Rumor has it that the 1972 screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc? prompted the city of San Francisco to tighten its filming permissions. You would too if someone scuffed up your steps.

Before director Peter Bogdanovich and co. descended on our fair city, those steps over at Alta Plaza were pristine. The film crew didn’t get permission to film at the plaza, but they went for it anyway. And if you follow the above photo gallery of screen grabs, you’ll see that the film certainly left its mark.

The film is a constant case of mixed identity and stolen luggage, strangers losing and misplacing and having their identical bags stolen, swapped, and transferred

What’s Up, Doc? falls into the category of SF films that want to allude to or recreate other SF films. In Basic Instinct, we see and hear bits of Vertigo. For Bogdanovich, it’s Bullitt–not even a classic for his time and already he wants to pay homage. Now that’s ambition.

San Francisco “is ideal for a chase,” he explained. It’s not just cars, though. The film is a constant case of mixed identity and stolen luggage, strangers losing and misplacing and having their identical bags stolen, swapped, and transferred. The car chase signifies the climax, but the entire story is a chase, one that we eventually drop out of when we realize there is no possible way to pursue the logic of the luggage. It’s the people we must follow. People. People who need people…are the luckiest people in the world.

Oh yeah, did I mention that Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal star? (And Madeline Kahn debuts.) Babs plays one of the hotel guests, Judy Maxwell, except she’s more of a wandering eccentric than a paying guest. The script never gives her a reason to be at the hotel besides, hey, she really wants to dupe room service for a free roast beef sandwich. She’s zany, free-spirited, knowledgeable, and very accident prone. It’s possible she’s even a city native, considering that we later meet her father at his SF workplace (not to give a punchline away).

Howard (O’Neal) may be the protagonist, but through Judy we see the city. She leads the chase scene, starting on a bicycle up and down the hills. Geographically, she races through Chinatown, Richmond, and Lombard Street. Figuratively and literally, she’s all over the place. Once again, the Bay Area whack job. Excuse me, the lovable whack job.

Judy has a biting wit, even if she does seem slightly off her rocks. She badgers Howard, whom she insists on calling “Steve,” and finally manages to smooch him in front of a top floor view of the San Francisco Bay, no less. Women’s lib, yeah! Judy doesn’t give a hoot about the fact that he’s already engaged. In a film that still shows a couple sleeping in separate beds in separate rooms, that’s on the edge. There you go, San Francisco always one step ahead with their sexual deviance.

There is something inherently funny in our city’s reputation, something apparently funny enough for Bogdanovich to stage pie-in-the-face gags and outrageous accents (and no, I don’t mean Babs’s obvious Brooklyn slant). Perhaps it’s because our city offers a lot of juxtaposition, like the physical hills and valleys that rivet our map. Or the people who make up our culture, the eccentrics juxtaposed against nice, upstanding, proper people like Howard’s fiancee (Kahn). Screwball comedy relies on a lot of extremes: silliness, repetition, misfortune, accidents, and size. So if you’re going to barrel a few cars down a hill, it might as well be down the world’s crookedest street, right?

What’s Up, Doc? is available on Netflix and Amazon.

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Starring San Francisco is Appeal culture reporter, Christine
Borden’s, take on the city’s cinematic past to illuminate today. Have a
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