Silver Screen Standards: Bringing Up Baby (1938)
The picture is a sparkling gem of comic perfection, a screwball sweetheart with a cast of supporting characters so nutty and fun that it’s hard to choose between them, and then at the top of the bill, we get Hepburn and a bespectacled, befuddled Cary Grant, whose delightful chemistry propels the picture through all its wacky turns. Who cares, more than 80 years later, if the film bombed at the box office when it first appeared? Director Howard Hawks might have regretted his choices then, but in the long run, he has been proved right about the crazy characters, the wild comedy, and the madcap atmosphere. No matter how many times I watch it, Bringing Up Baby still makes me laugh with delight from start to finish.
Chaos is queen in this story of leopards, love, and loony misadventure, with Hepburn’s heroine, Susan Vance, as its ultimate embodiment. Her arrival upends the orderly, staid life of Dr. David Huxley, who is literally on the verge of being married to his career in the form of Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker), who declares that “no domestic entanglements of any kind” shall be allowed to interrupt David’s work at the museum. Eager to secure a million-dollar gift to support the museum, Alice sends David out to schmooze with the lawyer of the wealthy patroness Mrs. Carleton Random (May Robson), but from the moment he encounters Susan on the golf course David’s day goes gloriously off the rails. He contends with a loose leopard, a stolen car, a missing dinosaur bone, and a complicated case of mistaken identity all thanks to Susan’s impulsive desire to keep him around by any means necessary. It’s hardly a surprise when their escapades put both Susan and David in danger of a straight jacket, a prison cell, or both.
The screwball level of Bringing Up Baby runs very high throughout, with physical comedy and rapidly fired verbal jokes constantly on offer, and Hepburn and Grant are brilliant at both. I always think of Susan’s “born on the side of a hill” bit when I walk on uneven ground, although Grant’s brief appearance in the lady’s dressing gown – “I just went GAY all of a sudden!” – is probably the most famous scene in the picture. As funny as the two leads are, they aren’t the only source of laughs; everyone they meet is daffy in his or her own way, especially the gardener, Aloysius Gogarty (Barry Fitzgerald) and the constable, Slocum (Walter Catlett). Even Susan’s aunt, the rich old lady with a million dollars, is delightfully eccentric, which helps explain her yen for a pet leopard and her romantic attachment to big-game hunter Major Applegate (Charles Ruggles). When these characters all end up in the same place pandemonium is bound to break loose. Apparently, Hawks regretted not putting any “normal” characters into the picture, but I find each of these nutty personalities endearing, and the actors who play them do such a superb job making each one memorable, from Charles Ruggles and May Robson deciding to run out of the house for absolutely no reason to Walter Catlett’s penchant for running his hand through his hair each time he veers hilariously off-topic. Each of them is always doing something funny whenever they’re on screen, which gives the viewer a lot to take in even in the rare moments when nobody is actually on the move.
I first saw Bringing Up Baby when I was very young, and it made a huge impression on me at the time, but I find that I appreciate it more with each fresh viewing the older I grow. I catch jokes I missed before, I notice camera tricks with the leopard scenes that I hadn’t caught last time, and I revel anew in how beautiful and hilarious both Hepburn and Grant are, she slim and gracefully athletic and he deliciously rumpled and exasperated. To me, really great comedy is all about the experience of delight in the chaos of life, which is why I have such a deep, abiding love for the screwball genre.
Bringing Up Baby is one of the purest examples of that form, which makes it must-watch viewing for anyone interested in classic comedies. It’s also a great starter classic for kids, who won’t catch the naughtier winks but will love the animals and the cartoon carnival essence of the action. If you’re stuck at home with the family right now, make a date to sit down with Bringing Up Baby and laugh all night. You’ll be glad you did.
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.