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Bringing Up Baby shouldn’t work. It has two animal actors playing three animal parts. It’s a comedy with Katharine Hepburn, who wasn’t comfortable being funny. It has Cary Grant as a paleontologist who wants a specific dinosaur bone. It’s an absurd premise with even more absurd moving parts.
At the time, it didn’t work. Much has been written about the failure of the film, the fallout of the director at the studio, and the damage done to Hepburn’s reputation as a bankable star. There’s recently been a backlash to this perception and it’s notoriously difficult to isolate the “feeling” of the public with regard to a movie. It’s simple enough to say that Bringing Up Baby seemed to not work, at least to the degree it should have with the stars attached, and it took decades for it to gain the reputation it has now.
It’s a staple of early Hollywood comedy, now. It’s one of the go-to examples for a “screwball” comedy, a term for a specific genre of comedy where gender norms are flipped and a female dominates a male through wacky situations and misunderstandings. It’s as “of the time” as a genre can get, but a lot of the comedy in Bringing Up Baby works today. That timelessness is important to the legacy of the film.
Comedy is not well-represented on the “great films” lists. Some of this is just the nature of humor, where something is only funny if the audience understands what the joke is lampooning. I don’t want to try to explain what jokes are here, I trust you to understand why comedies aren’t on these lists very often, but it’s worth examining for a minute why the ones that do get listed find the spots they find.
If any comedies make it into a top 100 list, they are likely to be Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin films or maybe a Marx Brothers movie. Only a handful have won Oscars, and the ones that have are more likely to win for individual performances rather than the bigger awards. I read someone claim that Tom Jones, a truly bizarre film that we’ll talk about another day, is the only “true” comedy to win Best Picture. Annie Hall, It Happened One Night, and The Sting are comedies, sure, but something about them set them apart in that person’s mind. You could get lost in this argument, but I mean to say that typically, we’re afraid to call a comedy a “great” film in the way that a drama feels appropriately “great.” The funniest movie you’ve ever seen may or may not be your favorite, but you may feel like it’s a different kind of art than The 400 Blows.
I promise I won’t try to explain what “jokes” are here, but Bringing Up Baby is funny because there’s a really big cat, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Cary Grant plays Dr. David Huxley, who opens the film with one minute of nearly uninterrupted exposition. He says he wants a dinosaur bone to finish his dinosaur and to make his museum truly excellent. He says he’s going to get married tomorrow, to Alice, who we meet for the first and nearly last time. He says he wants to get a million dollars from a significant investor he has to go play golf with. It happens faster than any movie I can think of and we’re into the plot, immediately.
Howard Hawks directed Bringing Up Baby, as well as films as different as Sergeant York and The Big Sleep. He’s one of the legends of American cinema, but I’d like to focus on His Girl Friday. Grant plays a newspaperman who has to win back his ex-wife played by Rosalind Russell. The dialogue is so fast as to be confusing, with subtitles suggested even for viewers who speak English fluently. It’s another acclaimed screwball romantic comedy and it helps explain what Hawks is trying to do with Bringing Up Baby.
The newspaper story is more relatable to audiences. His Girl Friday came later, after Hawks said he learned from the failure of Bringing Up Baby that not every character in a wacky movie should be wacky. You need normal people to reflect the craziness. His Girl Friday uses normal people to show how boring daily life is if you don’t pump it full of excitement. Bringing Up Baby has no normal people because they live in a crazy version of our world.
In Bringing Up Baby, Hepburn ruins Grant’s golf outing and wedding day by constantly showing up and getting him wrapped up in schemes. It builds and builds until she calls him to say she has a leopard in her room because she was sent it in a box. He doesn’t believe her until she bangs on the phone and pretends to be hurt. He rushes over and finds the story is true, there’s a leopard.
The straight-laced Grant is undone by the weirdness and tries to keep his reputation intact while the wild Hepburn tries to break his defenses and get him to have fun. It’s built on a love story that develops as she keeps telling him he looks attractive without glasses or that he should stay and break his wedding date, but Grant rebuffs her until the obvious point where he doesn’t.
Comedy has escalated in modern times to the point where a leopard may not seem that weird, but it’s extremely strange in the world of 1930s film. Side characters keep being frustrated by people telling them they’ve seen the leopard or that they want to see the leopard, similar to how a ghost or a monster would function in a different kind of movie. No one believes there’s a leopard in Connecticut, but then they slowly find out there is. That’s really all there is to it, but I cannot overstate how weird it is to see Katharine Hepburn in a shot with a big jungle cat.
You can’t be objective about comedy, which is a big reason the big lists are so full of dour stories about war and strife. Either you think a story about two folks from the city trying to figure out what to do with a leopard at a dinner party is funny or you don’t. The stars are undeniable, though, which you’d probably expect given the names. The story goes that Hepburn struggled with the “bigness” of the role until she figured out how to present the part as funny. She plays a flipped version of this pairing (in that she’s the straight-laced one) in The African Queen, and arguably that works better, though at a different point in her life. Hepburn defies simple descriptions, but I was surprised to hear that about the production given the final result.
Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I think it’s far better than The Searchers, but I think most people wouldn’t agree with that. You can’t root for John Wayne in The Searchers and I’m not entirely sure that you were supposed to be able to do so when it came out, but it’s a tough narrative to get into given that challenge. As Westerns go it’s a classic the same way this film is a classic of early Hollywood romantic comedy, but I don’t think I’ll go back to The Searchers for future viewings. I could see revisiting this.
Is it the best movie of all time? I think a comedy could be better than Badlands, but I don’t think this one is. The romance is fun to watch but unbelievable as presented and the side characters are hilarious but truly bizarre. I really love the storyline of an expert in psychology telling Hepburn that men who follow women around are obsessed and expressing it as a direct reference to her own plan and all the tiny moments like that, but it’s all just in too strange of a package for me to say it’s the best one. It’s shockingly funny almost a century later, though, and that’s a truly remarkable achievement.
You can watch Bringing Up Baby on The Criterion Channel (for now, it’s leaving soon) or Amazon Prime for $2.99 at the time of this writing. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.