Howard Hawks is Bringing Back Baby with Rock Hudson and Paula Prentiss
DIRECTED BY HOWARD HAWKS/1964
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: MARCH 15, 2022/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
Remakes get a bad rap, it’s true. As long as there’ve been movies, the movies have gotten remake. That’s not to mention ripped off, copied, cloned, and rehashed. Even the best of all filmmakers have dipped into the remake pool. Hitchcock. Wilder. Scorsese. Spielberg. But few have remade their own work as readily as the great Howard Hawks. And, in his case, it must unfortunately be said, the bad rap may be somewhat earned. Case in point: 1964’s Man’s Favorite Sport?.
As far as remakes go, Man’s Favorite Sport? doesn’t quite fit it’s intended mold. Hawks was interested in redoing his then-under appreciated screwball classic, Bringing Up Baby. Scuttlebutt/official lore tell us that the filmmaker even wanted that film’s star, Cary Grant to once take the lead. Grant, it’s said, declined on the grounds that he knew he was too old to be paired with twenty-four year-old up-and-comer Paula Prentiss. Indeed, Hawks was so sold on Prentiss as his latest leading lady that he was happy to do some studio hopping to make it happen. It just so happened that he landed the project at Universal, then contractual home of Rock Hudson. And that’s how he got his romantic leading man.
The problems for the oft-derided fishing competition comedy Man’s Favorite Sport? lie primarily in Hawks’ unsettled direction of his leads. With Hudson’s character, Roger- a rather naive company man who’s made a name for himself as a published fishing expert despite the hidden truth that he’s never cast a reel in his life- Hawks is making both a standard-issue Rock Hudson comedy, but also nudging him into a Cary Grant performance. Which isn’t fair to Hudson, who by this point has shown the world that his structurally sound and contained comedic chops are not those of the “bigger” Grant. Hudson was, by 1964, no stranger to playing slick cads who are netted by the girl in the end. This film’s screenplay sets him up for that, only to deflate the premise before it has a chance to really gain the kind of steam Hudson thrived upon.
Likewise, Prentiss is yanked in too many directions to get any real bead on what her character, Abigail, is supposed to be. Is she the manic pixie Hawkian woman played in Bringing Up Baby by Katharine Hepburn, or is she (in the wake of 1959’s Pillow Talk) a Doris Day surrogate? The answer is “yes”- all that and actually more. As Abigail runs about throughout the film with her devoted assistant, “Easy” (Maria Perschy), it’s difficult to get a bead on the what and why of her purposes. Much hinges on her convincing Roger to join a nearby fishing competition, even after she learns his secret about having never fished. Her chemistry with Hudson is thankfully sound, often positioning her as the “winner” in any given wacky situation. Still, she’s spastic- energy, energy, with no singular focus for it.
Although most of it was lensed at Universal Studios, most of Man’s Favorite Sport? takes place in the wilderness. Which of course means, fake forests galore! It’s only a remake of Bringing Up Baby insofar as the romance dynamic and several classic gags lifted verbatim. We get the frustrated car parking meet cute, and the open dress mix-up, requiring him to closely (extremely closely) follow her in the interest of preserving her dignity. But here, the sequence tops out with a dramatic misunderstanding, egged along by the scene’s utilization of the new permissiveness of the 1960s. After the zipper of her dress is caught and lowered by a wicker chair, her entire bare back is glimpsed. It’s certainly enough to upset Roger’s uptight fiancée (Charlene Holt).
Although Man’s Favorite Sport? remains quite chaste, being that Roger is clearly inexperienced in the ways of love, this is not it’s only leaning into raciness. Mostly, it’s more akin to Hawks’ Monkey Business (1952), stocked with dopey nonsensical Bob Hope-movie gags that had no place in Bringing Up Baby.
KL Studio Classics includes a recently recorded audio commentary track hosted by filmmaker/film historian Michael Schlesinger and featuring Paula Prentiss. Also present even though he had no involvement with Man’s Favorite Sport? is Prentiss’ husband, actor/director Richard Benjamin. Benjamin, we’re told, was there anyway, so he was invited to participate. A good thing, too… Prentiss is quickly revealed to be a terrible commentator, either giving one-word answers or unable to recall whatever’s being asked about. Benjamin doesn’t say much either, but he does say some nice things about Hudson, Hawks, and the film’s impressive myriad of character actors (including Roscoe Karns as Hudson’s competition fisherman, Norman Alden [in redface] as a Native American scammer, and a strangely prominently billed James Westerfield as a police officer in only one scene). Frankly, one feels badly for Schlesinger, as polite decorum prevents him from really engaging with any negative aspects of this very imperfect picture, but also unable to wring the hoped-for anecdotes from his special guest(s).
Man’s Favorite Sport? does look quite lovely on this Blu-ray, what with its non-aggressive Technicolor palate teed up for ideal warmth and period-accurate color texture. The disc should certainly be of interest to Hudson fans and Hawks completists. As for the quality of of the film as a remake, it must be said that it fails resoundingly. It would’ve been a more focused film had the Bringing Up Baby aspects been left out entirely. But Hawks being Hawks had to adhere to his code. He never liked that Bringing Up Baby was a flop upon release, and blamed the fact that there wasn’t one sane character in the movie. Flash-forward to Man’s Favorite Sport?, a bastion of buttoned-up sanity. It’s not entirely a cold fish, but it is unfortunately floppy in its own right.