Bringing Up Baby: David, Susan and the Big Cat

AND SO BEGINS THE HILARIOUS ADVENTURE OF PROFESSOR DAVID HUXLEY AND MISS SUSAN VANCE, A FLUTTER-BRAINED VIXEN WITH LOVE IN HER HEART!

There are some people who love making the argument that sometimes the critics are ”wrong” whenever a panned movie becomes a box-office hit. As if this is a competition over who’s right and wrong. Well, is it possible sometimes that the audiences are ”wrong”? In the case of Bringing Up Baby, the comedy was well-liked by critics on its release but failed to find much of an audience. As a result, RKO ended their contract with Howard Hawks; Katharine Hepburn was already considered ”box-office poison”, but this movie didn’t help her reputation.

Until things changed. In the 1950s, Bringing Up Baby was shown on TV and audiences finally caught up with what they had missed. Over the following years, the film became a screwball classic and inspired many other movies, especially What’s Up, Doc? (1972). In 1990, it was selected for the National Film Registry. Sometimes, the critics know what they’re doing.

Paleontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant) takes his job very seriously and fortunately he’s about to marry a woman who also takes his job very seriously. Finally he’s going to complete an important project; a missing bone, an intercostal clavicle, has been found and is about to be shipped to the museum for a skeleton of a Brontosaurus. Part of his job is courting the interest of potential donors for the museum. The elderly Elizabeth Random (May Robson) is about to give away millions. She’s the main reason why a young socialite named Susan Vance (Hepburn) enters David’s life. Their first chaotic encounter takes place on a golf course, which ends with Susan accidentally stealing David’s car…

Help from a veteran vaudeville actor
When Hepburn began on this project, she may have wondered what on earth she had agreed to. She was going to be directed by a man who had virtually invented the screwball concept with the comedy Twentieth Century (1934) and her co-star, Grant, had been terrific in another screwball comedy the year before, The Awful Truth. Comedy didn’t come naturally to Hepburn and she needed help finding what’s funny about her ditzy character. She found it in the veteran vaudeville actor Walter Catlett who was hired for a small role as a local constable.

Perhaps he also provided help for Grant who wasn’t sure how to play an intellectual character like Huxley. The two stars learned the art of playing it straight – they didn’t try to be funny, but merely reacted to the insane situations that the script put them in. That doesn’t mean they didn’t enjoy themselves: It’s been said that Grant and Hepburn repeatedly found it hard to keep a straight face throughout the shoot and there’s also some improvisation, as in the classic scene where Grant wears Hepburn’s nightgown and tells Robson in sheer frustration that he ”went gay all of a sudden”. LGBT historians still debate just how far Grant was trying to push the meaning of the word. Hawks knew that a true director of comedies must move fast and that’s what this movie does, frequently placing its characters in crazy situations, often involving a tame leopard (who also has a wonderful rapport with Skippy, the terrier who plays Robson’s dog but was more famous as Asta in The Thin Man (1934)).

There are several other hilarious supporting performances, including Robson as the posh millionaire, Charlie Ruggles as the major who knows exactly how to imitate the cry of a leopard, and of course Catlett as the easily confused constable.

The film has an irresistible feeling of anarchy and those moments are amusingly staged, including a memorable last scene where David and Susan are reunited on top of a collapsing Brontosaurus. Where else?

Bringing Up Baby 1938-U.S. 102 min. B/W. Produced and directed by Howard Hawks. Screenplay: Dudley Nichols, Hagar Wilde. Story: Hagar Wilde. Cast: Cary Grant (David Huxley), Katharine Hepburn (Susan Vance), Charlie Ruggles (Horace Applegate), May Robson, Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Catlett… Ward Bond.

Quote: “Now it isn’t that I don’t like you, Susan, because, after all, in moments of quiet, I’m strangely drawn toward you, but – well, there haven’t been any quiet moments.” (Grant to Hepburn)

Last word: “I think the picture had a great fault, and I learned an awful lot from that. There were no normal people in it. Everyone you met was a screwball, and since that time I have learned my lesson and I don’t intend ever again to make everybody crazy.” (Hawks, Movie Magazine)

 

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