Judge Diane Wild makes no bones about it: this sublime pairing of Grant and Hepburn is magic.
Our reviews of Best of Warner Brothers: 20-Film Comedy Collection (published July 14th, 2013) and TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Romantic Comedies (published February 18th, 2009) are also available.
"The love impulse in man frequently reveals itself in terms of conflict."—a psychiatrist, to Susan
Bringing Up Baby is a sublime convergence of greatness: Two of the best actors, teaming with one of the best directors, in one of the most entertaining scripts of one of the greatest eras of Hollywood cinema. It wasn't the hit it deserved to be on its release in 1938 (though it wasn't the dismal flop it's sometimes dismissed as, either), but it has emerged through time to become an undisputed classic, one of the screwiest screwball comedies ever made. In the movie's first DVD release, Warner Brothers has given it the two-disc special edition treatment in a terrific package where the extras menu runs deep.
Facts of the Case
Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant, Arsenic and Old Lace) is a nerdy paleontologist (helpfully identified as a nerd because he wears glasses, of course, in case we missed it from his job title). Though he's engaged to his uptight assistant, his passion in life is actually assembling his precious brontosaurus skeleton, which is missing only the rare intercostal clavicle bone that he's expecting any day now.
First he must woo Mr. Peabody, who represents a benefactor who could help fund David's project. But while ineptly trying to schmooze Mr. Peabody on the golf course, David encounters heiress Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn, Alice Adams), who is quite obviously out of her mind. She plays his ball, forcing him to abandon his negotiations ("I'll be with you in a minute, Mr. Peabody!"), wrecks his car, and manages to monopolize his time while completely ignoring him at the same time. And that's just the beginning of the string of disasters he encounters whenever she's near.
Much to his dismay, he runs into her again before his dinner meeting with Mr. Peabody, and neither his clothing nor dignity escape unscathed. After that disastrous evening, David is manipulated into helping her keep tabs on Baby, a leopard intended as a present for her Aunt Elizabeth. Susan tries to make amends by introducing David to this rich aunt, but he finds himself attired in a woman's negligee on their first encounter, and then creates a further bad impression because he's clueless about the secret identity Susan concocted for him in order to mitigate that first bad impression. Meanwhile, his dinosaur bone has become a buried treasure for Aunt Elizabeth's dog. Oh, and David and Susan end up serenading the leopard, tumbling into a pond, and landing in jail before it's all over, too.
Come on, did you really expect the plot of a screwball comedy about babysitting a leopard to make a lot of sense? That's the fun of it!
Susan's antics are, not surprisingly, her way of pursuing the befuddled professor, who is not only too noble to let a woman fend for herself against a leopard, but is aware of her manic charms. As he says: "Now it isn't that I don't like you, Susan, because, after all, in moments of quiet, I'm strangely drawn to you, but…well, there haven't been any quiet moments."
Howard Hawks directed Bringing Up Baby at breakneck speed, and Grant and Hepburn aren't just along for the ride—they're helping to steer the careening car to its final destination. This was the first of five films Hawks directed starring Grant, who had proven to be the king of the screwball comedy with the previous year's The Awful Truth and continued his reign through this movie and the later Hawks-helmed His Girl Friday. Katharine Hepburn, on the other hand, was known for drama. While it was her second of four pictures with Grant, with whom she shared a crackling chemistry, it was the first to put her on the map as a comedic actress. Given that, the casting wasn't a sure success, but the stars definitely aligned for this one.
Bringing Up Baby is a risky movie, in the way of all over-the-top comedies—the actors make themselves vulnerable for the sake of laughs, and have faith that the director can pull it off into a final funny package. Hawks does. Grant's scenes in the frilly nightgown are a perfect example of the risk and the reward. When Aunt Elizabeth asks David why he's dressed the way he is, he jumps in the air and replies: "Because I just went gay all of a sudden!"—one of the first onscreen uses of the word "gay" to mean something other than happy. It's difficult in the context of today's unblinking double entendres to think of it as a particularly brave cinematic moment, but Hawks for one was surprised the censors let it pass. Either they really believed David was ecstatic, or they laughed themselves silly over the hilarious image paired with a memorable line and forgot to protest.
Throughout most of the film, Grant toys with his suave, sophisticated onscreen persona to play the hapless straight man amidst the zany antics around him. He dives into the slapstick required of him with a skill that betrays his vaudeville background, but isn't afraid to let quiet despair be the source of his comedy, either. He is undeniably gorgeous—why wouldn't Susan fall for him instantly?—but his performance has little to do with his movie-star looks and everything to do with David's sweet, noble, and exasperated personality. He is the sanest man in an insane movie—though that doesn't take much, here, where every character is off-kilter. Hawks believed that might have been the fatal flaw in terms of widespread acceptance—the audience didn't have enough normal characters to counterbalance the wackiness. But there's a satisfying source of humor in the fact that the sanest character is obsessed with a dinosaur bone and willingly sings "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby" to a leopard named Baby.
Despite her inexperience with comedy, Hepburn captures the kooky charm of Susan perfectly. A lot of the movie rides on her shoulders, and the audience's ability to sympathize with a rich eccentric who has little regard for the consequences of her actions. With her brittle voice contrasting with her warm beauty, and her willful selfishness contrasting with her obvious depth of feeling, Susan is a mesmerizing blend of hot and cold. Why wouldn't David be smitten with her, despite his better judgment?
For us romantic comedy lovers, resigned to a glut of mediocre fare in which we know the protagonists are meant to be together only because they share the screen, Bringing Up Baby contains a deft romantic pairing. Take away the screwball, and at its heart, it is a love story between two opposites who learn they are not so opposed after all. It turns out that solid, reliable David yearns to break free of his straitlaced existence—we see glimpses of that even at the beginning, with his even more straitlaced fiancée—and Susan longs for an evenly matched sparring partner to accompany her in, and even protect her from, her self-created mayhem.
Grant and Hepburn provide masterful deliveries of their lightening-fast lines, and some of the funniest moments are even dropped casually, giving them an air of spontaneity—like Susan's "you're shedding" comment to David as she brushes feathers off his jacket after their calamitous run-in with a poultry truck.
Hawks directing style was deceptively simple—to set his frenetic pace, he let his actors play scenes quickly rather than resorting to quick cuts, using the camera as a simple eye on the action.
When reviewing a DVD, I often write down memorable quotes as I watch, so I can provide a taste of the movie's tone using its own words. With Bringing Up Baby, I found I was writing a transcript; virtually every line of dialogue is a great quote. After a debilitating case of writer's cramp 10 minutes in, I just sat back and enjoyed the ride.
Though the film was nominated for no awards, it really should have won at least best performance by an animal. Nessa, in what was apparently her only screen appearance, is one adorably cuddly leopard, and seems positively enamored with Grant. That's one smart leopard, too. George the dog is played an old pro, Asta of The Thin Man movies, who also costarred with Grant in The Awful Truth. Both animals add to the mayhem quite nicely without stealing the thunder of the Grant-Hepburn repartee.
Warner Brothers has done an exceptional job with this title, restoring the film nicely so only minor grain and some damage to the source print are evident, but not distracting. The contrast is solid, giving a warm depth to the black and white image, and the picture is crisp. The Dolby Digital mono track is clear and clean, with little distortion.
But where they have really excelled is in the extras. The commentary is by director Peter Bogdanovich, whose What's Up, Doc was inspired by Bringing Up Baby and who had interviewed Howard Hawks in the 1960s and 70s. The most fascinating part of his commentary is in the form of an impersonation of Hawks reading transcripts from those interviews. I found it an off-putting tactic, but I have to admit it was helpful to know when we were hearing Hawks' own words, and the content of the interviews is what makes this a worthwhile commentary. Bogdanovich also talks about his personal experience with and reaction to the film, but his enthusiasm is both endearing and annoying. He sometimes resorts to providing an audio commentary for the visually impaired ("now he's doing this!" "now she's doing that!"), and while his joy is evident, there are too many of those extraneous comments to make the commentary great. He also runs out of things to talk about, leaving a fair amount of silence in the last half.
Two of the smaller extras are a set of trailers for other Howard Hawks films, a comedy short called "Campus Cinderella," and a cartoon spoof of A Star is Born, called "A Star is Hatched."
But there are two extras that by themselves are worth the purchase price. There are no wimpy featurettes on this DVD, but two substantial features. The first is "The Men Behind the Movies: Howard Hawks," which compiles interviews with Hawks and movie clips. Hawks' obsession with speed is explained as an offshoot of his time as a car racer and pilot earlier in his life, but his laconic speaking style gives a much different impression. The movie clips here are lengthy and there is little analysis of his directorial style, but fortunately Bogdanovich covers that analysis in the commentary. The highlight is hearing Hawks in his own words—and his own voice—as he speaks of his working relationship with William Faulkner and his attempt to get Ernest Hemingway to write for films, as well as his role in launching the career of Lauren Bacall.
The second feature is "Cary Grant: A Class Apart," and this personal and professional examination of the man is a Cary Grant lover's dream. Essays Grant wrote about his life are read, so we hear his own words, and interviewees include two of his wives, Betsy Drake and Barbara Harris, as well as George Cukor, Ralph Bellamy, Martin Landau, Howard Hawks, Eva Marie Saint, Stanley Donen, and other friends and colleagues. There are brief movie clips, including one of his first inauspicious appearance in Singapore Sue, but mostly the movie—which clocks in at 1 ½ hours—explores the discrepancy between the persona and the man. A picture of the former Archie Leach emerges: an unabashedly unsophisticated, troubled but bright man, far from the onscreen Cary Grant who was often accused of playing himself in role after role. Though Drake in particular doesn't sugarcoat their difficult relationship, and others reveal the darker side of Grant, this is no bitter expose, either. He was well respected and well loved, if not always well known.
Besides dishing on the personal tidbits that continue to fascinate (did Grant and friend/roommate Randolph Scott have a gay relationship? was Grant's enthusiastic LSD use therapeutic or recreational?), "A Class Apart" doesn't skimp on the professional analysis. The trajectory of his career is mapped, from his early struggle to make an impression, to his rise as one of the biggest stars of Hollywood's Golden Age, to his successful but unremarkable later films.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
But…but…where's the Katharine Hepburn feature?
Bringing Up Baby has more than stood the test of time—it has gained speed over the years to reach its place among the front runners of comedy classics. With the wealth of extras, amounting to two full-length documentaries plus, and a more than decent restoration, Warner Bros. has provided it with a DVD release worthy of the film.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary with Peter Bogdanovich
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