1938 – Directed by Howard Hawks – Written by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde – Starring Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, May Robson, Charles Ruggles, Barry Fitzgerald, Skippy, Nissa
The first time I saw Bringing Up Baby I didn’t quite like it. It was too much for me, somehow; too hectic or breathless, and Katharine Hepburn got on my nerves with how she seemed to persecute poor Cary Grant. Why couldn’t she just leave the guy alone?
I watched it again, however, and enjoyed it thoroughly. In fact, I found it rather irresistible. I don’t know what it was; if it was the leopard, or I was just in a better mood or if it was my grandmother’s description of Katharine Hepburn’s character as a dingbat that gave me some perspective on the story.
One thing that reconciled me to it was realizing that David (Cary Grant) was ripe, as it were, to have his life disrupted. He’s engaged to be married at the beginning, and looking forward to his honeymoon, but his fiancé doesn’t want a honeymoon or anything to distract from his work…but he sounds like he wants a little distraction.
David is a paleontologist who has spent the last four years of his life putting together a skeletal brontosaurus. While trying to get funding for his museum he runs into Susan (Katharine Hepburn), who falls hard for him and pursues him for the remainder of the film until he finally gives up and realizes that he loves her, too.
Of course, he has to be driven nearly out of his mind first. She lures him to her house in Connecticut (in old movies, people are always going to their country homes in Connecticut; I suppose because it’s close to New York City) by getting him to help her with a leopard named Baby that her brother sent from Brazil. Once there, she steals his clothes, the dog steals his dinosaur bone that he needs to complete his brontosaurs, they chase the dog everywhere and dig up old, buried shoes, the leopard escapes, her family thinks he’s having a nervous breakdown (he kind of is, really) and they run around singing loudly “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby” (by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields) to try and lure Baby off of roofs and out of forests. The film starts out funny, but it just seems to keep building, until you are doing nothing but laughing.
And I guess the reason I forgave Katharine Hepburn’s character this time around is because she really does play a dingbat. The Heritage Dictionary defines dingbat as “an empty-headed or silly person,” which describes her pretty well in this movie. Perhaps that’s slightly unfair. She seems empty-headed because of her single-minded focus on getting him, and it’s hard to blame her for pursuing Cary Grant. I guess I appreciated that she wanted David for himself and not his career and was willing to do anything – including spending days digging around in the dirt for his lost dinosaur bone – to win him.
There are also some wonderful performances by May Robson, Susan’s Aunt Elizabeth, who thinks both David and Susan are quite frankly nuts, but has a weakness for stories about hunting. Charles Ruggles is the game hunter who is usually telling Aunt Elizabeth his stories, as well as demonstrating the difference between a loon’s call and a leopard’s call. And Barry Fitzgerald is the drunken gardener who keeps seeing a leopard wandering around Connecticut.
Bringing Up Baby was Katharine Hepburn’s first real comedy. It’s been said that the director Howard Hawks had seen the way she interacted with John Ford while Ford directed her in Mary of Scotland (1936) and wanted to capture that rapport in the film, with Cary Grant playing the rather serious, completely befuddled man at the end of her teasing. Cary Grant was a year after his huge success in another screwball comedy that had made him a huge star and defined his image, The Awful Truth (1937) with Irene Dunne.
The movie is not a particularly romantic film; there’s too much turmoil for there to be any moments of repose (romance usually requires at least a few quiet moments). Studio heads wanted Hawks to add more romance and to get rid of Grant’s glasses and to tone down the screwball elements (pratfalls, outrageous behavior, wild misunderstandings), but he refused. I’ve read screwball comedies described as being anarchic, which seems a fair description and Bringing Up Baby is often viewed as being the quintessential screwball comedy.
It wasn’t quite as well regarded when it was released. It was only afterwards that it has acquired its reputation as one of the finest examples of that genre. If you’re curious about screwball comedies, I read a very nice article about screwball comedies on filmreference.com, which summed up screwball comedies as “sophisticates gone silly.”
The leopard’s name is Nissa and she apparently got along very well with Katharine Hepburn, though many of the scenes with both the leopard and the actors employed split screens and trick photography.
As usual, TCM has several interesting articles about the making of the movie: http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/568/Bringing-Up-Baby/articles.html