Wednesday 5 May 2010

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Director: Howard Hawks
Stars: Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Bringing Up Baby is one of those films that have matured over age like a fine wine, though it sparkles more like champagne. Today it's regarded as one of the greatest screwball comedies of all time and appears in many prominent lists, not just the IMDb Top 250 but a whole bunch of the American Film Institute's Top 100s too, the AFI ranking it amongst the greatest American pictures, greatest comedies and greatest romances. Obviously they rather like the picture and so does pretty much everyone else. At least they do nowadays. In 1938 it was a rather notable flop and proved to be the last RKO film for both star Katharine Hepburn and director Howard Hawks, two major players in Hollywood whose names lived on long enough to be able to go full circle and benefit from association with this picture. At the time Hawks was fired from his next film and Hepburn bought out her contract to avoid being forced to star in Mother Carey's Chickens.

Only Cary Grant was unphased by the initial failure of the film, but it took a lot to rattle Grant's status as the man everyone wanted to be. Here he's a geek, Dr David Huxley, a stereotypically absent minded professor at the Stuyvesant Museum of Natural History, who we first discover pondering the location of an obscure bone in a brontosaurus skeleton. He's posed like Rodin's Thinker on a scaffold above it and looks like nobody less than Jerry Lewis though the look was really sourced from Harold Lloyd. He's also overacting as much as he did in Arsenic and Old Lace which is a pretty good indication that this is a screwball comedy, which it most emphatically proves to be. It unfolds at such a breakneck pace that there isn't a musical score. Except for the opening and closing titles, there simply isn't any opportunity to slip one in between the madcap situation comedy and the suggestive dialogue. It couldn't be busier with the Marx Brothers in it.

Life is pretty hectic for Dr Huxley, no less than three hugely important events all coinciding at the outset. He's on the eve of getting married to his assistant, Alice Swallow; he's set to finalise a million dollar donation to the museum; and he's just had word that the last bone he needs for his brontosaurus is on its way. He's geeky enough that it's the last of these three events that makes him jump for joy, almost literally, after four years of hard work. He's also geeky enough to fit a number of other future scientific stereotypes, a little miffed when Alice suddenly explains that their 'marriage must entail no domestic entanglements of any kind,' because she sees it purely as a dedication to his work. In other words, while he'd probably prefer the dinosaur's company, he won't get any fringe benefits once he's married. 'This will be our child!' she proudly proclaims, pointing at the brontosaurus, before reminding him to go play golf with Mr Peabody.

Of course Alice is only there to suggest what Huxley's life would be like if the story that's about to unfold doesn't change anything, so she promptly disappears from the picture, reappearing again only at the finale. It's time to meet Katharine Hepburn instead, who is the real surprise and delight of this film. Though she'd been in Hollywood for less than a decade at this point, she'd already reached both the highs and the lows, winning one Oscar and being labelled box office poison. Watching those early films, it's plain to realise that nobody had a clue what to do with the outsider actress who wore slacks but no make up, so while she acted capably throughout the decade, she was the victim of some of the worst casting decisions Hollywood ever made. Despite her unchanging Bryn Mawr accent, she was still tasked to play a mountain girl in Spitfire and Mary Stuart in Mary of Scotland, the results being nothing less than trainwreck horrible.

Most obviously, she'd never acted in comedy, or at least certainly not outright screwball comedy like this, and she needed a good deal of training in comedic timing to be able to pull off the part of society girl Susan Vance, which flies so high with a daffy free spirit that it almost never touches the ground. Cary Grant, on the other hand, had left school at fourteen to join the Bob Pender troupe of acrobatic comedians, so was a master long before this picture. All the pratfalls and stunts you see Dr Huxley perform are really Cary Grant's work. While he wasn't the huge star that he was well on the way to becoming, audiences at the time certainly expected him to be funny and so weren't surprised at what he gifted them with here, except perhaps in his famous gay scene. Answering the door in the only clothes he can find, he explains the fluffy frilly woman's robe by leaping into the air and proclaiming, 'Because I just went gay all of a sudden!'
Audiences didn't expect Hepburn to make them laugh though, so when she enters the story like a whirlwind and refuses to slow down, they must have been as overwhelmed as Dr Huxley is by her behaviour. Susan Vance has her own take on reality and she sucks him into her world, falling in love with him and crafting events to keep him with her until he can have the common decency to fall in love with her in return. 'I know I want to marry him,' she explains to her Aunt Elizabeth. 'He doesn't know it but I am.' Yes, this is a romantic comedy but it's also 1938 so all the things you hate about the genre haven't been invented yet and not a single member of the Friends cast would be born for another quarter of a century. This is as fresh and unexpected a screwball riot as anything starring Carole Lombard and while not the natural talent that Grant was, Hepburn proves more than up to the material. Audiences were just probably too blindsided to agree.

Huxley and Vance first meet at the golf course, where the good impression he hopes to make on Mr Peabody could be all that's needed to land the million dollar donation to his museum. He fails utterly, as you can imagine, not just to make a good impression but to even play golf with the man. Initially Susan merely plays his ball by mistake but then she drives off in his car too, with him on the running boards looking completely insane. She has a habit of looking at things in a different way to everyone else, which initially manifests itself by turning every bit of dialogue around on him, but when he turns up at a hotel that night in a tux and slips up on an olive she's dropped, she reads it as fate, something that a psychiatrist quickly backs up for her. He isn't there to track down the man he's failed to play golf with, she decides, he's really there because he has a fixation on her as 'the love impulse in men frequently reveals itself in terms of conflict.'

So she conjures up some plans and suckers him into a trip to Connecticut, or in other words far away from his fiancée, so that she can work her wicked wiles on him. These wiles are breakneck in nature and zip by so quickly from one gag to another that it's hard to keep up, the script by experienced talent Dudley Nichols and newcomer Hagar Wilde, from her short story, enhanced by the fact that they apparently fell in love while writing it. It's so fast paced and so consistent that it becomes an intoxicating experience and they throw everything but the kitchen sink into the story, which runs just over a hundred minutes but feels more like fifteen. I haven't even mentioned the Baby of the title yet, who is a leopard, sent to Susan from Brazil by her brother Mark. Already out of control, Baby is the means by which the story can reach chaotic extremes, as close to barely controlled anarchy as can be found without Groucho Marx in the cast.

While Baby is supposedly a leopard, she was actually played by a jaguar named Nissa, who behaved well throughout production. Katharine Hepburn was fearless around the creature, so many of the scenes of her petting it are real. Cary Grant, on the other hand, was so nervous around the animal that she got away with a practical joke on him. She slipped a stuffed leopard through a vent in his dressing room. 'He was out of there like lightning,' she remembered in her autobiography. The scenes between Grant and Baby either use a double for Grant or involve clever use of optical effects like split screens or unseen cages. One scene even uses a puppet leopard but that's late on and audience members could be excused for not noticing it because their eyes were most likely clouded by tears of joy. Yes, this film is that funny, even when you might expect it to venture more towards tension or suspense. It sticks to the comedy instead.

Every scene is an opportunity to ratchet it all up another notch. This is the sort of film where Susan can persuade David into the trip to Connecticut to help with Baby, regardless that he's a paleontologist not a zoologist. They crash into a truck full of chickens, Baby in the back seat of the car though not for long as you can imagine. Even though she ate 'an assortment of ducks and chickens, not to mention a couple of swans,' they stop in town to get thirty pounds of raw sirloin steak. Naturally nobody mentions it's for a leopard, as every opportunity is seized to add to the confusion all around. Susan parks in front of a fire plug and when a cop tries to give her a ticket, she promptly steals the next car instead. As David has had to wrestle the leopard in a pond, albeit offscreen, he takes the opportunity to shower once they make it alive to Susan's aunt's farm, but she promptly sends his clothes into town so he'll be stuck there with her.
Now you see how the gay scene doesn't seem out of place, with perhaps the first usage of that word in its modern connotation in a mainstream movie, even though it had apparently been long established within the subculture. It also marks the point at which more characters are needed to build the insanity and of course the opportunity to escalate is hardly wasted. David only went to the golf course to make a single positive impression with a million dollars at stake. Of course Mrs Carlton Random, the donor behind Peabody the lawyer, is Susan's Aunt Elizabeth, and of course she's the one he answers the door to in the furry woman's dressing gown that he's found. Can you think of a better way to make the wrong impression, at least one that was allowable during the era of the Production Code? That this one got by can only suggest how unknown the word 'gay' was to a mainstream audience in 1938, the line improvised on the spot by Grant.

Aunt Elizabeth is May Robson, one of the most delightfully sassy old women of the thirties and only one of a number of major names who turn up halfway through this film. She may be most remembered today for playing the title character of Apple Annie in Frank Capra's Lady for a Day, a role that guaranteed her a place in the record books as the earliest born actress ever to be nominated for an Oscar, but she was always a welcome face. Charlie Ruggles, who had played the March Hare in 1933 when Robson had played the Queen of Hearts, plays a guest of hers, a big game hunter called Maj Horace Applegate. Ruggles was another prominent thirties face and if you've ever seen a Charlie Ruggles movie, you just know he's going to find himself on the wrong end of every assumption a story can conjure up. He also lands my favourite underrated line of this film: 'Don't you find it a bit chilly without a gun?' he asks her, after first seeing Baby.

Playing the drunken Irish gardener, Aloysius Gogarty, is one of the most prominent supporting actors in the business, Barry Fitzgerald, one who could steal a scene merely by walking into it. Bing Crosby discovered that with Going My Way, in which Fitzgerald's supporting role proved so memorable that it landed him Oscar nominations for both Best Supporting Actor and Best Actor, the only time that's ever happened. This is a surprisingly short part for him but he makes the most of it. 'If one more thing happens to upset me, I'd be seeing things,' he says, just as the leopard jumps up on the table next to him and causes him to rush back to the house to describe 'a cat, as big as a cow, with eyes like balls of fire!' As the delightfully incompetent cop, Constable Slocum, there's Walter Catlett, the most prominent of Hepburn's comedy coaches and a fine and prolific comedian in his own right, even though he is not particularly remembered today.

Bizarrely he's less remembered than the 'actor' who played George the dog, Aunt Elizabeth's wire haired fox terrier who steals away David's final brontosaurus bone, the intercostal clavicle, and buries it in the garden. This is Asta, the spark for a surge in wire haired fox terriers in the thirties after his prominent role in The Thin Man. He appeared in three of the sequels and three other films too: this one, plus The Awful Truth and Topper Takes a Trip, perhaps coincidentally two of them Cary Grant pictures and the third a sequel to one. He gets wrestling scenes with Baby that look rather dangerous, but mostly sets up other scenes like the search for the bone that begins with Grant dressed up for the hunt and Hepburn as a Chinese peasant, something that foreshadowed yet another horrendous casting decision she was later subjected to, starring in yellowface in Dragon Seed, more racially insulting than all the Charlie Chan films put together.

The initial success is the script which is as delicious a screwball comedy as Hollywood ever shot, up there with Twentieth Century, His Girl Friday and It Happened One Night. It may be the most definitive, given that the screwball tradition of deflating the upper classes happens here not just to high society, but to museums, psychiatrists and the police too. It's the most consistent classic comedy of them all, in my opinion, so packed with witty dialogue that it becomes the soundtrack and Hepburn, Grant and the supporting actors simply relish their lines. Keeping control over the chaos is Howard Hawks, who explained his failure by suggesting that it was too madcap without any straight characters to ground the humour. I can't help but wonder if that's why it's so well regarded today in our modern ADD world where we don't care about grounding. There's simply no opportunity for us to get distracted, something which makes it much more modern than any other comedy from its era and much more funny than anything else from ours.

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