Cary Grant

Is Bringing Up Baby the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

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 @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Best Picture vs. Best Director: Is The Life of Emile Zola Better than The Awful Truth? (1937)

The Awful Truth

Alex Russell

In 2014 I watched every single Best Picture Oscar winner in an attempt to find the absolute worst of them. I found it: Crash. Most movies that win Best Picture also win Best Director. In fact, from 1927 to 2014 only 24 movies won the Oscar for Best Director without also winning the Oscar for Best Picture. Did any of those 24 deserve both awards? This is Best Picture vs. Best Director, in which we examine the few films to not win both awards and try to determine why the honors were split those years. Today’s movies are The Life of Emile Zola (Best Picture) and The Awful Truth (Best Director), the winners from 1937. Which is the better film?

The Best Director film: The Awful Truth, an intensely silly screwball comedy full of divorce and remarriage goofs. Irene Dunne and Cary Grant can’t stand each other anymore and go to absurd lengths to avoid talking about their failing marriage. When Grant’s character is caught in a lie about going to Florida (he got a fake tan and sent fake letters home to mask his true whereabouts) the couple is unable to continue their lies. After an extremely silly scene where Dunne pretends to be Grant’s drunk sister and what passed for an exciting car chase in 1937, the characters run out of ways to distract each other and must confront the difficult truth of a marriage that may or may not be what they both really want.

The Best Director director: Leo McCarey, who won another Best Director award in 1944 for Going My Way. That movie also won Best Picture, but it’s a fairly sentimental musical vehicle for Bing Crosby and arguably not as good as The Awful Truth. Both movies reveal a very positive director who wanted to highlight the goodness in the world. That makes McCarey very different than his peers at the time and an odd Oscar winner in general. The Academy rarely rewards a light touch.

The Best Picture film: The Life of Emile Zola (read the Worst Best Picture entry here), which I ranked #61 on my list of every Best Picture winner. It’s one of the only movies on the list I watched twice, though that was mostly because I found it impenetrable the first time. The movie tells the story of Emile Zola’s response to anti-Jewish sentiment in his time, but in 1937 the director was afraid to use the word “Jew” even once. As a result it’s left up to the audience to understand what’s being talked about. Some of the storytelling works (a character is given a gun and frankly told to shoot himself to avoid an ugly trial) and some doesn’t (the first 20 minutes is spent defining Zola as a freedom fighter, but he mostly comes off as annoying and self-aggrandizing) and the movie feels uneven at best. It’s brave for 1937, but it doesn’t hold up well.

The Best Picture director: William Dieterle, who was never nominated again and was eventually a casualty of the McCarthy era. His career was defined by bio-pics and the only one to really be rewarded critically was Zola.

Did the right movie win Best Picture? Likely, based on the standards of what “Best Picture” has come to mean. The Awful Truth is more watchable in modern standards, but in the historical frame of 1937 it’s just a pretty good version of a standard film. Screwball comedies were common and even though The Awful Truth has some memorable moments it doesn’t take any risks. The Life of Emile Zola is a more deserving Oscar winner. For its time, it shows a lot of daring as a film and displays a man who risks his status for a cause he believes in. It’s the uncommon case of a less watchable story but a more impressive accomplishment in film-making.

Just for the hell of it, are either of them worse than CrashBoth of these movies feature characters undergoing enormous challenge and triumphing, though at the cost of something dear to them. Cary Grant is embarrassed time and again in The Awful Truth and (much more dramatically) Paul Muni’s Zola risks everything to defend a man unjustly accused. For as dramatic a tone as Crash insists upon, the stakes are never that high. No one risks learning or losing anything. They all just grow increasingly disgusted with their world until the story reaches a bow-tie ending.

Best Picture vs. Best Director Archives: The Greatest Show on Earth vs. The Quiet Man (1952) | Wings vs. Seventh Heaven (1931-1932)Hamlet vs. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)An American in Paris vs. A Place in the Sun (1951)The Life of Emile Zola vs. The Awful Truth (1937)

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at or on Twitter at @alexbad.