Bringing Up Baby: Screwball Comedy At Its Best

                Oh dear.  I’ve fallen behind a week.  I’m sure that will happen more than once before I’m finished going through my list, but again, better late than never.  And I’ve decided after some consideration, that as I work my way backwards through the AFI’s Top 100 list, to only watch the older classic movies…since there are so few recent movies on the list, it won’t cut out much work for me and since this blog is devoted to classic films anyway, I don’t feel badly about it.  To be perfectly clear, the cutoff date for future movies is now 1969.

                The movie for this week is #97 on the list: “Bringing Up Baby.”  I was so excited to have an excuse to watch this movie again (not that I need one) because it’s one of my very favorites.  For this viewing, I made my boyfriend, Wes, sit down and watch it with me as well.  I can now say, with great pride, that I have finally managed to show him his very first Cary Grant movie!  Good deed for the week: CHECK.  Introducing a favorite movie to someone I love is one of the best things in life, so that made watching this film again even more enjoyable for me.

                “Bringing Up Baby” is one of the most delightfully zany screwball comedies that I have ever seen.  It stars Cary Grant as a reserved scientist named David Huxley, who is hoping to receive a grant of $1 million for his museum.  However, after meeting flighty heiress, Susan Vance (Katherine Hepburn), he suffers a series of misadventures that cause him to sacrifice his dignity, come close to losing his shot at the money, and somehow end up taking care of a leopard for the day.  Susan does her part to make things worse by constantly trying to help.

                There’s not much else I can say about the story of the movie without either giving something away or listing all the various misadventures one by one.  If you haven’t seen it yet, it would take all the fun out of it to know everything that goes wrong ahead of time.  What I will do is talk a little bit about what went on behind the scenes and share a couple of my favorite scenes with you as usual.

                One of the things that surprised me the most about this movie is that it bombed at the box office when it came out.  Howard Hawks, the director, attributed this to the fact that every single person in the film is a “screwball” with no straight characters to ground the movie.  That’s actually one of the things I love most about this film.  Every character is so wonderfully zany that everything they do next is unexpected.  If this were any other movie, the lack of a straight character would be an issue.  However, Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn were so talented and had so much chemistry that it does nothing to harm this movie.  But for whatever reason, the movie going public didn’t respond to it at the time.

                This movie also marks a first in that it was Katherine Hepburn’s first attempt at onscreen comedy.  Before this movie, she had done a lot of dramas and almost none of them were very popular when they came out (in fact, when “Bringing Up Baby” failed at the box office, Katherine was labeled “box office poison”).  Because of that, it took her a while to figure out her comedic timing and Howard Hawks had to bring in a coach to teach her.  Katherine proved to be a quick and eager learner and for the rest of her career, she could transition from comedy to drama and back again with an ease few actors have ever accomplished.  And while her comedic timing may have taken some work, she never suffered for want of a sense of humor.  During filming, Cary Grant was very nervous around the leopard.  Katherine, knowing about his fear, put a stuffed leopard through a vent in the top of his dressing room to scare him.  “He was out of there like lightning,” she said later.

                This film boasts another fairly significant first: it is considered by many film historians to have the first use of the word “gay” in its modern day meaning.  Apparently, homosexuals began using the term amongst themselves in the 1920’s or earlier but it wasn’t widely known among heterosexuals until sometime around the 1960’s.  The word itself never appeared in the script; rather it was ad-libbed by Cary Grant.  Here is the scene where it appears, you can decide for yourselves in what connotation it was meant:

                As long as I’m showing you scenes from this movie, I’d like to show one more if I may.  This is a clip from one of my favorite scenes towards the beginning of the movie.  In this scene, David and Susan haven’t known each other for very long but their series of misadventures have already begun.  This particular scene was based on something that happened to Cary Grant at the Roxy Theater.  His pants zipper was down and it ended up getting caught on a lady’s dress.  Cary Grant, not knowing what to do, simply followed her around.  When Howard Hawks heard this story, he loved it so much that he put it in the film:

                This movie has been on multiple “Best” lists over the years and is still making people laugh today.  I think the biggest reason for that is the chemistry (not to mention the talent) that its two stars share onscreen.  Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn were paired together in 4 movies and it’s easy to see why based on this film alone.  Their timing is so perfect and their chemistry is so obvious.  Because of that, it’s easy for me to see why this movie has stood the test of time.  Aside from being laugh out loud funny, it boasts two of the greatest stars the screen has ever seen.  And if you’d like a recommendation for another Cary Grant/Katherine Hepburn film, my advice is to see “The Philadelphia Story.”  You even get the added bonus of Jimmy Stewart.  But we’ll save that for another time, another entry…trust me.

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