Friday, June 17, 2011

Worth Watching: Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Title: Bringing Up Baby
Director: Howard Hawks
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

David Huxley (Cary Grant) is a stodgy professor who's assembling a brontosaurus skeleton and hoping to secure a million dollar donation for his museum. Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) is a happy-go-lucky heiress who is convinced from the day they meet that she and David are meant to be. Through a series of plots and tricks that spiral out of her control, she contrives to keep him at her side for a while, away from his cold fiancée and his dinosaur bones.

David is anxious, earnest, stuffy and adorable. Buried deep inside him is a store of latent joy and fun that only Susan will be able to bring out, if she doesn't drive him insane first. David never sheds his stodginess over the course of the movie, but just the fact that he accepts Susan into his life (as if he has a choice) means that there will be a lot more love and playfulness (and chaos) in it. I love the way Cary Grant delivers his lines and throws his whole body into the comedy of David's frustrations.

David Huxley netted

Susan is the kind of woman who spends her time at a swanky hotel chatting with the bartender and having him teach her how to flip olives from the back of her hand to her mouth. She can hunt for leopards in the dark Connecticut wilds using only a rope and a butterfly net. Her screams are shrill, her laughter silly. She doesn't understand dignity very well; it's much more fun to giggle. She has a woman's longing for a man, and a child's love of mischief and play. Hepburn plays her with a kind of devilish sweetness and innocence, an underlying intelligence to her flightiness. She's a high-society imp.

Susan and Baby

The best supporting characters are Susan's aunt, Elizabeth Random (May Robson), a formidable, outspoken lady who for most of the movie believes that David is a big-game hunter who has lost his marbles; she advises Susan not to marry him: "I don't want another lunatic in the family, I've got lunatics enough already." There's also her dinner guest, Major Horace Applegate (Charlie Ruggles), an actual big game hunter who confuses the roar of a leopard with the cry of a loon.

Speaking of animals, the movie introduces you to Baby, a tame leopard, along with George, a yappy little terrier. They both bring a lot of grief to David.

Baby and George become inseparable.

Then there's David and Susan's relationship, which is a joy and a catastrophe, as David puts it: "In moments of quiet I'm strangely drawn towards you... but, well, there haven't been any quiet moments."

But what choice does he have? He's the leading man, he has to wind up with someone by the end of the film, and from the very beginning we know that if he stays with his fiancée, Alice (Virginia Walker), he'll end up a desiccated husk of a man, imprisoned in a cold and dusty life.

Memorable sights and sounds
I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby is sung several times in the movie - in the middle of the woods, in front of a psychiatrist's house, etc. There's a logical reason for this.

There's also a logical reason for why David needs to stalk George. David tracks the dog on all fours sometimes, or keeps an eye on him at the dinner table, getting up with a spoon still in his hand and following George out of the room whenever necessary.

The look on David's face and the high terrified pitch to his voice are nearly identical when he first spots the leopard in Susan's bathroom and when, much later in the film, Susan professes her love for him.

Susan has some moments when she's frightened or upset too, but by and large she can handle difficult situations well and find the humor in them. Katharine Hepburn, unsurprisingly, was the only actor on the set who touched the leopard, if only in a couple of scenes; it's amazing to see it rub up against her legs as she's blithely chatting into the phone. ("Oh, David, don't be irrelevant... the point is I've got a leopard, the question is what am I going to do with it?")

Stand-out scenes
For me the film really takes off during the scene at the Ritz, with the olive tricks, a mix-up of purses, and David and Susan tearing each other's clothes off, in a manner of speaking. Their exit from the hotel is a gem of physical comedy. And in this scene their banter and David's sniping first reach a level of comic greatness. Throughout the film in general the actors' timing and rhythm is impeccable, with the rapid back-and-forth speech, interruptions and overlapping lines, wit and double entendres.

The culmination of the film takes place in the jail. Hepburn impersonating a gangster's moll and sweet-talking her way out of her cell is a highlight, as is the way in which she returns after her escape, endangering everyone.

Further thoughts
There's a lot of funniness and clever screwball silliness in this film, with one deranged scenario building on another and then another, and by the end I was both glad I watched it and tired out from watching it; I imagine that this is how David must feel about Susan.

David in negligee

*All images link back to their source (UCLA cinema; Flixster community).