Bringing Up Baby
MPAA Rating : Not Rated
Year of Release : 1938
Stars : Katharine Hepburn (Susan Vance), Cary Grant (David Huxley), Charlie Ruggles (Major Horace Applegate), May Robson (Aunt Elizabeth), Barry Fitzgerald (Mr. Gogarty), Walter Catlett (Constable Slocum), Fritz Feld (Dr. Fritz Lehman), Leona Roberts (Hannah Gogarty), George Irving (Alexander Peabody)
When I watch screwball comedies like "Bringing Up Baby," there is a certain part of me that laments the fact that our culture has become so jaded and cynical that a movie like this could never be made again.
Oh sure, there have been some attempts in the last ten to twenty years, most notably two Madonna vehicles: "Desperately Seeking Susan" (1985) and "Who's That Girl?" (1987), the second of which is an awful, thinly disguised modern update of "Bringing Up Baby." Peter Bogdanovich, always in love with classic films, tried to resurrect the genre in the early '70s with "What's Up, Doc?" (1972), but it just didn't catch hold. Some argument can be made that the TV show "Moonlighting" was inspired by screwball comedies, but that series ended almost a decade ago.
Nowadays, people want their comedy open, obvious, and graphic. The enjoyment gleaned from fast-paced, rhythmic verbal exchanges and double-entendres simply won't satisfy audiences anymore. Instead, screwball has morphed into grossness, with the undeniably hilarious "There's Something About Mary" being the most obvious example. But, despite the humor of movies of that sort, they lack the sophisticated charm and the imaginatively unreal essence of the screwball films that made them so unique and enjoyable.
Along with "It Happened One Night" (1934), Howard Hawks' "Bringing Up Baby" is perhaps the most memorable screwball comedy. There is a touch of irony in that statement, because the movie was a complete bomb when it was first released. In fact, in a survey of theater managers, the lead female star, Katherine Hepburn, was labeled "box office poison." 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). David is a stuffy, overworked zoologist who's engaged to an even stuffier female 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 works her way into David's life, completely throwing it 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 arguably 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.
She and David first meet on a golf course when David is trying--in his own clumsy 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 a tame leopard, the "Baby" of the title.
Like the majority of screwball comedies, "Bringing Up Baby" is distinctly American and distinctly upper class in nature. It takes place in a suburban world of golf courses, expensive hotels, museums, and large houses with lots of land. The slapstick pranks framed in these settings take on entirely different meanings than if they had been framed in the kind of harsh, poor environments--city ghettos, rural farms, etc.--that characterized the world-wide Depression of the era. Instead of being social critique like the Chaplin films, the screwball comedies were pure escapism. People with monetary problems 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, it has gained status and popularity in the years that have passed. It is now seen as one of the essential films of the classic Hollywood era, with outstanding if sometimes crazy direction by Howard Hawks, and truly memorable performances by everyone involved.
Of course, much of the movie's fun is more in listening to it than watching it. The superb dialogue by screenwriters Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde is delivered with perfectly timed wit and sharpness by Hepburn and Grant. The tone and rhythm of their petty bickering, with Grant scolding and Hepburn generally misunderstanding everything he says, is an art form 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 frilly woman's robe because Hepburn has stolen his clothes, is only icing on the cake.
Incidentally, the scene with Grant in the woman's robe is regarded as the first instance where the word "gay" was used to connote homosexuality in a product of popular culture (when asked why he's wearing the robe, Grant jumps up in a fit of frustration and blurts, "Because I just went gay all of a sudden!"). The only reason the censors let it remain in the movie is because they didn't know what the word "gay" meant in that context.
Only the most jaded of cynics could see "Bringing Up Baby" and not walk out in a good mood. It takes place in a world this is distinctly out own, and yet, it has never existed. In essence, it is what the magic of the movies is all about--transporting us to another time and place, but allowing us to see ourselves nonetheless.
©1998 James Kendrick