Friday, January 10, 2020

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

USA, 102 minutes
Director: Howard Hawks
Writers: Dudley Nichols, Hagar Wilde
Photography: Russell Metty
Music: Roy Webb
Editor: George Hively
Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Charles Ruggles, Walter Catlett, Barry Fitzgerald, May Robson, Fritz Feld, Ward Bond

I have never adored this movie the way I think I should, the way people do. Watching it recently I noted all the impressive points again: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, director Howard Hawks, a leopard (make that two leopards), the Tin Pan Alley standard "I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby," and screwball comedy itself for crying out loud, that early contribution of sound, a fast-talking freewheeling way to indulge slapstick and improv while letting studio stars play loose and wild as they can. Screwball comedy usually depends on the charisma of its principles. Fortunately for Bringing Up Baby Hepburn and Grant have a considerable amount of that.

Grant always tended to be generally better at comedy, his affable sophisticated persona a little clownish yet somehow more everyman and vulnerable, uniquely suited to baffling sinister problems, such as he encounters here or in North by Northwest or in another screwball comedy by Hawks, the 1952 Monkey Business. Hepburn by contrast was more suited to the intensities of big theatrical drama and sometimes seems overwhelmed by—but always game for—the nonsense unspooling here. Among other things, almost all of Mary Tyler Moore (both 20something and 30something Mary) can be seen in her performance here. The result is often high-spirited, spurred by a joyful feel to the production (the Hawks brand, let's call it, as it's also a main feature of The Big Sleep). But Bringing Up Baby also lapses into flat aimless patches where it becomes merely a 1930s picture. It's a star vehicle first and mainly, and Hawks keeps those stars in front of the cameras as much as possible. It obviously doesn't matter what they do or don't do once there.

Isolated moments and bits work best for me here. For example, I love Grant's repetition as he is continually forced to defer to circumstances with a man he hopes will donate a million dollars to his museum—absurd circumstances, on the golf course, at a restaurant, everywhere. "I'll be with you in a minute, Mr. Peabody!" is his refrain. I should mention that Grant plays Dr. David Huxley (alias Mr. Bone), a paleontologist working on a brontosaur skeleton restoration for his museum, and Hepburn is Susan Vance, a scatter-brained heiress. I also love Hepburn's besotted infatuation with Huxley, which is vast and shallow, playing it on many levels at once like action caught in strobe lighting. She gazes adoringly at Huxley, quivering, as he desperately tries to explain something. But she ignores everything he says, responding, "You're so good-looking without your glasses."

Of course, even as I type that, I finally grok the inversion. Hepburn is so strong she's essentially up for the male predator role—"guys don't make passes at girls who wear glasses" specifically turned around the other way. Meanwhile, Grant was never afraid to put on women's clothes and so it goes here, as Susan at one point steals Huxley's clothes while he's in the shower in order to keep him there. All he can do is grab one of her frilly robes to prance around in for an extended sequence. In fact, there is a remarkable amount of prancing around by both Grant and Hepburn in this picture, which is saved because they are often funny and usually charming.

Still, it often tempts monotony, with many aimless scenes of them crossing from one side of the screen to the other, usually saying inane things or singing. "Baby," the leopard, is domesticated and essentially harmless (they say). Later a second leopard will come along, this one from a circus and dangerous. One of the best recurring lines in the picture is "there are no leopards in Connecticut." Baby gets loose but will come when the song is sung, which is the reason for so many scenes where Grant and Hepburn are wandering around singing it. There's also a continually barking terrier dog named George who has stolen a brontosaur bone and buried it, which they are following around a lot in hopes of finding the bone. It tempts monotony, as I say, but at the same time sets up good scenes, such as one of the best in the picture, where Susan has captured the vicious leopard thinking it's Baby in an unusually foul mood. Her impatience with it and ignorance of her own danger are perfectly done.

Hawks also brought in a nice stable of character players to support the stars—Charles Ruggles as a big-game hunter and wonderful picture of bumbling sophistication, Walter Catlett as a dim-witted policeman presiding over jailhouse chaos, and Barry Fitzgerald doing his familiar Irish souse and really as funny as I've ever seen him. They are terrific counterpoints to the mid-Atlantic accent antics of Grant and Hepburn in the foreground. I'm still awaiting my aha moment with Bringing Up Baby but I'm pretty sure I'll get to it one of these times. My hunch is that I need to see it in a theater packed with people who love it.

1 comment:

  1. Always like the sexy playful warmth of the screwball comedies but they rarely seemed 'screwy' enough to me. Bringing Up Baby perhaps being my one quintessential exception. This is likely due to an early screwball diet of Caddyshack, Airplane, Spinal Tap, etc.