Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Picture 56

Director: Howard Hawks

Producers: Howard Hawks, Cliff Reid (RKO)

Writers: Hagar Wilde, Dudley Nichols (screenplay)

Photography: Russell Metty

Music: Roy Webb

Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Charles Ruggles, Walter Catlett, Barry Fitzgerald,
May Robson, Fritz Feld, Leona Roberts, George Irving, Tala Birell, Virginia Walker, John Kelly

“Susan, when a man is wrestling a leopard in the middle of a pond, he’s in no position to run!”

When it comes to the screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby certainly cannot claim it invented it. In fact, it wasn’t even the first for director Howard Hawks, who had previously explored the territory with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard in Twentieth Century (1934). No, Baby was just another in a blooming trend of the new subgenre, following films like W.S. Van Dyke’s The Thin Man (1934), Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937).

Preston Sturges may have laid the genre’s biggest claim in the period immediately following Baby, in films like Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Lady Eve (1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942). But for if you’re looking for the genre’s definitive piece, look no further. There’s a reason the National Film Registry in Washington D.C. selected Bringing Up Baby as its first screwball comedy to archive forever (A). Does it honestly get any screwier than Katharine Hepburn with a pet leopard or Cary Grant as a paleontologist looking for his lost dinosaur bone?

Such is the wacky premise of Hagar Wilde and Dudley Nichols lightning-fast script, and Hawks wastes not a minute of screentime introducing a seemless string of gags to comprise “a series of misadventures from beginning to end,” such that silent comedy star Harold Lloyd (Safety Last!) called Baby the most perfectly constructed comedy he’d ever seen. (B)

The film opens in the New York Stuyvesant Museum of Natural History, where Dr. David Huxley (Grant) is hard at work piecing together the fossile bones of a giant brontosaurus (a monstrous set piece for a comedy). All David needs is one final bone — the intercostal clavicle — which is due to arrive by mail the next day, the same day he’s slated to marry his scientist co-worker Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker). “Isn’t that odd?” David says. “Two such important occasions happening on the same day!”

Of course, plenty more “occasions” will transpire before then to complicate David’s plans, all concocted by loopy heiress Susan Vance (Hepburn), who first steals his golf ball (ruining an outing with a potential museum donor) and then his car (beating it all to hell against other cars), all in an elaborate scheme to steal his heart. When the two happen to cross paths again over an olive, Susan mistakes coincidence for a “love impulse” and for the rest of the film David cannot get rid of her, frustrated by her demeanor that “looks at everything upside-down.”

The madness kicks up when Susan’s brother in Brazil sends her a pet leopard named Baby, one she uses to trick David into coming over to her place and then into coming to her aunt’s house in Connecticut. There, only more chaos ensues, as the family dog (the same dog from The Thin Man and The Awful Truth) buries David’s bone somewhere in the 26-acre yard, Susan creates a new identity for David in speaking with her aunt (Mary Robson) and guest Maj. Horace Applegate (Charles Ruggles) and Baby runs away, leading to an all-out chase over the countryside that has them arrested and jailed on suspicion of insanity. All the while, Susan relishes her time with David, maintaining an optimism that has her turning assure David in the jail cell that, “When they find out who we are, they’ll let us out,” to which he snaps back, “When they find out who you are, they’ll pad the cell!”

This is the type of back-and-forth formula that carries the film. Whereas Grant would play the harasser trying to derail a woman’s marriage in Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940), here he is the one harassed by Hepburn’s bids to derail his character’s marriage. And luckily for audiences, Grant proves that he is every bit as good as the hapless reactionist as he often was at the conniving troublemaker. His facial responses to the predicaments are flat-out hilarious, be it the deadpan way he repeatedly rises from the dinner table, spoon in hand, to follow the dog out in search of his bone, or rolling his eyes when he can’t get a word in edge-wise to Susan’s fast-talking rants to both her aunt and the jail officer. His moments of outbursts are equally hilarious, frantically screaming, “I’ll be with you in a minute, Mr. Peabody!” during their interrupted golf match, or frustratingly leaping into the air to explain why he is wearing Susan’s fluffy bathrobe — “Because I just went gay all the sudden!”

The latter outburst is noteworthy as the turning point in the word “gay” being used in movies, moving from “happy” to “homosexual.” Such a landmark speaks life into the film’s more sexual interpretations, David assuming the alias of “Mr. Bone” at one point while searching for his missing “bone,” a symbole for his manhood. Such a journey of lost masculinity is reinforced in the difference between his finace, Alice, and the new woman in his life, Susan. Alice is about as conservative as it gets, dressed in a black suit with her hair pulled as tight as her personality, saying, ” I see our marriage purely as a dedication to your work,” suggesting she won’t consumate their marriage and reproaching any light-heartedness on his part by snapping, “No slang! Remember who and what you are.” This is, of course, the complete opposite of Susan, first seen swinging a gold club in white clothing and free-flowing hair, suggesting her as a liberated, adventurous type who can pull him away from his work and remove the symbol of his job — those black-rimmed glasses. Such is Hepburn’s early introduction of the liberated female character, having her way with the man while demonstrating a full capability of succeeding in a man’s world — just marvel as she sinks that long putt on the golf green in an uncut shot. Of course, one must also note that the prerequisite of such a character in the ’30s seemed to be that she be presented as an individual off her rocker.

Either way, Hepburn is perfect in emoting that mix of strength and lunacy. Watch her brillaint concotion of that goofy, vibrato laugh, that hardboiled gangster impression she gives from behind bars, that madcap phone operator bit (from which Hawks pans to the puzzled look of a Ruggles outside the window), and that priceless lopsided strut in only one highheel, singing, “I was born on the side of a hill!” In the only screwball comedy of her career, Hepburn demonstrates impecable comedic timing in her portrayal of a beautiful, strong redhead causing so much trouble, a performance completely ahead of its time as a precursor to Lucille Ball.

Such versatility is why the AFI voted Hepburn the single greatest actress of all time. Combine this with Premiere magazine’s crowning of Grant as the greatest movie star of all time, and you have two monumental figures in the same film. More importantly, these gigantic stars are wonderful together, revealing both a romantic chemistry in their near-kiss in the woods, and a comedic chemistry in their back-to-front walk out of the formal dinner and their frantic singing of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby,” reprised throughout the film as the only way to calm the leopard. After this, their second pairing (after Sylvia Scarlett [1936]), the two would reteam twice more in the next two years for George Cukor, in Holiday (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940), the latter of which finally brought Hepburn out of the career doldrums and away from the label “box office poison.”

You see, even Bringing Up Baby was a monumental flop upon release. Actually considered one of the biggest busts of its time, the film went way overbudget and 40 days over schedule, was ignored by audiences and bashed by critics, forced Hepburn to buy herself out of her own contract and caused Hawks’ termination from RKO Radio Pictures (C). Today, with the film on countless best lists, as high as #14 in TV Guide and #24 in Entertainment Weekly, it appears the film, Hepburn, Grant and Hawks have gotten the last laugh. The film is one of those that falls in the category of visionary works overlooked in their own time for being so ahead of the curve.

Today, a similar phenomenon holds true in viewing the movie. Bringing Up Baby works far better if you approach the film in a way 1938 audiences couldn’t have, and that’s to first explore the careers of Hepburn and Grant, see their other major films and then watch the film as an early look at two of history’s biggest stars. Though much of Baby’s rapid succession of wit will fly by viewers’ on first viewing, there’s plenty of lunacy to keep them entertained from the time Kate picks up Cary’s golfball to the moment they dangle from a platform as the brontosaurus skelleton collapses — the only suitable ending for a film flying at such a pace that it must come crashing down in the end.

Citations: 

CITE A: Robert Osbourne’s intro on the Turner Classic Movies Home Video (VHS)
CITE B: Jeffrey M. Anderson, combustiblecelluloid.com, retrieved from Rotten Tomatoes
CITE C: 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

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