Cinema history, as an intellectual pursuit, is not nearly as old as cinema itself. In different countries, the rise of a semi-professional class of cineastes emerged through different processes at different time, and in America it began in the 1960s as a response to ideas filtering in from France, and the French critic/directors of the New Wave. Finding a warm home in the criticism being written by the new young intellectuals of the period, the systematic appreciation of film history helped to inform the emerging New Hollywood, which included the first widespread generation of film directors who were also film enthusiasts, people whose knowledge of earlier eras of Hollywood filmmaking came about because of their focused, intentional study of film history. This is the crucible that produced the like of Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg and, most importantly for our current purposes, Peter Bogdanovich, who was a voracious movie watcher and film programmer at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, when he got it into his head to travel to Los Angeles and follow his intellectual mentors at Cahiers du Cinéma by turning his broad theoretical knowledge into practice, by jumping into the world of film directing himself. Like Scorsese, he got his start at the knee of low-budget genius Roger Corman, directing one film and re-editing another, before he emerged as one of the most celebrated young voices with 1971's The Last Picture Show, a celebration of youth and nostalgia built around the fading of a small town as metaphorically represented by its loss of a cinematic heritage.

The film's success with critics and audiences alike gave Bogdanovich free reign to do just about anything that crossed his mind for several years, before he became the first of the New Hollywood kids to strangle on his undisciplined indulgences. And what he wanted to do above everything else was to make '30s films, but with a distinctively '70s aesthetic. Sometimes this did not work, and we get the unloved musical At Long Last Love from 1975 the film that more than any other nuked the director's career on the A-list. Sometimes, this worked extremely well, and we get What's Up, Doc? from 1972, the first project he turned to with all that Last Picture Show clout that he got to spend on whatever he wanted. The film's story is credited to Bogdanovich himself, with a screenplay by Buck Henry and David Newman & Robert Benton, but this isn't the sort of thing that gets "created", so much as compiled from a list of the greatest hits of the screwball comedy era, 1934-1941. Especially Howard Hawks's film of the Dudley Nichols/Hagar Wilde script Bringing Up Baby from 1938 (Bogdanovich had a noted affection for Hawks, later writing a book on the man's cinema), which What's Up, Doc? virtually remakes, with the stuck up paleontologist replaced by a stuck-up musicologist chasing a bag of rocks rather than a brontosaurus bone.

As the title suggests, it also owes quite a debt to the Bugs Bunny cartoons produced by the same studio, Warner Bros., in decades prior, in that the free-spirited crazy girl, Judy Maxwell (Barbra Streisand) gloms on to the painfully square Howard Bannister (Ryan O'Neal) less because she forges an instant erotic connection with him (though there's a bit of that), than because she's in the mood to make mischief and he's the goofily straitlaced Elmer Fudd for her night's entertainment. It's the farthest thing from an accident that one of the first things we see her do, in the midst of a flurry of cons designed to get her a free room and bed in San Francisco's Bristol Hotel, is to grab carrot sticks off of a passing room service tray and take a nice big crunch while looking at Howard with an appraising sideways glance.

The bulk of the film consists of Judy doing everything in her power to destroy Howard's fussy, boring life over the course of two very busy days, but it hardly takes one live-action cartoon character to imbalance the precarious farcical situation that starts up the instant we reach the end of the credits (which are written in a book, the pages turned by hand, as '30s-like as you could hope for), to find that the mechanics of the plot hinge on no fewer than four identical plaid travel cases, one containing Howard's rocks, one containing Judy's clothes, one containing folders marked "Top Secret" and carried by one mysterious trench coat-wearing man (Michael Murphy) being trailed by another (Phil Roth), and one containing an immodest fortune in jewels belonging to the Bristol's guest Mrs. Van Hoskins (Mabel Albertson). They are mixed up, naturally, when the hotel's desk manager Fritz (Stefan Gierasch) and house detective Harry (Sorrell Booke) attempt to steal the jewels and hide them in the same vacant room where Judy has camped out while she's out and about helping with Howard's attempt to win a grant offered by gawky philanthropist Frederick Larrabee (Austin Pendleton), by pretending to be Howard's stuffy fiancée Eunice Burns (Madeline Kahn) and charming the dickens out of Larrabee, while pissy Eastern European musicologist Hugh Simon (Kenneth Mars) spits venom and fumes.

Absolutely none of how this progresses comes as any kind of surprise to anyone with a strong familiarity with the source genres, either '30s screwball or '50s animation. But that's not really the point, of course: it's the creative energy with which the preordained plot complications are executed that matters, and Bogdanovich is clearly a passionate enough student of the form to ensure that the execution is breathlessly paced and openly deranged, playful and fast in all right places. Like many farces, there comes a point where the film begins to rely on its own momentum and starts to get too zany for its own good, culminating in a multi-vehicle chase scene that tries a little too hard and telegraphs its jokes a bit too freely, and a climactic courtroom scene that demands its harried judge (Liam Dunn) to be wackily irritated at the characters in excess of anything the logic of that moment supports. And comedy, even the most freewheeling and nutty of comedy, is only funny as long as it plays fair by its own internal logic.

But the first hour of the movie is so pitch-perfect that even a slightly leaky final half-hour can't do much to knock the film down from its heights. Though Bogdanovich the man was a demanding fussbudget in some ways (his attire and his attitude towards women both suggest links between the director and Howard that I doubt were intentional), he had an uncanny ability to keep his movie moving quickly enough that he can sell us on some very strained contrivances, while getting his cast to contribute some extremely broad performances that stay within the confines of the film's reality. Streisand is the best at this, bringing an insouciant, anarchic energy that feels exactly like a cartoon in human form, but there's barely a weak link in the cast. Kahn, in her feature debut, effortlessly plays the priggish Other Woman without being boringly straight about it (her freak-outs in particular are great), and O'Neal plays a zapped blankness that feels like a comic choice rather than a simple matinee-star emptiness, timing his frequent reaction shots to the camera flawlessly, and bringing in a real prickly despair to his scenes of being distraught that his life is spinning out of control.

The best we can say about it, maybe, is that Bogdanovich does a great job of aping the energy and pacing of a '30s comedy, which is perhaps not a tremendously artistic achievement. What's really exciting about the movie is how the director and his crew (including top notch editor Verna Fields and cinematographer László Kovács) mix that storytelling with the filmmaking techniques common to New Hollywood: location shooting (the hilly San Francisco streets are used to perfect effect), flatly realistic interiors, detailed psychological shading among the character actors in the side characters. The contrasting energies make the film seem a lot fresher and sharper than the simple fact of dragging Bringing Up Baby to the modern day has any right to feel; in fact, the film manages the neat trick of making 35-year-old comedy feel as disorienting in its new context as it did originally. It's a marvelous piece of alchemy that sets hardly a single foot wrong for enough of its running time that it stands out as one of the great, if semi-forgotten comedy masterpieces of the 1970s.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1972
-Porn briefly hits the mainstream on the shoulders of Deep Throat
-Blaxploitation meets horror with the much-greater-than-you-suspect Blacula
-Francis Ford Coppola becomes the first film school brat to spend enormous piles of studio money on an even more enormous Zeitgeist hit: The Godfather

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1972
-Britain's Hammer Films, once the world's foremost creator of sophisticated horror, continues to flail into irrelevancy with Dracula A.D. 1972
-Hong Kong action star Bruce Lee has the biggest year of his short career, starring in both Fist of Fury and Way of the Dragon, the latter of which he also directs
-Bernardo Bertolucci directs Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider in the Franco-Italian erotic psychodrama Last Tango in Paris