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.

14 comments:

John said...

Ed - I have not seen this film in many years but I always thought Paula Prentiss has been underused throughout her career, rarely getting a part that would expose her comedic talents to their fullest potential. Hudson I thought always looked uncomfortable doing comedy. As you say, the film is recycled Hawks and pleasant. Thanks for reviewing a film that is rarely discussed.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, John. Prentiss was uneven here but in her better moments I can see what you mean: she obviously has some comic talent and maybe a better film would've really showcased that. Having to play opposite the rather awkward Hudson probably didn't help matters much, I guess. It's a shame Cary Grant turned down the film: he didn't want to act opposite a woman so much younger than him, apparently. But Grant always knew how to pull off Hawks' comedic sensibility.

John said...

I certainly agree Ed that Grant would have been a better choice. When I wrote my review of Charade a while back, Grant had the same concerns about the older man/younger woman thing. They had to change the lines so Hepburn's character became the aggressor in the relationship to satisfy his concerns.

Juliette. said...

John-- I quite agree. Paula Prentiss brings something to even her smaller roles that is a thrill to watch. She was good in this and in the Jim Hutton movies she did, but my favorite role of hers is in The Stepford Wives. :)

Ed-- Thanks for the interesting take on Man's Favorite Sport. Hudson and Prentiss aren't Grant and Hepburn, but they gave it a solid effort.

Fox said...

Ed-

Glad you reviewed this. I've been one that's fallen to the trap of ignoring any post-Rio Bravo Hawks. I know that's unfair to the man, but since he has such a big canon, I just haven't tapped that area of his yet.

And even though you're kind of lukewarm to Man's Favorite Sport yourself, I still want to see it. Rock Hudson is a fitting surrogate for Grant, physique wise, but your right that the humor - especially screwball, which I'm not sure I've personally ever seen Hudson attempt - is hard to follow in the footsteps of someone like Grant who just killed it Hawks' comedies, so much that sometimes it seemed he was just riffing dialougue on the spot.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comment, Juliette. Prentiss was also pretty good in a small role in Preminger's In Harm's Way, if I remember correctly.

Fox, I wouldn't discourage anyone from seeing this film, it's certainly not terrible. But then Hawks is one of my favorites, and I intend to see everything he's made; for the non-completists, the great, sprawling Hatari! should probably take precedence over this one as far as post-Rio Bravo Hawks goes.

As for Grant, I think a lot of the time he was riffing on the spot. When Hawks worked with people he trusted, and Grant was near the top of that list, there was a lot of back and forth in the process. A Hawks script was rarely "finished" when shooting started, he was always rewriting stuff and incorporating the actors' suggestions and ad-libs.

Dave (Goodfelladh) said...

Ed - Reviews like these remind me how far I still have to go in fully discovering and appreciating some director's works... by this I mean that I would probably consider Howard Hawks among my 2-3 favorite directors of all time, but there are still films like these that I haven't even attempted to see yet. It's actually encourage, knowing that there is still so much out there to watch from directors that I adore.

An excellent piece here and I'll definitely look toward seeing this one at least once. My post-Rio Bravo Hawks is very limited, so this could help spur things!

Ed Howard said...

Dave, I'm actually sad that I'm rapidly approaching a point where I'll have seen everything there is to see of Hawks (except for most of his early, hard-to-see silents, obviously). It's always nice to know that there's a whole big oeuvre to experience for a director you love; that there are so many more pleasures to experience for the first time. With directors like Hawks, one of my favorites as well, even his "minor" films, like this one, are interesting and vital pieces in the puzzle of his career.

J. Nyhuis said...

What? An entire review of Man's Favorite Sport? with no mention of the obvious gay subtext? Haven't you seen Rock Hudson's Home Movies?

All kidding aside, I enjoyed your write-up of this underrated film, especially your consideration of Prentiss's "dorky" sensuality (nicely put) as well as Hawks's anarchic view of heterosexual romance. Perhaps this is why Hawks's tenderest moments seem to arise from those films which feature all-male group bonding (e.g., Rio Bravo, Only Angels Have Wings)--sort of the gender flip-side of Pedro Almodóvar's more recent depiction of female companionship in Volver.

Juliette. said...

J. Nyhuis-- wow, great comparison of Hawks to Almodovar...agreed.

Ed Howard said...

J, I haven't seen Rock Hudson's Home Movies yet, I still have both that and Rappaport's Jean Seberg movie waiting in my long queue of stuff to see. What does Rappaport say is the gay subtext in this film? I think sometimes the inclination is to interpret everything Hudson did as gay just because HE was gay. This film is encoded with lots of sexual subtext -- Hudson's always getting wrapped up in tight, confining spaces -- but not necessarily gay subtext, I don't think. Then again, a lot of old Hollywood romantic comedies could be interpreted along those lines just because of how they keep putting up barriers against the formation of the heterosexual relationship, often with the man fiercely resisting the woman's advances. Oh, and now that I think about it, the film's basically all about trying to teach Hudson's character how to be a man, learning a man's sport, etc. The scene where he has to hold a fish in order to get used to its feel could be interpreted in a very crude, sexual way that would, if anything, make it even more funny.

Anyway, good point as well about Hawks' examination of male friendships. Never would have thought of him as a flipside to Almodovar, but I agree with Juliette, that's a good comparison.

J. Nyhuis said...

Yes, the whole theme of Hudson being unable "to fish" could indeed certainly be construed as a gay subtext (something Molly Haskell has also addressed in her Village Voice review of the film), but I was mainly just poking fun at the notion--repeatedly emphasized in Rappaport's film--that every Rock Hudson movie must obviously have some kind of implicit theme of repressed homosexuality.

The Hawks-Almodóvar comparison just occurred to me out of the blue. Come to think of it, though, I suspect Hawks's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes might be an even better precursor, both thematically and aesthetically (all those bright, vibrant colors), to Almodóvar's sensibility.

Ed Howard said...

Hah, yeah, I agree with you that the search for that kind of subtext can be amusing. I mean, there's plenty of gay subtext in Hawks -- my favorite, and the most blatant, is the finger-pulling-as-male-bonding that appears in A Girl In Every Port and then recurs in The Big Sky -- but despite Hudson's presence, this film is perhaps one of the less obvious films in that respect. Also worth noting is that Todd McCarthy's Hawks bio quotes Hawks as saying that nobody who worked on the film actually knew Hudson was gay at the time, so it's not like they would've knowingly incorporated such references because of him.

You're right about Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, too. Hawks didn't attempt female friendships very often, but when he did he could bring a surprising amount of insight and warmth to the depiction of women as close friends.

VP81955 said...

I can't believe no one has mention that Hudson's fishing scene was derived from William Powell trying to pass himself off as an expert fisherman in the hilarious "Libeled Lady," one of the films that makes Powell's 1936 arguably the best year any actor has ever had.