#229) Bringing Up Baby (1938)
OR “Hawksian Days”
Directed by Howard Hawks
Written by Dudley Nichols & Hagar Wilde. Based on the short story by Wilde.
Class of 1990
The Plot: Paleontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant) is one day away from completing a full brontosaurus skeleton and marrying his joyless fiancée Alice (Virginia Walker). On the day the “intercostal clavicle” is set to arrive, David meets Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), a free-spirit whose Aunt Elizabeth (May Robson) happens to be the donor David needs to impress to get his museum a grant. The more time David spends with Susan, the more destruction she brings into his life, starting with the arrival of a leopard named Baby (Nissa). There’s mistaken identity, fast-paced overlapping dialogue, plenty of pratfalls, and an inexplicable love story in this comedy classic.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film a “fast-paced screwball comedy” and gives some backstory to the production and its eventual standing as a classic
But Does It Really?: I’ve covered the beginning and the end of Hawks’ legendary run of screwball comedies, but with “Bringing Up Baby” we finally see the apex. The screwball comedy as a genre has been long gone, but this film lives on thanks to its simple premise and expert comic timing. Grant and Hepburn are wonderfully cast against type, Hepburn in particular is relishing a role that would help craft her spirited, independent persona. Aided by a murderer’s row of character actors and an inspired screenplay, Hawks and his team have made quite possibly the definitive film comedy of the early sound era.
Shout Outs: David’s alias from Susan is “Jerry the Nipper”, the nickname Cary Grant’s character was given in “The Awful Truth”.
Everybody Gets One: Australian stage actress May Robson, and comic actor Fritz Feld, who sadly does not get to do his trademark pop sound in the film.
Wow, That’s Dated: The phrase “behind the eight ball”, travelling circuses, and the ability to start any car you come across.
Seriously, Oscars?: The oft-quoted story of “Bringing Up Baby” being snubbed at the Oscars due to its status as a box-office bomb is misleading. The film was successful in most markets, but didn’t recoup its budget in its initial release. It was also a rough year for RKO Pictures; only one of its over 40 releases received an Oscar nod (“Vivacious Lady”). Katharine Hepburn bought out her contract with RKO in 1938, so it makes sense that the studio wouldn’t invest money in an Oscar campaign for a star no longer on the payroll. Chalk up the lack of recognition for “Bringing Up Baby” to bad timing.
- This seems like a movie that should have had an animated opening credits sequence.
- Is Susan the first manic pixie dream girl? Or was that just the next evolutionary step for the Hawksian Woman?
- I know that Cary Grant’s film career was just taking off in 1938, so he didn’t quite have the sophisticated persona we associate with him, but it’s a fun change of pace to see him play awkward and stiff.
- Once Baby shows up, be on the lookout for shots where the leopard is separate from the actors. There’s an obvious pane of glass between David and Baby when he first sees it, and there are several shots where the actors are filmed separately, with Baby being added in optically. Only Katharine Hepburn was brave enough to work alongside Nissa, with handler Olga Celeste saying that Hepburn could have been an animal trainer.
- Shoutout to Walter Catlett, a vaudeville performer brought in by Hawks to coach Katharine Hepburn on her comedy scenes. Hepburn appreciated his tutelage so much she convinced Hawks to cast Catlett as Constable Slocum, a role that he plays in an expertly befuddled manner.
- And then we get to the infamous scene where, when asked why he’s wearing a woman’s negligee, David declares in exasperation, “Because I just went GAY all of a sudden!” It may be the first instance of the term “gay” being used in a homosexual context. No one knows for sure if this was intentional (the phrase, while known as early as the ‘20s, didn’t become commonplace until the late ‘60s). Allegedly, the line was ad-libbed by Cary Grant, though he never confirmed this in his lifetime, and the camera tracks the leap he makes in the take very well. The true meaning/origin is anyone’s guess.
- Like many a farce, the events of this film rely on a lot of coincidence.
- If David and Susan want to know where George went, all they have to do is follow the tracks the camera dolly is making in the dirt!
- Everybody’s great, but I particularly enjoyed Charles Ruggles as the easily confused Major Applegate.
- I had never heard of Squat Tag before this movie. Apparently it’s a real thing.
- Baby can be tamed by singing “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”, which was a popular song about a decade earlier. If the film were remade today the song would be…I don’t know, “Hey There Delilah”?
- And then Baby gets in a fight with Asta the dog. Where was PETA during all of this?
- Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant harmonizing is just delightful.
- The ending is the right amount of ridiculous, but I can only imagine the real-world ramifications of what happened to the museum and its grants.
- As previously mentioned, “Bringing Up Baby” was successful, but – thanks to the film going over-budget due to production delays from Hawks, Hepburn and Grant – never made its money back. The Independent Theatre Owners of America had already labeled Katharine Hepburn “box office poison”, and this film’s underperformance solidified that standing. Hepburn left RKO, went back to Broadway, and returned to Hollywood two years later (with Cary Grant in tow) for the film version of her stage hit, “The Philadelphia Story”.
- “Bringing Up Baby” finally made a profit upon a re-release in the early ‘40s (no doubt to cash in on the success of “The Philadelphia Story”). Frequent television airings in the ‘50s helped improve the film’s reputation, and ultimately made it a classic.
- Howard Hawks’ made a self-homage 25 years later with the Rock Hudson/Paula Prentiss comedy “Man’s Favorite Sport?”
- Filmmaker/longtime Hawks admirer Peter Bogdanovich made a spiritual remake in 1972 with “What’s Up, Doc?” The story goes that an apprehensive Bogdanovich showed the screenplay to Howard Hawks, who had one problem with it: Bogdanovich didn’t steal the leopard or the dinosaur bone.