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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Director: Howard Hawks
Starring: Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn

Cary Grant is often accused of only ever playing himself, but Bringing Up Baby proves that old standby wrong. This isn’t the dashing, charming Cary Grant of legend. This is Cary Grant as the straight-man, the punchline, and, for lack of a better word, the dork. He’s very different in this film that is possibly the screwballiest of all screwball comedies. Throw in Katherine Hepburn as the zany leading lady, a wonderful supporting cast of character actors, and the tight, well-timed direction of Howard Hawks, and you’ve got yourself a bona fide classic.

Grant is David Huxley, a paleontologist who has spent the last four years building a brontosaurus and is engaged to his colleague, Miss Swallow (Virginia Walker). The film opens at an important juncture in his life: he’s getting married the following day, the final bone of the brontosaurus has just been uncovered and delivered, and that afternoon he has to make a presentation to Mr. Peabody (George Irving), an attorney whom David hopes will convince his client to donate a million dollars to the museum. The meeting takes place at a golf course where David is quickly hijacked by care-free heiress Susan Vance (Hepburn), who doesn’t much care if she finishes her game with his ball and then drives off in his car instead of her own.

David and Susan meet again later that evening and chaos once again ensues, eventually resulting in both their outfits being ripped and the two having to make a hasty retreat together. Susan finds out that David has been trying to talk to Peabody, whom Susan knows and affectionately refers to as “Boopie.” Against his better judgment, David agrees to go with Susan to see Boopie, which ends badly when Susan accidentally knocks Boupie out as she tries to hit his window with a rock. David is determined to have nothing more to do with Susan, but she now has a problem. You see, she’s come into possession of this leopard named Baby…

The plot of Bringing Up Baby is very silly, but the tone of the film completely supports that so that as an audience, you just go with it. Grant and Hepburn, who had starred together previously in Sylvia Scarlett, and would star together again in Holiday and The Philadelphia Story, have an easy chemistry together and make it look like they had a lot of fun making the film. So, too, do the supporting players who go all out in their creation of finely tuned comic characters, each memorable in his or her own way. It is, essentially, an ensemble effort, though Hepburn and Grant are clearly the stars.

It’s difficult to choose the film’s funniest moment. There’s David and Susan – who have Susan’s dog with them - trying to sing Baby down off of a roof, resulting in kind of a quartet when Baby and the dog join in; the dinner party scene in which Susan’s aunt, Elizabeth Random (May Robson) and her guest Maj. Applegate (Charles Ruggles) become increasingly disturbed by the way David – whom, thanks to Susan, they think is Mr. Bone, a big game hunter – keeps getting up from the table to follow the dog outside (earlier in the day the dog had taken the brontosaurus bone and buried it somewhere in the yard); the scenes of David and Susan out hunting for Baby, who has gone missing and whom they mistakenly believe to have been captured by the circus, who have a leopard of their own (this might be the only film to take the trope of mistaken identity and apply it to leopards) that Susan releases. Forced to choose, I would have to go with the scene where David and Susan are in jail and Susan plays at being a gangster in order to trick the local Sheriff and make her escape. Hepburn isn’t an actor you would naturally associate with comedy, at least not of the zany, madcap kind, but she really does excel in this film, knowing when to play it up and when to pull back (when asked by her aunt what “Mr. Bone” hunts, she replies in a hilariously understated way, “Animals I should think”). It’s a shame that Bringing Up Baby was such a commercial disaster when it was released, because otherwise we might have gotten to see this side of Hepburn on more occasions.

Bringing Up Baby doesn’t offer any deep insights into the human condition, and it’s basic plot won’t surprise you (stodgy intellectual meets wildchild who turns his life upside down but turns out to be perfect for him), but it will entertain you. Just sit back, relax, and let it take you on the hilarious journey from Point A (the brontosaurus is almost complete) to Point B (the brontosaurus has completely collapsed). You won’t regret it.


Anonymous said...

I find Grant in this flick a bit over-the-top in his comic reaction, a bit too broad for my tastes. His goggle-eyed look of incredulity is just a bit too much. I thought much the same about "Arsenic and Old Lace," although that might have been Capra's fault.

Norma Desmond said...

Aw, I love Arsenic and Old Lace. It's just so goofy.