Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Fair warning: I love this movie. Bringing Up Baby has been my answer to the tricky “What is your favorite movie?” question since I was about twelve years old. It’s a movie I watch over and over, and a film I can count on to make me laugh. It’s a wonderfully familiar comfort, a pick-me-up, a treat, and one of those movies that I sometimes can’t believe exists. It’s such an amazing production with such a perfect cast that sometimes it seems like a fanciful dream. For me, it’s the answer to the question, “If you could imagine your ideal movie, what would it be?”

Putting aside my fawning adoration for a minute, Bringing Up Baby is also fascinating because it is a famous “flop.” It grossly exceeded its schedule and budget, did only moderate business when released, and made RKO so mad that they fired Howard Hawks from his next picture and conspired to end their contract with Katharine Hepburn.

It’s also intriguing because sometimes people I recommend it to today don’t “get it.” They come back to me with confusion and faint exhaustion in their eyes, and say “It was just so weird.” I think most of their reaction is due to the genre of the film. We don’t have screwball (in the classical sense) anymore, and Bringing Up Baby is about as screwball as they come. So if you’re expecting a typical romantic comedy, this movie will knock you for a loop.

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This post is my entry in the Classic Movie Blog AssociationsFabulous Films of the ’30s Blogathon, running from April 27-May 1. Be sure to check out the other entries–they are amazing!

I’m very excited to announce that nineteen of the essays from this blogathon are available in a gorgeous e-book! You can download it for free at Smashwords, or for 99 cents at Amazon. (All proceeds from Amazon sales will go to film preservation.) My essay on Bringing Up Baby in the e-book is quite different from this post, so be sure to check it out! Thanks to Danny at Pre-Code.com for putting this beautiful book together!

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To the film! On April 10, 1937, Collier’s Weekly published a short story by Hagar Wilde entitled “Bringing Up Baby.” (Oddly enough, “Stage to Lordsburg” the story upon which Stagecoach (1939) was based, appeared in the same issue!) You can read Wilde’s story here–it’s delightful.

The film version contains some significant changes; for example, there is no dinosaur bone, and David and Susan are already a couple when the story begins. But the general nuttiness of the film can be traced back to the story, and some of the hilarious dialogue was lifted straight from the pages of Collier’s onto the screen.

Bringing Up Baby titles

Howard Hawks liked Wilde’s story about a zany couple searching for their tame panther in the Connecticut woods, and RKO gave him the green light. Hawks, Wilde, and screenwriter Dudley Nichols turned the story into a screenplay, and Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant were cast as the leads.

The film began production in September 1937 and continued until January 1938, with its premiere coming on February 18, just over a month after shooting wrapped.

Hawks always had Hepburn in mind for the role of Susan even though she’d never made such a pure comedy before. Up until this film, she’d been acting mostly in dramas or historical films. But Hawks had seen a wacky, eccentric side to the actress, and he thought she’d be great as a screwball heroine.

The role of David was not so easily filled. The part was offered to Ray Milland, Leslie Howard, Robert Montgomery, Fredric March, and Ronald Colman before Cary Grant accepted it. Grant almost turned it down, too, because he was nervous about tackling such a goofy character.

Hawks told Grant to watch silent film comedian Harold Lloyd to get an idea of how to play David, and Hawks’ suggestion helped Grant tremendously. He nails the concept of the “bewildered innocent” caught up in a whirlpool of chaos that Lloyd did so well. Grant even wore round-rimmed glasses just like Lloyd’s in the movie! Here’s a compilation of Lloyd’s work if you’d like to know more about the comedian.

Hawks also reportedly told Grant to incorporate some of director John Ford’s personality into the character. Hawks had witnessed Hepburn and Ford interacting on the set of Mary of Scotland (1936), and he wanted the relationship between Susan and David to capture Ford and Hepburn’s zany, teasing dynamic.

Once Grant was cast, Bringing Up Baby became the second of four films starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. Their first was Sylvia Scarlett (1935), followed by Bringing Up Baby and Holiday, which they started filming just eight days after Baby premiered.

After Holiday was released in June 1938, audiences had to wait about eighteen months before seeing Grant and Hepburn in their fourth and final film, The Philadelphia Story (1940). I wish that Grant and Hepburn had made more films together. It always looks as though they are having a marvelous time onscreen.

They had a great time offscreen, too. In her autobiography Me: Stories of My Life, Hepburn remembers in her typical blunt fashion how much fun she and Grant had making Bringing Up Baby: “Cary was so funny on this picture. He was fatter, and at this point his boiling energy was at its peak. We would laugh from morning to night.”

They often double-dated (Hepburn with Howard Hughes, and Grant with Phyllis Brooks) during the production of this movie, and enjoyed getting to the set early to work on ideas and jokes to show to Hawks.

Before I jump into the film, a word about the screwball comedy genre. After It Happened One Night (1934), which is generally considered to be the first screwball, the genre flourished throughout the 1930s and into the early 1940s. The elements that make up screwball include farcical situations, witty, quick repartee, slapstick, mistaken or fluid identities, secrets, mismatches in social class, journeys away from civilization and into the country, a battle of the sexes romance plot where the madcap woman pursues the man and sometimes “liberates him” with her wackiness, and a topsy-turvy world where normal reality doesn’t apply.  Keep these characteristics and tropes in mind, and see how many you can spot. Hint: most classic screwballs such as Hands Across the Table (1935), My Man Godfrey (1936), Easy Living (1937), Topper (1937), Midnight (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), The Lady Eve (1940), and The Palm Beach Story (1942) contain some of these genre conventions; Bringing Up Baby has them all.

To the film! It opens on the Stuyvesant Museum of Natural History. Nerdy, awkward, absent-minded paleontologist Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant) perches on scaffolding next to a nearly completed brontosaurus fossil.

Bringing Up Baby Grant dinosaur

He’s thinking (he could be a model for Rodin’s “The Thinker”) about where the bone in his hand fits in the skeleton. He’s called back to earth by the arrival of a telegram announcing some very happy news. The museum’s expedition in Utah has finally found the brontosaurus’ intercostal clavicle! David is thrilled because it’s the last bone they need to complete the fossil!

Fun fact: This oft-mentioned “intercostal clavicle” is not a real bone. It’s an invented body part with a nonsensical name that is perfect for this film and genre: intercostal means “between ribs” and clavicle is another word for “collarbone.” Obviously you can’t have an “intercostal” clavicle; even a brontosaurus doesn’t keep his shoulders inside his ribs. The screenwriters could have used the name of an actual dinosaur bone, but instead they opted for a name that is as wacky and illogical as the film.

Also, if the intercostal clavicle is the last bone that David needs to complete the brontosaurus, then doesn’t that suggest that all the other bones have been found and properly placed? So why can’t David figure out where to put that other bone (the one he held at the beginning of the scene)?

Bringing Up Baby 10

Anyway, David is so delighted at the news that he grabs a severe-looking young lady and plants a kiss on her cheek. She shies away from him as though he’s a repulsive stranger. The woman is Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker), and her reaction is particularly odd because she is engaged to David! They plan to get married the following day.

Fun fact: Virginia Walker was the first actress that Howard Hawks signed to a personal contract. He “loaned” her to RKO to play Miss Swallow. She married Hawks’ brother William (Bill) just a few months after making this movie in June 1938.

David says that he can’t wait to celebrate, but Miss Swallow crushes his hopes of a honeymoon. Now that the intercostal clavicle has been found, she insists that they come straight back to the museum after they are married so that David can get on with his work. The completion of the brontosaurus is much too important to delay for such a minor event as their marriage.

She tells a crestfallen David that their relationship should never interfere with his vital paleontological efforts.

Bringing Up Baby Grant Walker marriage

David is bummed. He rather hoped they might have children (and sex.) Alice gestures grandly at the enormous fossil and announces, “This will be our child!” She’s a real firecracker.

David and Alice table their discussion of offspring (it’s not a great sign that they haven’t talked about it yet, right?) because David has an appointment to play golf with Mr. Peabody (George Irving), the lawyer of a wealthy benefactor who might give one million dollars to the museum.

Fun fact: one million dollars in 1938 money is about sixteen million in 2015 cash. So it’s a big deal.

David is pumped up for the encounter, telling Alice that “I’ll wow him! I’ll knock him for a loop!” His beloved fiancée responds, “David, no slang! Remember who and what you are!” Again, what a fun lady! You can watch this opening scene here.

David is so awkward that the golf game gets off to a rough start. But things really go downhill when David’s ball lands on an adjacent green and a young woman, Susan Vance (Hepburn), thinks it is hers. He shouts to her but she hits it anyway, and when he joins her to explain, she doesn’t understand.

Bringing Up Baby Grant Hepburn golf

Fun fact: it’s a treat to watch Hepburn play golf in this film. She was a gifted athlete, and fourteen years later she would play a professional golfer and tennis player in Pat and Mike (1952).

Once Susan sinks a long putt, David collects the ball and shows her that it bears the Crow Flight logo, a circle, not the PGA logo that she says she uses. He has proven that the ball is his, but she still doesn’t get it:

Bringing Up Baby Grant Hepburn golf ball

If you don’t enjoy absurd, nonsensical exchanges like this one, you may not love this film…it’s basically 102 minutes of such screwiness.

David returns to Mr. Peabody and they try to restart their game. But David leaves the lawyer a second time when he sees Susan attempting to drive off in his car! I say “attempting” because she’s struggling to pull out of the parking space without demolishing the bumpers on David’s car and the one parked next to it. David yells, “I’ll be with you in a minute, Mr. Peabody!” and runs to the parking lot.

David tries to make her understand that she is driving his car, but his efforts are useless, as we knew they would be.

Bringing Up Baby Grant Hepburn car

As he gets more and more frustrated trying to make her realize that she is driving his car, she says archly, “Your golf ball? Your car?”

Bringing Up Baby Grant Hepburn car 2

His “Yes, thank heaven, you!” answer makes her mad so she peels out of the parking spot with David perched on the running board. David yells the now familiar refrain, “I’ll be with you in a minute, Mr. Peabody!” as Susan speeds away. You can watch this scene here.

Bringing Up Baby Grant car

The film cuts to the Ritz Plaza Hotel. Mr. Peabody is having dinner there, and David is hoping to catch him and apologize. David has squirmed into his impeccable white tie and tails to visit the fancy hotel, but it’s not the usual Cary Grant-in-a-tuxedo look. David looks ill at ease and deeply uncomfortable in his evening kit. His stride is choppy and uneven, and he is twitchy and unsure how to act in such a swanky place.

His discomfort is adorably illustrated early in the scene with the hat check girl. She offers to take his top hat, he mumbles and stutters, can’t decide if he should hand it over, and ends up dropping it on the floor. “I dropped my hat,” he says, unnecessarily. Then he bumps heads with the girl as they both bend down to reach for it. As she walks away, hatless, she gives him an odd look.

If you’re used to Cary Grant as Mr. Suave, you’ll be amazed at how dorky and awkward he is as David. In films like Notorious (1946) and To Catch a Thief (1955), or even another screwball comedy like The Awful Truth (1937), Grant emanates graceful, debonair sophistication. He seems both to have been born in a tuxedo and born to wear one. But as Dr. David Huxley, Grant’s personality and physicality change. He becomes a mumbling, bumbling, self-conscious, awkward scientist, though he’s still the most handsome man you’ll ever see!

Bringing Up Baby certainly isn’t the only film that plays with and against Grant’s image as the ultimate suave gentleman, but this film takes it further than most, except perhaps for Monkey Business (1952) or Father Goose (1964). Grant actually played against type quite often, but the power of his sophisticated, debonair star image is always humming in the background, and that’s part of what makes these wacky characters so amusing and wonderful.

Anyway, as David waits for Mr. Peabody to arrive, we visit the hotel bar. The bartender is showing Susan a trick where you throw olives into glasses. When she attempts it, one of the olives lands on the floor. And David promptly slips on it and hits the floor in a terrific pratfall.

Bringing Up Baby Grant Hepburn fall

He lands on his hat and crushes it–an extra joke since the hat would have been safe if he had checked it! Susan apologizes and tries to explain about the olive. David responds sarcastically: “First you drop an olive, and then I sit on my hat. It all fits perfectly.”

David’s pratfall is the first of many slapstick moments, and Grant especially can hardly stay on his feet in this film. As philosopher Stanley Cavell wrote in Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (which counts Bringing Up Baby and other screwball comedies among its case studies), these films include “the comic convention according to which the awakening of love causes the male to lapse into trances and to lose control of his body, in particular to be everywhere in danger of falling down or of breaking things.” Normally dignified Grant finds himself in that danger almost constantly in this film.

David walks away from Susan hoping never to see her again. But Susan has other ideas. She migrates to another table and begins practicing the olive trick while she smiles at David, who tries to ignore her.

As one might expect, the table’s occupant is bewildered by this stranger’s presence. But Susan introduces herself without a hint of embarrassment. She isn’t constrained by society’s rules, and we like her for it. This is one way that the film sets up Susan as Miss Swallow’s opposite. Remember how Miss Swallow chastised David for using slang, and otherwise stretching the rules of polite society? Well, Susan breaks more conventions than she upholds, and she has a wonderful time doing it.

Bringing Up Baby Hepburn Feld

The man at the table is a noted psychiatrist named Dr. Fritz Lehman (Fritz Feld). Susan asks the famous doctor about David’s puzzling behavior, explaining that “He just follows me around and fights with me.”

The Doctor diagnoses the situation immediately; the young man must be in love with her! After all, “The love impulse in man frequently reveals itself in terms of conflict.” Susan is thrilled with this interpretation! She grabs her purse from the table and heads over to David to explain why he is fixated on her.

Bringing Up Baby Hepburn gown

Costume appreciation break. This sleek lame evening gown is perfect for Hepburn’s slender frame. I like how it wraps around in the front, and stays  elegant with a simple sash.

The veil is an odd choice, though, because in black and white it disappears against her dark hair so that only the metallic trim is visible. It looks as though she’s got a floating halo around her shoulders. Howard Greer designed the costumes for this film.

In the middle of explaining to David that he loves her, Susan realizes that the purse she is holding isn’t hers. She hands it to David and goes to look for her missing purse.

Meanwhile, Dr. Lehman’s wife (Tala Birell) returns from the powder room and realizes that her purse is gone. They start freaking out (it had her diamond pin in it!), and just then David walks by their table holding the purse. Mrs. Lehman thanks him for returning her purse, but when she reaches for it he refuses to give it back. He still thinks it’s Susan’s, you see.

Susan watches it all from the bar. Eventually she intervenes and smoothes things over. You can watch the scene here.

Bringing Up Baby Grant Hepburn purse

Poor, poor David. He’s had enough of Susan’s nonsense, and he tries to escape. But she follows him and grabs his tails to stop him. His jacket rips, of course.

Running from her didn’t work, so now David tries to get rid of Susan by playing a version of hide and seek, only without the seeking. This makes Susan mad, and she turns away to leave. But David’s foot was on her train, and the whole back panel of her skirt rips clean off as she moves away.

Bringing Up Baby Grant Hepburn rip

Susan doesn’t realize that her skirt is gone, and David’s attempts to keep her covered just infuriate her. But eventually she figures it out, and pulls David close behind her so she can walk out of the hotel without flashing everyone.

Bringing Up Baby Grant Hepburn rip 2

Naturally, Mr. Peabody arrives just as David and Susan are marching out. So Susan has managed to mess up yet another meeting between David and the lawyer. You can watch this amazing scene here.

Bringing Up Baby Grant Hepburn dress

According to TCM, this scene was inspired by a real-life incident. Cary Grant was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art seated next to the manager of the museum and his wife in a theater. At one point, Grant stood up to let the wife walk by. He noticed that his fly was unzipped, so he unobtrusively zipped it up just as the woman passed him. But he accidentally zipped part of her dress into his fly, and the zipper stuck! Grant and the woman had to walk in lockstep to the manager’s office to get some pliers. Grant told Hawks about the incident, and they added it to the film.

In fact, this movie was a very collaborative production. Hawks welcomed improvisation and ideas, and Grant and Hepburn would often arrive on the set early to practice new bits.

Hawks, Grant, and Hepburn on the set via: http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/568/Bringing-Up-Baby/#

Hawks, Grant, and Hepburn on the set via: http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/568/Bringing-Up-Baby/#

After leaving the Ritz Plaza in such spectacular fashion, Susan takes Grant to her apartment to change clothes and sew up his jacket. He tells her about his botched meetings with Mr. Peabody, and Susan realizes that Mr. Peabody is “Boopy,” a very close family friend. (I guess she didn’t see him when they walked by in the lobby?) She can help David clear everything up!

Susan is less excited when David mentions that he is engaged to Miss Swallow… but she still wants to help him with Boopy. How cute is her pajama-esque outfit?

Bringing Up Baby Grant Hepburn 1

She even posed for publicity photos in the costume:

They drive out to Boopy’s house, but he’s asleep. So Susan grabs a handful of pebbles and throws them at his bedroom window to wake him up. She doesn’t think the first flurry did it, so she grabs a bigger rock and hurls it towards the window, where it hits Boopy right in the forehead. He’s knocked out, so David and Susan hightail it out of there.

Bringing Up Baby Hepburn Grant rocks

David rather hopes that this is the end of his relationship with Susan. He gets out of the car, puts on his crumpled top hat, and wishes her what he fervently hopes is a final farewell:

Bringing Up Baby Grant quiet

Susan smiles calmly at David’s speech, guffaws when he falls flat on his face as he turns to go, and looks very determined as he walks away. She intends to see him again, and she usually gets what she wants.

Bringing Up Baby Hepburn faces

The next morning, David updates Alice on the Mr. Peabody situation over the phone. Their confused conversation goes around and around like this: Alice: “Did you speak with Mr. Peabody?”  David: “Yes, I spoke to him twice, but I didn’t talk to him.”

A delivery man comes to the door with the all-important intercostal clavicle. David tells Alice that he’ll meet her at the museum right away and hangs up. But on his way out the door, Susan calls. And David stupidly answers.

She’s calling about her new leopard named Baby. Her brother Mark caught him while hunting in South America, but Susan isn’t sure what to do with him. David is the only “zoologist” she knows, so she thought he could help. But David flatly refuses. He needs to go to the museum and then get married that afternoon. There’s no time for what he suspects is a fictional leopard.

Bringing Up Baby Grant Hepburn leopard phone

While Susan talks to David, Baby rubs against her like an enormous kitten, and Susan pets him absent-mindedly. It’s a real leopard, obviously, but Hepburn acts as though it’s the most normal thing in the world.

Fun fact: in Wilde’s short story, Baby is a panther, but RKO couldn’t find any trained panthers. There was a trained leopard named Nissa, though, who’d been in several B-movies, so the panther became a leopard. For more on Nissa, visit Animal-Actors.blogspot.com.

Bringing Up Baby Hepburn negligee

Another fun fact: Grant was terrified of Nissa, but Hepburn had no fear and enjoyed the leopard scenes.

She wrote in her autobiography that “I didn’t have brains enough to be scared, so I did a lot of scenes with the leopard just roaming around. Olga Celeste, the trainer, had a big whip. We were inside a cage–Olga and I and the leopard–no one else… The camera and sound were picked up through holes in the fencing. The first scene I had was in the floor-length negligee, walking around…The leopard followed me around pushing at my thigh, which they covered with perfume. I would pat its head. The scene went very satisfactorily.”

Susan gets upset when David refuses to help, and she trips on the telephone cord. David hears her fall and assumes that the leopard is attacking! Susan realizes his mistake and plays it up, certain he’ll come rescue her. And he does, but not before tripping on his own telephone cord. You can watch the scene here.

Bringing Up Baby Grant Hepburn phone 3

Here is Hepburn filming this scene:

David is understandably shocked to see a very healthy looking Susan answer the door. He assumes that she made the whole leopard thing up just to get him to her apartment. But a quick glance in the bathroom convinces him otherwise.

Bringing Up Baby Grant Hepburn leopard 1

David is terrified, but Susan insists that Baby is as gentle as a kitten. She reads Mark’s letter to prove how tame Baby is, showing David that Baby even “likes dogs!” Although:

Bringing Up Baby Hepburn Grant Mark

David says “This is probably the silliest thing that ever happened to me,” but it’s about to get even sillier because Susan lets the leopard out of the bathroom, and puts on his favorite song “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby.” Baby responds favorably to the song and to terrified David. You can watch this scene here.

Bringing Up Baby Hepburn Grant leopard meeting

As I mentioned, Grant was absolutely terrified of the leopard and didn’t want to work with him. Indeed, in Charlotte Chandler’s I Know Where I’m Going: Katharine Hepburn, A Personal Biography, Grant is quoted as saying “I make an effort to get along with all of my co-stars, the director, everyone on the set, but I did not wish to establish a relationship with Baby.”

Unlike Hepburn, Grant is rarely in the same shot with Nissa, and never in such close proximity as Hepburn is–that’s not Grant’s foot in the leopard’s paws, for example. Hepburn had very little compassion for Grant’s fear of the leopard, and once she even tormented him by throwing a stuffed leopard into his dressing room through the ceiling vent!

In her autobiography, Hepburn remembered how her costume in this scene caused a big problem. They filmed this scene and the negligee scene back to back, and Hepburn changed into “a knee-length dress with tabs on the bottom of the skirt covering metal pieces to make the skirt swing prettily.” (You can see the tabs and those fantastic strappy heels below.)

Bringing Up Baby Hepburn striped dress

It was all going fine until Hepburn moved and her skirt flared: “…one quick swirl and that leopard made a spring for my back, and Olga brought that whip down right on his head. That was the end of my freedom with the leopard.”

As you’ll see, most of the leopard scenes were filmed using rear projection or process shots so that the leopard could be filmed apart from the actors. Occasionally the filmmakers even used a leopard puppet instead of the real cat.

Susan asks David to help her take Baby to her farm in Connecticut. She needs to move the leopard because her Aunt Elizabeth, who has one million dollars to bestow, is visiting New York soon, and Susan doesn’t want her to know about Baby. Her frantic explanation includes this beautiful run-on: “If you had an aunt who was going to give you a million dollars if she liked you and you knew she wouldn’t like you if she found a leopard in your apartment, what would you do?”

David refuses to help and leaves the apartment. But Susan gets Baby to follow him. Meanwhile, she gets in her car (which isn’t even a convertible so I’m not sure how she mistook David’s car for her own at the golf course) and drives alongside David and Baby on the sidewalk. Poor David has no idea that the leopard is walking beside him, and he has no choice but to jump in the car when he does realize it. So they are off to Connecticut!

Bringing Up Baby Hepburn Grant car 4

Sidenote: You just have to go with this movie. It is not logical because the characters are illogical. They don’t behave like sensible people and the movie gets deeper and deeper into their silliness. So if you fight the outrageous plot and characters then you will not enjoy the brilliance of the film, and it will all become tiresomely nonsensical.

Once in the car, David bemoans the direction the last 24 hours have taken. But Susan says that she has has a wonderful time! David looks at her with confused wonder: “You look at every thing upside down! I’ve never met anyone quite like you.”  He doesn’t mean it as a compliment, but Susan probably takes it that way.

Besides the leopard chewing on Susan’s backseat, the drive is fairly uneventful until Susan rear ends a poultry truck. You may recall that farcical situations are a hallmark of screwball comedy. There have already been several in this movie, but few can top this scene. You’ve got chickens, ducks and swans loose on the road, Susan holding tight to Baby’s tail to keep him from jumping out of the car, and David and Susan singing “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby” in an effort to calm the hungry leopard.

Bringing Up Baby Hepburn Grant crash

Cut to a few minutes later. Baby just enjoyed an easy feast of fresh poultry, and David is irritable and covered in feathers. This is not how his day was supposed to go.

Bringing Up Baby 147

Susan, meanwhile, is upset that they had to pay for the birds that Baby ate. She thinks they should have run away, instead. But David responds with these sage words: “When a man is wrestling a leopard in the middle of the pond, he is in no position to run!”

Susan is also upset that they hit the truck in the first place, though she neatly sidesteps any culpability. As she tells David:

Bringing Up Baby Grant Hepburn driving

The pair stop in a small town to pick up Baby’s dinner. While David shocks the butcher with his order of thirty pounds of raw sirloin steak for “Baby,” Susan parks in front of a fire hydrant (which they call a fire plug). The town constable (Walter Catlett) comes by and writes her a ticket, but she’s more concerned that Baby jumped from her car into the one next to it than with the ticket.

Bringing Up Baby Hepburn ticket

So Susan does what any rational person would do when their leopard jumped into another person’s car; she steals the car with Baby in it. David has to hitch a ride on the running board yet again as Susan peels out down the street.

Bringing Up Baby 158

In a grand coincidence, the stolen car belongs to Dr. Lehman, who lives nearby. We’ll see him again.

David and Susan finally arrive at the farm and get Baby settled in a horse stall in the barn. David rushes to take a shower, after which he plans to return to New York for his wedding. But Susan sneaks into the room, steals his clothes, and sends them into town to be cleaned and pressed. She is determined to keep David with her, no matter what.

When David gets out of the shower, he puts on the only clothes he can find, which happens to be a marabou feather-trimmed negligee. He looks ridiculous, but he’s past caring at this point. He’s on his way to see if the gardener has any spare clothes when the doorbell rings.

It’s Aunt Elizabeth (May Robson), the one with a million dollars to give away. David greets her rather aggressively, but she comes right back at him with the very pertinent question of “Who are you?” He answers, “I don’t know. I’m not quite myself today.”

Bringing Up Baby Grant Robson door

When she asks him why he is wearing those silly clothes, he loses his temper, jumps up in the air and shouts, “Because I just went gay all of the sudden!”

Fun fact: this moment is famous as one of the first times that the word gay was used to mean homosexual in a movie. It was improvised by Grant on the set, which partly explains how it got by the Production Code Administration’s ban on explicit mentions of homosexuality. (For more on the Production Code, visit my History Through Hollywood post here.) You can watch this scene here.

Susan rushes to explain things to Aunt Elizabeth. She tells her aunt that David is one of Mark’s friends and that he had a nervous breakdown. Aunt Elizabeth’s terrier, George, barks incessantly at David throughout this conversation. David very maturely hisses back at the dog and tries to make Susan and Aunt Elizabeth understand:

Bringing Up Baby Grant Hepburn Robson clothes

Susan spins wilder and wilder tales until David stomps on her foot to shut her up. It’s pretty funny to see him act in such an aggressive way while dressed in such a frilly robe. Then he rushes off to Mark’s room to search for more appropriate attire.

Bringing Up Baby 175

Fun fact: you may recognize George the dog from any number of films. George is played by Asta (originally known as Skippy), who is famous for his work as Asta in The Thin Man movies and as Mr. Smith in The Awful Truth. This was Grant’s second time working with the terrier.

David finds riding breeches, a tail coat, and a pair of sandals in Mark’s room. You can’t blame Susan for bursting out laughing at the sight of him!

Bringing Up Baby 177

When she calms down, she tells David that Aunt Elizabeth is the benefactor whom Mr. Peabody represents. It’s Aunt Elizabeth who is considering giving David one million dollars for the museum. Which means that Susan is competing with David for her aunt’s fortune. David is distraught.

He makes Susan promise that she will never tell Aunt Elizabeth that the crazy man in the negligee is Dr. David Huxley. She promises, but follows up his solemn conversation with this complimentary non-sequitor:

Bringing Up Baby Grant Hepburn glasses

David is about to leave when he realizes that the intercostal clavicle is gone! George took it out of the box, and it might be lost forever. When David moans that it took three expeditions and five years to find that bone, Susan has a helpful suggestion: “Now that they know where to find them, couldn’t you send them back to get another one?”

David runs out of the house to find George, and so begins an afternoon of following the dog around and digging holes with him in hopes of finding the bone.

Bringing Up Baby Grant Hepburn Asta

They find three pairs of boots, but no intercostal clavicle. During a brief interlude in the hunt, Susan tells Aunt Elizabeth that David is a big game hunter named Mr. Bone, but she neglects to give David that crucial information…

via: http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/568/Bringing-Up-Baby/#

Hepburn knitting between takes  via: http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/568/Bringing-Up-Baby/#

Fun fact: the outdoor scenes were filmed at the Bel Air Country Club in LA and the Arthur Ranch in Malibu, though the farmhouse was a set at the Columbia Ranch. You may recognize it from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936). For more on the house, visit HookedOnHouses.net for great pictures and details of the set.

That evening, one of Aunt Elizabeth’s pals, a big game hunter named Major Applegate (Charlie Ruggles), joins them for dinner. Aunt Elizabeth tells him the sad story of Mr. Bone’s recent nervous breakdown, and kindly Major Applegate attempts to engage David through tales of big game hunting. But his efforts fall flat. All David cares about is keeping an eye on George. He is still hoping the “fiendish” terrier will lead him to the intercostal clavicle.

David’s preoccupation makes dinner a rather trying affair. He constantly pops up out of his seat to follow George on brief jaunts into the yard or around the house. He also refuses to play along with his Mr. Bone persona, leading Major Applegate (or Appletree, as David mistakenly calls him) to bumble along alone.

Bringing Up Baby Robson Ruggles Grant Hepburn dinner

Meanwhile, the gardener, Gogarty (Barry Fitzgerald), sneaks off to the barn to retrieve his hidden bottle of booze. It just so happens to be concealed inside Baby’s stall, and naturally Gogarty doesn’t close the door on his way out.

Baby follows the drunk gardener outside and lets loose with some leopard howls. Major Applegate, who just so happens to be an expert in animal cries, assures the others that the eerie noises are loon calls.

He demonstrates a leopard’s cry to show them the difference, and Baby answers with more howls. Major Applegate is flummoxed: “I can’t understand why a loon would answer a leopard’s cry,” he says to Aunt Elizabeth. Susan and David keep quiet.

This bizarre dinner party finally breaks up when Baby cuddles up to Gogarty on the porch.

Bringing Up Baby Fitzgerald

Gogarty is understandably terrified and runs into the house babbling about a leopard. Everyone assumes he is just drunk, but of course David and Susan know better. They run to the barn to check on Baby and are horrified when they see the empty stall. David tries to calm a hysterical Susan, but it doesn’t work very well:

Bringing Up Baby Grant Hepburn barn

They decide to call the zoo and tell them that there is a leopard roaming around. Hopefully the zoo people will come out and catch Baby. So David calls the zoo and Susan goes back to the dinner table.

She is shocked when Aunt Elizabeth opens a newly arrived telegram from Mark asking how she likes Baby. Aunt Elizabeth has always wanted a leopard, and Baby was actually intended for her! I’m not sure why Mark didn’t make that clear to Susan, but there you go.

Bringing Up Baby Robson Ruggles Hepburn telegram

Susan hurries to tell David not to call the zoo–she doesn’t want them to take Aunt Elizabeth’s leopard away! But she’s too late. The zoo’s staff is already out searching for Baby, and David told them they can keep the cat if they find him! Oh dear!

Costume appreciation break. Susan’s dress has ruffles at the hem, sleeves, and all around the bodice, as well as a scalloped neckline, a jaunty neck bow, and a sash. It won’t be in this pristine state for long, though.

Bringing Up Baby Hepburn dress 2

David and Susan head off into the night to try and catch Baby before the zoo does. George ran off while they were on the phone, so David keeps an eye out for the terrier, too.

But Aunt Elizabeth and Major Applegate stumble on Baby first as they stroll around the house.

Bringing Up Baby Robson Ruggles

They run back inside, but then the Major grabs a gun and heads back out to hunt down the dangerous beast. So now David and Susan are competing against the zoo people and Major Applegate to find Baby first.

They stumble through the woods with a butterfly net and a croquet mallet, the classic leopard hunting tools.

Traipsing through the woods at night presents many opportunities for slapstick, and Hawks and his stars hit them all. For example, Susan gets whacked in the face by branches as she follows David through a thicket. When she asks if maybe she should go first, David answers chivalrously that she’d better not because she might get hurt. She thanks him and then takes a tremendous thwack in the face from branches he releases as he walks on.

So she drops to all fours and crawls behind him to avoid the slingshotting foliage. When he turns around and sees her on her hands and knees, he comes up with an incredibly incongruous explanation for her position:

Bringing Up Baby Grant Hepburn tag

Susan assures David that she is not, in fact, playing squat tag, and they continue on. But then David takes a terrific fall down a dusty cliff. Susan laughs so hard at his slide that she loses her balance and tumbles down after him, the butterfly net landing directly on his head.

Bringing Up Baby Grant Hepburn hill

It makes me laugh just thinking about it! It might be my favorite moment in the movie, especially when Grant cracks a tiny smile when Hepburn pulls the net up and it snags on his nose. You can watch the scene here.

Bringing Up Baby Hepburn Grant net

Susan and David eventually spot Baby and George. The animals are wrestling in a clearing, but it appears to be a friendly bout. I’m not sure how they were able to film that scene with confidence, as it really is Asta and Nissa rolling around and pawing at each other. If Nissa got mad…but everything turned out okay.

Bringing Up Baby Grant Hepburn search

Susan and David have to cross a small stream to get to the animals, but Susan assures David that it’s shallow, and they stride boldly across. But just two steps in, and the water is over their heads. Susan sputters: “The riverbeds changed!” as they swim back to the bank.

Bringing Up Baby Hepburn Grant riverbeds

They stop to dry off, and of course Susan sets fire to one of David’s socks. Typical.

As they pause by the fire, we cut to the circus in the nearby town.

Bringing Up Baby 221

The circus’ leopard has just attacked its trainer, and a driver is assigned to take the condemned animal to Bridgeport.

Now that we’ve gotten this important information, we head back to the woods. Susan and David come across the circus truck with a caged leopard in the back.

They assume that it’s the zoo’s truck, and that the leopard is Baby. After all, how many leopards are in Connecticut? But we know that the leopard in the back is the dangerous one. While David distracts the two men, Susan releases the leopard. “Baby” snaps at her as she lets him out of the truck, and he doesn’t appreciate his leash. Susan is confused. The leopard jumps out of the truck and runs off into the woods.

Bringing Up Baby Grant Hepburn truck

So now there are two leopards loose in Connecticut! And one is not nice at all.

Susan and David run after the leopard and hear shots. It’s Major Applegate, and he’s shooting at Baby/the bad leopard! David and Susan explain that the leopard is the one that Aunt Elizabeth has been waiting for, so Major Applegate puts down his rifle and helps with the search.

Bringing Up Baby Ruggles shot

It’s time for another pratfall, and Susan and David oblige with another rolling tumble. This time, David’s glasses get smashed. He doesn’t mind too much, though:

Bringing Up Baby Hepburn Grant broken glasses

Susan broke one of her heels in the fall, so she amuses herself by parading back and forth with her new limp. “I was born on the side of a hill,” she chants.

Fun fact: according to TCM, this “born on the side of a hill” business was an improvisation. Hepburn actually did break a heel accidentally during filming, and when she stood up she started comically limping around the set. Grant apparently whispered the “hill” line into her ear, and Hawks liked it so he kept it in the film. You can watch the scene here.

But David isn’t in the mood for jokes anymore. He tells Susan that he’s going to keep looking for Baby, but that she’d better go home. And this makes Susan very upset! She just wants to be with David, and it hurts that he doesn’t feel the same way. He consoles her and eventually agrees that she can stay with him. They almost kiss, too, but David averts his face at the last moment.

Bringing Up Baby Hepburn Grant woods 2

And then it’s back to leopard hunting! They see Baby on the roof of a house, so they do what any normal person would do, and begin singing Baby’s favorite song to get him to come down. George is there, too, so he contributes to the serenade. I love this moment because Susan and David seem to forget why they are singing and instead focus on harmonizing!

Bringing Up Baby Hepburn Grant harmony

Their less-than-dulcet tones awaken the house’s occupants. Guess who lives there? Why, Dr. Lehman and his wife, of course! When the doctor appears at his window, David and George skedaddle, but Susan stands her ground and keeps singing to Baby.

Bringing Up Baby Hepburn window

The doctor and his wife don’t believe Susan when she says she is singing in order to catch the leopard who is sitting on their roof. Shocking, right? Dr. Lehman assumes that Susan is insane, and he goes downstairs to bring her inside. Baby runs off, and when David approaches the house to see what is happening with Susan, the constable happens by and thinks that David is a peeping Tom!

Bringing Up Baby Grant peeping

Next thing we know, Susan and David are both locked in jail! But nothing can dampen Susan’s spirit!

Bringing Up Baby Grant Hepburn jail

Constable Slocum calls Aunt Elizabeth to see if Susan really is her niece. Aunt Elizabeth gives him a furious denial, stating that her niece is asleep in bed! David and Susan will be stuck in jail for a while.

When Aunt Elizabeth realizes that Susan is not actually at home, she and Major Applegate go down to the jail. But the Constable doesn’t believe that they are who they say they are either, so he locks them up! Gogarty ends up in a cell, too, and soon everyone is collected behind bars.

But Susan has a plan! She drops her high society accent and announces to Constable Slocum that she is “Swingin’ Door Suzy” of the “Leopard Gang” out of Buffalo!

Bringing Up Baby Grant Hepburn jail 2

Using outdated slang so that she sounds like a gangster’s moll, Suzy announces to the absolutely astounded group that she’s going to spill the beans on their whole operation! She blames it on “Jerry the Nipper,” yet another new name for poor David. Suzy tells the Constable that if Jerry hadn’t double-crossed her with another dame, she might have kept her mouth shut!

David tries to stop things before they get too far with a desperate plea:

Bringing Up Baby Grant Hepburn movies

Fun fact: “Jerry the Nipper” was not a random fake name. In The Awful Truth (1937), Irene Dunne calls Grant “Jerry the Nipper” when she is pretending to be his unsophisticated, burlesque dancing sister. So when David says, “she’s making all this up out of motion pictures she’s seen,” he’s telling the truth!

When the Constable brings Suzy over to his desk, he notices her limp. He asks if it’s an old bullet wound, and she responds, “No, I lost my heel,” meaning the heel on her shoe. But the Constable immediately answers back, “Well, don’t bother about him,” thinking she means her unfaithful lover, Jerry! It’s a great moment that goes by so fast you might miss it.

The Constable can’t believe his luck at snaring the notorious Leopard Gang. He begins interrogating Susan while Dr. Lehman and the deputies take furious notes. Susan nonchalantly works her way over to the window. When Constable Slocum looks away for a moment, she slips neatly out the window and into the night! You can watch the scene here.

Bringing Up Baby Hepburn Catlett

Fun fact: unlike Grant, Hepburn did not have a background in comedy. Up until this point she’d acted mainly in dramas, so she wasn’t quite sure how to do screwball. When they started filming, instead of reading the hilarious lines and letting them be funny on their own, she “overacted.” As Hawks remembered: “‘The great trouble is people trying to be funny. If they don’t try to be funny, then they are funny.” Hepburn was trying too hard, and Hawks wasn’t having much success with her, so he called on Walter Catlett, a comic who had worked in vaudeville, the Ziegfeld Follies, and Broadway for years.

Hawks recalls in Hawks on Hawks that he sent Hepburn to talk with Catlett, and “She came back from talking with him and said, ‘Howard, hire that guy and keep him around here for several weeks, because I need him.’ And from that time on, she knew how to play comedy better, which is just to read lines.’” Hawks cast Catlett as the constable, so you can see Hepburn’s comedy mentor in action in the film.

Just after Susan escapes, Mr. Peabody and Miss Swallow arrive at the jail. They have come to sort things out. Dr. Lehman recognizes Mr. Peabody from some trial, and he tells the Constable that he has made a huge mistake.

Then the drivers from the circus arrive and ask for the Constable’s help in tracking down their dangerous leopard. They’ve barely had time to tell their story when Baby wanders in. The circus guys realize that Baby isn’t the leopard they were transporting, which means that there are two different cats loose in Connecticut!

Bringing Up Baby jail

Since Baby is at the jail, Susan is searching the woods for the bad leopard! David wails about poor Susan just as the “helpless” heiress drags the dangerous leopard into the city jail.

Bringing Up Baby Robson Grant Hepburn danger

It’s a wonderful visual joke.

I mentioned that many of the leopard scenes were filmed separately from the actors and then combined through process shots; Susan pulling the leopard into the jail is one of those. From some angles, you can see a break between the rope in Hepburn’s hands and the rope around the leopard’s neck. Also, as is typical with the leopard scenes in this movie, this sequence is broken up into alternating shots of Hepburn and Nissa, so that we don’t see both in the same frame very often.

Anyway, Susan drags the mean leopard into the jail and the assembled group (nearly everyone we’ve met up until this point) screams and runs into cells. Susan loses her nerve when she realizes she’s got a very dangerous cat on a leash. (“Baby” next to Aunt Elizabeth looks fake–this might be one of the times they used a puppet.)

Bringing Up Baby Grant Hepburn Robson jail

When he sees that Susan is in danger, David’s inner lion tamer emerges. He maneuvers the bad leopard into a jail cell. But nervous, absent-minded professors can only play lion tamer for a few moments, and after the door closes on the bad leopard, David faints in Susan’s arms.

Bringing Up Baby Hepburn Grant jail 3

I love this scene because both Susan and David get to be the heroes at different times. It’s not just David rescuing Susan or the other way around. They’re a good pair.

Cut to a few days later. We’re back at the museum. Miss Swallow breaks up with David, which is not surprising.

Then Susan rushes into the museum, and David climbs up the scaffolding to get away from her. But she has wonderful news. First, she followed George around for three days digging holes, and then that morning he put the intercostal clavicle in her shoe! And second, Aunt Elizabeth gave her the million dollars, but she is going to give it to the museum!

Bringing Up Baby Hepburn Grant dino

David thanks her, then asks her to go away. But Susan, naturally, disregards his request and climbs up the ladder beside the brontosaurus. Sidenote: like the gold trimmed veil in the hotel scene, the pom-pom veil on Susan’s hat is an odd choice. It’s distracting and takes away from her face and expressions.

Here they are filming this scene:

She asks David why he wanted her to go away, and he explains that she’s chaos in human form, and he was trying to do the responsible thing. But damn it! He doesn’t really want her to go away:

Bringing Up Baby Grant Hepburn day

Susan begins swaying back and forth in her happiness, forgetting she is perched on a ladder high in the air. The rocking gets dangerous, and she climbs onto the dinosaur skeleton to keep from falling off the ladder. And of course a terrible thing happens. The fossil collapses beneath her weight and crashes to the ground. David just barely keeps Susan from falling, too.

Bringing Up Baby Grant Hepburn end

Fun fact: Grant’s background as an acrobat (for more on that, check out To Catch a Thief) came in handy for this last scene when he has to hold a dangling Susan by the wrist. You can see a crew member holding a mattress beneath Hepburn for the second shot, but there wasn’t much below Hepburn when the fossil collapsed.

Grant worked with Hepburn on the exact wrist hold and the timing for this stunt to make sure that neither one got hurt, but he was nervous about it.

In Charlotte Chandler’s biography of Katharine Hepburn, Grant recalled that although he would have preferred stunt doubles to perform it, Hepburn had no fear and wanted to do it themselves: “She said she knew I knew what I was doing. But the thing was, she was the one who had to do it just right. She really was a remarkable athlete, just as she has said. But you know, just the memory of that scene makes me shiver. If Kate had fallen, I’d never have forgiven myself. We were both crazy. Bringing Up Baby has always been called a ‘screwball comedy.’ Well, we were the two screwballs.”

They perormed the stunt in one take, and it worked perfectly. Once on the platform, the pair embrace, despite the destruction of David’s work. He loves her more than his dinosaur! Roll credits!

Bringing Up Baby Grant Hepburn kiss

When this film was released in early 1938, Variety called Bringing Up Baby “the most frantic and whirligig of recent film funnies” with “general ludicrous hullaballoo.” (Its “whirligig” nature is due to the fact that the movie contains all the conventions and tropes of screwball comedy bundled into 102 minutes of nonstop nuttiness.)

Variety’s review of the film praised Grant and Hepburn, noting that Grant “carries his full share of the fantastic abandon in a goofy characterization which required unusual skill,” and “Miss Hepburn is more at home in this role, more zestful in its romping performance, than she has been in many of her esteemed vehicles. This type of playfulness becomes her essential spirit and she tackles it without restraint.”

But The New York Times took a less favorable view of the film. Frank S. Nugent wrote that it was packed with old jokes: “…we were content to play the game called ‘the cliché expert goes to the movies’ and we are not at all proud to report that we scored 100 percent against Dudley Nichols, Hagar Wilde, and Howard Hawks, who wrote and produced the quiz. Of course, if you’ve never been to the movies, Bringing Up Baby will be all new to you—a zany-ridden product of the goofy farce school. But who hasn’t been to the movies?”

Nugent differed with Variety in judging Hepburn’s performance, too: “Miss Hepburn has a role which calls for her to be breathless, senseless, and terribly, terribly fatiguing. She succeeds, and we can be callous enough to hint it is not entirely a matter of performance.” I beg to differ, because like Grant’s David, Hepburn’s Susan is different from many of her other characters. Hepburn played shy and self-conscious so brilliantly that it physically hurts to watch films like Alice Adams (1935) or Summertime (1955), but she could also, and perhaps more famously, embody confident, deeply intelligent, and competent characters as she does in Woman of the Year (1942) and Adam’s Rib (1949).

Susan is in a different class, but Hepburn jumped right into this character who lacks the embarrassment gene and brims with self-confidence and courage.  Perhaps that’s why we like Susan so much despite the chaos she creates—she doesn’t let silly things like social conventions or accepted logic stop her from living the life she wants.

As I mentioned before, Bringing Up Baby was not a commercial success when it was released. It did okay in most cities, but it was a huge flop in New York and only played at Radio City Music Hall for one week.

Hawks’ explanation for the lukewarm reception of the movie was that he’d made a mistake by not including more “straight” or “normal” characters. In Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, Hawks claimed that Bringing Up Baby “had a great fault and I learned an awful lot from that. There were no normal people in it. Everyone you met was a screwball and since that time I learned my lesson and don’t intend ever again to make everybody crazy.”

Since everyone is “screwball,” there is no one for the audience to identify with (unless you’re also daffy), which may have been one reason it didn’t so well when it was released. Without a normal core, the film spins off of its axis and careens into the wild unknown of screwball extremes. But that is partly why this film is so adored today—it is the quintessential screwball comedy that went further down the zany, twisting path than any other movie. That’s why scholar Morris Dickstein called the film “the greatest, certainly the wildest of these movies,” and critic Andrew Sarris called it the “screwiest of the screwball comedies.”

Bringing Up Baby Hepburn Grant harmony 2

RKO was concerned about the movie’s prospects even during production, apparently asking Hawks to minimize the slapstick, add more straight romance, and even to remove Grant’s Harold Lloyd glasses. But Hawks stood his ground.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t vindicated until decades later, and was instead punished for the film. Hawks’ refusal to listen to RKO executives, the film’s lackluster box office, and the damnable fact that Bringing Up Baby went $306,000 over budget and forty days behind schedule, made RKO so mad that they removed him from Gunga Din (1939), and gave the film to director George Stevens.

RKO wasn’t thrilled with Hepburn, either. Unfortunately, this film was the last in a string of disappointing Hepburn releases. RKO doubted her box office appeal, and so did exhibitors.

It was after the release of Bringing Up Baby that the Independent Theatre Owners of America included Hepburn on a list of actors they called “box office poison.” The list, published in the Independent Film Journal in May 1938, also included such legends as Joan Crawford, Fred Astaire, and Greta Garbo.

Today, the “box office poison” label slapped on Hepburn is pretty hilarious, but at the time, Hepburn was not a popular star. RKO wanted out of their contract which stipulated that Hepburn make two more films with the studio. To get out of that agreement, RKO assigned her to a B-movie called Mother Carey’s Chickens. Rather than be forced to make the movie, Hepburn bought out her contract and went to Columbia to make Holiday (1938). When that film also faltered at the box office, she headed to Broadway. She would make a triumphant return to Hollywood with The Philadelphia Story (1940), and the rest is history.

Bringing Up Baby is an incredibly rich, dense movie, and you can find a lot if you start looking. The title, for example, is not as simple as you might think.“Bringing Up Baby” could refer to raising the leopard as in “raising a child.” This interpretation makes the title a joke, since David and Susan are pretty terrible at caring for Baby. Or it could be read as bringing up a topic of conversation, as in “let’s talk about the leopard,” which generally results in chaos. After all, it was when Susan “brought up” her leopard on the phone with David that things really got going. If only Susan had “brought up Baby” to her aunt! All their trouble (and fun) could have been avoided. Less likely is the idea of “bringing up Baby” to New York, as in sending Baby north from South America where Susan’s brother caught him. I like to think it’s a combination.

Structurally, the movie features several instances of doubling and repetition. For example, the film is tidily bookended with Grant in the museum in the beginning and the end. And both times he’s with his fiancée, though it’s not the same woman.

The doubling continues throughout the film: Susan drives away with David riding on the running board twice, she steals two different cars, and the pair end up beneath a bedroom window at two different houses. There are two nearly identical purses, two confused phone calls with Alice, two missed appointments with Mr. Peabody, and of course two leopards! Even Miss Swallow and Susan could be considered doubles. They look alike, though they are the complete opposites in personality.

Much of the repetition contributes to the comedy—two purses and two leopards creates a comedic gold mine of confusion and mistakes, and poor David’s refrain of “I’ll be with you in a minute, Mr. Peabody!” becomes a running joke.

Bringing Up Baby 206There’s a lot happening just below the surface, too. For example, you can read a great deal into David and Susan’s evening in the woods. Once outside of the city, and freed from the societal confines of the house and the adult world they inhabit with Aunt Elizabeth and Major Applegate, the pair can finally “get back to Nature” and fall in love.

They experience an almost prehistoric world (perfect for our paleontologist) of wild animals, the thrill of the hunt, fire, water (if a character gets dunked, you have to mention a cleansing baptism—it’s a rule of textual analysis), and honest emotion and conversation.

Civilization intrudes and controls; real connection and truth are easier to find in the wild. That could be a subtitle of screwball comedy—remove the constraints and let characters be weird and wild, and you’ll discover what is important and real.

You can also have fun with the “intercostal clavicle” that David needs for his brontosaurus. This oft-mentioned fossil is not a real bone. It’s an invented body part with a nonsensical name that is perfect for this film and genre: intercostal means “between ribs” and clavicle is another word for “collarbone.” Obviously you can’t have an “intercostal” clavicle; even a brontosaurus doesn’t keep his shoulders inside his ribs. The screenwriters could have used the name of an actual dinosaur bone, but instead they opted for a name that is as wacky and illogical as the film.

Bringing Up Baby 48The intercostal clavicle brings us to the sexual reading. The word “bone” presents multiple and varied instances of innuendo.

For instance, poor David gets his bone the day of his wedding, loses it almost immediately, and spends the rest of the film searching for it with Susan’s eager assistance. Susan even dubs him “Mr. Bone,” which is rather funny considering it’s the one thing he doesn’t have.

To be fair, “Mr. Bone” also works as a reference to the minstrel show stock character “Mr. Bones” who was a goofy joke teller and singer. David also jokes and sings in this film, so the name could just be a reference to his character. But I doubt it.

The name of the leopard is suggestive, too, especially since Miss Swallow told David that their marriage “must entail no domestic entanglements of any kind,” and that the brontosaurus “will be our child.” In other words, no sex. So, if David chooses Miss Swallow, he gets an old fossil, but if he chooses Susan, he gets a living, breathing “Baby” ( and sex.) Beyond that comparison, it’s interesting that David and Susan spend so much of the film searching for the leopard. You could suggest that in “searching for Baby” they are also “searching for baby,” or the love, marriage, and sex (not always in that order) that lead to babies.

You can go pretty far with the sexual reading; indeed, in Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, Stanley Cavell labels the film a “sexual allegory” all about marriage and sexuality. For example, when discussing the collapse of the fossil at the end of the film, he asks, “Is it meant to register the perimeter of human happiness, [David and Susan are in love, but David can’t have both the girl and the dinosaur] or the happenstance of it—like the breaking of the glass at the end of a Jewish wedding? Both surely comment upon the demise of virginity, but in this film it is the woman who directly causes it.”

I’m not sure I’d go that far and suggest that the broken fossil symbolizes the physical consummation of their relationship; it is more likely to me that the destruction of the brontosaurus illustrates the end of Miss Swallow and David’s relationship (she did call it their child), and proves that David no longer cares more about his work than anything else. Susan is his priority now, as demonstrated by their embrace after the dinosaur has crashed to the ground.

You can see why this film presents many different subtexts and readings. Of course, Bringing Up Baby is wonderfully entertaining at face value, too, so watch it however you like. And if you enjoy it, you can take a look at two loose remakes, What’s Up, Doc? with Barbra Streisand in 1972 and Who’s That Girl? with Madonna in 1987.

With its lackluster release, this film might have been forgotten had influential critics and scholars not resurrected it. In the 1950s and 60s, Howard Hawks became a favorite auteur of André Bazin and the Cahiers crowd, which prompted a re-examination of his work. Other critics, filmmakers, and scholars discovered that screwball comedy as a genre was quite interesting, and of course two mega-icons like Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant helped bring people back to the film. Today, it is recognized as a classic and a gem of the screwball genre, and ranked 88th on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Movies” list in 2007.

I didn’t know any of this when I first saw Bringing Up Baby as a kid. All I knew was that it made me laugh, and I loved watching it. Since then, my love for this movie has only grown. And as the credits roll, I have to agree with Cary Grant: “I’ve never had a better time!”

Here’s the trailer–enjoy! As always, thanks for reading! For more, follow me on TwittertumblrPinterest, Instagram at BlondeAtTheFilm, and Facebook.

You can buy this great film here, and be sure to check out the other entries in the Classic Movie Blog Associations‘ Fabulous Films of the ’30s Blogathon!

Variety quotes from Weekly Variety. 16 Feb 1938. 129: 10. 15.

 

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Categories: Comedy, Screwball

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31 replies »

  1. “I wasn’t going to hit George!” LOL “Bringing Up Baby” gets funnier to me as time goes by. I think as a kid I kept expecting something normal to happen and was confused when it didn’t. The older I got, the more I relaxed and simply enjoyed it all.

    Thanks for the link to the original story. It is very interesting to learn of Walter Catlett’s extra job as “comedy coach”.

    • I love that line! This was a hard review to write because the movie just gets better every time I watch it, and I wanted to share all the parts that I love! I hope you get a chance to read the story. It’s really fun! I’m looking forward to your post in the blogathon! Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Great review and pictures and quotes. So much to love in this film – So many favourite scenes – especially the whole scene in the jail, with Swinging Door Suzy and her gang. I can’t understand how it wasn’t better received on its release .
    I am not even a big fan of screwball but I love this one.Cary and Kate, great teaming.

  3. It’s amazing how many now considered great films were flops when first released. As you mention, and as has happened in many cases, it was the French who had to make us realize what golden treasures we have in our own back years.

      • I recall reading an interview with Howard Hawks who said that he believed the reason the film “flopped” was that he didn’t put a sane person in it. Every character was nuts! He said after this film he was always careful to put some normal persons in his films for the nuttier ones to play off of, although I’m not sure about how that sorts out in Hatari!

  4. Thanks for posting all those great screen caps. I feel like I’ve just re-watched the movie!

    What a perfect choice for the 30s blogathon. This film is funny and outrageous, yet it’s also rather tender. And I agree with you that Grant and Hepburn seem to have a lot of fun in their scenes together.

  5. Epic! You post was truly wonderful. You did justice to a classic – and I loved the background stories about baby and all things Cary, especially Hawks’ tip to watch Harold Lloyd. Next time I watch this film (and, of course, I will watch it again because it is endlessly watchable), I will keep that in mind. It will add a new dimension to my enjoyment.

    • Wow, thank you! This comment made my day–“adding a new dimension to the enjoyment” of this film is exactly what I was hoping for! I’m so glad you enjoyed this post! Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Great post on (for me) the prototypical screwball comedy. It was interesting to read about the other actors considered for the role of David. I can’t imagine anyone but Cary Grant! I also didn’t know that Baby was originally a panther.

  7. I’ve an odd thought, which is that this film is strangely Kafkaesque. That sounds ridiculous, I know, but think about it. David is never in control of his fate, his words are constantly twisted to the opposite of his meaning, and the situation just seems to get worse no matter what he does. The difference is that while a Kafka protagonist is led inexorably to a dreadful fate, David is led inexorably to the comparably pleasant fate of marrying Susan

    • I like that idea! David is thrown into a wild world where his fate seems completely out of his control…though, as you say, the his ending is much pleasanter than a Kafka hero! Thanks for reading!

  8. Thank you so much for this review! You’re so right about many modern folks not getting screwball. I knew I would never get on with my cousin’s wife after she saw this, wrinkled her nose and said, “Why do they DRESS like that?”

    I hope you don’t mind but I do have a theory about the dinosaur bone. You see, Howard Hawks was an assistant Cecil B. DeMille in the silent era. The 1924 romantic comedy ADAM’S RIB featured a secondary romantic plot that included a stiff paleontologist who just wants to build his dinosaur and a ditzy flapper who won’t take no for an answer. She even declares that he would be sooo good-looking without his glasses. Whatcha think? Am I on to something?

    Anyway, loved the deep reading of a great film!

    • The ADAM’s RIB connection is wonderful, thank you! That makes the additions to Wilde’s story make more sense. I’m glad you enjoyed my review! Thanks for stopping by!

  9. Wow!!! Fantastic post!! After reading your posts I always feel that it would be pointless for me to ever write about the same movie because yours are just so good!!

    My favorite part of this film is when Susan says she was born on the side of a hill. I love your screenshots 🙂

    • Thank you so much! I’m glad you enjoy my posts–it’s so nice to hear that! The “born on the side of a hill” scene is so funny. It’s one of my favorites, too! Thanks for reading!

  10. I hadn’t seen this film for a while, so thanks for refreshing my mind on how wonderful it really is. I like Cary Grant so much better in his comedies than in his dramatic, romantic roles. I think he was also hilarious in “Arsenic and old Lace”. One of my favourite lines from this film is Grant’s repeated “I’ll be with you in a minute, Mr. Peabody”. Very funny indeed. Wonderful post, thanks!

  11. This is a great review of one of my favorite comedies. You give so much great details about the making of it I did not know. I love how you described Hepburn and Grant caring for baby(The Leopard) and his search for the bone is a metaphor for sex. Brilliant post

  12. Hello Blondeat the film. That was a great article and very detailed. The images are great too.
    I’ve just started writing a blog here on wordpress. I am writing a dog blog to go along with my etsy collar small creative business. I’m preparing to write a few articles about famous dogs in movies. I am thinking of starting with George =) I’d like to ask you where you got your wonderful photos of the movie from, since a few of them would be perfect at illustrating the situations I would like to comment on. Sorry about this so long comment. Any help or tips would be really welcome.
    https://kimanddaisyuk.wordpress.com/

    • Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. Unless there is a link beneath an image, I made it myself. You can use some of my images so long as you credit me and link back. Good luck with your blog–great idea!

      • Thankyou! That’s great. I’ll do the article this weekend. I’ll let you know about the images. Have a great weekend!

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