MovieMonday: Bringing Up Baby

This 1938 movie is known now as one of the best screwball comedies of its period, a time marked by the second blow of the Depression, a recession that had started a year earlier.  It was a moment when people were eager for humorous distractions.

This movie set out to fill that need, and, funny as it is, it was a flop that almost killed Katharine Hepburn’s career.  After its release she moved back to New York, starred in a hot new Broadway play called The Philadelphia Story and returned to Hollywood to star in its smash movie version in 1940.  (Cary Grant costarred in all three productions.)

Since 1938, film students and audiences have changed their minds about Bringing Up Baby.  Its director, Howard Hawks, acknowledged years later that, yes, it was pretty wacky and none of the characters was believable.  But as light entertainments go, it is very, very fun.

The story involves a romance between two opposites.  Cary Grant plays Dr. David Huxley, an uptight, bespectacled paleontologist who collects old bones to recreate a brontosaurus skeleton.  His milieu is a stuffy museum, which suits him well.

He is coaxed out into the natural world to play a golf game with a lawyer who perhaps can help him raise money for his museum.

Whom does he meet on the links?  Susan Vance (Hepburn) an impulsive and flighty heiress who is a better golfer and who steals his golf ball and then his car.  They meet up later at a nightclub, where David is still pursuing that museum donation and where Susan, besmitten, pursues David, over his adamant protests.

The next day, she takes him farther out in the world, to her wealthy aunt’s Connecticut farm.  He carries with him a dinosaur bone, his most recent prize, and she takes a leopard named Baby, a recent gift from brother in South America.  (Get it?  David has/is a fossil and Susan has/is a minimally restrained wild animal.)

From there it’s off to the races.  Naturally, the farm dog, George, gets hold of the dinosaur bone and, as dogs will, buries it for later enjoyment.  This requires David and Susan to follow George, hoping he will reveal where the bone, technically an “intercostal clavicle,” is buried.  Meanwhile, Baby is let out of the barn by the drunken field hand.  Susan, her aunt and a big game hunter share stories over dinner with David while he darts out to follow George every time the dog leaves the room.

By the end of the evening, the whole bunch end up in the local jail, where their interactions with the befuddled constable call to mind an extended Marx Brothers scene, and where, of course, a second, less tame leopard makes an appearance.

David, while initially angry with Susan, admits intermittently that he’s actually coming to enjoy being with her, at least some of the time.

And so it goes.

Notes

In this film,  Grant and Hepburn play out of type, or at least out of the types that were more emblematic of their later careers.  Turns out Grant could do awkward, physical humor.  Seeing Hepburn as an impetuous wild child of a woman is a little disorienting, but she threw herself into the role just as Susan threw herself at David.
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The script moves at rocket speed.  There is so much spoken dialog — much, much more than I can recall in any recent film —  that one is tempted to wonder whether the screenwriters were paid by the word.  But the dialog, like the action, provides many laugh-out-loud moments.
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It’s difficult to think of a modern comedy that would compare to this.  Yes, the 2009 Hangover movie had a tiger, but it and its female follow-ons like The Bridesmaids involve a level of vulgarity that would have been unthinkable in the early part of the last century.  Who knew that the squares of those older generations could be so funny?

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