Howard Hawks' 1938 screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby was selected for the National Film Registry in 1990, and over the years has consistently made "top" lists regarding comedy films. Nonetheless, while not a total flop upon its release, Bringing Up Baby did not match or exceed box office expectations.
Director Hawks examined his work and felt obliged to comment that he had failed because the characters were "too madcap" with no "normal" characters to ground the situations. I can understand this analysis as I live with a couple of people (husband, daughter) who simply get annoyed at the flighty characters. Far be it from me to disagree with a master of his craft and my loved ones, but when it comes to screwball, I say the screwier the better. Bringing Up Baby always makes me laugh and giggle out loud.
Written by Dudley Nichols (Man Hunt) and based on a story by Hagar Wilde (Carefree), Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant were teamed in the third of four film collaborations (Sylvia Scarlett, Holiday, "Baby", The Philadelphia Story). Grant plays David Huxley, a paleontologist devoted to his work and his recently discovered intercostal clavicle required to complete a full model brontosaurus skeleton.
David is anticipating his upcoming wedding to assistant Alice Swallow, who is even more dedicated to David's career than the man himself. Alice informs David that their marriage will entail no emotional entanglements of any kind including a honeymoon. David lets himself get kicked around by others and he doesn't even realize it. David is presently tasked with getting a museum grant from the wealthy Mr. Peabody and this brings him into the whirlwind that is Susan Vance.
Susan: "He's three years old, gentle as a kitten, and likes dogs." I wonder whether Mark means that he eats dogs or is fond of them?"
Katharine Hepburn as Susan Vance is always thinking. Her thinking is not altogether what we customarily expect of a bright and privileged young woman. Susan is indeed a madcap. When you meet her Aunt Elizabeth played by May Robson we begin to understand Susan better. Aunt Elizabeth has "always wanted a leopard" and Susan's brother Mark has sent Aunt Elizabeth said leopard from South America. Susan accepts the leopard easily into her present circumstances.
David: "The only way you'll get me to follow another of your suggestions is to hold a bright object in front of my eyes and twirl it."
Susan also accepts David as now part of her life and in her effort to keep him in her life, she nearly drives him crazy with her antics, her family, and her (Aunt Elizabeth's) leopard.
David: "I wasn't going to hit George!"
David, for the sake of his now missing intercostal clavicle, has followed Susan and the leopard called "Baby" to her Connecticut home. There the madcappery (should I trademark that word?) continues with relatives, a big game hunter, a drunkard, law enforcement, psychiatrists, the "gentle as a kitten" Baby, a mean-spirited circus escapee leopard, and the scene-stealing Asta as "George."
I will admit to wishing some judicious cuts had been made to the ending jail scene, but even so I cannot help but be impressed by Katharine Hepburn's first foray in the world of screwball comedy. Her lack of experience led Hawks to mention the veterans on the scene such as Walter Catlett who could guide her in this new endeavour and Miss Hepburn was wise enough to accept the helping hand. She was certainly an apt pupil. Hawks' suggestion that Grant base David on Harold Lloyd's glasses character was genius and they had so much fun that they used the absent-minded professor bit again in Monkey Business, 1952.
If you haven't seen it recently or you have yet to get around to marking this classic title off your "must-see" list, take advantage of the TCM airing this coming Tuesday, September 14th. Theodora Goes Wild and Vivacious Lady are some of the other screwball romances in the lineup.
PS: Keep your ears peeled for a reference to "Jerry the Nipper" from The Awful Truth. I was so proud of my husband when he caught that the one time he didn't leave the room while I was watching Bringing Up Baby.
Others in the series Caftan Woman's Choice running since September 2011.