Bringing Up Baby (1938)

It was Screwball Comedy month at the local bijou, and once again, they started out strong with Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby, followed the next week with Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve. (The following week would be The Seven Year Itch, which we would miss due to the annual Halloween jaunt, and What’s Up Doc after that, which we would miss because…Barbra Streisand.)

I'm so catty!

Pictured: A young Barbra Streisand on set with Grant and Hepburn.

The Boy doesn’t really like screwball stuff, although I think he’s mostly turned off by the sad, loud, fat-man-falls-down stuff of his lifetime (or fat-woman-falls-down because, yay, equality!). There is, of course, a kind of escalation necessary in this sort of film which I think doesn’t appeal to him, broadly, but even he was charmed by Katharine Hepburn and a nebbishy (hah!) Cary Grant.

In this delightful film, Cary Grant is David, a museum curator assembling some sort of dinosaur and waiting on the final bone, while being gently (but firmly) rebuffed by his fiancee, Alice: Not until marriage, and even after marriage, his work comes first and pretty much exclusively! (In classic Hollywood style, Alice is played by the quite stunning 22-year-old Virgnia Walker—Howard Hawks’ sister-in-law—but with her hair in a very severe bun. She doesn’t even get glasses, as I recall.) The museum needs money, however, so he’s sent on a mission to implore Mrs. Carleton Random (oy) to give them the million dollars she has earmarked for some sort of charitableness.

Mayhem ensues when he, instead, runs into Susan (Hepburn) who—let’s not beat around the bush here—falls in love with him immediately. In her comically awful attempts at seduction—awful enough to be unrecognizable as such by mortal men—she creates chaos and destruction all around him, resulting in him missing his meeting with Mrs. Random.

Honestly, they do it with guys, too. Put glasses on them and they're so homely.

How could anyone fall in love with a nerd like that!

I was taken, as I watched this, by how old the manic pixie dream girl is, as a concept. Here, Alice is exactly that: She talks a mile a minute and runs David around the countryside, as he is more-or-less oblivious to her charm and vivacity. Hepburn is very appealing in this role, even moreso than The Philadelphia Story, having all the vulnerability and none of the prickliness that characterized that role (and probably most of her future roles).

But of course the ’30s were filled with dizzy blondes and brunettes, so it’s not like Bringing Up Baby is breaking new ground in that regard. What sold The Boy on the whole thing, though, was the titular Baby, who is a leopard. The leopard has been sent to Alice who’s going to take it to her Aunt Elizabeth out in the country, and there’s nothing David can do but be swept along for the ride.

I miss "gay". We should bring "gay" back.

“Why are you dressed like that?” … “I’ve gone gay!” Earliest known use in film of “gay” to mean “homosexual”?

Alice confides in us (indirectly) that she loved him at first sight and made a mess of everything, as things go spiraling out of control, a second leopard gets involved in the mix, and they all end up in jail, with Alice doing a bang-on ’30s “tough gal” gangster bit that is hilarious.

It’s a very funny, charming film. Like many of the films of its period, it relies on tropes that are no longer allowed (a woman wanting a man, a more domestic woman being preferable to a career woman, leopards being potentially dangerous…) and a society where manners mean something. Much like one of my other favorite comedies of the era, Heaven Can Wait, it’s one of those films that relies on people acting mostly sane and dignified, so that the rogue or buffoon stands out and has comedic value.

Tough to laugh about the crazy antics of a couple of people in a world where everyone acts nuts all the time.

And the leopard!

Katharine almost looks like Judy Garland in this shot.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *