Saturday, July 19, 2014

Stubs – Bringing Up Baby

Bringing Up Baby  (1938) Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Charlie Ruggles. Directed by Howard Hawks. Produced by Cliff Reed, Howard Hawks. Screenplay by Dudley Nichols, Hagar Wildey. Based on the short story "Bringing Up Baby" by Hagar Wilde in Collier's (10 Apr 1937). Run Time: 102 minutes. U.S.  Black and White. Screwball Comedy

I’ve noticed that Howard Hawks keeps showing up in my reviews. This is not a conscious choice, by that I mean I’m not looking for Howard Hawks films to review, but since he directed so well in so many different genres, any survey of films, even this circuitous one we’re taking at Trophy Unlocked, is bound to come across his films. So far we’ve reviewed the following films he’s produced; The Thing From Another World (1951) and films he directed: The Big Sleep (1945 and 1946), Ball of Fire (1941) and The Crowd Roars (1932); science fiction, mystery, screwball comedy and sports drama. The one thing these films have in common is that while not always great, they are usually pretty good.

One genre that Hawks worked in was screwball comedy, directing examples of the genre Twentieth Century (1934), His Girl Friday (1940), Ball of Fire, I Was a Male War Bride (1949) and our film, Bringing Up Baby. The screwball comedy is principally an American genre of film that became popular during the Great Depression and thriving until the late 1940s.

Screwball comedies are characterized by a female that dominates the relationship with the male central character, whose masculinity is challenged. The two engage in a humorous battle of the sexes, which was a new theme for Hollywood and audiences at the time. And the movies include plot lines involving farcical situations and courtship and marriage. Based on this, Bringing Up Baby would appear to be the quintessential example of the genre and is oftentimes cited when discussing screwball comedies, though the genre had been around for several years before its release.

On the eve of his wedding, Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant), a dedicated paleontologist at the Stuyvesant Museum of Natural History, is sent by his fiancée and assistant, Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker), to play golf with Alexander Peabody (George Irving), the lawyer for Mrs. Carleton Random (May Robson), a potential million-dollar donor to the museum. At the golf course, flighty heiress Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) plays David's ball instead as her own and then, mistaking his car for hers, drives off with him clinging to his runningboard.

David (Cary Grant) can't convince Susan (Katharine Hepburn) that's she's got the wrong car.

That night, while hunting for Peabody at an exclusive restaurant, David again encounters Susan, who causes him to slip on an olive and fall on his top hat; embarrass himself in front of psychologist Dr. Fritz Lehman (Fritz Feld) when Susan asks him to hold a purse he thinks is hers, but really belongs to Lehman’s wife (Tala Birell); tear his tuxedo jacket when she grabs the tail to stop him from walking away; and he splits the back of her gown when he stands on the hem.

But Susan isn’t done helping David. She knows Peabody personally and when he’s not at the restaurant, drives David out to the attorney’s home. Even though David is convinced everyone is asleep, Susan insists on throwing pebbles at the window to wake Peabody up. When small ones don’t work, she throws a larger rock, just as Peabody opens his window and he gets knocked back by the blow. Susan and David scramble away, but David knows he’s been seen.

Susan isn’t through with David, either. The next morning, She telephones him as he is preparing to meet Alice with his new possession, an intercostal clavicle, a rare brontosaurus fossil, and begs him to help her with her new possession, "Baby" (Nissa), a tamed leopard that her brother has shipped to her from Brazil.

David, however, refuses to get involved with Baby until he hears Susan's phony cries of distress over the telephone. After rushing to her apartment, David finds Susan unmaimed, and Baby yearning to hear his favorite record, "I Can't Give You Anything But Love." Disgusted by Susan's antics, David marches out of the apartment, but is followed down the street by both Susan and an unleashed Baby. Thus cornered, David finally agrees to help Susan take Baby to her aunt Elizabeth's home in Connecticut, but admonishes her that he has to return to the city to marry Alice by nightfall.

David brings his prized fossil with him wherever he goes.

While driving on the road to Aunt Elizabeth's, a distracted Susan rams into a truck carrying a load of fowl, and its cargo spills out and is devoured by Baby. Susan parks in front of a fire hydrant while David goes into a butcher’s to get 30 pounds of sirloin for Baby. But while he’s in the store Baby jumps into another car, belonging to Dr. Lehman and Susan is forced to take his car.

On the way to Connecticut with Baby (Nissa) in the backseat of the car.

Finally arriving in Connecticut and securing Baby, David insists on taking a shower before returning to New York. While he’s washing up, Susan, who doesn’t want David to leave, gathers up his clothes and sends them into town to the cleaners. The only clothes David can find is a woman's marabou-trimmed negligee, which he is wearing when he opens the door for the befuddled and suspicious Aunt Elizabeth, whose married name is Mrs. Carleton Random, David’s hopeful benefactor. When she asks David why he’s wearing women’s clothing, he replies rather exasperatedly, "Because I just went gay all of a sudden!", leaping into the air at the word "gay". [It is debatable whether or not the word is used in its older sense (meaning "happy") or is an intentional, joking reference to homosexuality. If it was meant as the latter, then it would be the first work of fiction, outside of pornography, to use the term in that way.]

"Because I just went gay all of a sudden."

Because David has asked Susan not to reveal his full name to her Aunt, Susan tells her aunt that David's last name is "Bone" and that he is a big game hunter who has suffered a nervous breakdown. At the same time, Elizabeth's dog, George (Skippy), steals David's bone and buries it somewhere on the vast estate. [The dog may look familiar, having already been on the big screen as Asta, the dog in the Thin Man movies.] While David frantically follows George around the wooded estate in an attempt to discover the whereabouts of his fossil, Susan confesses to Elizabeth that she is in love with David and plans to marry him.

Trying to get George to lead them to the fossil he buried.

Unwilling to leave Elizabeth's without his fossil, David joins Susan, Elizabeth and Major Horace Applegate (Charlie Ruggles), a true big game hunter, for dinner. While David carefully watches George from the table, Mr. Gogarty (Barry Fitzgerald), a heavy-drinking family servant, accidentally releases Baby from his makeshift cage in the garage.

Major Horace Applegate (Charlie Ruggles) joins in on the fun.

Alerted by Gogarty's screams, Susan orders David to telephone the local zoo, but then tells him to cancel his request for help after she learns that her brother intended Baby as a gift for Aunt Elizabeth. On the estate grounds, Susan and David search for Baby, harmonizing "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" as a lure, but mistake a caged, vicious circus leopard (Nissa), which is being trucked to Bridgeport to be put to sleep, as Baby.

While David keeps the circus handlers busy, Susan surreptitiously releases the wrong leopard from the back of the truck, but it escapes into the woods before she can wrangle it. They follow after and find the leopard up on the roof of Dr. Lehman's house, where she and David attempt to coax it down. Lehman comes to his front door and, seeing only Susan, drags her into his house, convinced that she is deranged. Constable Slocum (Walter Catlett ) and deputy (John Kelly) arrive on the scene and see David peering in through the windows and arrest him as a peeping Tom.

At the jail, Susan's and David's stories strike Slocum as outrageous, searching for a leopard indeed, and when he tries to verify it with a phone call, he’s told Susan is in bed. But Aunt Elizabeth and Applegate realize the mistake and go to the jail to get her out. But Slocum arrests them, sure they are only impersonating his wealthy constituents. Unable to persuade Slocum of her story, Susan changes her tactics and pretends to be "Swinging Door Susie," a gangster's moll and that David is “Jerry the Nipper”.  The circus handlers arrive asking Slocum for help, who can’t believe they are really looking for a leopard.

When he won't believe the truth, Susan tries to convince Constable
 Slocum that she's a gangster's moll and that David is a wanted felon.

Attorney Peabody arrives, with Miss Swallow in tow, and verifies everyone's identity. Baby and George stroll into the station, but the handlers know that the tame Baby is not theirs. Susan, thinking she has Baby, brings the circus leopard into the station. David manages to save Susan (and everyone else) by using a chair to corral the circus leopard into a cell.

A few days later, Susan finds David, after Alice has walked out on him, working on his brontasaurus reconstruction at the museum. After presenting him with his bone, which George finally had unearthed, Susan informs David that Aunt Elizabeth gave her the million dollars and she’s going to give it to David’s museum. Then while perched on a tall ladder that scales the dinosaur, she extracts a confession of love from David. Susan gets excited, causing the long ladder to sway out of control. She climbs on top of the one-of-a-kind reconstruction, causing it to collapse in a heap, David laughs at his misfortune and embraces his bride-to-be.

In one last comical moment, Susan manages to destroy David's life's work, but he doesn't mind.

Howard Hawks came to RKO in 1937 with a two-film deal, primarily to adapt Rudyard Kipling’s Gunga Din, but production was delayed when RKO was unable to borrow the actors it wanted for the production. When Hawks read Hagar Wilde’s short story in Colliers, he immediately wanted to make it into a movie. After buying the film rights for a little over $1,000, Hawks worked on a treatment with Wilde, before hiring Dudley Nichols, best known for his work with director John Ford, to write the screenplay.

When casting for the film, Hawks considered Carole Lombard, his cousin, for the role of Susan, but decided on Hepburn because her own background had similarities with the character’s. RKO agreed to her casting, but had reservations because of Hepburn’s lack of box office success the couple of years prior.

For the role of David, Hawks considered silent comedy star Harold Lloyd, but the head of production at RKO, Pandro S. Berman, rejected him. Actors like Robert Montgomery, Fredric March and Ray Milland were offered the role, but turned it down. Howard Hughes, a friend of Hawks’, suggested Cary Grant, who had just finished filming The Awful Truth (1937).

Filming was supposed to start on September 1, 1937, but was delayed due to rewrites, including some gags and clearance to use the song "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby", which plays an integral part of the story.

Hepburn apparently had problems with her character, finding it hard to act funny and instead overacting. Hawks had vaudeville veteran Walter Catlett to coach her, acting out scenes with Grant for her. Hepburn got the message and her acting improved for the rest of the shoot. Hepburn was so impressed by Catlett that she insisted he be cast as Constable Slocum.

Even though the completed film received positive reviews at preview screenings it turned out to be financial disappointment. Despite how famous this film is now, at the time it was released it was a box-office flop. Some of that blame might be laid at the feet of Katharine Hepburn. Hepburn would shortly be let out of her contract with RKO. She would turn around her career with The Philadelphia Story (1940), which would also co-star Grant and directed by George Cukor.

Hawks received some blame from RKO, too. They terminated his contract and gave Gunga Din to George Stevens to direct. Hawks’ career would continue as well. He would make his next two movies with Grant: Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and His Girl Friday (1940) and then follow those with two films starring Gary Cooper: Sergeant York (1941) and Ball of Fire. Hawks would continue to work steadily throughout the 1940s and into the mid '50s working at various studios in various genres and with the leading stars of their day: Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Kirk Douglas, Danny Kaye, Ginger Rogers, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell.

Grant, who appeared unscathed by the failure, was chosen to star in the Gunga Din adaptation, released in 1939. Grant and Hepburn, who had already appeared together in Sylvia Scarlett (1935) before Bringing Up Baby, would appear in two more films, Holiday (1938) and the aforementioned The Philadelphia Story.

Bringing Up Baby is a good film with some laugh out loud moments. While the movie bogs down a bit at the end with a lot of time spent in Slocum’s jail setting, the film is, for the most part, fast paced fun. Grant, who could do no wrong, is a very talented comedian and adept at physical humor. Hepburn is also very good, showing that while her comedy muscles were not as developed as her co-stars’, a good actress can play any role when given the opportunity and coaching.

One of the things I like about older films is seeing all the bit players that would sometimes go on to stardom. In this film, the supporting cast includes the likes of Ward Bond and Jack Carson in bit parts. While neither would receive what I would call stardom, they do appear in many films in important and significant supporting roles throughout their careers. Fritz Feld, who plays Dr. Lehman, is perhaps better known for his signature move: slapping his mouth with the palm of his hand to create a pop sound, which he first used in If You Knew Susie (1947).

If you have never seen Bringing Up Baby before, you owe it to yourself to watch at least once. You won’t be disappointed and afterwards you’ll know what exactly makes a great Screwball Comedy.

This movie is available at

Free Shipping on All Orders Over $50!

No comments:

Post a Comment