Bringing Up Baby

Bringing Up BabyThe love instinct in man frequently reveals itself in conflict.

In the DVD commentary for Bringing Up Baby (1938), Peter Bogdanovich relates a conversation he had with the director Howard Hawks. Hawks said that the reason the movie was not popular on release was because nobody is sane. I can think of no better summary or recommendation. Cary Grant has never been more exasperated, Katharine Hepburn has never been more exasperating, and I’ve yet to see a movie that runs as fast or as hot as Bringing Up Baby. Many films you might see in theaters, especially in the summer, are often so fast paced that you can’t tell that they’re dreadful until you’ve left the theater and are forced to deliver your assessment.  But Bringing Up Baby is not fast to cover what isn’t there, but to pack in all the insanity they can.

Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant) is constructing a brontosaurus at the museum he works for. He has a special bone being delivered tomorrow that will complete the reconstruction. His wedding to the very serious Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker) is also planned for that day. But on this day–it’s a very busy weekend–he is playing golf with the lawyer Peabody (George Irving) who represents a very rich person who is considering a $1 million grant to the museum. On the golf course, however, David is waylaid by the indefatigable Susan (Katherine Hepburn) who steals his golf ball and then his car. Things get even worse when Baby, a “tame” leopard, arrives and Susan entangles Huxley in delivering it to Connecticut.  She thinks he’s a zoologist for some reason and for some other reason he doesn’t deny it

This movie is one of a relatively small group that separates reasonable viewers based upon their taste in comedy.  I would never accept that someone could actually not find All About Eve (1950), The Philadelphia Story (1940), or Casablanca (1942) to be hilarious.  You might miss the import or irony of some of the dialogue and not laugh, but that’s about your inattentiveness, not your sense of humor.  I think most classic comedies are four-quadrant (any age or gender) comedies.  Note, that the movies I’m thinking about aren’t the kind of vaudeville, twirling bow-tie comedies like The Marx Brothers or The Three Stooges.  Those belong in some other category like “classic comedy” as opposed to “classic” comedy.  But Bringing Up Baby, if I may escape my premise-setting for a moment, is the kind of farce that could grate on the nerves.  There might be two or three moments where things calm down, but otherwise, it’s like a Robert Altman movie where the simultaneous dialogue isn’t a device, it’s the default.  But that doesn’t mean the writing from Hagar Wilde and Dudley Nichols isn’t clever, it just means the cleverness is in heavy competition for intelligibility.

As I said earlier, Grant and Hepburn are quite different from their usual personae.  This is the most charming and, forgive my superficiality, pretty that I’ve ever seen her.  Every other role I’ve seen her in is a variation on the same witty, empowered woman who pushes for what she wants and lets up just enough for Spencer Tracy to retain his dignity.  It’s a great role, she’s marvelous at it, and the movies are a lot of fun, but Bringing Up Baby has her at 31 acting like she’s 21 and she’s exhilarating.  Grant plays the absent-minded professor as he would in Monkey Business (1952) and others with the same mix of awkwardness and frustration.

Bogdanovich, the commentator I mentioned before, directed a movie called What’s Up, Doc? (1972) and I only mention it as a recommendation for What’s Up, Doc?  I can wholeheartedly recommend buying Bringing Up Baby on DVD as well, though I would warn that if you are (wisely) defaulting to Blu-Ray purchases, the fact that the movie is currently only available on DVD is liable to change.  While I’m giving advice, I’d guide towards the Hepburn 4-pack which is the same price, gives you three other classics and includes special features that the more recent DVD release does not.  There’s really no comparison.

I am also partial to the French title, The Impossible Mr. Baby which captures the spirit of the movie better than Bringing Up Baby.  The art itself is also superior for the same reason.

About Prof. Ratigan

A semi-lawyer and amateur enthusiast.
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