In the 1930s, screwball comedies were It Happened One Night or Bringing Up Baby. In the 1940s, it was His Girl Friday or Ball of Fire. In the 1950s, Some Like it Hot or Pillow Talk. By the 1960s, audiences were more sophisticated and needed something more.
By the mid 1960s, the genre was in decline. Only a few remarkable films like What’s Up, Doc? (1972) would earn a place on the mantle of worthy screwball comedies. Howard Hawks, who directed some of the best screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s, tried his luck with one more, Man’s Favorite Sport? in 1964.
Today, Man’s Favorite Sport? is relegated to the dated sex comedies of the decade, the latter day Doris Day films like Send Me No Flowers, Natalie Wood’s Sex and the Single Girl or Carl Reiner’s The Art of Love. Studios continued to crank out comedies, but the screwball comedy was a tough genre given more sophisticated audience tastes and changing subject matter. Cary Grant had retired and Doris Day was winding down her film career.
In 1964, Howard Hawks was toward the end of his directing career and would only have one more bona fide hit, El Dorado (1967), before his film ended with Rio Lobo (1970). Man’s Favorite Sport?, while not a classic, is a very entertaining film. It is well-made with many fine performances. Rock Hudson turns in one of his finest comedic performances, worthy of his early Doris Day films. Unfortunately, critics compared Hawks to his earlier screwball classics and Hudson to Cary Grant. Years later, it is easier and more prudent to let the film and the performances stand on their own.
Hudson plays affable and sometimes befuddled Roger Willoughby, a well-known fishing expert, who works for Abercrombie & Fitch, a large San Francisco sports outfitter. He’s also written a book about fishing techniques and his frequent customers come to him for advice, including Maj. Phipps, who is gearing up for a big fishing tournament.
Paula Prentice plays Abigail Page, a public relations woman who bests Willoughby over a parking space, and then ropes him into participating in the same fishing tournament as Maj. Phipps. Willoughby’s boss, Mr. Cadwalleder, insists that he participate, it will be good publicity for the store.
Willoughby, after a couple of drinks with Abigail and her friend Easy, who’s father owns the lodge where the fishing tournament will be, Willoughby feels the need to confess about his lack of fishing experience. He’s a fake, but he’s been able to hide it, until now. He takes them to an arcade, where he gets every noise-making machine going, to cover up his admission.
Willoughby has no choice but to participate in the tournament, even though he’s come clean with Abigail and Easy. Abigail convinces him to stay in the tournament, all he has to do is be competitive. They will help provide him some cover until they can think of something else.
Rather than use of the convenience of the lodge, Willoughby is convinced by Cadwalleder to camp, so Willoughby shows up at the tournament site with a vehicle full of camping gear, a boat, a tent and a motorcycle, none of which he is skilled at using.
In his interactions with Abigail, Willoughby always comes out on the short end. His affability makes him a target for Abigail’s brashness and slightly scattered personality. He’s frequently upset and frustrated by her, and she’s fascinated with trying to fix him; but it’s easy to see the attraction between them. It’s not a matter of will they get together, it’s a matter of will he survive the continuous accidents that happen around her, until they are together.
Willoughby has his job and reputation riding on this tournament, and to complicate things, his no-nonsense fiance Tex, will show up at the lodge.
Willoughby must learn to fish before the tournament begins, which gives Hawks more opportunities for Hudson to perform physical comedy, or calamity. The outdoors is clearly not in his element. Hudson is quite good at acting befuddled and taking a dive.
The fishing tournament takes place over three days of competition. On the first day, Willoughby takes his motorcycle to the fishing location. On the way, he is knocked off his bike and looks up to find a bear is now riding it. This is the kind of silliness that Hawks has lined up, and is necessary in a screwball comedy.
Willoughby meets up with Abigail, and they go out in the lake to fish from the boat. While starting the motor, rookie boarter Willoughby falls overboard. His waders include an inflation device, in case of trouble, so Willoughby inflates it, which turns him upside down, nearly drowning him. Abigail tows him to shore, nearly drowning him again.
After getting him to score, Abigail resuscitates Willoughby. She sneaks in a kiss, igniting some feelings for him
The next day, while Abigail is instructing him how to fish, he suddenly lands one, his first catch ever, and must figure out what to do. Abigail convinces him to take the fish off the hook. Abigail tries to toughen him up by making him hold it.
Easy shows up, while Willoughby is holding the fish. Easy brings news that a fishing champion is coming to participate in the tournament, so Willoughby can now drop out. Meanwhile, it starts to rain and it begins to stick the women’s blouses to their bodies. They aren’t wearing bras, so Willoughby puts his hand over his eyes, a gentlemanly thing to do.
Abigail and Easy hatch a plot to give Willoughby a broken arm, so he can drop out of the tournament. They mix up a batch of plaster and put Willoughby’s arm in a cast, but they have bend him arm, so when the plaster dries, it appears as it Willoughby is saluting.
Willoughby goes to the lodge and discovers the incoming fishing champion has arrived with a a broken arm, so Willoughby can’t also have one. The cast is rock-hard, so Abigail uses an electric saw to cut the cast from Willoughby’s arm.
Later, Abigail wakes up Willoughby with a phone call because she needs a sleeping pill. It is really an excuse for her to visit him. Willoughby gives her a pill. Willoughby has to leave to meet Cadwallender and the other contestants at the lodge for a drink. On the way out the door, he gives her a quick kiss.
After dispensing advice to the other contestants, Willoughby returns to the cabin and finds Abigail is asleep in his bed, dead to the world. He can’t wake her up, so he sleeps in the living room in a sleeping bag.
The next morning, Easy arrives, looking for Abigail who didn’t return home. While she is trying to help him out of the sleeping bag (the zipper is stuck), his finance Tex arrives. Then Abigail comes out the bedroom. Tex has trouble believing his explanation, but eventually does.
On the first day of the tournament, Willoughby uses his own book to help him learn in casting. As he is reading his book, a fish hooks itself on his lure and pulls him into the water. Willoughby’s catch turns out to be within 3 ounces of the leader, Maj. Phipps.
Later, Willoughby is supposed to meet Tex at the lodge. When he gets there, he encounters Easy, who accidentally rips the zipper on her dress. He tries to stop her from being seen, and attempts to fix her zipper, but gets his tie caught in it. She doesn’t realize he is caught and walks away, leading him by his tie that is stuck in her dress. Of course, they encounter Tex, who won’t fall for this again.
On the second day of the tournament, Willoughby gets his line caught in a tree, and as he attempts to free the line, the lure dangles over the water when a fish jumps onto the lure. Willoughby beats Maj. Phipps with his catch, now leading the Major by 2 ounces.
At the lodge, Abigail arrives to find Willoughby having a drink at the bar. On the walk back to her cabin, he admits that he likes her and kisses her again. She likes it a lot, but claims it wasn’t any good, afraid of what it means.
On the third day, Willoughby lands a fish, but in getting it out of the water, encounters a black bear. He runs into the water as Abigail frightens the bear away. It is a big fish, and Abigail is now concerned that he might actually win the tournament, as a fraud.
In his cabin mixing a drink, Cadwallender calls to inform Willoughby that he’s officially won the tournament. Abigail arrives to convince him that he needs to confess and take the consequences, including losing his job. At the lodge, he confesses to Cadwallender and the others that he can’t fish and how he landed the fish out of dumb luck. Willoughby is indeed fired.
Back at his cabin, Easy arrives to say that Abigail has left, gone to camp at the end of the lake. Willoughby admits that he is in love with her and wants to find her. Willoughby is taken to where Abigail is, but she doesn’t want to see him. He doesn’t have a boat and it starts to rain, so he climbs into her canopied sleeping bag, as the rain increases.
Meanwhile, back at the lodge, Maj. Phipps and the others tell Cadwallender what a fool he is firing Willoughby. He has proven than anyone can fish with the right equipment, helps others to fish and Willoughby is a great asset for the store. The Major offers to set up Willoughby in business if Cadwallender doesn’t hire him back.
The storm has washed the canopied bed into the lake. Cadwallender is in a canoe trying to find Willoughby. He offers Willoughby his job back with a raise. Willoughby accepts, but tells Cadwallender he is busy at the moment. Abigail wants him to kiss her again, as the film ends.
Man’s Favorite Sport? wasn’t a big hit but turned a profit. Reviews were mixed but generally said it wasn’t in the class of films it was trying to imitate. I recall seeing the trailer of the film while watching another film at the local drive-in theater. I was seven years old at the time and enjoyed the physical comedy. There was a hint of a mature theme, but in reality it was very harmless.
Rock Hudson was trying to find his way in the mid 1960s, enjoying success mostly in lightweight comedies, but occasionally in a dramatic role. He was trying to break free of his 1950s image and establish himself as a more serious actor in the current decade. By the end of the 1960s, his movie star demand would fade and he would move into television.
Paula Prentiss was portraying a series of ditzy roles in films, often with Jim Hutton as her co-star. Her husky voice and flighty persona carved out a niche for her as a comedic actress. She would join with her husband, Richard Benjamin, in the television comedy, He & She, that would help change the television landscape for more adult, sophisticated comedies.
Hawks would only direct three more features, including El Dorado, a remake of Rio Bravo, both starring John Wayne. El Dorado, remembered as one of Wayne’s most popular films, was not ground-breaking, but it was well-received by fans, who view it as warmly as a favorite, comfortable shirt.
In the five-plus decades since the release of Man’s Favorite Sport?, the film brings that same warmth and comfort, a fondness of the period and the performances. The film takes place in what was decidedly a man’s world, women had roles, but men were in charge. Even in the film’s opening titles and theme song, it is clear that women are sport. Actually, it is Abigail that catches Willoughby. It was still the social expectation that women were to find husbands. Abigail had a career and was independent minded. The world was changing, but it would be awhile before social norms followed suit.