Bringing Up Baby (1938)

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  • directed by Howard Hawks
  • starring Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Charles Ruggles, May Robson
  • While trying to secure a donation for his museum, a befuddled paleontologist is pursued by a flighty heiress and her pet leopard.

Susan: Now, certainly you can’t think I did that intentionally!
David: Well, if I could think, I’d have run when I saw you!

If you’re going to go all out on a comedy, you might as well throw away any semblance of rules and commit so fully that your career is then in jeopardy because of it. That takes brass and, in the case of Katherine Hepburn and director Howard Hawks, it was the reality they faced after the release of Bringing Up Baby. Often credited with creating the screwball comedy with 1934’s Twentieth Century, it’s quite possible that here Howard Hawks had seen enough and set out to destroy it, firing off all tropes and stretching its limits nearing the point of outright parody. The movie flopped hard and on one hand I can see why, but on the other, this was Hepburn, Hawks, and Grant operating with the utmost confidence in their abilities, apparently taking not much else into consideration. Shoot fast and question later if ever had to have been the philosophy. Only after the movie had failed did they all questioned their choices. Hepburn specifically underwent extensive training when it came to physical comedy and timing for this role and said she never felt quite right in the process. But what she, her costar, her director, and the public didn’t see at the time was that on many different levels, especially the the way it loosely played around with typical 1930’s gender roles in film, it was all working.

Where to begin? Well, first off it seems important to note that Cary Grant’s David, our leading man, is essentially a 1930s version of Steve Urkel. As a paleontologist he obsesses over his latest clavicle bone delivery, his life is completely run by his colleague/fiance who allows him zero time outside of scientific pursuits, and he carries himself with an immense amount of social awkwardness. The way Grant plays him, you can literally hear David moaning and fidgeting through most of his scene partners’ speaking parts. Woe is him, and the women in his life–his fiance and now this new scatterbrained partner–lead him by the ear through nothing but trouble.

This may be some people’s version of a classic romantic comedy, but for me there was just not much room for romance in this film. The chemistry between Hepburn and Grant is immeasurable, but it might as well have been a buddy cop movie. They do impersonations through certain scenes, carry out dialogue in spontaneous song, and are obviously having a great time together. It’s infectious. But any sort of “will they” or “won’t they” get together in the end is completely besides the point.

How else can you describe a movie that mostly takes place in pursuit of a leopard that the couple lost…in Connecticut? Not just one leopard, mind you, but there are enough leopards in this movie that at the end there is the possibility that Susan will be mauled by the wrong leopard. Not the one she thought she was leading through the streets of New York on a leash, but a different, more-wild leopard acquired by mistake. Serious kudos to all involved for acting alongside such a wild animal. I don’t know how sophisticated training was back in the 30s, but even today, “trained” animals kill. To think we’d be robbed of The Philadelphia Story because Baby the cat decided to get snippy one day on set was a major gamble.

It’s really interesting that this movie was so repellant to audiences at the time. I will admit that Hepburn’s Susan and her fanciful sense of ignorance did get grating here and there, but it’s easy to see now that this was clearly an actress at the top of her game. Music, slapstick comedy,  and leading lady charm…what was the problem, exactly? She wore pants?

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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