Bringing Up Baby: An Ode
Nineteen essays from the blogathon were collected in an e-book put together by Danny at Pre-Code.com. The e-book, The Fabulous Films of the 30s, is available for free at Smashwords, or for 99 cents at Amazon (all proceeds from Amazon sales go to film preservation.)
Since my typical image-heavy style wouldn’t work in the e-book, the essay that I contributed was quite different from the blog post I published in the blogathon. So I’ve decided to publish a slightly revised version of the e-book essay here. I hope you enjoy!
“This is probably the silliest thing that ever happened to me:”
Bringing Up Baby (1938) 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, 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. (No slang! Remember who and what you are!)
On April 10, 1937, Collier’s Weekly published a short story by Hagar Wilde entitled “Bringing Up Baby.” You can read Wilde’s story here–it’s delightful. (Oddly enough, “Stage to Lordsburg” the story upon which Stagecoach (1939) was based, appeared in the same issue!) 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 through January 1938, with its premiere coming just over a month after shooting wrapped.
Bringing Up Baby concerns the loony escapades of Dr. David Huxley (Grant), a strait-laced paleontologist engaged to an even more painfully proper nerd named Miss Swallow (Virginia Walker). They plan to get married the following day, but first, David has to schmooze with the lawyer of a wealthy benefactor. There is a million dollars up for grabs, and David wants it for his museum. But David’s plan goes awry when he runs into an eccentric woman named Susan Vance (Hepburn).
Somehow, Susan whirls David into her wacky life like a charming but powerful cyclone. Eventually the pair find themselves hunting for Susan’s tame leopard (there weren’t any trained panthers available, so the panther from the short story became a leopard) named Baby and her aunt’s terrier George in the wilds of Connecticut. Along the way, the pair meet other zany characters, spend some time in jail, and lose the brontosaurus bone David needs to complete his fossil. All ends well. Except for the brontosaurus, of course.
Variety called Bringing Up Baby “the most frantic and whirligig of recent film funnies;” 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. So what makes a movie a “screwball comedy?” The genre conventions include farcical situations, witty, quick repartee, slapstick, mistaken or fluid identities, secrets, mismatches in social class, journeys away from civilization and into the country, and a battle of the sexes romance plot where the madcap woman pursues the man. Let’s review.
Farcical situations? Check. Bringing Up Baby is one crazy, comical scene after another. Nearly every moment qualifies, and the film provides us with such farcical gems of wisdom as “When a man is wrestling a leopard in the middle of the pond, he is in no position to run!” and “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?!”
Witty, fast dialogue? Another check. The film is so packed with comic incongruity and irrational responses that it seems as though the characters were dropped from the sky just a few minutes ago and boast only a theoretical, literal understanding of English and linguistic patterns: for example, “‘Did you speak with Mr. Peabody?’ ‘Yes, I spoke to him twice, but I didn’t talk to him'” and:
Bringing Up Baby has a particularly glorious helping of slapstick physical comedy. Grant and Hepburn manage to trip over every branch and fall down every hill in Connecticut. The brunt of the slapstick falls to Grant, which isn’t unusual. Screwball comedies often feature a clumsy, bewildered man completely undone by the woman.
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. A particularly grand pratfall comes when Grant slips on an olive and hits the floor, landing spectacularly on his top hat. The olive was dropped by Susan, of course: “First you drop an olive, and then I sit on my hat. It all fits perfectly,” he says, sarcastically.
You can cross off the tropes of fluid identities, disguises and secrets, too. David masquerades as Mr. Bone, a big-game hunter, and Susan drops her “society moniker” to become Swinging Door Suzy, a hardened moll.
Suzy then christens David with his own criminal alias, “Jerry the Nipper,” which is a reference to his previous film The Awful Truth (1937). (Irene Dunne chose that name for Grant when she was pretending to be his sister, and when Susan uses it in Bringing Up Baby, David shouts, “Constable, she’s making all this up out of motion pictures she’s seen!”) Even the leopard becomes the victim of mistaken identity, and David and Susan spend most of the film trying to keep the existence of Baby a secret.
Put a check next to the mismatch in social class; this film pairs a high society heiress with a hardworking paleontologist, though it’s not as marked a difference as in some other screwballs.
And cross off the illuminating trip to the country away from civilization. David and Susan leave New York City for “wild” Connecticut, a frequent destination in screwball comedies.
You can put a gold star next to the “comical battle of the sexes courtship plot.” As Susan learns early on, “The love impulse in man frequently reveals itself in terms of conflict”, and this principle governs the romance. In screwball comedies, a madcap female (often an heiress) dominates her relationship with a man, who is sometimes reluctant to involve himself with the terrifyingly stubborn woman.
In this film, Susan turns David’s world completely sideways, taking him out of his city, his relationship, and his job. She also changes his name and steals his clothes, which leads us to another characteristic of the courtship plot: the man’s masculinity is often challenged.
Sometimes this is an explicit emasculation through cross-dressing (the notorious “I just went gay all of the sudden!” scene), and sometimes it’s accomplished through the steamrolling power of the woman.
David can hardly keep up with Susan’s stubborn, ludicrous machinations; as he mutters at one point in the movie: “How can all these things happen to just one person?” and:
It’s a wild ride in the pursuit of love and fun, but the zany trajectory usually accomplishes the goal. The strait-laced man loosens up and accepts the fun offered by the woman: “I’ve never had a better time!” David tells Susan at the end.
Most importantly, though, screwball comedies feature a world that has been flipped upside down. Social conventions get swept away, usually by the wacky woman and her hare-brained schemes. As David says to Susan, “You look at everything upside down! I’ve never met anyone quite like you.”
You can find many of these tropes and characteristics in classic screwball comedies such as It Happened One Night (1934), Hands Across the Table (1935), My Man Godfrey (1936), The Awful Truth (1937), Easy Living (1937), Nothing Sacred (1937), Topper (1937), Midnight (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), The Lady Eve (1940), The Palm Beach Story (1942), and many others. These films contain some of the conventions of the genre; Bringing Up Baby has them all.
And that’s one reason I love it so much. Screwball comedies are one of my favorite genres, so of course I adore the “screwiest of the screwball comedies,” as critic Andrew Sarris called Bringing Up Baby. I love falling into this film’s screwball world where everyone is an oddball, pratfalls are commonplace but never injurious, and even the most straightforward conversations become overwhelmed in farcical confusion.
While this outrageous absurdity would get annoying fast at the bank, for instance, never mind becoming downright dangerous on the highway, I adore it in the world of this film. That’s Bringing Up Baby’s genius: the film does a tremendous job of creating its own, peculiar, goofy world. Unlike some other classics of the genre, this movie severs ties to “reality” pretty quickly.
Untethered by logic, social conventions, and fundamental normality, Bringing Up Baby careens like a rickety rollercoaster into a fantastical reality all its own. It’s almost like Harry Potter in that it starts in the real world, but takes you far from what is familiar and ordinary. Bringing Up Baby transports us into a crazy screwball world that’s similar to, but marvelously different, from our own.
The film’s kooky world is populated with equally kooky characters who contribute to what Variety called the “general ludicrous hullaballoo.” Everyone, from the bizarrely business-like Miss Swallow down to the drunk gardener, is screwy. This makes for a lot of fun, but also an overwhelming amount of crazy.
Hawks would later say that it was too much, 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.
Although I don’t mind the overall nuttiness, I think the film could have been even stronger if the psychiatrist or the constable were a little less batty. The jail scene in particular becomes so stuffed with crazy characters that you lose focus on David and Susan. We’ve just spent so much time with them and their relationship that the jail scene feels almost like a different movie, or an enjoyable tangent.
But there is more to enjoy besides the screwiness of the film. For one thing, the performances are marvelous. If you’re used to Cary Grant as Mr. Suave, you’ll be amazed at how dorky and awkward he is as David. In other films like Notorious (1946) and To Catch a Thief (1955), 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 has an unsure, uneven gait, he falls constantly, and in the one scene where he wears a tuxedo, he appears ill at ease and deeply uncomfortable. And that’s before he crushes his top hat and rips his coat. David mumbles and stutters, and his voice rises to a whinny when he’s really upset. But he loosens up after spending time with Susan, and he seems to gain confidence and come out of his uptight shell. It’s a pleasure to watch him change over the course of the film.
Grant was reportedly nervous about this role, but Howard Hawks told him to model his performance on silent film comedian Harold Lloyd (hence the round glasses). And Grant nails it.
He’s far from the “Cary Grant” character, which makes his performance as the bewildered, nerdy, absent-minded David even more delightful. Plus, his physical skill and timing honed as an acrobat are on full display in this movie. His pratfalls are incredible, and his timing is perfect. Variety’s review of the film praised Grant, noting that he “carries his full share of the fantastic abandon in a goofy characterization which required unusual skill.”
This was Grant and Hepburn’s second film together after 1935’s Sylvia Scarlett, and they had a wonderful time. In her autobiography Me: Stories of My Life, Katharine Hepburn recalls in her typical fashion that: “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.”
Hepburn and a “fatter” Grant may have had a fantastic time together, but the film did not start out so well for Miss Hepburn. Unlike Grant, she did not have a background in comedy, and up until this point she’d acted mainly in dramas. When they started filming, she “overacted” and tried too hard be funny. 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.
Once Hepburn got some help, she flourished. She would go on to act in many other comedies, but it all started with this astounding performance. Variety wrote that “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.” Her madcap heiress (or “spoiled, conceited little scatterbrain,” as David calls her) is legendary, and it’s glorious to watch her go after what she wants.
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 me 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), Adam’s Rib (1949), and Desk Set (1957).
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.
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! 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.
There’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 even 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 subtextual 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.
The 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, 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 seems 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.
This film is a famous flop, although its box office failure wasn’t actually too extreme. But it was not a hit by any means, and RKO was upset. The studio was so mad at Hawks for going over budget and behind schedule on this film that they removed him from Gunga Din (1939), which was supposed to be his next project. They weren’t thrilled with Hepburn, either, and neither were 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 seems pretty hilarious, but at the time, Hepburn was not a popular star. After a few unsuccessful films in a row, RKO wanted out of their contract which stipulated that Hepburn make two more films with the studio.
So 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) (her third film with Grant). 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 (1941), (also with Grant) and the rest is history.
With its lackluster release, Bringing Up Baby 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: “This is probably the silliest thing that ever happened to me” but “I’ve never had a better time!”
You can read my more traditional review of Bringing Up Baby here, complete with much more backstory, trivia, and a detailed plot synopsis. For more essays, check out the e-book, The Fabulous Films of the 30s. It’s available for free at Smashwords, or for 99 cents at Amazon, with all proceeds from Amazon sales going to film preservation.