David: “Don’t lose your head!”
Susan: “I’ve got my head—I’ve lost my leopard!”
by Brandie Ashe
Bringing Up Baby (1938) is, without a doubt, the funniest movie I have ever seen, a textbook example of the screwball comedy and a hallmark of the romantic comedy genre. In fact, it is one of the first films I show when introducing “newbies” to the world of classic film, because I have yet to meet a person who is not thoroughly delighted and/or ready to collapse from laughter by the time the credits roll. It is, in a word, a marvel (let’s just say, there’s a reason it was the unquestionable number-one entry on my comedy ballot!).
Baby stars Katharine Hepburn as a dizzy heiress, Susan Vance, who falls head over heels in love with a hapless paleontologist, David Huxley (a sexily disheveled and bewildered Cary Grant). Through her machinations, David loses a very valuable bone–the “intercostal clavicle”–that belongs to the skeleton of a brontosaurus. Susan also inadvertently jeopardizes David’s attempts to secure a million dollars’ worth of funding for his museum. And to add to the craziness, Susan has recently received a rather intimidating gift–a large leopard named Baby–which she plans to take to her family’s farm in Connecticut, of all places. Toss in a nosy aunt, a bumbling big-game hunter, a concerned psychiatrist, and an idiotic constable, and you can imagine the chaos that ensues.
Considering how hilarious and utterly charming this film is, it’s amazing to think today that this movie was once considered a notorious flop, leading to its director, Howard Hawks, being fired from the production of Gunga Din (1939) after Baby ran late and went severely over budget. In the end, it was no matter—Hawks made the film he wanted to make and was, by all accounts, pleased by the result. Hawks was an instrumental director in the realm of screwball comedy—his 1934 classic Twentieth Century was one of the first films of the genre, and he would go on to direct other comedy classics such as His Girl Friday (1940) and Ball of Fire (1941). Hawks’ comedies were marked by rapid and clever wordplay, frenetic pacing, and inconceivable plot contrivances that become only more incredibly unbelievable as the film progresses. Nowhere, however, does he bring all of these elements together more successfully than in Baby. A shame, then, that contemporary critics and audiences did not quite grasp the movie’s appeal …
The poor performance of Baby contributed to Hepburn’s assignation as “box office poison” in the late 1930s. Strange to us now, as it’s difficult to think of a time when Kate Hepburn wasn’t considered a monumental success and a pinnacle of movie stardom. Her legendary career came complete with four Academy Awards for Best Actress–a feat unmatched by any other actress (or actor!) in the history of film–and a litany of iconic film roles opposite some of the biggest names to ever grace the screen—among them, Grant, James Stewart, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, and John Wayne. And yet in the wake of her performance in Baby (and a regrettable string of unsuccessful films), Hepburn’s stock with Hollywood was almost bankrupt. She chose to buy out her RKO contract to avoid being cast in the low-budget drama Mother Carey’s Chickens (which had been assigned to Hepburn as a sort of studio punishment because of her poor box-office performance). She would spend the next two years on the stage until her triumphant return to the screen—again opposite Grant—in 1940′s wildly popular The Philadelphia Story, which reignited her career (and then some).
Hepburn and Grant made a total of four films together; in addition to Baby and Philadelphia, these included the lovely Holiday (1938) and the cross-dressing romantic comedy Sylvia Scarlett (1935). In each of their pairings, Hepburn and Grant are a wonder to behold–not only do they play off of one another very well, but their on-screen interactions demonstrate a true camaraderie and mutual respect that only heightens the chemistry between them. And that chemistry was never more sparkling than it was in Baby. Grant, whose career began in vaudeville, returns to those roots, throwing his body around without reservation, all in pursuit of a laugh. And Hepburn is right there with him, shattering the normally reserved guise she had crafted in many of her previous films and demonstrating a comedic timing that had heretofore only been hinted at in her earlier work. Her Susan is appealing and fun, punctuating her ill-conceived schemes with breathy laughs and moon-eyed gazes at “her” David. Each brings out the best in the other, and neither was ever really able to capture that same effortless, effervescent magic with another co-star (though Hepburn came close with some of her later screen partnerships with Spencer Tracy, particularly 1949′s Adam’s Rib).
For his part, Grant is an absolute joy to behold as David. The actor had introduced the “Cary Grant” persona (the suave, sophisticated, charmingly sly romantic schemer) the previous year in the wild screwball farce The Awful Truth, and it was a development that would change the trajectory of his career and make him an international star. But here, that persona is tested in uproarious ways: the smoothness is hidden behind a pair of dorky glasses (aping silent screen comedian Harold Lloyd), the self-assuredness robbed in a moment of inadvertent cross-dressing, as David is forced to don Susan’s negligee after she steals his clothes (this moment in the movie is made even more memorable by the subtext in David’s subsequent explanation of his attire, “Because I just went gay all of a sudden!” Some critics claim that this is the first instance of an actor using the word “gay” in a homosexual context on film). The more Grant’s character suffers—the more we witness the urbane bachelor’s descent into a zany hell not of his making—the more we sympathize with his plight, even as we laugh while he crawls around on the ground, chasing a dog and digging holes in the dirt.
The film is not all about Hepburn and Grant, however; there are some great supporting performances, too. Charlie Ruggles is amusing as the befuddled Major Horace Applegate, who can’t understand why he’s hearing leopard calls in the middle of Connecticut. Walter Catlett, who plays the overzealous constable, Slocum, and May Robson, who plays Susan’s Aunt Elizabeth, are both sharply funny. And classic film fans might recognize the little terrier playing George, the dog who steals David’s bone: the same dog, Skippy, also played Asta in the Thin Man movies and almost stole the show from Grant in 1937′s The Awful Truth.
Bringing Up Baby may not have been recognized for its monumental comedic achievements immediately upon its release, but in subsequent years, it has gained a well-deserved reputation as a quintessential classic screwball comedy. And it remains one of the best, filled with boundless humor, infinitely quotable lines, and a genuinely warm and engaging chemistry between its lead actors. I simply cannot sing this film’s praises enough.
How Bringing Up Baby made the Top 100: