Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Directed by Howard Hawks

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Bringing Up Baby is a screwball romantic comedy between a paleontologist and the free spirit daughter of a wealthy family.  In other words its Ross and Rachel.

Cary Grant plays David Huxley, the button-down, stressed-out paleontologist, and Katharine Hepburn plays Susan Vance, the reckless, lovestruck niece of the woman David hopes to impress in order to land a million dollar donation to his museum.

David and Susan keep running into each other, first on a golf course, later in the parking lot, then at a gala, etc.  David is constantly on edge, and his eagerness to have everything go according to plan seems to cosmically ensure that it doesn’t.  Also, Susan makes sure that it doesn’t, though she doesn’t realize it at first.

David is a house of cards, and Susan is a tornado.  That’s essentially the whole movie.  But she’s a tornado who’s in love with that house of cards for reasons unknown.  They first cross paths incidentally, with Susan unwittingly obstructing aspects of David’s life.  As he begins to insist she take responsibility for what she doesn’t know she’s done, Susan mistakes his attention for something like flattery.

The odd couple dynamic makes for good comedy, and you can probably already see where it’s headed.  David continually finds himself in a situation in which he must make a good impression to someone who holds his future in their hands, but then Susan’s presence helps makes sure things unravel in such a way that make David look the fool.

There’s also an important intercostal clavicle which David needs to finish assembling the skeleton of a dinosaur, a dog named George who hides that intercostal clavicle, a tame leopard named Baby and an untamed leopard people mistake for Baby.

The story allows for many admirably funny moments.  I only say admirably funny because, well it seemed funny enough.  Bringing Up Baby is a comedy in which I didn’t find that the comedy translated very well, if only because its foundation is a formula repeated and remixed so many times in the 80 years since its release.  It’s fascinating as a point of comparison or as an anthropological study of cinema’s roots.

Grant and Hepburn are effective performers, though Grant gets more to do playing the unravelling David Huxley.  Because his character has more at stake, he gets many of the laughs when something doesn’t go his way.  Many of the jokes have the same formula: David + improbable circumstances = laughs.

The comedy comes from the obstacles in David’s way, and he gets to play the vaudevillian character, the type who runs eagerly across stage and trips over something in his way.  You see this character in so many of Chris Farley’s performances, or in Mr. Bean or some of Woody Allen’s older comedies or even in Ross Gellar.

The comedy is heightened by just how badly the character wants what he or she wants.  Part of that comedy, I suppose, is by our distance from the subject.  We can appreciate what David Huxley so badly yearns for, but we don’t feel what he feels.  He’s desperately after the intercostal clavicle, and the fact that he keeps referring to it by the scientifically accurate name helps remind us that this is something which matters only to him.

In a Hitchcock film the intercostal clavicle would be the MacGuffin, the object which drives the plot forward.  In a Hitchcock movie, just for example, the MacGuffin is purposefully vague.  All that matters is that it matters to the protagonist.  We’re meant to root for and empathize with the hero, and if they want something, then we want it too, if only because we can relate to the hero’s desire.

In Bringing Up Baby, however, David continually refers to the bone by its full name, reminding you that it is something very specific and essentially reminding you that David is quite a peculiar character.

I think it’s important to have that distance between character and audience in order for the comedy to work.  We’re meant to laugh when something doesn’t go David’s way.  In a thriller we might become frustrated or scared when things don’t add up, but it’s in the nature of the screwball comedy world to have things fail to line up.  By reminding us that what David wants is in a sense alien to what we want, we’re more able to laugh at his shortcoming and basically to see that it doesn’t really matter.

And that’s comedy, right?  They say tragedy is a close up, and comedy is a wide shot.  From up close everything is made grand, and from afar it’s all kind of silly.  We see that in our own lives, in which everything is made important because it involves ourselves.  Were we to see our own lives from above or just when we review our lives years later, we can better put everything in perspective.  We might understand what’s worth getting riled up for and what’s just a waste of time.  The final shot of Bringing Up Baby is a wide shot, one in which everything goes wrong.  David stands on a platform above his beloved dinosaur skeleton, ready to place the final piece.  Susan shows up, stumbles, and David catches her before she falls but must watch the skeleton collapse below him.

The thing he cared for the most has just gone up in smoke, but the point is for us to laugh.  That’s because we can see the bigger picture, to some extent.  We know that the real point of the film is for David and Susan to get together and that everything else, David’s original goals, are less important than he thinks they are.

What I find most fascinating about this film is how Grant plays the house of cards around which Hepburn’s tornado orbits.  At the same time, the role of David offers Grant the most to chew on.  He ends up playing the more defined and wacky character while Hepburn more or less plays the same role she would play in other films.

In this story Grant’s character is nothing like the one he plays alongside Hepburn in 1940’s The Philadelphia Story and nothing like some of the everyman roles he’d play in Hitchcock films like North By Northwest or Suspicion, oh man he was so creepy in Suspicion.

But Hepburn is Hepburn, and by all accounts she was very much like the character she played onscreen, though likely a little more restrained.  Susan is perhaps a little more broad, a little more fiery, but there are similarities between the character she played here and in The Philadelphia Story.  Maybe it’s just the presence she brings to the screen.  It’s hard not to recognize that accent, even the way she moves.  No matter who she plays she always seems to be a variation of herself, similar to certain actors like, I don’t know, George Clooney?  Some performers are so iconic they have trouble disappearing into roles, though now that I think about it, the Hepburn movies of the 50s (like The African Queen and Desk Set) show a more refined, refrained character, but those movies are also less overtly comedic.  I guess her disposition reflects the tone of the movie, and what am I even saying.

The way with which Grant does seem to disappear into his character reflects the movie’s director, Howard Hawks, and his refusal to stick to any one genre.  While other directors were known for a particular genre (whether westerns or thrillers or romantic comedies), Hawks dabbled in so many different types of movies.  He made John Wayne westerns (Rio Bravo) and Humphrey Bogart film noirs (The Big Sleep) and Marilyn Monroe comedies (Gentleman Prefer Blondes).

Maybe the closest thing to Howard Hawks we have today is the Coen Brothers.  They’ve made crime thrillers (Blood SimpleFargo), a period piece gansgster movie (Miller’s Crossing), a film noir satire (The Big Lebowski), a film noir/Hitchcockian hard to label period piece (The Man Who Wasn’t There), a western (True Grit), a modern day western (No Country For Old Men), and screwball comedies like Intolerable CrueltyThe Hudsucker Proxy and Burn After Reading).  I want to include A Serious Man, but I haven’t the slightest idea what genre that falls under.

Up Next: The Steel Helmet (1951), Contagion (2011), Gaslight (1940)

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