Monday, July 27, 2009
Man's Favorite Sport?
Man's Favorite Sport? finds Howard Hawks revisiting and recycling situations and ideas from throughout his career, most obviously from the comedy of humiliation films he made with Cary Grant. Indeed, this film is a remake of Hawks' screwball classic Bringing Up Baby, and the director even wanted Grant and Katherine Hepburn to reprise their earlier roles. Instead, Paula Prentiss took the role of Abigail, the ditzy, slightly daffy girl who causes so much trouble for Rock Hudson's staid, stuffy Roger Willoughby. Roger's a fishing expert at a sportsman's store, but he hides a dirty secret: he's never actually been fishing and all his knowledge comes from listening to those who actually have. However, his secret is endangered when Abigail and her friend Easy (Maria Perschy), who work at a prestigious fishing tournament, get Roger entered into the tournament, thinking that such a well-known expert will bring publicity to the event.
Once he's in the tournament, it falls to the two girls to actually teach him how to fish so his secret won't be revealed. The result is a silly, low-key, occasionally awkward film, a retread of Hawks' earlier comedies without quite reaching the heights of comic genius he so often scaled in the past. Certainly, Hudson and Prentiss are no Grant and Hepburn, as far as romantic comedy couples go, and the antagonistic chemistry between them only sparks sporadically, while many scenes play out stiffly and uncertainly. There's actually much more vitality in the relationship between Abigail and her German friend Easy. The two girls have a very natural friendship, exchanging mischievous glances and smiles, trading off quips and virtually finishing one another's sentences — it's a playful, fun to watch friendship that brings to mind Hawks' treatment of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Playing off of Perschy, Prentiss is relaxed and witty and fluid, while in her scenes with Hudson she often tries to affect a nervous energy that doesn't quite come off, especially when she slips into a deep-voiced purr to convey her excitement.
Hudson, for his part, isn't a born comedian, but he gamely plods through the film's slapstick gags and verbal sparring, and it's not really his fault if a lot of the physical humor seems flat and unfunny. At their best, the scenes of him trying to catch fish are fast-paced and frenetic, as the inept fisherman goes splashing around in the water, literally taking a flying leap to grab an escaping fishing rod or nearly backing up into a bear. At their worst, these scenes are stiff and extended for way too long, with Henry Mancini's bouncy score rather desperately trying to make the images seem humorous even if they're not.
Actually, though, the film's best scenes have nothing to do with fishing, which is just a pretext for another of Hawks' explorations of the way antagonism between men and women can be a prelude to love. Roger is continually subjected to one embarrassment after another on account of Abigail and Easy, as the girls put him into one tough position after another. Because of them, he falls upside down into a car, gets stuck in a sleeping bag, is trapped in a pair of inflatable waders that flip him upside down in the water, and gets put in a fake cast that makes him arm stick up in the air like he's permanently giving a salute. Many of these situations have a distinctly sexual component, as when he gets his tie stuck in the zipper on the back of Easy's dress (a scene recycled from Bringing Up Baby) or when he comes home to find Abigail asleep in his bed (a repeat of a scene from Hatari!). The girls, particularly Abigail, are constantly getting him into compromising situations, seducing him through humiliation without even seeming to realize it themselves. In one especially racy scene, the two girls are talking to Roger at a campsite during a rainstorm, their backs facing to the camera, and the water pouring down their backs makes their shirts see-through, revealing the lack of any bra underneath. Roger's stammering attempts to tell them what's happening are hilarious, as is the girls' nonchalance about their de facto nudity.
The film is especially great in the few scenes featuring Roger's fiancée Tex (Charlene Holt), who doesn't appear for more than a few minutes but makes quite an impression in her brief screentime. Her arrival is perfectly timed to cause the maximum problems for Roger: he's got Abigail sleeping in his bedroom, while he spent the night in a sleeping bag in the living room. When Tex walks in, Easy is there as well, trying to unzip him from his sleeping bag. Tex's bemused, chilly reaction is brilliant, maintaining a cordial smile, enjoying Roger's squirming discomfort, and casting bitchy double entendres at the German girl. "Oh, so you're Easy," she deadpans, her inflection leaving no doubt that she's aware of the double meaning. Even better is her retort to Roger's lame excuse for the situation: "Oh, just trying out some new equipment?" she drawls, casting a sidelong glance at Easy as she says "equipment." It's a subtly funny, delightfully naughty scene, encoding sexual puns into the dialogue, and Holt plays it perfectly; Tex seems to relish tormenting her wayward man, at least until Abigail stepping out of the bedroom makes the scene seem much less innocent.
Scenes like this have the energy and wit of the best Hawks comedies, even if other sequences show the director recycling old ideas or engaging in uninspired sight gags. The film is drastically uneven, and it's not helped by its relentlessly studio-bound aesthetic. After the gorgeous, unforgettable African vistas of Hatari!, it's disappointing for a Hawks film to look so flat. Its colors are bright and its compositions as perfectly framed as ever in Hawks' work, but there's still something off-putting about the film's artificiality, which seems to be of a piece with the occasional stiffness in the performances. The best Hawks films are driven by naturalism — not realism, because nobody used as much stylized dialogue as Hawks, but naturalism in the sense of the flow of the conversations, the way the characters interact with ease and wit. In a Hawks film, one believes in the various relationships between the characters because the words flow between them with such snap and verve. Here, this flow is often disrupted.
Still, the film remains interesting in the context of Hawks' continued fascination with male/female dynamics and sexuality. When Roger is talking on the phone with Tex, trying to make up with her, on her end she's wearing a filmy, flimsy bit of lingerie, looking unbelievably sexy, as though suggesting what Roger's going to miss out on. In contrast, Abigail looks awkward and ungainly in her night clothes; not unattractive, by any means, but somehow a little dorky, her long thin legs sticking out of very short pants, her slender body all angles and sharp corners. One of the film's main differences from its predecessor Bringing Up Baby is that in the Grant/Hepburn film, Grant's fiancée was distinctly unappealing, a businesslike secretary with no passion in contrast to Hepburn's wild unpredictability. Here, Tex is sexy and genuinely likable, possibly even more so than Abigail. Hawks deliberately plays up Tex's appeal even though the film's only possible outcome, really, is that the hero winds up with Abigail; it accentuates the unpredictability of love, its lack of logic or rationality. It's a film about a guy who falls in love with a woman who does nothing but aggravate and inconvenience him, but it doesn't have to make sense. It's just love, and when Roger and Abigail kiss Hawks cuts away to black and white footage of two trains crashing together. He outdoes Hitchcock's famous fireworks kiss by suggesting that love isn't just bright and pretty and exciting, it's as inevitable and as dangerous as a violent collision.