Along with Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934), Howard Hawks's Bringing Up Baby is arguably the preeminent screwball comedy-a perfect embodiment of the sophisticated charm, witty and rich dialogue, impeccable timing, and imaginatively madcap unreality that made the genre so unique and enjoyable. There is a touch of irony in that statement because, while Capra's film was a box office hit and major Oscar winner (one of only three films to sweep the top five awards), Bringing Up Baby fizzled during its theatrical release. It was around this same time that the film's star, Katherine Hepburn, was labeled "box office poison" by a survey of theater managers.
Hepburn plays Susan Vance, a zany (is there any other word to describe her?) heiress who becomes fixated on the bespectacled David Huxley (Cary Grant), a stuffy, overworked zoologist who is engaged to an even stuffier zoologist who doesn't want "domestic entanglements" like honeymoons, sex, and children to get in the way of their marriage. Through a series of coincidences, misadventures, and planned schemes over the course of two days, Susan burrows into David's life, throwing it completely out of whack. For the first part of the film, it seems like everything between them is merely a happenstance. However, once Susan finds out that David is getting married the next day, everything she does is in the pursuit of keeping him away from his wedding date in New York. In this way, Susan is the essence of the liberated, strong, and wily woman that characterized the screwball comedies-determined, unembarrassed, and relentlessly committed to her plan.
Susan and David first meet on a golf course when David is trying-in his own awkward way-to woo a corporate lawyer into donating $1 million to his museum. The lawyer represents the actual donor, a wealthy woman named Elizabeth (May Robson), who happens to be Susan's aunt. By the time the movie reaches its zenith, it has incorporated a big-talking game hunter named Major Horace Applegate (Charlie Ruggles), a small, yapping dog named George that steals a precious dinosaur bone David needs to complete a brontosaurus skeleton, and the "Baby" of the title, a (mostly) tame leopard.
Like the majority of screwball comedies, Bringing Up Baby is distinctly American and upper class in nature. It takes place in a privileged world of golf courses, expansive hotels, museums, and sprawling houses on vast acreage. The slapstick pranks framed in these settings take on entirely different meanings than if they had been taken place in the kind of harsh, poverty-stricken environments-urban ghettos, rural farms-that characterized the worldwide Depression of the era. Instead of being social critique like, for example, Charles Chaplin's films, screwball comedies were pure, unapologetic escapism. Audiences suffering under the weight of the Great Depression sought the movie houses for escape, and what better escape when you're in dire straits that to laugh at those better off than you?
But the magic of Bringing Up Baby can hardly be confined to the period in which it was made. Although it wasn't a box office hit when it was first released in 1938 (in fact, it lost several hundred thousand dollars, partially because Hawks went overbudget), it has gained in status and popularity as the years have passed. It is now widely recognized as one of the essential films of the classic Hollywood era, with outstanding direction by Hawks, perfectly balanced cinematography by the legendary Russell Metty (a regular collaborator of Orson Welles's who later won an Oscar for Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus), and truly memorable performances by everyone involved, especially Hepburn and Grant, the latter of whom was just coming into his own as a romantic leading man, especially after his starring role in Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth (1937).
The quick, finely tuned dialogue was courtesy of screenwriters Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach, Pinky) and Hagar Wilde, whose 1937 Collier's short story provided the film's source material, and Grant and Hepburn deliver it in engaging long takes with perfectly timed wit and sharpness. The tone and rhythm of their petty bickering, with Grant scolding and Hepburn generally misunderstanding everything he says (willfully, it often seems) is an art in and of itself. The physical comedy, including Grant trying to hide Hepburn's exposed backside when she tears her dress and Grant parading about the house in a marabou-trimmed nglige because Hepburn has stolen his clothes, is only icing on the cake. (Incidentally, that scene is regarded as one of the first instances where the word "gay" was used to connote homosexuality in a mainstream film. When asked why he's wearing a woman's robe, Grant jumps up in a fit of frustration and blurts, "Because I just went gay all of a sudden!" How the censors at the Production Code Administration let that line through is a bit of a mystery, with one possible explanation being that they simply didn't get the double meaning of the word.)
A crown jewel of the classical Hollywood era and one of the finest screwball comedies ever made, Bringing Up Baby is a genuine comic treasure and a film that grows richer and funnier with each viewing. It takes place in a world this is distinctly ours, and yet, has never really existed. It is, in essence, what the magic of the movies is all about-transporting us to another time and place while simultaneously allowing us to see a bit of ourselves.
Copyright © 2021 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © The Criterion Collection
Overall Rating: (4)
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