85 – Bringing Up Baby:
So who here has ever heard of a Screwball Comedy? It’s a very specific subgenre of comedy. It’s not just, say, a bunch of people caught up in a wacky adventure. Screwball Comedy has a pretty logical story structure, not unlike Slasher Films or Film Noir. The former involves a serial killer stalking a group of teenagers. The latter involves an innocent slowly getting dragged into the darkness of the crime world. Screwball Comedy has to have a couple who are completely mismatched. Usually a man and woman from different social classes works best. They have to be thrown into silly and zany situations, where they’re at odds in the beginning – but ultimately fall in love and end up together. There’s usually plenty of slapstick too. This subgenre was really popular during the 1930s and 40s – and it’s not hard to see why. During the Great Depression, audiences needed a laugh. And the escapist nature of Screwball Comedy was just what they wanted. Bringing Up Baby was not the first of the subgenre – but it’s one of the most memorable. So shall we see what the fuss is all about?
We’re introduced to our protagonist Dr David Huxley, played by Cary Grant. Mr Grant was of course one of the biggest stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Known for his rhythmic speech patterns and dashing good looks, he was synonymous with suave sophistication. Put it this way – there’s good reason to suggest that Mr Grant was the inspiration for James Bond. Even if it’s not true, Cary Grant was probably the closest thing to a real life James Bond there was. But not in this film. Grant happily plays against his usual suave types to give us a neurotic dorky palaeontologist. He’s just got some good news; archaeologists have discovered the final piece needed to complete a brontosaurus skeleton in their museum. It’s an intercostal clavicle which unfortunately is…erm…
You know how the clavicle connects the ribcage to the shoulders? ‘Intercostal’ means ‘between the ribs’. So David’s in for a big disappointment when he tries to slot that bone into the skeleton. He’s in for an even bigger disappointment when his fiancée – Alice Swallow – informs him that their wedding tomorrow won’t be a celebration. There’s to be no honeymoon, as David will have to go straight back to work afterwards. And Ms Swallow informs him that their marriage is to have “no domestic entanglements of any kind.”
Later that day, David is playing golf with a Mr Peabody. He’s under strict orders from Ms Swallow to make sure Mr Peabody wins, as he’s the lawyer of a rich widow he wants to get some funding from. At the golf club, he bumps into Susan Vance – played by Katherine Hepburn. Like Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn was going wildly against type here. She usually played strong independent hyper-competent women of power. So here she’s playing a ditzy scatter-brained heiress. She’s so scatter-brained that she gets into the wrong car and tries to drive it out of the parking lot. The car is actually David’s and the poor schmuck spends quite a few agonising seconds trying to explain the situation to her. But the scene ends with Susan driving out, and David clinging on for dear life.
That night, David is to meet Mr Peabody for dinner. Susan is also there, and David is reunited with her when he trips on an olive she had dropped on the floor. Susan ends up chatting to a psychologist and gets his professional opinion: David must be infatuated with her. But the real thing to remember is that Susan picks up the wrong purse from the table (having left hers at the bar). She gets David to hold the purse while she searches for hers. The psychologist’s wife mistakenly thinks David has stolen it, but Susan actually does explain the situation. She doesn’t endear herself to David by accidentally tearing his coat. He returns the favour by accidentally ripping the back off Susan’s dress. His attempts at trying to cover Susan with his hat and explain it to her are nothing short of hysterical. He’s forced to walk behind her all the way out the door, even when Mr Peabody is visible at the next table.
Susan reveals that she actually is good friends with Mr Peabody – nicknaming him ‘Boopie’ – and she drives David to his house. By the time they get there, it’s late and he’s in bed. Susan decides to wake him up by throwing pebbles at his window. She really gets unlucky on the second try – and hits Peabody in the head with a rock. After they’ve fled back to David’s apartment, he bids Susan goodnight and wishes to never set eyes on her again. The next morning, David’s bone is delivered by post. But his joy is short-lived when Susan rings him with the news that a leopard has been delivered to her.
This rather brilliant effect was pulled off through a combination of split-screen effects, rear projection and a trained leopard kept in control. Katherine Hepburn was especially fearless around the leopard, which is why Susan usually has more interaction with it. Cary Grant meanwhile was terrified, requiring stand-ins for a few shots. David mistakenly believes that the leopard is attacking Susan and hurries over to her apartment. The leopard – named Baby – is a present from her brother Mark. He seems to take a liking to David and follows him when he tries to leave. Susan coaxes Baby into the car with the song “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” – and David finds himself on the way to her farm in Connecticut. Things don’t get any better when they cause a truck carrying chickens to crash…
Off-screen David apparently had to wrestle Baby away from a bunch of swans in the park. As such, he stops in a butcher’s to get some meet for the animal. Susan parks the car alongside a fire hydrant, which is against the law. She talks her way out of a ticket by claiming her car is the one next to it – when Baby hops inside. So she ends up stealing her second car in two days – and the car actually belongs to the same psychologist they got into some bother with last night. When they get to Susan’s farm, David gets cleaned up in the shower. Susan has his clothes sent into town to be pressed – knowing it’ll delay him.
When Susan hops into the shower, David is in quite a predicament without any clothes. So he runs around the house in one of Susan’s robes looking for some. Susan’s Aunt Elizabeth arrives home and naturally is a little bewildered to see a young man wearing a woman’s bathrobe. David sarcastically responds:
You might be thinking that this is one of those times where people say the word meaning happy/carefree/joyful. But actually this is thought to be one of the first times the word was used in its modern meaning. It was also ad-libbed by Cary Grant on set, and the abrupt cut to another shot indicates the crew ended up corpsing as a result. Susan tells her aunt that David is a friend of hers who’s suffering from a nervous breakdown (but of course forgets to mention that she’s the cause of said breakdown). While everyone is bickering, the dog George gets into the room where David’s left his intercostal clavicle.
It turns out that David’s Mr Peabody is actually Aunt Elizabeth’s lawyer. And she’s the very woman who will be giving away $1 million. David urges Susan to not let Aunt Elizabeth know who he is, in case he jeopardises the museum’s funding. But once they find the bone gone, they chase after George to try and find where he’s buried it. As there is an hour left to go in the movie – and it’s 26-acre garden – they don’t find it. Susan also tells Aunt Elizabeth that he’s a game hunter called David Bone. This has funny side-effects when she attempts to introduce him to the visiting Major Applegate. Needless to say, there’s no chance of David getting married today.
That evening, the drunk gardener accidentally lets Baby out of the garage. Susan and David do some damage control by calling the zoo about an escaped leopard. But when Aunt Elizabeth gets a telegram from Mark, it turns out that Baby was a gift for her. And David has already called the zoo. So he and Susan must go out and catch the leopard themselves. Things go about as well as they’ve been going all day, with Susan getting tangled in poison ivy and David falling down a hill. But they find George and Baby together on the other side of a stream…
…that’s actually a river. They lose a few minutes drying off, during which Susan reveals that Mr Peabody will be visiting tonight. David can worry about that later – as they hear music coming from a nearby circus. The circus has a problem with their leopard and get animal control to take him away. Unfortunately, the truck drives by David and Susan – who think the dangerous leopard is Baby. Susan lets the leopard out but it gets away. Elsewhere they hear gunshots – as Major Applegate is trying to find the leopard too. They at least explain that Baby is tame and a gift for Aunt Elizabeth. But after they split up, Applegate and the gardener bump into the circus leopard.
Things get worse for David when his glasses end up broken. When he suggests Susan go home, she doesn’t take it well. She bursts into tears after realising all the horrible things she’s put him through. But they soon find George outside someone’s house, where Baby is now on the roof. Their efforts to get him down don’t amount to much; Susan gets caught by the owners – who are the psychologist and his wife. David meanwhile is caught by the police for being a peeping Tom. The two are both locked in a jail cell. And when the police phone Aunt Elizabeth, she insists her niece is decently in bed upstairs.
David and Susan’s attempts to explain themselves don’t amount to anything. What’s more is that the gardener is pulled into the jail after being caught driving the psychologist’s stolen car. Aunt Elizabeth and Major Applegate then barge in but get locked in the cell too – since the constable thinks they’re impostors (having only just spoken to them on the phone). Susan somehow manages to talk her way out of her cell and runs off. Mr Peabody and Ms Swallow now show up to verify everyone’s identities – and Aunt Elizabeth discovers who David really is.
Animal control show up with the news that they can’t find the leopard. But Baby is literally right behind them, and David quite impresses everyone by being so fearless around it. Animal patrol reveal that they’re after a leopard who just clawed a man. Cut to Susan dragging said leopard into the police station. You read that right: Susan somehow managed to wrangle a wild leopard without hurting herself. And there’s the only point in the movie where the split-screen effect falters.
David is able to get the wild leopard locked in a cell, saving everyone. Then he faints. Cut to sometime later in the museum where Ms Swallow breaks off the engagement. How tragic. But Susan arrives with the intercostal clavicle and the news that she has the $1 million – and she’s going to give it to the museum. David then declares his love for her, saying that the day with her was the best he’s ever had. Although this is rather sweet, this exchange happens while David is on the scaffold beside the brontosaurus skeleton. And Susan is on the ladder. Of course she nearly falls off and the skeleton ends up crashing to the floor. David can’t do anything else but embrace Susan – after all, she’s the one with the money to salvage everything.
Bringing Up Baby has a reputation as one of those movies that flopped at the time and eventually found its acclaim later. But it actually did make a decent buck at the Box Office, and made back its budget through a re-release a couple of years later. Some critics hated it and the director Howard Hawks later disowned it. But there were plenty of critics who marvelled at the film, especially the performances of the two leads. Katherine Hepburn in particular was praised for her newfound comic timing. However, she couldn’t escape her reputation at the time as ‘Box Office Poison’ and found herself being offered parts in B-movies afterwards. She was able to buy out her contract with the RKO studio – and later rebounded with The Philadelphia Story. The film really found its popularity when it was aired on TV in the 50s and 60s – and nowadays it’s held up as a classic. There is a certain charm to comedies from the Golden Age of Hollywood – a particular charm that many made today lack. Once I figure out what it is, I’ll be sure to let y’all know. This film is the best of them all – managing to be endlessly funny and having two leads who we can’t help but care about. So you might say I can’t give this film anything but love, eh?
It’s time for the grades to just go gay all of a sudden.
*Story? A classic Screwball Comedy – man and woman from different social backgrounds, with wildly differing personalities, thrown together in the zaniest situations. A
*Characters? David and Susan are both fun in their own ways. I’d count Baby as a character too, and I loved him. The likes of Aunt Elizabeth, Major Applegate and the psychologist are also solid supporting players. Howard Hawks later regretted making everyone in the cast crazy, and felt there should have been a straight man there to ground it. The one who could get the axe could be the constable. B
*Performances? Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn both going against their usual types, and doing a marvellous job. Hepburn in particular I prefer doing the ditzy thing. Grant is a bit subtler but still hilarious. A+
*Visuals? Nothing stand-out really. Aunt Elizabeth’s house was a good set piece, as was the forest. C
*Special Effects? The innovative technology at the time still holds up quite well today. There’s one or two shots where the rear projection effect is visible, but it’s still a great bit of filmmaking. It’s almost impossible for me to tell which shots didn’t have Baby in the frame with the cast. A-
*Anything Else? The scene in the jail ran almost too long, especially the bizarre sequence where Susan talks her way out of it. You could trim that scene and not lose much. Besides that, some pretty good fast-paced dialogue and pacing – in true Howard Hawks tradition. B-
We now move from a Screwball Comedy to a classic wartime romance – it’s From Here To Eternity.