It is difficult for me to understand how director Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938) ended up being a monumental flop—it’s absolutely hilarious. Yet, it was panned by reviewers; snubbed by Oscar; and, neglected by moviegoers. Things were so bad that Katharine Hepburn had to buy out her RKO contract and Hawks was dropped by RKO—which cost him the right to direct Gunga Din (1939), which went to George Stevens. However, in the end Bringing Up Baby had the last laugh, as it is now considered one of the best American comedies ever made. What I adore about Bringing Up Baby is its breakneck pace and its clever dialogue—plus you can’t go wrong with a Grant-Hepburn pairing supported by the likes of May Robson, Charlie Ruggles, Fritz Feld, and Walter Catlett.
Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant) is on the brink of completing the four-year process of reconstructing a brontosaurus when a missing intercostal clavicle is found. In addition, David is about to secure a $1 million donation to the museum from Elizabeth Random (Robson) and he is getting married to Ms. Swallow (Virginia Walker). Life is good for David—that is until his golf ball is stolen by a flighty, oblivious young woman named Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn). Kleptomania is Susan’s disease: she not only steals David’s golf ball but his car as well—with him standing on the running board. When you think about it, Susan is a small-time crook in the making. Let’s see, she steals a golf ball, two cars, a purse, David’s clothes, and a leopard in less than two days. It only makes sense that she would also want to steal Ms. Swallow’s fiancee, too, right?
Even with David wearing his glasses, Susan soon falls in love with him—although when she break his glasses she also likes to mention just how good-looking he is without them (perhaps this is where they got the Clark Kent/Superman, idea?). And, who wouldn’t—he is played by Cary Grant! Susan and David do make a handsome couple, but David wants none of Susan’s craziness. Throwing rocks at lawyers, stealing countless things, and having a pet leopard named Baby would seem like deal-breakers to most people, right? Well, it’s a 1938 Hollywood comedy—guess how it ends?
Howard Hawks should be lauded for his ability to pull the whole production together (although it did run overschedule and over budget) whilst working diligently to curb Hepburn’s nerves about her comedic abilities. Everything about Hepburn screamed drama, and to be plunged into a harebrained screwball comedy was unnerving for her—especially after a series of flops. Initially she started the production overacting in an attempt to be funny, but Hawks cured her of this by bringing in Walter Catlett to coach her. Catlett acted out Hepburn’s scenes with Grant and showed her that just being herself and allowing Grant to play his character as it was intended was enough. Hepburn was so indebted to Catlett that she asked he be given the role of Constable Slocum—which he was rewarded with.
The script by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde is full of double entendres and witty dialogue. The censors knew there was something very wrong about Bringing Up Baby, but they just couldn’t put their finger on it. It could have been that David was searching for a lost bone or explaining that he thought a certain bone went in the tail but was rebuffed by Mrs. Swallow when she said, “You tried it in the tail yesterday, and it didn't fit.” And then there’s the “gay” thing. Grant has the unique honor of introducing the term “gay” into popular culture when he was dressed in a frilly woman’s negligee and explained his appearance to Mrs. Random by saying, ““Because I just went gay all of a sudden!”
Of course, the best lines are reserved for David and Susan’s stint in Constable Slocum’s jail. When Hepburn begins her mobster moll act and does her best impression of Barbara Stanwyck in Ladies They Talk About (1933) it is hysterically funny—especially when you consider Hepburn never played such a role in her entire career. And then there’s the nod to The Awful Truth (1937):
Susan: You mean to say you don't remember 'Jerry the Nipper' ?
David: Constable she's making all this up out of motion pictures she's seen!
[Irene Dunne refers to Cary Grant as 'Jerry the Nipper' in The Awful Truth]
Susan: Oh, I suppose I saw you with that red-headed skirt in a motion picture ?
And, then there’s Baby and George (another transplant from The Awful Truth and of course The Thin Man series). In what other film can you see a leopard and a Wire Fox Terrier playing with one another? For the most part, Hepburn was unafraid of the leopard—she wore enough perfume to choke even a $5 dollar hooker to keep that leopard at bay. It was Grant who was petrified of the cat and who had to have a stand-in for most of his scenes with the leopard. Which only adds to the humor of watching Susan literally dragging the mean leopard to the police station.
Overall, I am a huge fan of Bringing Up Baby. Hepburn and Grant have wonderful chemistry and make you like their two divergent characters. The film moves along quickly and has tons of great lines, which, when put all together, makes for a brisk screwball comedy.