Bringing Up Baby

Be it the Western (Red River (1948); Rio Bravo (1959)), the Sci-Fi/Horror film (The Thing From Another World (1951) - uncredited, but largely responsible for directing), or the Gangster film (Scarface (1932)), the legendary Howard Hawks seemingly never met a genre he didn't like, and never worked in one he couldn't succeed with. One other type of film he excelled in was the Screwball Comedy, notably with films like Bringing Up Baby (1938).

Born partially out of early sound cinema's desire to hear talking, lots of talking, the Screwball Comedy took this desire for the spoken word after 30-plus years of silence and kicked it up the proverbial notch. Here, there was talk - fast talk, funny talk, absurd talk, frenetic talk, and talk that overlapped lines and had characters speaking on top of one another (this was decades before Robert Altman set the bar for such dialogue to unrivaled heights with films like Nashville (1975) and M.A.S.H. (1970)).

With the Screwball Comedy you had characters regularly at odds with each other, frequently in situations that only made it worse. They were ill-matched and usually of a polar opposite personality, and more often than not, they were made for each other. This is what we have in Bringing Up Baby, which airs this Saturday, May 12 on Turner Classic Movies, and stars Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, the former as a straight-laced absent minded paleontologist and the latter as a flighty and genial but tremendously difficult heiress.

Throw in not one but two leopards — one, the tame one, being the eponymous "Baby" — and an adorable terrier named George, played by the famous canine Asta (think the 1930's version of Uggie, the pup from The Artist (2011)) and you've got hilarious, mad-cap, and sometimes exasperatingly ridiculous comedy.    

In a brief summary (to get too detailed about this somewhat convoluted plot would frankly be pointless), Dr. David Huxley (Grant) is anxiously awaiting a much-coveted bone to complete his museum highlight brontosaurus skeleton. In addition, he's scheduled to get married. All he needs is a $1 million endowment and he's set, professionally and personally. What could go wrong?

Susan Vance (Hepburn), Susan Vance is what could go wrong.

Bringing Up Baby has all of the trademark, whip-smart dialogue and all of the predicaments that would befit a film of this type - silliness is the rule. If the film crackles because of its screenplay, that is predominantly because it was co-written by Dudley Nichols, and if that name sounds familiar that's because he was also the scribe behind John Ford's seminal Stagecoach (1939), Elia Kazan's Pinky (1949), and Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street (1945) among others. Excellent films all.

But if the film stands firmly as a Hollywood classic, it's in large part because of director Howard Hawks. Despite having the aforementioned titles to his roster of accomplishments, as well as pictures like Twentieth Century (1934), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), His Girl Friday (1940) - possibly the fastest-talking picture ever made - To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) (believe it or not, there are more phenomenal films to his credit) Hawks only really gained the attention he deserved thanks to a group of young French critics writing in the 1950s. They rightly saw in his work a consistency of theme and character, a pattern of style, and a habit of superior artistry, all qualities that could go overlooked in the hey-day of studio production. Remarkably, he would never win a competitive Oscar; he was nominated only once, for Sergeant York (1941) and received an Honorary Award in 1975. With the likes of Ford and Hitchcock, Welles and Wilder, Chaplin, Keaton, Griffith and others of similar caliber, Hawks in retrospect can be seen as one of the great filmmakers of Hollywood's first 75 years.

Hawks in real life was just as fascinating and eclectic as his films. A former race car driver, who would serve in the Air Force before getting into the movie business, Hawks would befriend and/or collaborate with individuals as varied as Howard Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner. One humorous anecdote involves Hawks and Faulkner setting out on a hunting trip. Along the way, they were going to discuss their next collaboration, but before they left Hawks received a call from Clark Gable, asking if he too could come along. As the three of them were heading down the road, talking about the script possibility, Gable earnestly inquired to Faulkner, “Do you write, Mr. Faulkner?” To which the renowned author replied, “Yes, and what do you do Mr. Gable?”

And then there's Grant and Hepburn. What's left to say about these Hollywood icons, other than they are at their best in Bringing Up Baby? Their characters are constantly butting heads with each other in this film, but as an on-screen duo, they mesh perfectly. After watching this picture, if more examples are needed just look at two films they made together within the next two years: Holiday (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940).

A lot of titles have been mentioned above, but this is mostly because these great moviemakers were responsible for one remarkable film after another. It was a glorious time for American movies, and Bringing Up Baby is a glorious movie. 


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