BRINGING UP BABY (1938)
While trying to secure a $1M donation for his museum, a befuddled palaeontologist is pursued by a flighty and often irritating heiress and her pet leopard.
“It’s a story about a girl who gets a leopard.” That’s how Howard Hawks summed-up his classic comedy Bringing Up Baby. It’s also about a man who loses a bone, the dog that stole it, and two people who find each other. While risqué for its time, it remains a lively, feel-good rom-com; and what was once a contemporary backdrop now brings added enjoyment as a period setting.
A modern audience may overlook the humour exploiting the public personae of Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, both Hollywood superstars at the time and cast against type here. Regardless, the screenplay remains undeniably witty, the story cleverly contrived, and the situations suitably absurd. So, hopefully, this new Criterion Blu-ray, struck from a digitally restored 4K transfer, will attract younger people and perhaps spark a renaissance for screwball comedies more generally. And this is a classic of that genre.
On the day before mild-mannered palaeontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant) is to wed his fiancée, Alice (Virginia Walker), a telegram arrives with news that the final bone for his brontosaurus skeleton has been found. He’s overjoyed and looking forward to completing four years of painstaking work, when he can place the final piece in the museum’s fossil display. And he thinks it will give them something to look forward to on return from their honeymoon, but Alice has a different idea, insisting they postpone the nuptials so he can return to the museum directly after the ceremony. His work, she argues, is far more important, and that kind of impulsive attitude doesn’t suit the man she plans to spend her life with. She also reminds him that he must run along to the golf club to play a round with a potential sponsor who’s offering a million dollars to a worthy cause.
So, on the surface it seems that David and Alice are well-suited. I mean, they have plenty in common and both seem passionate about the museum. Thing is, they don’t seem all that passionate about each other, and we already get the feeling they may need rescuing from themselves. So, perhaps it’s fate that Susan Vance (Kathrine Hepburn) mistakenly plays David’s ball on the golf course. This confusion takes him away from Mr Peabody (George Irving), with whom he’s discussing the possible donation, and is further exacerbated when Susan ‘mistakenly’ drives off in David’s car!
A good portion of the ensuing humour in Bringing Up Baby relies on mistaking one thing for another or misjudging something at ‘face-value’, along with a string of highly unlikely coincidences. But could Susan really be such a scatter-brained, ditsy dame? Her motivations are unclear at this point, perhaps even to herself. We later learn she’s also hoping to be a beneficiary of the million-dollar donation. So, was she distracting David on purpose, trying to make him look the fool in front of Peabody? As we get to know her, it doesn’t seem likely she would be so malicious or scheming, and it’s a tribute to Hepburn’s performance that she manages to make Susan cute and likeable instead of simply infuriating. This will be the deciding factor between finding the movie hilarious—which it is—or downright irritating. As with all comedies, that depends on the viewer’s sense of humour and whether they have the stamina.
Even by today’s standard, the slick dialogue may seem a little too quick-fire for some, and constant vigilance is required to catch every gag and witty repost. Even so, there’s bound to be subtleties and asides that one only picks up on subsequent viewings. Howard Hawks had a philosophy that an audience is always quicker and cleverer than expected. In this case, though, he seems to have misjudged their ability to keep up!
Having both starred in Sylvia Scarlett (1935), this was the second of four films that Grant and Hepburn made together, and here they were cresting their first wave of superstardom. They’d be paired once again, almost immediately, in Holiday (1938). Though Katherine Hepburn’s career was about to break up on the rugged rocks of the box office shore… as, just three months after Bringing Up Baby was released, she was among a list of seven ‘has-beens’ named by Harry Brandt, president of the Independent Theatre Owners of America, in the Hollywood Reporter of May 1938. His privately placed article even coined the phrase ‘box office poison.’
Bringing Up Baby didn’t exactly flop, but it struggled to claw back its budget of just over $1M. Though less extreme than Hawks’s well-regarded screwball follow-up, His Girl Friday (1940), which again starred Cary Grant (this time opposite Rosalind Russell), it’s difficult for us to comprehend how different Bringing Up Baby was to its predecessors. It was certainly too much for some audiences at the time, who found it tiring, but the breakthrough that Hawks made here was the tireless pacing of delivery.
Traditionally, comedies would signal when a witty line had dropped. The edit would isolate or highlight the punchline, directly followed by a pause so the audience’s laughter had time to subside and they wouldn’t miss the next precious line. This convention became less necessary as cinema sound systems improved and with the much later advent of home entertainment. Also, professional actors, who’d cut their teeth on a theatre’s stage, knew not to ‘step on’ another star’s lines. So, the end of a phrase in dialogue was their cue to step in with the next. Hawks threw out those conventions and more-or-less invented this rapid repartee style of comedy.
Apparently, Hawks would spend a lot of time rehearsing key scenes, and that’s evident in their assured slickness. Even though the action and dialogue were incredibly complex and relied on perfect timing, they’d often screen as single, flowing takes. The problem with rehearsing so much is the actors get so used to the script that it starts to sound sterile and stilted. The solution that Hawks came up with was to hand the cast a rewritten script on the morning of a shoot! There was additional dialogue to be learned and their lines had been extended at both ends. This served a two-fold purpose. As the actors delivered the new material, they were struggling to remember the over-rehearsed bits and so came across as refreshed and more naturalistic. Also, the cues for each actor to pick up from their fellow cast members were now embedded in the longer lines causing the conversation to overlap. Genius!
The pace may have overloaded some viewers, but it proved to be a stylistic innovation that eventually caught on and modernised the comedy genre. Whenever a list of the best screwball comedies is drawn up, Bringing Up Baby invariably makes the top 10. It’s certainly among my favourites and is a near definitive example of the genre. But what makes a comedy ‘screwball’?
Typically, the screwball comedy involves an array of what we’d now call ‘zany characters’. In 1930s slang, they’d be the ‘screwballs’. Genre signifiers nearly always include a challenge to masculinity and an almost feminist portrayal of strong women. At the time, Cary Grant had a reputation as the handsome leading man, but here he’s playing a sort of absent-minded professor, with thick-rimmed glasses and tweed. His fiancée, Alice seems to ‘wear the trousers’ in their relationship and he definitely falls victim, and finally a most willing one, to the womanly wiles of Susan who remains far more in control of the situation.
In one scene he finds the only available attire for him is a froufrou, fur-trimmed negligee. When Susan’s Aunt Elizabeth (May Robson) asks why he’s wearing women’s clothes, he replies “because I just went gay all of a sudden!” This is believed to be the earliest mainstream use of the term ‘gay’ relating to gender identity. At the time it got past the censors (who would’ve disapproved) because that was not yet in common usage.
Screwball comedies also need some element of role-reversal and mistaken identity. There’s plenty to go around here! David doesn’t realise that Susan’s Aunt is the actual benefactor offering the million-dollar donation, but he still covers his embarrassment by assuming a false identity as ‘Mr Bone’. The moniker arises from overlapping dialogue when George, the dog (Skippy aka Aster), steals the valuable fossil and buries it in the garden. It turns out that Baby, the tame leopard (Nessa), was intended for Aunt Elizabeth as an exotic pet when it was delivered to Susan… and if that wasn’t enough confusion for you, another identical and decidedly untamed leopard escapes from a local circus and, toward the finale, Susan pretends to be a gangster ringleader to get out of jail!
The entire cast do a splendid job and, as we now know, both Grant and Hepburn were far from being ‘box office poison’ and went from strength-to-strength. Hawks delivered many more great movies over the ensuing four decades, such as my favourite screwball comedy Ball of Fire (1941), notable noir The Big Sleep (1946), another animal themed rom-com romp called Monkey Business (1952), with classic western Rio Lobo (1970) as a career finale. He’s said that he regretted making every character in Bringing Up Baby a ‘screwball’ as there wasn’t a normal, down-to-earth one among them. But that’s also what makes it one of the screwiest screwball comedies one could wish for.
USA | 1938 | 102 MINUTES | 1.37:1 | BLACK & WHITE | ENGLISH
director: Howard Hawks.
writers: Dudley Nichols & Hagar Wilde (based on the story by Hagar Wilde).
starring: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Charles Ruggles, Walter Catlett, Barry Fitzgerald, May Robson, Fritz Feld, Leona Roberts, George Irving, Tala Birell, Virginia Walker & John Kelly.