Saturday, May 03, 2008

"Well, That Was No Good At All."

Reading this post about Paula Prentiss's great performance in Howard Hawks' last comedy, Man's Favorite Sport?, reminded me of something I wanted to mention about this movie: I've noticed that in the past few years, this film's reputation seems to have gone up. Not so much among critics, but among average movie-goers; I keep hearing people remember it as one of the comedies they liked best when they saw it on TV growing up, or picking it as one of the great romantic comedies. I don't think it is, but I do think it's better than its critical reputation.

Man's Favorite Sport?, like every movie Howard Hawks made in the last decade of his career, is a re-hash of stuff Hawks had done before, with gags and lines lifted from Bringing Up Baby. He also lifts gags and story points from a movie he didn't make, Libeled Lady (where William Powell also tries to fish even though he doesn't know how, like Rock Hudson in MFS?). It is over-long, studio-bound and has a less-than-great cast except for Prentiss and the great veteran Roscoe Karns. All these problems together were obvious enough to critics at the time that even the most die-hard auteuriste critics, the ones who thought Hawks could do no wrong, thought he'd gone wrong with this one. (This was virtually the only Hawks movie that got a bad review from Andrew Sarris.) And, yeah, as a Hawks movie, it's a slightly sad indication of how much he'd lost in terms of pacing and story construction, and though the script was improved by Leigh Brackett's uncredited rewrites, it's still not great.

But most people coming to MFS? for the first time don't approach it as a Hawks movie; they see it instead as a Rock Hudson romantic comedy from Universal in the '60s. Because, well, it is that, too. And people who approach it that way are often pleasantly surprised to find that while it has the look and feel of a comedy from that period (the flat, studio-bound look is an inescapable part of the Rock/Doris world), it totally goes against what they're set up to expect from that kind of comedy. I remember someone explaining to me why he loved Man's Favorite Sport?: he was used to seeing Rock Hudson in comedies where he humiliates Doris Day all through the picture, and where the whole thing is slightly sexist and corny, and here's a movie that looks like those other movies, but the woman is getting the best of Rock Hudson right from the beginning, and the battle-of-the-sexes comedy feels more equal and more modern. I explained to him that a lot of what he liked in MFS? was borrowed from Bringing Up Baby, but he hadn't seen that movie (though he'd heard other people recommend that if he liked MFS? he should see Baby). A comedy about a man being constantly one-upped by a crazy, strong, dangerous woman was normal in the '30s but it was like nothing else being done in the '60s. So when Hawks re-did what he'd been doing for decades, it seemed fresh and cool by comparison with most other comedies of the period.

The fact that no one else was doing this kind of comedy is one explanation for why Paula Prentiss never became a huge star. ("She should be a big comedy star," Hawks said a few years later. "I don't know what's wrong.") With her height, her quirky line delivery and body language, Prentiss projected a strength of character -- albeit weird, off-kilter character -- that required others to play straight man to her, in a time when female leads in comedies usually played it straight. (Look at The Pink Panther, which came out around the same time and is one of the best '60s comedies: the women mostly play it straighter than the men do.) She needed movies like MFS? and shows like He & She where guys would play George Burns to her taller, curvier Gracie Allen, but there weren't many projects like that in the '60s.


Bill Crider said...

Thanks for posting those videos, Jaime!

Anonymous said...

Don't forget the French.

Jean Luc Godard had "Man's Favorite Sport" at #4 on his Top Ten list for 1964 and Cahiers du Cinema had it at #5 overall that year.