Bringing Up Baby
Funny how time has turned Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn into untouchable legends. In our minds, they’re heavyweight stars with the capability to play any possible role, comedy parts among them but not what first comes to mind. We think of Hepburn as the ball-buster of Woman of the Year, the force of Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter, Grant as a suave leading man of Notorious and Charade days past. We don’t altogether forget how good of comedic actors Hepburn and Grant were. So we underrate them, considering them masters at the top of their game instead of comedians capable of giving Bob Hope and Lucille Ball a run for their money.
Hepburn and Grant are shining jewels of the cinema, playing comedy or otherwise. They don’t just say their lines and hope to get a laugh. They become the dialogue, physically, emotionally, instinctively. Like the Barbara Stanwycks, James Stewarts, Rosalind Russells, Jack Lemmons of the day, a particular genre does not come as an obstacle. It’s hard to even call Hepburn and Grant actors — to label them as chameleons seems more accurate.
In Bringing Up Baby, Grant portrays David Huxley, a mild-mannered paleontologist hoping to finish his dinosaur exhibit through a potential million-dollar grant. While golfing with the primary donor, Peabody (George Irving), his plans are put on hold by the nutty Susan Vance (Hepburn), who steals his golf ball, his car, and, later, his heart. After causing a number of disasters that detrimentally impact his life, Susan, under the impression that he is, in fact, a zoologist, persuades him to come to her aunt’s Connecticut home to lock up Baby, a leopard she received from her brother. Consider that David is also supposed to get married the following day to the stuffy Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker). Consider that Susan’s aunt (May Robson) is another benefactor for the grant, and believes that David is someone other than who he is. Consider how much trouble David will be in after it is discovered that Susan’s dog has stolen and buried a rare dinosaur clavicle. Consider …
The plot of Bringing Up Baby is so thickened with misunderstandings and physical comedy races that it comes as a surprise that its abundance of energy never lets up, like a puppy who accidentally drank five Red Bulls and found its way onto a treadmill. It is the best screwball comedy ever made, being the funniest, the most lively, and the best acted. It should come tumbling down, considering how many comedic situations it has interacting at once, but Howard Hawks’ direction is so sharp that the madness is nearly orderly.
Arguably, Bringing Up Baby most explodes during its climactic jail sequence; after yet another misunderstanding, the local constable (Walter Catlett) arrests David, Susan, her aunt, and her aunt’s dinner guest — later arrives Baby, Susan’s dog, and a second leopard who the characters think is Baby. Susan, hoping to trick the guards into releasing her, puts on a gun moll act which ends with her escaping out the window, befuddling everyone in the room. And then Peabody shows up. And then Alice Swallow shows up. And then …
Bringing Up Baby never slows down; it gets kookier (and better) as it goes along. It’s a perfect film. Hawks gives the material the zip it needs, Hepburn and Grant live the screenplay (ad-libbing and all), the supporting actors kick any chances of fatigue in the crotch — everything, and I mean everything, fits together flawlessly. In 1938, it was a flop, a critical shrug. In 2015, it’s a masterpiece, a cinematic diamond. A+