by Gordon Ward
When it comes to screwball comedies, there are few better than Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby from 1938 and Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? from 1972. And why shouldn’t they both be excellent? They’re almost the same movie, after all. What’s Up, Doc? lifts many of its characters, scenarios, and gags directly from Bringing Up Baby. However, I would disagree with most critics and argue that What’s Up Doc? is the better film. There are two reasons why I’ve come to this conclusion: the faster pace and the Hays Code.
While Bringing Up Baby can be quick and witty, the faster pace of What’s Up, Doc? should be evident to anyone who has watched it. From the lightning-fast jokes and non-sequiturs of Streisand’s Judy Maxwell to the rapid acceleration of chaos in multiple scenes throughout the film, the film is constantly moving from one laugh to the next. Sometimes it can even be difficult to keep up. Let’s examine some elements of these scenes while also talking about the other major difference between these two films.
The Motion Picture Production Code, or the Hays Code as it is more commonly known, was a set of guidelines introduced in Hollywood in 1930 and heavily enforced beginning in 1934. While the Hays Code was slowly enforced less and less over the next few decades, officially being done away with in 1968, it heavily influenced Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s. So, while Bringing Up Baby, released in 1938, was bound by these rules, What’s Up, Doc?, released in 1972, was not.
Without further ado, let us examine some of the scenes in What’s Up Doc? and see just how they break the rules set forth in the “Particular Applications” section of the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930. We start at section I, number two, which states “Methods of Crime should not be explicitly presented.” More specifically, we are looking at subsection A, “Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc., should not be detailed in method.” This rule would clearly have been broken by Harry and Fritz conspiring to steal Mrs. Van Hoskins jewelry. While these two are very clearly criminals and not shown in a good light, it could be said that this could inspire imitation, something the Code strictly prohibits. We could argue about just how likely that is, but allow me to be hyperbolic for just a moment while I make my argument.
For our next infraction, we move to section VI, numbers one and three, which state “Complete nudity is never permitted. This includes nudity in fact or in silhouette, or any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture” and “Indecent or undue exposure is forbidden” respectively. The scene with Judy in the tub and the following scene with her wearing just a towel would be flagrantly against the rules. And while not explicitly mentioned in the Code, it is highly unlikely that the joke about suicide in this scene would have made it in to the film if it had been produced a just a couple decades earlier.
What is my point in bringing up how this film would break the rules of the Hays Code? Am I suggesting that the Code was good? Precisely the opposite. The Code was a form of censorship, plain and simple. Even if it did somehow protect the hearts and minds of society from evil and sin (which it did not), it would still be limiting the kinds of stories and jokes that people could tell on the big screen. Movies are better without the Hays Code and What’s Up Doc? is a clear example of that.
“The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930.” https://web.archive.org/web/20110222092920/http://artsreformation.com/a001/hays-code.html. Accessed 18 October 2022.
Wikimedia Commons. “File:Motion Picture Production Code.png.” Wikimedia Commons, 18 January 2017, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Motion_Picture_Production_Code.png. Accessed 18 October 2022.