Bringing Up Baby (1938) Directed by Howard Hawks. Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant (102 min).
A dizzy deb and befuddled paleontologist search the wilds of Connecticut for a lost leopard, an intercostal clavicle and a wire- haired terrier named George. Inexplicably a flop in its day, the breathless dialogue, inspired slapstick and an enchanted forest create one of Hollywood’s most perfect comedies. Cary Grant is “the greatest sexual stooge the screen has ever known: his side steps and delighted stares turn his co-stars into comic goddesses”(Pauline Kael).
When Peter Bogdanovich ran a 16mm copy of Bringing Up Baby at the Museum of Modern Art in 1961, this film, ignored by both public and critics on its initial release, hadn’t been seen in New York for over 20 years. A new generation recognized this slapstick romance as, not a formulaic genre picture, but a uniquely nutty classic. Why was it ignored in its day? Were there so many good movies that audiences missed a great one? Or, was it that Hepburn’s heiress did not have her comeuppance like so many rich people in Depression era movies. No plebian taught her how to dunk doughnuts, and Grant remains rather single mindedly in pursuit of the research funding he hopes her wealthy family will provide. The studio executives at RKO were also unenthusiastic about the film, they hated Grant’s glasses and Hepburn’s wild hair and probably expected more romance and less ferocity.
Howard Hawks was an independent director and producer during the studio era in Hollywood. He signed only short term contracts and was never beholden to one employer for long. He signed a 3-picture contract with RKO in 1938 and began to sift through various script options. An adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Gunga Din was a likely project until negotiations over script, casting and budget hit an impasse. In the meantime, Hawks decided he wanted to film the story “Bringing Up Baby” by Hagar Wilde, much to the puzzlement of the studio brass. The story is a recognizable, if spare version of the film, with all the bones, as it were, in place. The studio would have preferred Hawks turn his experienced hand to the epic, but they also needed a final project for Katharine Hepburn, whose time at RKO had been a success for neither star nor studio. Miss Wilde came to Hollywood to work on the screenplay against her better judgment. She was a regular contributor of short stories to Collier’s Magazine, and had been to Hollywood once for a four week assignment. The studio was warned, “the experience was so distasteful and unpleasant that she is rather soured on the movies.” Hawks wanted her to expand the story with the aid of established screenwriter Dudley Nichols. Nichols’ forte was not comedy. His best known scripts were for more serious films, often for John Ford, like The Informer (for which he had won an Oscar the previous year) and Stagecoach. But, while collaborating they fell in love, the scriptwriters’ blossoming affair echoing that of their protagonists. Nichols was instructed to tailor the script to Hepburn’s irrepressible personality, although Wilde’s Susan Vance can already be recognized as Hepburn.
Bringing Up Baby “reveals the way the collaborative Hollywood studio system could, at its best, make a silk purse out of, if not a sow’s ear, perhaps, but out of very few and very tiny scraps of silk” (Mast). Hawks was one of a generation of directors hailed as “auteurs” because they worked within the studio system, yet imposed a unique visual style in genre films which were similar in outlook, themes and characterizations. “His films represent one of the most vivid, varied yet consistent, bodies of work in movies; ironically, too, perhaps the most typically American. Which maybe explains why his pictures don’t date as many do, even the best. He touched some part of the American psyche that are there forever” (Bogdanovich). Hawks made some lively comedies in his career, several with Cary Grant. He enjoyed putting his characters in embarrassing positions, which Grant’s hilarious exasperation punctuates beautifully. The story is a comic reversal of the standard comedy plot of a virgin’s sexual awakening, for in this case the innocent is male.
Katharine Hepburn was a natural aristocrat from an upper class Connecticut family, who went to college at Bryn Mayr. Grant was her social opposite, a Cockney from London who left school at 13 to join the classless world of the music hall. He juggled, tumbled, sang, and clowned, learning his trade in small towns across England and America as Hepburn burnished her skills on Broadway. Pauline Kael wrote appreciatively of Grant, “The assurance he gained in slapstick turned him into the smoothie he aspired to be. He brought elegance to low comedy, and low comedy gave him the corky common man touch that made him a great star.”
Hepburn was a non-conformist both on and off the screen. She had never played such broad comedy before, and Hawks thought since Susan Vance was a comic extension of herself she would be quick to catch on. But, Hepburn tripped herself up trying to be too funny, and vaudevillian Walter Catlett was brought in as comedy consultant. He imitated her in one of her scenes with Grant and she finally caught on. The part of Constable Slocum was created for Catlett so he could remain on the set and continue to coach her. Hepburn was a quick study, “I’ve just found out that you don’t try to be funny, but the more serious, the more honest you are, the funnier it becomes.” Learning from her co-star, she said, “Cary Grant taught me that the more depressed I looked when I went into a pratfall, the more the audience would laugh.”
Ronald Colman, Leslie Howard, Robert Montgomery, Frederic March and Ray Milland had all turned down the role of David Huxley. The part wasn’t much on paper, and Hepburn had a reputation of being a snooty colleague. Gerald Weales notes that “Susan Vance has all the worst qualities of Hepburn’s 1930s heroines—the aggressiveness, the unbottled effervescence, the calculated helplessness, the relentless certainty—but Hepburn and Howard Hawks, taking advantage of the actresses’ most jarring mannerisms, make Susan completely attractive.” RKO allowed the film to run over budget and over schedule, as Hawks, Hepburn and leading man Cary Grant, fresh off his success in The Awful Truth noodled and fussed, improvised wisecracks, bits of business and slapstick choreography on the set. While this film has some great lines, much of what is funny wasn’t on the printed page. Hepburn and Grant worked out a lot of the comic business themselves, without Hawks, including the give and take of the ripped skirt scene. While in the forest, Hepburn broke the heel off her shoe, and Grant quickly whispered to her, “I was born on the side of a hill,” Hepburn took the quip and ran with it. “Cary was so funny on this picture…his boiling energy was at its peak. We would laugh from morning until night.”
Filming was also slow just because of the convivial atmosphere on the set. Fritz Feld, who played the psychiatrist, said some days Hawks would come in and say, “It’s a nice day, let’s go to the races.” Hepburn served tea on the set. At the end of a scene Feld and Hepburn shared, Hawks sent in two cases of champagne. As Feld said, “Those were the good old days.”
In the many interviews that Hawks gave during the last 15 years of his life, he said he regretted that every character in Bringing Up Baby was a screwball, forgetting both Mr. Peabody and the bartender who teaches Susan how to toss an olive into her mouth. This bartender is played by Mack Sennett comedian Billy Bevan, perhaps as a talisman, since Grant is about to take his first pratfall. At one revival screening, Hawks said, “I had 340 people in Paris asking me questions, ‘Well, what did you think of when you were making it.’ ‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘I just thought it was funny’” (Bogdanovich).
Grant was concerned about playing Professor Huxley, “I wouldn’t know how to tackle it. I’m not an intellectual type.” Hawks gave Grant silent comic Harold Lloyd’s horn rim glasses, and suggested he emulate the style of the beleaguered, yet plucky comedian. It helped, of course, that as a former circus acrobat, Grant easily maneuvered his own stunts. Lloyd had his own praise for the result, calling it “the best constructed comedy he had ever seen.”
Virginia Walker, who plays the stuffy Miss Swallow, was a Hawks discovery and under personal contract to the director, much as Lauren Bacall would be several years later. Miss Walker’s destiny was not on the screen, however, and she would shortly elope to Mexico with the director’s brother.
Katharine Hepburn’s wardrobe is by Howard Greer, who blended his on-screen work with a salon in LA where he designed dresses for private clients, sometimes the same ones he dressed in the movies. Hepburn’s wardrobe is quite chic and she wears two extremely eccentric veils, one as an evening accessory with her lame dress in the supper club scene, and one aggressively (leopard?) spotted one in the final one. Bringing Up Baby’s most memorable costume however, is the silly negligee that David is forced to don after his shower.
The animals are important co-stars. Skippy, the wire-haired terrier who played Asta in the Thin Man and Mr. Smith in The Awful Truth was cast as the dog, George. As cute as he is in those other films…that’s how annoying he is in this one; what an actor!
Skippy’s biography can be found here.
Nissa the leopard got on splendidly with Katharine Hepburn, but less well with other cast members. Madame Olga Celeste was the trainer and she was always off camera with a whip in case of problems. Hepburn wore a perfume the cat found attractive, but got on its bad side when she twirled in a dress with little weights sewed in the hem. The startled leopard took a swipe at her, Mme Celeste cracked her whip, and that was the end of the cat roaming free on the set. While Hepburn is clearly acting with Nissa in a number of scenes, the same cannot be said for Grant, who was understandably afraid of the leopard.
The breakneck pace of the dialogue allowed for an extraordinary amount of double entendre. Hepburn and Grant spent an entire day on the “what happened to the bone?” scene because they couldn’t stop laughing. Indeed Hawks maintained that one of his favorite lines evaded the censors because the audience was always laughing too hard to hear it. He said that only when finally seen on tv, could you hear Cary Grant say, “I feel a perfect ass” after the back of Hepburn’s skirt had been torn away. I still couldn’t hear it, so perhaps it was something that did end up on the cutting room floor. Plus, you’ll note the first use of the word “gay” in the modern sense, proof that show business slang predates usage in the general culture.
Alan Dale talks about Susan’s powerful personality, “the movie is intoxicated by her potency” as he puts it. Indeed, the first time I saw this film, I found Susan Vance terrifying. Dale continues, “it is one of the few examples of a fluffy comedy achieving the kind of controlled unease that we usually only get from more ambitious works of art.” Hawks created a romance out of an extraordinary amount of comic aggression, and without the usual symbols of emotional intimacy…kissing, for example. But, James Harvey points out, “laughter in all these great movie comedies is intimacy.”
Shown with the musical short “Singapore Sue” which contains Cary Grant’s first appearance on screen. Grant was an actor who never won an Oscar because in his roles he was dismissed as “just playing himself.” In fact, “Cary Grant” was a carefully crafted star persona, a superb, career long performance. Perhaps this little short contains “Archie Leach” (Grant’s real name) playing himself more than any other time in the movies. Singapore Sue is one of the exotic Oriental beauties that populated films in a less politically correct era. A companion of “Shanghai Lil” (Ruby Keeler in Footlight Parade) and “Shanghai Lilly” (Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express) at least Sue is played by an Asian actress. And, amid all the casual racism, the Asian actors have the most dignity.
(Photos: Hepburn and Grant portraits from anonymous movie star scrapbooks, production still from Hodge, 2-shot from “Cary Grant” December, 1961 Films in Review. Sources include: Howard Hawks, Director, Gerald Mast, Editor, Who the Devil Made It, by Peter Bogdanovich, Katharine Hepburn by Barbara Leaming, Cary Grant: A Class Apart by Graham McCann, Canned Goods as Caviar by Gerald Weales, Katharine Hepburn by Jessica Hodge, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood by James Harvey, Screwball by Ed Sikov, Howard Hawks by Todd McCarthy, Power of Glamour by Annette Tapert, “Cary Grant, The Man from Dream City” by Pauline Kael, Comedy is a Man in Trouble by Alan Dale.