Bringing Up Baby (1938)

/ Leave a comment
Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Bringing Up Baby (1938). 102 minutes. Directed by Howard Hawks. Starring Cary Grant (as Dr. David Huxley), Katharine Hepburn (as Susan Vance), May Robson (as Elizabeth Carlton Random), Charles Ruggles (as Major Horace Applegate), Walter Catlett (as Constable Slocum), Barry Fitzgerald (as Aloysius Gogarty), Fritz Feld (as Dr. Fritz Lehman), Virginia Walker (as Alice Swallow), and George Irving (as Alexander Peabody).

Modern critics such as Peter Bogdanovich are right to give Bringing Up Baby high praise: it is wonderfully hilarious. But oddly enough, it was not a success upon its initial release. In fact, its failure was so painful to RKO that the studio fired its director, Howard Hawks. Following the release of the movie, Katharine Hepburn was labeled box-office poison by the president of the Independent Theatre Owners of America and left RKO as well. But Bringing Up Baby earned its well-deserved reputation for wit, expert pacing, and fantastic performances across the board when it was revived in the 1950s, and it has been held up as one of the finest comedies of Hollywood’s Golden Age ever since.

The plot is exceedingly silly. Dr. David Huxley, a paleontologist at a New York museum, is engaged to be married to Alice Swallow, must convince the wealthy Elizabeth Random (whom he has not met) to donate $1 million to the museum, and must finish assembling his prize brontosaurus skeleton with a rare intercostal clavicle bone. On the golf course with Mrs. Random’s lawyer, Mr. Peabody, he encounters Susan Vance, who disrupts his game of golf and damages his car. Later at a nightclub he meets Susan again and destroys both his and her clothes; he must escape before Mr. Peabody, whom he has arranged to meet there, sees him.

The next day, Susan persuades David to come to her apartment, where she is keeping a tame leopard named Baby that she must bring to her aunt at the family home in Connecticut. She persuades David, with the newly arrived clavicle in tow, to help her transport the animal. Once in Connecticut, her dog George steals the clavicle and runs off with it. After digging up the grounds for the missing bone, David loses his clothes and greets Susan’s aunt, who it turns out is Mrs. Random, at the door in Susan’s negligee. Susan invents another name for him to protect his reputation. They barely survive a dinner with Mrs. Random and her companion Major Applegate, when the leopard escapes from the barn and begins to howl. Major Applegate, who happens to be a big game hunter, pursues it with a rifle. David and Susan search for Baby, the dog George, and a second leopard from a nearby circus that they mistake for Baby and that has a mean streak. All of the characters wind up in jail, where both a constable and a psychologist determine that they are insane. But everything works out in the end, with Susan and David back in New York and in love, in spite of the fact that Susan brings about the cataclysmic collapse of the brontosaurus skeleton that David has been laboring to assemble.

Bringing Up Baby reminds me of some of the most wonderful plays by Shakespeare. In the twentieth century, C. L. Barber argued that if you wanted to understand Shakespeare’s comedies, you had to understand the holiday mindset that they were a part of. Bringing Up Baby is actually about a man at work—David, a paleontologist who labors both for Mrs. Random’s donation and for the recovery of the rare dinosaur clavicle—so we might argue that it is about a person who is acting out of concern for a career, not out of the ease or leisure of festive times. But when we look at David’s companion Susan, who does not once mention her occupation and seems to delight in mayhem, then we see more of what Barber might have called “a holiday mood.” In Susan’s clever attempts to track down George the dog, recover the leopard Baby, and escape from prison, she manifests the sort of playful, feisty, spirited, resourceful, and inventive nature that we associate with Shakespeare’s festive comedy protagonists such as As You Like It’s Rosalynd and Much Ado About Nothing’s Beatrice. As Susan goes about those activities, she jokes, teases, and falls in love, much like her Shakespearean counterparts. The seemingly limitless time that Susan can devote to the pursuit of these objectives speaks to her living in a festive dimension, and it is the intersection of her festive world with the straight-laced and work-driven world of David that produces the madcap antics of the movie at large.

The movie is best known as a screwball comedy, a genre that flourished during the Great Depression and typically focused on a male-female pair, not married, who squabble while exchanging fast-paced and witty banter, often in absurd situations, until the movie reaches its conclusion and the two acknowledge that they are in love. The plot often transports one or both of them into a new environment, where the two can act out a sort of escapist scenario that removes them from unpleasant family situations (It Happened One Night, 1934) or the harsh reality of their living conditions (My Man Godfrey, 1936). In Bringing Up Baby, David is plucked out of his work as a paleontologist in the city and carried off to the Connecticut countryside where his life is turned upside down. But the location is not responsible for introducing the screwball element. Whereas the location of a later movie such as Christmas in Connecticut (1945) comes with its own transformative rural power, the farcical actions in Bringing Up Baby emanate from the Susan character and follow her regardless of where she is.

To give you a sense of what some of these farcical actions are, and how many of them there are, I have prepared a list of the prominent gags that appear in the movie: Grant’s nerdy glasses, Grant wearing women’s clothing, Grant wearing a ridiculous riding outfit with socks and sandals, the introduction of a small and naughty dog, the missing dinosaur bone, Grant and Hepburn digging holes in order to locate the bone and turning up endless pairs of old boots, the two protagonists singing the jazz tune “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” in harmony to Baby in an attempt to attract and soothe it, characters falling into a stream and drying out their clothes by a makeshift campfire, a big game hunter making animal calls, a drunken Irish caretaker, ripped clothing that exposes Hepburn’s underwear in a nightclub, Hepburn’s absurd headgear, a car crash, scenes in jail with mistaken identities, Hepburn talking like a gangster’s moll, a Germanic psychologist who wishes to analyze the protagonists, and a giant brontosaurus skeleton that the characters destroy. The profuse gags are supplemented by nearly constant chatter from David and Susan, and the dialogue frequently overlaps. Later directors such as Robert Altman and Woody Allen would use this technique both to create a more realistic feel to dialogue and also, in Altman’s case, to make the audience work harder to distill important information. In Bringing Up Baby, however, the overlapping dialogue produces a different effect. We feel overwhelmed by the incessant, competing patter—overloaded.

Part of the movie’s success is owed to this spirit of abundance. It is as if in overwhelming us with quickly moving, repeated details, the film’s direction is itself engaging in the kind of holiday mood that Susan embodies. Consider how the movie attempts to stimulate us by stringing together a plethora of events in only one portion of the film: as the characters prattle on, David and Susan chase George the dog, Mrs. Random and Major Applegate chase them, the leopard turns into two leopards, Susan locates one leopard on a roof, she sings to it with David, the psychologist Dr. Lehman pops out of a window and realizes that he has seen David and Susan in an earlier scene. The reappearance of Dr. Lehman establishes that every reference uncovered early in the movie has a payoff later in the movie—that is the neatness of the Chekov’s gun principle at work. But by offering us many, many guns and showing them all in use by the end, the movie is launching us into a very special kind of comic territory, one in which we feel almost bewildered by opportunities for laughter. When the dinosaur skeleton comes crashing down at the end, it is like a tremendous comic release that has been stewing and brewing for 100 minutes.

Cary Grant made this movie hot off of the success of The Awful Truth (1937), where he demonstrated his comic abilities. He is wonderful here as a fussy and flabbergasted nerd. It is amazing to think that comedy did not come as easily to Katharine Hepburn. This was her first comedy, and director Howard Hawks noticed that she was struggling. He enlisted vaudeville veteran Walter Catlett (who plays Constable Slocum) to teach her how to be funny by not trying so hard. To watch the finished product, you would never guess that she was not a natural. As Susan she is hilarious, elegant, and human, and she handles the fast pace marvelously.

Her role in this film has been identified by The A.V. Club as an early example of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl film archetype, a sort of “anarchic change agent” who helps a male protagonist come to an important realization, with no real motivation or inner life of her own. Whatever you may think of this archetype and its usefulness, I suggest that Hepburn’s Susan is not a good example of it. Yes, Susan is spunky and manic-ish, and she is in love with David, whom she tries to assist, but she is horrible at helping him and nearly ruins his life. Moreover, she does have an inner and outer life: she has a family; she has an apartment and a family home, and we see her spend time in both; she has a romantic interior; and she has her own mission in the film that she would have without David’s participation—she is trying to move the leopard Baby from New York to Connecticut to deliver it to Mrs. Random, and once there, she tries to recover it when it escapes. I should also point out that the movie, not coincidentally, is named for Susan’s leopard and plot, not David’s bone and not David’s museum grant, which implies that her story is at least as important, if not more so, than his is.

Perhaps one of the reasons that it is possible to see anarchic energy in Susan is because it is possible to see it in every character in this movie. Lewis Carroll’s “We’re all mad here” could easily serve as the movie’s epigram. Hawks said in retrospect that he made a mistake in Bringing Up Baby by showing that everyone in it was insane—but that is precisely what I love about this movie. It is a bit like what might happen if Grant and Hepburn were in a more elegant version of a Marx Brothers film. That kind of crazed comic energy was something that movies manifested broadly in the 1930s, and it is delightful to see titans such as Hawks, Grant, and Hepburn participating in such a wild and liberating tradition at the peak of its expression in film.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *