Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Written by Dudley Nichols & Hagar Wilde
Directed by Howard Hawks
Where It Happened One Night was a massive box office & critical success for Columbia Pictures; Bringing Up Baby was initially a bomb for RKO Pictures. It was a film explicitly written with Katharine Hepburn in mind and ended up being the culmination of a string of failures in her career at the time. For five years after winning her first Academy Award, the actress struggled to find work that connected with audiences. However, Hepburn would salvage her career three years later with The Philadelphia Story. As for Bringing Up Baby, it would find a new audience in the 1950s and is now revered as one of the great comedies of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
David Huxley (Cary Grant) is a nebbishy paleontologist who has been trying to finish his assembly of a brontosaurus skeleton for four years. He needs one last bone. David is also stressed over his impending marriage to Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker) and impressing his potential new benefactor Elizabeth Random, a wealthy heiress. While playing golf to network with influential people in the community, David crosses paths with Susan Vance (Hepburn).
Susan is a scatterbrained, free spirit who simply goes with the flow, often aloof to the situations around her. For someone as consistently nervous & on the verge of a breakdown, this is hell for poor David. It’s also incredibly anarchically funny. Susan’s brother has sent her a leopard from his travels in Brazil, and it can only be soothed by listening to “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” Susan mistakenly thinks David is a ZOO-ologist and brings him to her mansion to help with Baby, as she has named the animal. David finds he’s in a waking nightmare, while Susan discovers she’s fallen in love with this mess of a person. Hijinks ensue.
I loved this movie. The tone of humor works for me and certainly inspired future works, but it was also part of a subgenre of comedies from the era, particularly those made by The Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges. The script isn’t as concerned about having characters grow as you see in a traditional romantic comedy. They fall in love because that’s simply a stock plot. You can tell the love went into the picture by creating ridiculous scenarios, highlighting slapstick comedy, and letting the actors play off each other. My favorite thing was being introduced to just how hilarious Katharine Hepburn is.
To date, I have only seen three films in which Hepburn stars: this one, The African Queen and On Golden Pond. I was not a fan of that last film, no fault of Hepburn’s, and I enjoyed The African Queen but didn’t see her as a comedic genius. Bringing Up Baby, however, deeply interested me in the actress’s earlier work because she was so funny. It’s not even the big set pieces that got me, but the little asides and obvious improv moments on the set. For example, Susan breaks one of her heels midway through the movie, making her walk funny, and starts walking back and forth, remarking that it looks like she grew up on the side of a hill. It’s a comment that feels genuine from her, an observation made on set, and the way it’s delivered and her follow-up of marching back and forth with this ridiculous limp made me laugh pretty hard.
Director Howard Hawks was clearly inspired by the antics of the Marx Brothers, and that is a perfect fit. In the Marx Brothers’ pictures, you’d often have two young people in a subplot romance, which is usually the worst thing in those movies. Here the romance is folded into the frenetic comedy, and it works so much better. The amount of pratfalls in this film also proves an interesting point. You’ll sometimes hear comedians talk about the role of repetition in comedy and how continuing to do a stupid thing again & again can eventually become funnier out of the sheer absurdity of its frequency. That happens in Bringing Up Baby with Cary Grant. He takes so many pratfalls that it flows into that space of being hilarious because you would think David would be acting with more caution at some point. There’s a scene in here where he pratfalls around a dozen times, and it is so insanely stupid & funny.
A lot of rich comedy comes out of the personality clash between David and Susan. He’ll make a remark that she interprets in a slightly different way, resulting in the utterly wrong takeaway. It never frames Susan as dumb or bad; it makes her even funnier. During their initial meeting, Susan mistakes David’s golf ball for her own. He gets into a verbal confrontation with her, following the woman to the parking lot after she’s done. Watch it below:
Or this scene where the pair have to talk their way out of jail:
For Hepburn’s first comedy, she knocks it out of the park. That’s probably due to her openness as an actor, seeking advice from vaudeville veteran Walter Catlett (who plays the constable here) on how to not go too big with comedy. Having only ever watched two Howard Hawks films (this one and Rio Bravo), I am keenly interested in his comedies, hoping they all have these same sensibilities in them. I went into Bringing Up Baby with moderate expectations and was delightfully surprised.