Let’s Talk About… ‘Bringing Up Baby’ (1938)

Film #44 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies

Every week FilmExodus does a review/analysis of a different cinematic masterpiece from AFI’s 100 Movies 2007 updated list. For a complete overview and how you can participate, click here.

Directed by Howard Hawks

Starring: Katharine Hepburn & Cary Grant

Nobody ever expected that Bringing Up Baby would one day receive universal praise and be considered as one of the top 100 American films ever made, especially upon its initial release. Without a doubt, the first person to admit this would be Katharine Hepburn herself. The film performed quite badly and was classified as yet another in a long line of Hepburn’s flops, disappointing her home studio RKO and moviegoers to such an extent that she earned the nickname “box-office poison”. Nowadays, Hepburn is largely thought to be one of the greatest – if not the supreme – actress in the history of motion pictures. How is it that the reputations of both Bringing Up Baby and Katharine Hepburn differ so much today from what they were during the 1930s?

The Story

Dr. David Huxley (Grant) is an accomplished and revered palaeontologist who is in the midst of assembling a Brontosaurus skeleton that is only missing one bone – an intercostal clavicle – which has recently been unearthed by a team of archaeologists and which will be delivered to him. Outwardly uptight and nerdy, David is engaged to marry Alice but their union is based on professional convenience rather than any sort of romantic sentiments. Though he agrees with the terms of the marriage, it is obvious that David wishes for a slight bit more excitement in his life. His luck is about to change in that department and he ends up getting more than he ever bargained for when he crosses paths with the free-spirited and zany Susan Vance (Hepburn).

Their escapade begins at a golf course. David is trying to make a good impression on possible donors of $1 million trust to the museum where he works. Susan is there to simply play a round of golf and she ends up using David’s lost ball as her own. She eventually tries to take his car from the parking lot (is it identical to the one she owns) and ends up wrecking it by hitting others cars as well as a tree. The fun does not stop there. They meet again at a restaurant that evening where they both get their clothes ripped and Susan indirectly gets David accused of lifting a psychoanalyst’s wife’s purse. While David becomes more infuriated with the sequence of events, Susan finds them amusing and deduces that he is intentionally following her around because he is infatuated. She decides to ask him for help in transporting to her Connecticut farm a leopard that has been sent to her from her brother in Brazil. The leopard goes by the name ‘Baby’ and loves the song I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby. David, who is supposed to be married that very night to Alice, does not wish to go but gets fooled into doing so by Susan, who has fallen in love with him and wishes to prevent his impending nuptials.

The high jinks continue en route to Connecticut when Baby consumes $150 worth of ducks, chickens & swans from a livestock truck, Susan steals a car – no less from the very same psychoanalyst from the restaurant – and David learns that Susan, for whom he does not particularly care at this stage, is the niece of the $1 million donor. Once arrived, Susan steals his clothes, David makes a miserable impression on the rich aunt, and Baby ends up stealing the practically priceless dinosaur clavicle. Needless to say, this cycle of craziness continues on throughout the film, which represents an impossible day in the life of Dr. David Huxley whereas it is a run-of-the-mill one in the life of Susan Vance.

Professor, Alice & David

David: “Our marriage must entail no domestic entaglements of any kind.”

Alice: “I see our marriage purely as a dedication to your work.”

Kate the Great

I have long been familiar with the name and legacy attached to Katharine Hepburn but I had not seen many of her films until a few months ago. It is funny how someone, even with an iconic status, can seem uninteresting to you when you have not even been fully exposed to their work. My appreciation for her as a thespian is ever growing though her real life personality sometimes leaves much to be desired. Her hardened persona coupled with snipe, snappy remarks could be a turn-off and left many 1930’s moviegoers not wishing to see her films. These practises also irritated reporters and critics, who had a difficult time according her interviews and feeling the desire to give her good, praiseworthy press. Even in her later years, she remained unbroken and, moreover, unapologetic. During an interview with Diane Sawyer, an 80-year-old Hepburn was asked, “Was he a real (romantic) possibility, Howard Hughes?” A question to which Hepburn boldly responded: “Now you’re getting on to topics that I am not interested in discussing. So you should lay off.” Her snobbish, unapproachable attitude was largely blamed for the failure of her films especially when Bringing Up Baby did not fulfil box-office expectations; a picture which unfortunately sat at the end of a long line of cinematic bombs.

Primarily a serious actress, Hepburn starred in a number of screwball comedies but was never seen as a natural comedienne by most people, including herself. She struggled to find her comic bearings as Susan in Bringing Up Baby although in all honesty, her so-called lack of ability was not readily noticeable. Despite her less than charming outer/public personality, Hepburn is delightful and charismatic in her lighter roles, never giving suggestion that she would be any different in her private life. If Hepburn was indeed nervous in her turn as Susan, then her discomfort was likely adequately dispersed throughout her performance, the remnants giving an appropriate touch to her character. Susan seems to be slightly dim-witted but she is rather easy-going and out for having fun, being afforded the luxury of a rather carefree existence thanks to her family’s wealth. At the same time, she is both bored and lonely with such a life, playfully forcing some sort of relationship between David and herself.

“Archie” Leach

It’s sometimes hard to believe that Cary Grant had his cinematic origins firmly cemented in screwball comedy. Most of us grew up knowing of his more refined and debonair ways, always being immaculately dressed and groomed while speaking with a delicious British accent. Cary Grant spelled class, distinction, luxury, sex appeal and charm: qualities which were echoed by his more gentlemanly roles in Notorious, An Affair to Remember, Indiscreet and That Touch of Mink, among others. Women found him irresistible and men strove to exhibit such an attractive outward style. Obviously Grant had no problems pulling off serious roles so now the question is: Could he effectively do comedy as well? The answer is affirmative. I have pointed this out in two other AFI 100 articles featuring him – The Philadelphia Story and North by Northwest – though it is entirely more obvious in Bringing Up Baby. Grant’s comedic style is subtle dead pan usually involving the following situation: A nice guy minding his own business happening upon a turn of bad chance that makes him very agitated. Since misfortune sneaks up on them without warning, we are able to witness the transition of Grant’s characters from able-minded to seemingly senile throughout the course of a film. Luckily, however, the problems are usually ironed out enough by the end of the film to enjoy a happy ending.

Grant’s incarnation of serious scientist Dr. David Huxley is brilliantly played. Huxley lives a life in which everything makes sense and serves a purpose, even when it comes to the people around him. He is not a man who makes decisions from his heart but rather does so based on the utility of the matter/person in question. Since Grant has a very polished persona, it takes very little imagination to buy him as being standoffish though admittedly the sight of him as highbrowed and wearing glasses is another story. Upon seeing Grant as Huxley, one can only chuckle at the mere sight of a renowned sex symbol looking and acting like a timid bookworm. His chemistry with Hepburn is not immediately noted but since their two characters have the effect of deflecting magnets in the first half of the film, this is not so surprising. In fact, you as a viewer grow more accustomed and comfortable with the characters at the same time as they are doing the same between themselves, making it so that their eventual union is completely believable. I have to hand it to Grant in that he went all out for this role, making himself look ridiculous when he is dressed in a woman’s robe with feathery boa detailing and throughout his misadventures with Hepburn’s Susan.

It’s clear that Grant had a natural knack for comedy on-screen though, ironically enough, part of that reputation comes from the fact that his humour was largely unintentional in presentation. Someone like Tony Randall had a similar appeal in playing the grounded straight man that follows all the rules by the book. If I had to choose my favourite Cary Grant comedy film, it would easily be Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.

Secondary Players

Several veteran actors made-up the supporting cast, notably Australian-born actress May Robson who played Susan’s wealthy Aunt Elizabeth. When you are first introduced to the character, you anticipate this older woman to not have much impact on the film. Robson was 79-years-old during the filming of Bringing Up Baby and one would never have been able to guess it by looks alone. Not only does she appear younger than her years, her humour and wit are as fresh as someone a half a century younger. She adds so much life to the film, cracking some of the film’s funniest jokes and keeping up with the energetic pace of it all.

There is much unity amongst the ensemble cast and everyone makes the comedy flow easily but in a way that it still takes you, the viewer, by surprise whether it is continuing a running gag or having a character suddenly stumble into the action.

Thoughts & Reflections

I was unsure how I would like this film when I first signed up for it, which I did because I happened to have a copy of the film in a huge RKO box set that I got for Christmas one year. In the past, I have mostly enjoyed Cary Grant in more serious roles or in comedic roles where he more toned down. A film like Arsenic and Old Lace amused me but I disliked how over-exaggerated Grant’s performance was, particularly when most of the other actors were playing their comedy in a very mild-mannered way (though the subject matter was incredibly provocative). Because of this, I made the effort to go into Bringing Up Baby with an open mind and just enjoy myself. It definitely worked because I had a good time watching the film and cherished seeing a softer side to Grant as well as to discover more about Hepburn. This film is very deserving of its spot on the AFI 100 Greatest Films list, coming in at number 88 which is 9 spots higher than the previous ranking. Everything about this movie still stands the test of time and it holds your interest until the very end.

Saying this brings me back to the question that I asked at the beginning of my review. So, why is it that both Bringing Up Baby and Katharine Hepburn more appreciated today than they were in 1938? In regards to the film, I think that its release at the end of the U.S. Great Depression did not garner a warm reception amongst moviegoers who were perhaps not ready to accept such blatant comedy. Their laughs would have to be earned, not automatically assumed. I can also see that the fact that Susan Vance is fabulously wealthy with several different residences, all beautifully decorated and furnished, could turn-off moviegoers who had to live on rationed food for years among other atrocities. Certainly Hepburn’s outward persona had something to do with attracting audiences but it is far too convenient an excuse. Many of the best respected actresses in Hollywood had difficult, outspoken personalities including but not limited to Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Mary Pickford and Greta Garbo. Internal factors between Hepburn and RKO probably also played a role and Bringing Up Baby just happened to represent a point in time when the two parties were destined to go their separate ways.

It is quite hopeful to see that a film can have a second life of such proportions. What would Hepburn, Grant, Hawks and even RKO had thought of this resurgence? Since they all have not been with us for some time, we can only wish that wherever and in whatever shape/way/form they are that they can be content to know how much happiness a film that was made 80 years ago is going to bring generations to come.

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