Howard Hawks – Bringing Up Baby (1938)

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Bringing Up Baby (1938) is one of versatile director Howard Hawks’ greatest screwball comedies and often considered the definitive screwball film. It is also one of the funniest, wackiest and most inspired films of all time with its characteristic breathless pace, zany antics and pratfalls, absurd situations and misunderstandings, perfect sense of comic timing, completely screwball cast, series of lunatic and hare-brained misadventures, disasters, light-hearted surprises and romantic comedy. The non-stop, harum-scarum farce skewered many institutions, including psychiatry, the sterile field of science, the police, and high-society upper classes. At the time of its release, it failed miserably at the box-office and was soon forgotten, until it was revived years later.
As is true of many of Howard Hawks’ finest films (including the crime film Scarface (1932), Twentieth Century (1934), His Girl Friday (1940), To Have and Have Not (1944), the detective film The Big Sleep (1946), Monkey Business (1952), and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)), this masterpiece was not nominated for a single Academy Award. Director Peter Bogdanovich paid homage to Hollywood’s screwball comedy genre with a loose remake titled What’s Up, Doc (1972) starring Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal.

The fast-paced film involves the unlikely relationship of two individuals, portrayed by actress Katharine Hepburn and actor Cary Grant playing against type in a classic “conflict” of the sexes: a mad-cap, scheming, aggressive, impulsive, accident-prone and daffy society heiress, and a bumbling, clumsy, absent-minded, straight, nerdy and stuffy paleontologist from a natural history museum. This was the second of four films co-starring Hepburn and Grant [the others were Sylvia Scarlett (1936), Holiday (1938), and The Philadelphia Story (1940)]. Other characters include a small-town sheriff, a drunken Irish gardener, a big-game hunter, and two Brazilian leopards.

The film’s screenplay (by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde) was taken from a Collier’s Magazine story authored by Hagar Wilde. [Reportedly, the plot of the antagonistic romance was inspired by the alleged affair that bespectacled director John Ford had with a mismatched Hepburn during the filming of Mary of Scotland (1936).]

This was Katharine Hepburn’s only screwball comedy role – it pushed all its characters to the utter extreme, taking them into absurd, embarrassing, and destabilizing, humiliating circumstances (including sex-role reversals, such as frilly cross-dressing and the search for a lost dinosaur bone and a pet leopard named ‘Baby’) that are wildly and ruthlessly fun. [Grant later played a similar cross-dressing role in Hawks’ own I Was a Male War Bride (1949).] The action centers around her eccentric and wild efforts to romantically capture his interest in her and liberate him – with assistance from her dog named “George” (a Scotch terrier named Skippy that played Asta in The Thin Man (1934) series of films and Mr. Smith in The Awful Truth (1937)), her music-loving pet leopard named “Baby” (played by Nissa) and her wealthy, widowed aunt.

Although Hepburn had a brilliant performance in this film, she was an unconventional, independent-spirited performer, and this was her last film for RKO – since she had been infamously labeled ‘box-office poison’ through most of the 30s. She bought out her contract and returned to Broadway after the film and took a role specifically written for her in playwright Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story. The play was such a hit that she bought the film rights and made her way back to Hollywood through MGM’s successful production of the play – directed by George Cukor.

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The film opens with establishing shots of the exterior of a large, solid brick building, labeled in front with a heavy brass plaque: Stuyvesant Museum of Natural History. Inside, the museum is Brontosaurus Hall, a cavernous room filled with a gigantic dinosaur skeleton and other prehistoric artifacts. There are also glass cases of other petrified animals around the perimeter, and framed fish hanging on the walls. A serious, nervous, hard-working, bookish and bespectacled museum paleontologist named Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant, playing a character in part modeled after silent comedian Harold Lloyd) is attempting to finish the reconstruction of the brontosaurus skeleton.

An elderly, wrinkled associate-colleague, Professor La Touche (D’Arcy Corrigan) is cautioned by David’s assistant and stiff fiancee Miss Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker) to be quiet: “Shhhhh, Dr. Huxley is thinking.” His bride-to-be is dressed in a binding dark suit with tightly-done hair. On the eve of their wedding day, she points to David sitting high up within an enclosing scaffolding platform next to the brontosaurus. [Metaphorically, the skeletal brontosaurus represents the scientist’s stripped-down, calcified, dead life lacking youthful vitality and activity.] Wearing a white museum smock tightly wrapped around him, the dedicated paleontologist is posed and frozen as Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker. Wondering how to assemble the skeleton from a collection of bones, Huxley contemplates a small, fossilized dinosaur bone he holds in his hand – he is confused about where to place it: “I think this one must belong in the tail.” [With some imagination, the sight of the rock-hard bone in his hand and the slang of his first line of dialogue suggest some obscure sexual connotations.] She disregards his speculative theory about its proper placement: “Nonsense, you tried it in the tail yesterday and it didn’t fit.”
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