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Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Today’s cinema adventure: Bringing Up Baby, the 1938 classic by director Howard Hawks, teaming Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant as a pair of misfits who become entangled with each other in a complicated adventure involving (among other things) a tame leopard, a rambunctious terrier, a priceless dinosaur bone, several cases of mistaken identity, and a million dollars.  Despite good reviews and popularity with audiences in more sophisticated urban markets, it was a major box office flop upon its first release, leading to both its director and its female star being released from their contracts with RKO Pictures, the studio that produced it- indeed, Hepburn, who had headlined a string of financially disappointing movies, was labeled “box office poison” following this failure, and had to return to the Broadway stage in order to restore her reputation and her clout.  Nevertheless, a generation later, the film was rediscovered through the new medium of television, and has subsequently taken its place as one of the greats, a definitive example of the “screwball comedy” sub-genre, one of the finest vehicles to feature either of its iconic stars, and an influential piece of filmmaking that has inspired countless imitations and homages over the years.

The plot, based on a short story by Hagar Wilde (who also co-authored the screenplay with Dudley Nichols), focuses on one David Huxley, a paleontologist who, on the eve of his wedding to no-nonsense colleague, Miss Swallow, is sent to secure a million dollar donation to the Manhattan museum for which they both work.   It seems an open-and-shut deal- all that is required is a meeting with the donor’s attorney, upon whose approval the money will be bestowed; but David’s appointments with the lawyer are repeatedly interrupted by Susan Vance, a dizzy young society woman who seems to turn up everywhere he goes- and whose precocious antics involve him in enough confusion and mishap to blow his chances at obtaining the money.  As it happens, though, Susan turns out to be the niece of the museum’s would-be benefactor- a wealthy widow named Mrs. Random- and she promises David (with whom she has become smitten) she will persuade her aunt to donate to the museum anyway.  She enlists his help, against his will and his better judgment, to accompany him to her aunt’s country estate in order to deliver a pet leopard (named Baby) that has been sent as a gift from her big-game-hunter-brother; once they arrive, more confusion erupts, starting with Susan’s false introduction of David as a mentally unstable friend of her brother’s, and complications continue to arise- including the theft of David’s precious brontosaurus clavicle by Mrs. Random’s dog, a mix-up between Baby and an escaped (and mean-tempered) leopard from a traveling circus, and the interference of a crotchety local constable.  Through it all, David struggles to resolve the situation and make it back to the city in time for his wedding, but it becomes clear that Susan is doing everything she can to delay him and keep him by her side.

A description of the plot, in print, seems ridiculously far-fetched and convoluted; that, however, is what gives Bringing Up Baby its zany appeal on film.  The entire movie is a whirlwind of unlikely circumstances and coincidental relationships, bound together by a premise that is as flimsy as one of the diaphanous costumes that Hepburn sports onscreen.  This is the nature of the screwball comedy; we take for granted that the scenario will be ridiculous, and as long as it yields the kind of laughs we expect, we don’t mind suspending our disbelief in the absurdity of its situations.  As scenarios go, that of Bringing Up Baby is more ridiculous than most- in fact it borders on the surreal, but we accept it without batting an eye, because it also delivers more laughs than almost any other film of its era- or any other, for that matter.  It certainly helps that director Hawks drives the proceedings at a breakneck pace, scarcely giving us time to think about the credibility gaps or even to register the fast-and-furious jokes until they have already passed us by.

Much of the hilarity, however, arises from the chemistry of the two stars, perfectly matched and clearly relishing their roles; their comic banter arises so effortlessly as to belie the artificiality of the dialogue- indeed, the two performers ad-libbed some of the film’s best jokes- and they so completely inhabit their roles as to make us easily forget the many other personas they adopted on the screen over their long individual careers.  Grant in particular made a breakthrough here; his previous career had been mostly comprised of more-or-less dramatic (and none-too-weighty) leading man roles, and though he had previously appeared in The Awful Truth– another screwball classic in which he demonstrated his particular flair for comedy- nothing had prepared audiences for his work here.  Playing gleefully against type, the impossibly handsome Grant pulls off the role of the timid, nervous and befuddled bookworm without ever letting us doubt his awkward ineptitude; at the same time, he rattles off his barbed dialogue with the timing and wit of a master, making it clear that he is up to the challenge of sharing the screen with the formidable Hepburn.

As for The Great Kate, it’s hard to see her performance here and understand why she should be deemed a liability by studio executives; her sharp, patrician bearing is brilliantly undercut with a little-girlish softness that makes her instantly lovable no matter how maddeningly daffy she gets.  Careening from haughty and indignant to doe-eyed and tender and back again through all stops in between, her portrayal of Susan drives the film and gives it a heart; and even when her behavior is at its most inane, her glittering intelligence always shines through, giving this upper-crust oddball an edge that leaves no doubt of her absolute control over the entire madcap situation.  She never overwhelms her co-star, however; the two make a magnificent team, one that is immediately recognizable as perfect for each other (a conceit on which, of course, the entire movie depends), and the obvious real-life affection between them translates into an onscreen chemistry that has rarely been matched and makes this pairing one of the most iconic co-starring turns in cinematic memory.

Perfect as they may seem in their roles, both of the stars initially had trouble with the project.  Grant feared being unable to project the necessary intellectual quality of a career scientist, and was only able to relax into the the character when director Hawks told him to base his performance on the persona of silent screen comedian Harold Lloyd; Hepburn was stymied by the over-the-top zaniness of Susan, and struggled with finding the right approach until Hawks asked veteran character actor Walter Catlett, who was playing a minor role, to coach her in the art of playing outrageous comedy- he taught her the effectiveness of underplaying and naturalistic delivery (as opposed to the more deliberately comedic style she was attempting), and she was so grateful for the help that she insisted his part- the town constable with whom she tangles in the film’s climactic scene- be expanded to give her a chance to work with him more extensively.  Their initial reticence allayed, both the film’s stars settled into the rhythm of their characters and created the sparkling joint accomplishment that makes Bringing Up Baby so delightful to this day.  Their enjoyment of each other is clear to see, and infectious; they had so much fun working together on this film that shooting went over schedule (and over budget) due to their difficulty in completing their scenes without laughing.  Though doubtless this was a thorn in the side of RKO executives who were already anxious over the project, the fun translates to the screen.

Apart from the obvious joys of Hepburn and Grant’s interplay and their attractiveness both individually and as a couple, there is a more subtle aspect to their dynamic that lends a unique flavor to the goofball romance at the center of Bringing Up Baby.  Grant, though decidedly masculine in his energy and personality, plays the passive, pursued role in this relationship, while Hepburn is clearly the active aggressor.  It seems a minor twist, but by reversing the traditional gender roles of courtship in such a way, Baby sets itself apart from most of the romantic comedies that came before it.  It would be wrong to credit the film for being the first work of fiction to do this- after all, Shakespeare wrote several plays in which this inversion was explored- but Hollywood has always been known for reinforcing stereotypes, and by swapping these accepted standards of masculine and feminine behavior Bringing Up Baby became a milestone in the depiction of gender identity on the big screen.

This in itself is enough to have given the movie a special significance for GLBT audiences; but there is another point of interest here for cinema historians which also gives the movie its “gay appeal.”  In one memorable scene, Cary Grant, dressed in a frilly and feminine house robe (having had his clothes stolen by Hepburn whilst showering), is forced to meet the returning aunt- a formidable dowager- at her own front door.  The understandably flustered woman, confused by the presence of a strange man in her house, presses him impatiently with questions, and most adamantly (for some reason, though it seems the least alarming aspect of the situation) she wants to know why he is wearing those clothes; the badgered Grant, already pushed to the limit of his patience by Hepburn’s continued hijacking of his formerly sedate life, leaps in the air and shouts, “Because I just went gay, all of a sudden!”  This line, ad-libbed by Grant on the set, may be the very first instance in mainstream fiction that the word “gay” was used to denote homosexuality, though within the underground gay community it had been used as a code word since at least the 1920s.  It may not have been intentional (though frankly, it’s unlikely that a group of Hollywood sophisticates such as these would be unaware of the double meaning- particularly Grant, whose famous long-term relationship with “roommate” Randolph Scott is still the subject of much debate among his many fans), but whether it was or it wasn’t, this bold double-entendre provides one of the biggest laughs in the film, and is yet another reason why Bringing Up Baby has been accorded landmark status.

Historical footnotes aside, there are plenty of reasons to watch this little gem of late-Depression escapism today.  Not only are Hepburn and Grant a rare treat to watch, they are supported by a fine cast of character players that bring to life the assortment of other lunatics surrounding the film’s dotty protagonists.  In addition to the aforementioned Walter Catlett, whose comically cagey turn as the rural lawman provides Hepburn with a magnificent foil late in the film, there’s Charlie Ruggles (as a mild-mannered and easily flustered hunter who turns up as a guest to Mrs. Random’s estate), Barry Fitzgerald (as a heavy-drinking Irish gardener, a bit of now-inappropriate ethnic profiling that nevertheless seems innocent of malice and manages to still be funny today), perennial screen waiter Fritz Feld (here cast as a smugly pompous psychiatrist whose path keeps crossing with Hepburn’s, adding to the already-convoluted tangle of misunderstandings), and the redoubtable May Robson (as the somewhat battle-axish Mrs. Random).

More vital than any of these notables, however, are the non-human members of the supporting cast, and they too deserve mention.  Nissa, the leopard, a veteran of numerous B-movie jungle adventures, plays the dual role of both Baby and the dangerous circus escapee; the other four-legged star, in the role of the mischievous bone-thief, George, was Skippy, a terrier whose fame as “Asta” in the popular Thin Man movies made him nearly as big a draw as the human headliners, and his appearance here is highly memorable, exhibiting the exuberant canine personality that made him a natural and ensured his place as one of the immortal screen animals.

On top of the performances, Bringing Up Baby offers a fine look at late-thirties fashion and design through its sets (a sumptuous blend of Art Deco and neo-classical influences alongside the elegantly rustic charms of the Random estate, overseen by the legendary Art Director, Van Nest Polglase) and its costumes (most particularly the various range of outfits worn by Hepburn, with which designer Howard Greer manages to add some sly satirical commentary on the frivolity of fashion into the movie’s comedic recipe).  In addition, tech aficionados may find some interest in the early special effects- quite sophisticated for the time- with which the actors are sometimes made to appear with the leopard in close proximity (especially Grant, who wouldn’t go near the creature- though the fearless Hepburn directly interacted with it and can even be seen petting it in a few scenes); in several of the split screen sequences, a moving center line was required, creating a complex challenge for the technicians of the day.  They rose to it admirably; the seams are virtually invisible to all but the most attentive observers.

Bringing Up Baby, it may be clear by now, is a seminal movie for me; I have fond memories of watching it on TV with my parents, all of us laughing out loud together, and through the years I have seen it countless times- I can practically recite the dialogue along with the actors, and yet a viewing will still have me giggling uncontrollably throughout, as well as discovering nuances and subtleties that I had never noticed before.  No doubt there are many others out there with a similar relationship to this film; it was, after all, one of the first movies selected for preservation by the Library of Congress, and it has been consistently named on lists of the 100 best or funniest movies of all time.  For most, it is the movie that comes immediately to mind when the term “screwball comedy” is mentioned, and for good reason- it’s about as screwball a comedy as you can get without veering into the realm of the Looney Tunes.  For those who have yet to discover its sublime wackiness, I will give away no more than I already have; and for those who feel their modern tastes are too sophisticated for a 75-year-old comedy to provide much amusement, I can only challenge anyone to sit through Bringing Up Baby without cracking at least a smile.  After all, it has been called more than once a movie ahead of its time- which may, better than anything, explain why a film that temporarily sank the careers of both its director and its leading lady (though not, tellingly, that of the resilient Cary Grant) went on to become one of their most enduring and beloved creations.


About jpkcinemaadventures

Reviewer for the Los Angeles Blade. Not just a writer who loves film, a film buff who loves to write.

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