Grade:  B-
Romantic Comedy
Not Rated (would be PG)

When Man’s Favorite Sport? was first released, film critic and cinema snob Andrew Sarris called it “a complete waste of time,” and it’s been underrated ever since. Still, Man’s Favorite Sport? finished among the 25 highest grossing pictures of 1964, so average viewers liked it well enough. It was a simple and silly diversion at a time when the country was recovering from the assassination of President Kennedy.

It was also one of my favorite rom-coms that I watched growing up, so kids also liked it well enough. In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, rom-coms were typically bedroom romps set in cities. Man’s Favorite Sport? takes place mostly in the woods by a lake, and the plot revolves around an Abercrombie & Fitch fishing expert that’s forced to enter the annual tournament at Lake Wakapoogee . . . though he’s a big fake who’s thrown many a line but never wetted one. The attraction for younger viewers—at least back then—were such non-rom-com gags as a black bear mucking things up (even riding a scooter at one point), inflatable waders that overinflate, a running gag about a toupee that looks alive, a campsite that floats away in a storm, and plenty of accidental fishing catches played for laughs.

Nearly 30 years after his quintessential screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby, Howard Hawks decided the first of three pictures he agreed to do for Paramount would be a broad romantic comedy that paid homage to his earlier classic. It would turn out to be the legendary director’s fourth-to-last film, and his last comedy. Although Rock Hudson is no Cary Grant (Hawk’s first choice), Paula Prentiss turns in a screwball performance worthy of Katharine Hepburn herself. In fact, she’s less annoying than Hepburn’s character and her deep voice and mischievous actions were a welcome change from the high-pitched, quasi-innocent Doris Day characters.

Prentiss plays Abigail Page, a PR director for a big resort on the lake, and throughout the film her sidekick is the resort owner’s grown-up daughter, “Easy” Mueller (Maria Perschy). From an opening meet-cute involving a car and a parking space that pays obvious tribute to Bringing Up Baby, the fast-talking, insecure, but determined Abby spends most of the film trying to help Roger Willoughby (Hudson) once she learns his secret . . . and trying to help herself to Willoughby in the process. Call her a more competent and less ditzy version of Hepburn’s character, while Hudson is a more befuddled and expressionless version of Grant’s exasperated character.

You can tell Man’s Favorite Sport? is an early sixties movie just by looking at a scene or two. The ‘60s were a cocktail culture, and that’s evident here as there are drinks with every dinner and drinks as part of social interactions. Smoking was also more common back then. Forty percent of adults smoked in the ‘60s, compared to 14 percent in 2019. There’s no chain smoking and no one acts like an addict, but casual drinking and smoking were a part of everyday life.

Then there’s the pace. Screwball comedies from the ‘30s and ‘40s were briskly paced, while films of this type from the early ‘60s tended to be more leisurely, with a tone and background music more suitable for watching a mime. And of course there are plenty of times when things are said (or sung, as in the opening song by Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini) that are now considered sexist, plus a character that’s now an unfortunate cultural depiction:  a white actor playing a Native American who speaks and acts like everyone else unless he’s trying to scam tourists by talking like Tonto. Even though it’s an act he’s putting on, it’s still cringeworthy.

But back to Prentiss. Hawks loved her performance and couldn’t understand why she wasn’t making it big as a comic actress. I don’t get it either, and also agree with Hawks that Hudson wasn’t well suited for the broad comedy that the script called for. There’s also the matter of the film being obviously shot on studio soundstages. Yet there’s something about this film that slowly reels you in. Critic Molly Haskell confessed to not liking Man’s Favorite Sport? when it was first released, but after revisiting it seven years later she began to appreciate all of the film’s nuances—enough to write a long think piece in which she psychoanalyzed the characters and the film. Her conclusion? “The male-female polarity is reconciled by the struggle to assert oneself in life, in the crazy American scene, in which man and woman can be—as much as man and man—natural allies.”

That’s a highbrow way of saying that while there are scenes in this film that employ the standard bedroom farce tropes, when you locate them in the north woods and make the female the accomplished outdoorsman and the male the neophyte, when you make her character as charming as he, and when you make the love interest secondary to a fishing competition, you create a rom-com capable of delivering a different kind of message.

As a result, the underappreciated Man’s Favorite Sport? is still entertaining—especially because of Prentiss’s performance.

Entire family:  No (age 10 and up)
Run time:  120 min. Color
Aspect ratio:  1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio:  DTS 2.0
Studio/Distributor: Universal/Kino Lorber
Bonus features:  B- (includes comments by Prentiss and husband Richard Benjamin)
Trailer
Best Buy link
Not rated (would be PG for drinking, smoking, and some immodesty)

Language:  1/10—Less than a handful of mild swearwords, including “ass” (as in don’t be one)

Sex:  3/10—Prentiss wears short-short pajamas more suited to a pajama party than a seduction, but Willoughby’s fiancée is shown in baby-doll lingerie; a character takes a sleeping pill and spends the night (in a separate room); characters kiss several times and also lie together in the same bed, with nothing sexual happening; when it rains, Hudson’s character tries to tell two women that they look “like you haven’t got any clothes on” (their backs are to the screen); and Hawks reprises the nightclub scene from Bringing Up Baby where the back of a dress accidentally torn and a glimpse of underwear is played for laughs

Violence:  0/10—None really, just comic pratfalls

Adult situations:  4/10—Social drinking (with one minor character drinking too much), occasional smoking, and awkward situations with the opposite sex

Takeaway: Man’s Favorite Sport? in the song is “girls,” but given the plot and the way this plays out that title seems meant to be ironic; this rom-com isn’t on the same level as Hawks’ His Girl Friday or Bringing Up Baby, but it still entertains and the gags that appealed to kids in the ‘60s may still work now