Bringing Up Baby
US (1938) Dir. Howard Hawks
Mild mannered zoologist Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant) is about to be married to the uptight Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker) but on the eve of the wedding, Huxley learns that an intercostal clavicle bone has been found which will allow him to complete his brontosaurus skeleton.
However they still need a $1 million investment for the museum which has been promised to them by Mrs. Carleton Random (May Robson), and Huxley must sweet talk Mrs. Random’s lawyer Alexander Peabody (George Irving) over a game of golf which takes place on the morning of the wedding. Everything is going to plan until Huxley encounters capricious and flighty heiress Susan Vance (Katherine Hepburn) whose every act seems to conspire against Huxley, especially when she takes delivery of a leopard named Baby.
This 1938 offering from Howard Hawks is considered one of the greatest screwball comedies of all time and indeed it sets the template for many of the farcical hits which have since gone on to achieve great acclaim.
At the time the film was not the runaway success its legendary status would suggest, largely due to the rapid fire pace of the jokes and because Hepburn’s character is hugely irritating. In fact, Hepburn – who went on to become an Oscar winner and one of the biggest names in Hollywood – was labelled “box office poison” as a result since her films often drew poorly.
It’s true that Susan Vance is a deeply annoying character: doing as she pleases, not taking responsibility for her destructive actions, unable to tell the truth and somehow convincing herself that she is in love with Huxley after a brief introduction-cum-argument. In any other world she would be locked up as a psycho stalker but this is the movies and we tolerate Susan as she is the engine that drives the film.
While Huxley is trying to get his cash endowment, his dinosaur bone and himself back to New York for his wedding, Susan drags him to Connecticut to drop Baby (a real life leopard) off at her aunt’s country house, getting him dirty, stealing another car and then stealing his clothes in the process.
Just when Huxley is at breaking point, Susan reveals that Peabody is a close friend and that her aunt is Mrs. Random – but only after Huxley has made a bad impression on both of them. Throw in a wandering leopard, a bone thieving dog and a police hunt for the car thieves and you have a recipe for disaster.
Truth be told, this film doesn’t quite stand up so well in light of everything that has come after it but its influence is palpable and immeasurable. While Cary Grant is Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn breaks out of her dramatic comfort zone to show a real flair for whacky comedy which surprised everyone at the time, but director Hawks clearly knew what he was doing when he cast her.
Possibly by today’s standards this is 95 minutes of farcical clichés but it’s worth remembering that this is where those clichés originated.