#16 in my ranking of Howard Hawks’ filmography.
This is both a return to an older form of comedy for Howard Hawks as well as something new. This is almost as much a remake of Bringing Up Baby as A Song is Born was of Ball of Fire, and it would have been made even the more so if Hawks had been able to follow through on an early idea of having both Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn return to play the lead roles. It doesn’t seem like Hepburn was seriously considered, but Grant was offered the lead role. He refused when they cast Paula Prentiss, 34 years his junior, as the female lead. He was tired of the criticisms around his playing romantic lead to women half his age (though he was married Betsy Drake at the time, who was 19 years younger than him).
So, they cast Rock Hudson. Hudson seems to play the part as Hawks would have wanted Grant to play David Huxley in Bringing Up Baby if he could have gone back in time and changed it. Hudson is the straight leading man here, unblemished by personality tics like a weird accent or cadence or even glasses. He is Roger Willoughby, the author of a popular fishing magazine who works in a department store selling fishing equipment to the rich of San Francisco. He has a secret, though. He cannot fish. He’s never gone fishing once in his life, but his advice is great nonetheless. He just takes what he hears from one fisherman and he tells others. In comes Paula Prentiss’ Abigail Page. She’s the daughter of the man organizing a fishing tournament in the country, and she has a great idea. She’ll invite the famous author to participate, so she goes first to Roger’s boss, Mr. Cadwalader, and gets his permission, essentially forcing Roger into it without his involvement. Desperate, Roger takes her aside and admits his deep secret to her. Well, she’s going to teach him to fish in the week leading up to the tournament so he can at least perform decently enough.
So is the setup for the comedic pratfalls that will follow. Being the representative of a department store, Mr. Cadwalader sends Roger with a station wagon full of equipment to try out, most of which is silly in nature. Abigail becomes immediately infatuated with him, and does everything she can to insert herself in his life, even when his fiancée, Tex, comes for a surprise visit. The thing about the humor that runs through the film is that it’s fairly broad stuff. The broadest moment is probably when Roger is riding a little moped in the countryside towards the lake. He falls off, and a bear gets on it and drives away. Most isn’t quite like that, but that moment stands out.
Roger is simply hopeless at fishing, and when the tournament actually starts he ends up pratfalling his way to total victory. He accidentally throws his line over his shoulder behind a rock, and a fish immediately hooks it. He accidentally throws his line over a tree branch, and a fish immediately hooks it. He gets chased into the middle of a river by the bear, and a fish ends up by the shore that he can net up real quick. It’s amusing stuff, light and frivolous.
The core of it all, though, is Roger’s relationship with Abigail. This is the mirror of David and Susan in Bringing Up Baby. Abigail doesn’t announce early to someone that she’s going to marry Roger, but it’s obvious that she finds him attractive and endearing, growing closer to him as the movie goes on. This all hinges on the actors, of course, and both hold themselves quite well. Rock Hudson is put together and in over his head at the same time. He just wants to live his quiet life of passing off good fishing advice as his own, but now, in this situation, he has to find a way to get over his disgust at handling live fish, his distaste for the outdoors in general, and his fear of water. Abigail is there along the way, comfortable with it all, and enjoying the process of torturing him in her quest for his heart.
Paula Prentiss is a delight as Abigail. She’s bright, energetic, and bubbly. Her lighthearted mistreatment of Roger never descends into mean-spiritedness. She’s edging him towards what he wants, to not be completely embarrassed at this tournament that she’s forced him into. It ends up making sense why Roger would ultimately be okay with breaking up with Tex and going with Abigail, though the relationship with Tex is rather thinly presented. Tex barely has a presence, and she’s kind of irritating in her few scenes. The deck is kind of stacked in Abigail’s favor there.
The resolution of the film’s plot revolves around Tex, Mr. Cadwalader, and Roger’s primary customer, the Major, discovering the truth around Roger’s inability to fish. After winning the top prize, he comes clean and walks away. Abigail has run away, thinking that she can never have Roger because she got him into the mess to begin with, and love ends up triumphing. There’s a certain predictability and safeness to the story here, but it’s so good natured and funny throughout that it’s so easy to recommend at the same time.
It’s not Hawks’ best comedy by a longshot, but it is an entertaining little gem of a find from the later stages of his career. As much a throwback as a work of its time, Man’s Favorite Sport? is a fine little comedy.
Oh, and as the title song answers, Man’s Favorite Sport is girls.