“But, Susan, you can’t climb in a man’s bedroom window!” David Huxley says to Susan Vance, and she replies, “I know, it’s on the second floor!”
So “far back” in movie history, at least for some members of the younger generation, it seems hard to believe that the comedy in Bringing Up Baby, especially its slapstick aspects, has never been bettered. It was Katharine Hepburn’s first film in that genre, and she had to be coached on proper timing, though the grace of her movements needed no advice. Cary Grant, her bewildered co-star—at least bewildered most of the time on screen—needed no such coaching, for his timing had been perfect for years, acquired on the British vaudeville stage before he came to Tinseltown.
Hepburn had made one previous film with Grant, Sylvia Scarlett, in 1936, directed by her favorite director, George Cukor, and the trio would make three more films together, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday and The Philadelphia Story. Not that Bringing Up Baby is a Hepburn show. It isn’t. Grant shares equal screen time; in fact, one star is rarely seen without the other, as the nature of the plot deems that they be inseparable. And the chemistry and interplay between them is undeniable—and contagious.
A quiet, bespectacled paleontologist, David Huxley (Grant), is in the process of assembling a brontosaurus skeleton but is missing one bone. Although he is preparing to marry an overly serious-minded colleague, Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker), his bigger problem—he doesn’t see the imminent wedding to Swallow as a “problem” though he should—is to somehow find the money to finance his further work. He must persuade a dowager, Elizabeth Random (May Robson), to donate a million dollar endowment to his museum.
Luckily for him, though it doesn’t seem so at the time, just before the wedding day, he meets heiress Susan Vance (Hepburn). Susan’s wild and flighty ways put him off from the start and for most of their coming adventures together—and that they are, adventures. She interrupts his golf game (Hepburn was an avid golfer), damages his car, drenches him in a stream and any number of other capers.
And then there’s that faux pas in a restaurant. This, the film’s most famous routine, was based on an actual experience of Grant’s. David unknowingly is standing on the hem of Susan’s long evening gown when she walks away, ripping the material at the waist. Unaware, she continues on ahead. He attempts to explain, then tries to cover her exposed underwear with his top hat. It’s only after she feels behind her back that she realizes what he’s tried to tell her. As they make their exit, he walks close-tight behind her, earning laughter from the crowd.
All this disorder serves to thwart David’s efforts to impress Alexander Peabody (George Irving), Mrs. Random’s lawyer from whom is required the approve for that million dollars. Susan, unknown to David at first, just happens to be Random’s niece.
To make things more confusing, and the perfect setup for slapstick, Susan has received from her brother a leopard named Baby, an intended gift for their aunt. Susan, thinking David is a zoologist, convinces him to join her at her Connecticut country home, where they can better attend Baby, which is best calmed when hearing “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” Speaking of which, Susan quickly falls in love with David and, to prevent his marriage to whatshername, diverts his attention and puts any number of obstacles in his path.
In one of the film’s most hilarious scenes, dressed in Susan’s sheer bathrobe, David meets Random and her old friend Major Applegate (Charles Ruggles). While he was taking a shower, Susan had hidden his clothes. The goings-on here are complete with Grant’s comedic double-takes, mutterings to himself and attempts to get a word in edgeways, mannerisms that will later become so exaggerated and annoying in Arsenic and Old Lace, but here applied in tolerable doses.
David does receive the necessary missing bone, but Susan’s dog George buries it—somewhere. George is better known as Asta from the Thin Man series. In David and Susan’s search for George, now lost along with Baby, they mistake an escaped circus leopard for Baby.
Another comic moment—my favorite in the film—occurs when Applegate and Mrs. Random are at the dining table one evening. He is regaling her and David and Susan with his knowledge of the leopard and its mating cry. Before blowing, he places, just so, his thumbs and fingers to his lips to simulate the holler; he goes into great detail to insure the procedure is done properly. But before he can make a sound, there is heard the actual cry of a real leopard. Later, in the garden, now with just Random and still not catching on that there is a real leopard about, his animal imitations and instructions continue.
For breaking into a home in search of Baby, David and Susan are arrested by the police, in the guise of another bumbling role for Walter Catlett. He is best remembered, perhaps, as one of the snooty writers around the restaurant table in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, this when Deeds (Gary Cooper) is treating a “woman in distress” (Jean Arthur) to a meal. In Bringing Up Baby, Catlett and Hepburn also have a scene when he, as Slocum the policeman, confronts her about illegally parking her car by a “fireplug,” as a fire hydrant was apparently called then.
After Slocum refuses to release David and Susan from jail, Peabody arrives just in time to verify their identities. Later, Susan thinks she has found Baby, mistakenly hauling into the jail on a leash the circus leopard. With most of the cast in attendance, pandemonium breaks out, à la Marx Brothers high jinks, and all run for their lives, trying to escape into the jail cells. Using a chair, David coaches the animal into an empty cell.
Alice has called off the wedding because of David’s relations with Susan, and when Susan arrives at the museum, David is laboring on his brontosaurus. She had followed George to his hiding place, found the bone and now presents it to David. To reach the skeleton, she climbs the ladder, which begins to sway. Just as the ladder falls and the brontosaurus collapses, David pulls Susan safely onto the scaffolding.
The film employs more than the usual amount of optical procedures and split screens, here mainly for safety’s sake because of the stars’ scenes with the leopard. While Grant was especially afraid of the cat, Hepburn, fearless as always, had a certain rapport with Baby (actually named Nissa) and was complimented by its trainer, Olga Celeste, that Kate would make a good animal trainer.
In Me, Stories of My Life, Hepburn relates, “The first scene I had [with Nissa] was in a floor-length negligee, walking around. I was talking madly on the telephone with a long cord. The leopard followed me around pushing at my thigh, which they had covered with perfume. I would pat its head. The scene went very satisfactorily. Then I changed into a knee-length dress with tabs on the bottom of the skirt covering metal pieces to make the skirt swing prettily. But—a large but—one quick swirl and that leopard made a spring for my back, and Olga brought that whip down right on his head.”
Bringing Up Baby was not a box office success when it was first released, losing RKO $365,000, though it is now regarded as one of the greatest slapstick comedies of this or any Hollywood era. And this was at the time when Katharine Hepburn had been famously labeled “box office poison.” In retrospect, Kate seems to have taken the brunt of the crack, for people forget that also included on the list—and there was such a list in 1937 from the Independent Theatre Owners Association—were the names of Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich.
Although the movie received not the first Oscar nomination, by some stretch of the imagination the snub might be rationalized that 1938 was, after all, one of the stellar years of Hollywood. Not the equal of 1939, of course, but in the class with 1935, 1941, a few other years. Bringing Up Baby was in competition with The Adventures of Robin Hood, Jezebel, Pygmalion, Alexander’s Ragtime Band and the Best Picture winner, You Can’t Take It With You.
Director Howard Hawks had not directed a comedy before, and one wonders why not, as he certainly has a gift, and there was much fun on the set, as Hepburn wrote in her biography. Or was the comic success thanks to the duo screenplay by Dudley Nichols, who had worked on Stagecoach (1939) and Hepburn’s Mary of Scotland, and Hager Wilde? The photography is by Russell Metty, one of the greats, of Spartacus and A Touch of Evil fame. The cast, too, from top to bottom, is outstanding; included among those not mentioned are Barry Fitzgerald, Fritz Feld, Ward Bond, Jack Carson, Leona Roberts, Richard Lane and George Humbert.
Somewhat in the mold of Raoul Walsh, another hard, unsentimental director, Hawks rarely directed comedies, but the second film after Bringing Up Baby he worked on His Girl Friday. Cary Grant was now joined by Rosalind Russell, for whom comic timing was a second instinct. The kind of wild tempo that characterizes Bringing Up Baby would, of course, resurface in His Girl Friday, though not to such an extent, but, more important, the potential of overlapping dialogue that had been only modestly, perhaps unintentionally, touched upon in the leopard film would be fully exploited—famously so—in His Girl Friday.
But that’s another movie, for another posting.