Man's Favorite Sport - 1964
Man's Favorite Sport - Released January 29, 1964. Directed by Howard Hawks
I want this movie to be better than it is. Director (and producer) Howard Hawks lifts comedy routines from various older films, such as his own Bringing Up Baby and Jack Conway's Libeled Lady for Man's Favorite Sport, and those two movies are a rich vein of screwball gold. So what went wrong?
Rock Hudson (as Roger Willoughby) is an ace fishing gear salesman at a high-end sporting goods store in San Francisco. He has a excellent memory for detail and can put together effective advice for anglers on how to catch fish at just about any location, and this skill has made him a legend in the fishing community - he's even written a book on fishing using his extensive knowledge. But when he is forced by the store's owner (John McGiver) to enter a regional fishing tournament, he is put in a position where he has to do something he has never actually done: fish.
Paula Prentiss (as Abigail Page) is helping with publicity for the lodge where the tournament will be held, and she and Willoughby keep meeting and annoying one another, but when she learns that he actually has no real experience holding a rod, she goes to work helping him get ready for the tournament and hiding the truth from everyone else.
Director Hawks has expertly packaged this movie, from the hip (for 1963-1964) screen titles to the music and the perfectly staged comedy routines, many which feature nearly identical bits of rough slapstick from the era of screwball comedies, with Hudson sometimes doing an ersatz Cary Grant/William Powell in the process. Prentiss also seems to be doing a slightly updated version of the flightiness of Katherine Hepburn from Bringing Up Baby, and this bit of imitation doesn't always work for either lead in Man's Favorite Sport, and if you've seen the films that this one is referencing (and stealing from) you might think it is simply an inferior version of better work, but that's only partially true. Hawks builds up a lot of new material into the basic plot and has made the romantic fighting between the two leads mostly about Hudson and Prentiss getting on each others nerves while simultaneously falling for one another, and when it is just the two of them, it usually works, but the script by John Fenton Murray and Steve McNeil (from the Pat Frank story "The Girl Who Almost Got Away") is often rather stiff and the dialogue artificial.
Perhaps the main problem with Man's Favorite Sport is that it is too professionally well-packaged, lacking a manic sense of comedy motion which generally isn't there (not counting Hudson's fishing activities, near duplicates of William Powell in waders from Libeled Lady). There's some business with a bear on a bicycle and a few other routines, which do not help or hurt the movie on the whole, but act as comedy fillers until we are watching the main event, Prentiss and Hudson fighting or pining for each other.
This unevenness shows up in a number of places. Location shots mixed with studio shots become obvious when, for example, "Chief Screaming Eagle" is leaning against a studio prop tree and the bark moves and pushes inward like it is only attached to the "tree" by adhesive ... There are nicely photographed location scenes in Man's Favorite Sport which hearken to the outdoor-fashion of 1950s films which showed up in every genre, but here it isn't exploited very heartily and the main activity happens with studio sets.
It seems odd in a Hawks film to be seeing actors trying to get over the hurdle of saying lines slowly and carefully in a way suggesting the dialogue is unnatural for them. When this occurs the film doesn't so much grind to a stop as just limps on to the next scene set-up as if the actors and the audiences are joined together in a rather boring endurance test. Perhaps sensing these weaknesses, Hawks has packed in gratuitous girls-in-their-underwear scenes, kind of hilarious because it is so unimaginative that it looks like the pages from a 1964 department store catalogue negligee section. Usually when this happens in a movie you can sense the lack of confidence from the production company, the pretty girls used as camouflage for the disaster brewing elsewhere in the script and direction.
Secondary characters are so superfluous (such as Roger's fiancee "Tex" played by Charlene Holt, she being the one who ends up modeling underwear) that they verge on disappearing completely, which 'Tex' eventually does, barely existing in this film except to appear and get mad at Roger a few times, then drive off.
In interviews about his career, Hawks took credit for how he was able to work with Katherine Hepburn to make Bringing Up Baby into the comedy gem that it is, but if his methods were so successful in 1938, why aren't they working in Mans Favorite Sport? Prentiss seems a perfectly effective comedienne thru most of this film. Rock Hudson has no particular story arc in the movie except to learn how to fish, whereas the original template for this role (in Bringing Up Baby) was for a cerebral "butterfly" professor to get a big dose of energy from a woman, which changed him from a guy sitting and watching the world go by while obsessing over dinosaur bones into something more like a normal human being. Why doesn't some revelation like that happen to Hudson's Roger Willoughby?
Complaints aside, both Prentiss and Hudson are fun, and the cast generally follows Hawk's style of overlapping dialogue and humor arriving onscreen from the characters being self-serious, and humor appearing as things go awfully, ridiculously wrong.
Original Page June 19, 2017