.
Among all these people, those at the centre of the story, the protagonists, are Howard Bannister and Judy Maxwell. The two meet in the hotel store where Howard tries to buy aspirins. His “fatal” encounter with Judy makes his trip to San Francisco one he is not about to forget. You see, Judy has given herself the mission of being part of Howard (whom she calls Steve)’s life no matter what. She does everything in her power to help him obtain his grant, although they are pretty much strangers to each other. It goes without saying that Judy shows an interest in Howard, and her attempt to help him win the grant comes with its share of troubles caused by Judy’s clumsiness. Consequently, Howard is in a constant state of despair and Eunice, well, of jealousy. Meanwhile, that four identical suitcases end up in the same location causes the inevitable. Those are accidentally exchanged, therefore creating complete chaos at the Bristol and in the whole city of San Francisco.
What I find ironic about all this, and maybe it was to adds to the comedy effects, is that these suitcases are red. I mean, if I wanted to carry top-secret government papers or a collection of jewels, I would choose a more discreet model! The only person who wears a suitcase faithful to her image and eccentricity is Judy Maxwell.
Now, let’s get on with San Francisco. The first thing that strikes us about the depiction of the city is the instantly recognizable and extremely steep streets. To some extend, just like the cable cars or the Golden Gate, these could almost be labelled as icons of the city or city landmarks. The streets of San Francisco are not only arduous to climb, but while the San Franciscans and the visitors are doing their unavoidable daily exercise, their eyes are still pleased by the beautiful architecture of the residences. No need to go on the Golden Gate packed with tourists to be in awe of this place. This feeling can be found while simply wandering on some residential street. I know, I’ve done it (ok, I also crossed the Golden Gate on foot like every tourist- and that’s much longer than I would have thought!). In the case of What’s Up, Doc?, it’s interesting to see that the streets are used at their full comic potential. It starts with Mr Jones, following Mr Smith. To look “discreet” (I imagine), the guy is carrying golf clubs. But while he’s climbing the streets following the visibly more in shape Mr Smith, he struggles to follow him, and his golf clubs turn out to be more cumbersome than anything. So, as he’s following Mr Smith, he furiously throws a few golf clubs away while going up a series of steps supposed to make the ascension of a very sloping street easier. Later, a poor pedestrian is the victim of a garbage cans attack. Literally. A bin falls and rolls down the street, creating a domino effect with a ton of other bins. Then the group of garbage bins roll towards the guy who has to run away for his life. He finally manages to jump over a wall and falls on the table of a restaurant’s terrace, therefore disturbing the customer’s peace.
The culminant point in San Francisco’s streets occurs in what could be considered the most unforgettable part of the story. At one point, Howard is invited to Frederick’s place located on 2018 California St. Unsurprisingly, Judy goes with him and manages to send Eunice to some abandoned house. For various reasons, all the suitcase owners and the people following them find themselves at Frederick’s. The problem of the exchanged suitcases is soon discovered. Howard only wants to retrieve the bag containing his precious rocks. Among the chaos, he and Judy manage to grab the four suitcases (the plan is to verify later which one contains the rocks) and run away. The rest of the party takes notice and then ensues a wild chase in the streets of San Francisco. Judy steals a delivery bike and puts the four suitcases in the box. She pedals while Howard is seated on the box. The rest of the people are in various cars. Later, during the chase, Howard and Judy steal a wedding car. Judy drives first, but when she tells Howard that it’s her first time driving, he decides it’s wiser for him to take the wheel.
That chase among the streets of San Francisco is not only a wild one (that bike!), but also one that allows us to go through some essential landmarks of the city such as Chinatown and the flowered Lombard Street. Does it remind you of something? Yes, there is also an iconic car chase going through Lombard street in Steve McQueen’s vehicle Bullitt (Peter Yates, 1968). When I was in San Francisco, I went to Lombard Street, where is also located James Stewart’s apartment in Vertigo (a bit before the zigzagging part with the flowers). That is a fun walk for the pedestrians that stay on the sidewalk and pleasantly look at the place, but it doesn’t look like a very convenient place to drive. So, imagine a chase like that!
Of course, during the chase, we also see some typical cable cars, the tourist cars by excellence (let’s admit it, they look adorable). Judy and Howard steal the wedding car next to St. Peter & Paul Church on 666 Filbert Street, where scenes from When Harry Met Sally (Rob Reiner, 1989) and Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971) were also filmed. To add even more “pep” to the chase”, the cars, at one point, go down the steps of Alta Plaza Park. While riding the bike, Judy and Howard also pass by San Francisco’s Fire Department, which was also used in an even more important way in another iconic San Francisco film: The Towering Inferno (John Guillermin, 1974). There is also a fire at the hotel caused by Howard (and Judy). It is not as dramatic as the one in The Towering Inferno, but it makes this location significant during the chase, even if they pass by quickly.
If we discuss San Francisco’s geography, it’s important, not only to discuss its relief but also its bay. The windy city is indeed located on the pacific coast. [SPOILER] The bay of San Francisco is used as the finishing line during the chase when all the cars fall in it. [END OF SPOILER] The bay is also seen from a bird’s eye point of view towards the end of the film, and this is pretty much the only occasion for you to see the iconic Golden Gate. Interestingly, this is the kind of shot you more often find at the beginning of films to establish the place of the story. [SPOILER] But since this aerial view is seen from the window of a plane, it could somehow illustrate what Judy and Howard are leaving and what we, the spectator, are also leaving behind. [END OF SPOILER] Since we are talking about a plane, there are scenes taking place at San Francisco’s International airport, but, I swear, the place looks much smaller and less busy than when I was there!
If most of the story takes place at the Bristol Hotel, Peter Bogdanovich still gives us a good glimpse of San Francisco, especially with the car chase. However, while doing a lot of on-location shootings, some of the scenes (we guess, interior scenes) were shot at Warner Brothers Burbank Studios. However, the illusion is perfect, and we never have the feeling to leave the city for some studios decors.
San Francisco is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful and appealing cities of the United States. It has been the headquarter of sinister film noir characters and, later, an iconic meeting place for hippies in the 60s and, eventually, became a place of importance for the LGBTQ+ community. So, it is not surprising that the history of this city attracts screenwriters and directors and encourages the making of films taking place there. What’s Up, Doc? is one of them, but, of course, there is much more to discover!
Before leaving you, I want to thank Annette for organizing this fun blogathon! I loved writing about this subject, and I’m looking forward to going back to San Francisco one day!
Please make sure to read the other entries here.