Bringing Up Baby Review
"No palaeontologist ever got his hands on a more beautiful set of bones"
Howard Hawks was a master of several genres but perhaps his greatest skill was with comedy. A number of his films are comedies in disguise - Rio Bravo masquerades as a Western, The Big Sleep as a thriller - and his instinct in much of his work is to bring out the comedic situations even when they are not immediately obvious. It’s no surprise then that given a great comedy script, he produces a masterpiece. Bringing Up Baby may not be the fastest screwball comedy ever made - that title would go to Hawks’ own His Girl Friday - but its probably the funniest and if I were to produce a chart of the ratio of laughs to running time in classic screen comedy, then this film would be somewhere near the top.
This insane but brilliantly plotted film is built on three important upcoming events in the life of palaeontologist David Huxley (Grant). Firstly, the arrival of an incredibly rare bone which will complete his skeletal reconstruction of a brontosaurus. Secondly, his marriage in a day’s time to his dry and dictatorial fiancé Alice. Thirdly, the potential donation of a million dollars to the museum by a rich philanthropist. It is this last event which sets the farce in motion. In order to secure the donation, he has to play golf with the potential donor’s lawyer Mr Peabody (George Irving) and it is on the links, frustrated by the lawyer’s refusal to talk business while playing, that David meets rich, slightly demented heiress Susan Vance (Hepburn). She decides to play a little game with him, hardly caring that she is about to bring his whole life to the verge of ruin.
The plot doesn’t bear a great deal of relation to reality and you’d be hard pressed to recognise anything which suggests a historical resemblance to 1930s America. Instead, the setting is strangely timeless, a situation in which anything can happen as long as all the strands are tied together in the final reel. Nor does common sense figure very high on the agenda. If the characters were to stop talking and just explain clearly to each other who they are and what they want then the situation would be sorted out in five minutes. But, as in farce, screwball comedy depends largely upon speed and confusion - and like farce, for the form to succeed it needs a fixed point around which the insanity can rage. In Bringing Up Baby, Cary Grant provides that fixed point and he is quite wonderful as the dry academic being forcibly drawn into a world of madness, the existence of which he barely comprehended. His hopeful cry as he is driven off by Susan - “I’ll be with you in a moment Mr Peabody” - symbolises his attempts to be optimistic in the teeth of experience. As the plot develops, Grant is forced to endure more and more indignities, all of them slotted in to the story with fanatical neatness. Susan Vance has only to toss away an olive for him to slip on it, thus presaging another horrendous set of embarrassments - he says “"I might have known you were here. I had a feeling just as I hit the floor...First you drop an olive, and then I sit on my hat. It all fits perfectly." This leads to the romantic irony of the film - David Huxley comes to realise, by the end of the story, that he shares Susan’s love of ridiculous, eccentric behaviour and that they are, unlikely as it seems at the start, a love match. She rescues him from everything stultifying bourgeois that is represented by the appalling Alice - even when the rescue attempt has led to him donning women’s clothing and going “gay all of a sudden”.
If Grant represents the world of enlightened sanity gradually losing its grip, Katie Hepburn represents the excitement of impulsiveness and irrationality. Viewers tend to divide down the middle on this one. Some find her irritating beyond belief, others find her divinely funny and even sexy. I am firmly of the latter persuasion. This is a great comedy performance which goes off like a firecracker. No-one in 1938 could have suspected that Hepburn, a fine serious actress with a slightly worthy streak, could be this damn funny and she generates enough comic energy to power an entire city. Whether turning golf into a combat sport or serenely turning a dinner party into a hopeless disaster area, Hepburn seems to be inhabiting a world of her own in which the usual rules of social behaviour no longer apply. Emitting anarchy as naturally as pheromones, she remains, to the end of the film, unrepentant and untamed. The romantic spirit to this comedy is the notion that she manages to persuade the buttoned-up Grant of the virtues of chaos. In this respect, Hawks seems to have an evident sympathy with Hepburn as he himself seemed to take pride in turning this most smooth of charmers into a total wreck - see I Was A Male War Bride and Monkey Business for further evidence.
This leads to something very unusual. This film, seemingly so light and frothy, is actually only a few shades away from the darkness of film noir. True, Susan Vance may not exactly be a femme fatale but she’s certainly a potentially disastrous influence on David Huxley and it’s not hard to imagine the romantic comedy being twisted into pitch-black noir as Huxley’s life is minutely dismembered. It’s serendipitous that the cinematographer on this film, Russell Metty, should have gone on to a career which took in not only the subtle shades of middle-class emotional wreckage of Douglas Sirk but also examples of film noir such as Kiss The Blood Off My Hands, the undervalued Naked Alibi and the exceptional Touch Of Evil. It’s this sense of stepping so close to madness and the darkness which gives Bringing Up Baby an edge of danger and genuine emotional risk that you rarely find in screwball comedy and I think it took a master director such as Hawks to find so much in what is, to be honest, a trivial and silly story. As in his other great movies - particularly Red River and The Big Sleep - he takes everything that the plot and characters offer and then somehow finds more. The excellent script by John Ford’s regular collaborator Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde helps a lot - I particularly love some of Grant’s ever-so patient rejoinders to Hepburn like “Let’s play a game… Watch, I’ll put my hand over my eyes and then you go away. See? Then I’ll count to ten and when I take my hand down, you’ll be gone!”
As in all great farce, incident piles on incident with impeccable timing. It all ends in a prison cell with the wonderfully befuddled Constable Slocum trying desperately to make sense of it all. It’s not hard to get so caught up in this that you feel slightly exhausted from laughing so hard but a second viewing confirms that Hawks is making something blissfully romantic as well as hugely funny. As I said earlier, Grant and Hepburn are a love match. They appeared together in four films but they generate far more sexual chemistry than Hepburn ever showed on-screen with Spencer Tracy. There’s a lovely scene where they chase Baby - Susan Vance’s pet leopard - into the woods and sing “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby”, barely realising at first that they’re actually singing it to each other. When they sit and talk, like two reasonably normal human beings, the screwball side of the film fades momentarily and the love story takes centre stage. The confidence of Hawks shows in moments like this. He can switch tone and pace with razor precision and he never loses the audience. By the end of the film, you’re almost sick from laughing but you don’t have the slightest doubt that these two people are meant to be together. That’s the triumph of the film - screwball comedy rarely had a heart quite a big as it does here, nor does it usually suggest the dangerous depths to which our hearts can take us. At the end of the film, the skeleton collapses but it doesn’t matter. David has found another, considerably more animated set of bones to play with.
Bringing Up Baby was a much anticipated title and fans should be fairly pleased with what Warners have come up with. It’s not in the first rank of their transfers, by which I mean that it doesn’t have the ’wow’ factor of White Heat or Casablanca. But it’s certainly well ahead of what most studios provide by the way of restoration for their classic titles.
The film is presented in its original full screen ratio. There is a fair amount of grain present but this results in a suitably film-like image and isn’t intrusive. Some very minor print damage is evident in places and there is some white speckling at times. However, the image is generally crisp and there’s plenty of fine detail present. Compared to the messy print I saw in the cinema in 2003, this is a considerable improvement.
The soundtrack is the correct Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono and it sounds absolutely fine. The clarity of the dialogue is impressive and there’s little hiss or crackle.
Although there are a reasonable number of extras, the only one which is specifically devoted to the film is a commentary by the filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich. Since he was acquainted with Hawks personally, there’s a considerable show-off factor here but once he settles down, Bogdanovich proves an amiable and reliable guide to both film and director. If you don’t like his slightly knowing tone then you won’t like this track but there’s enough value here to make this worth a listen. Also on the first disc is a Howard Hawks trailer gallery including the trailers for Bringing Up Baby, Sergeant York, To Have And Have Not, The Big Sleep and Rio Bravo.
The second disc contains four interesting items. The least of them is a nostalgic but rather wearisome comedy short called “Campus Cinderella”. This is mostly interesting for some very nice Technicolor cinematography by Ray Rennahan and it’s a reasonably good transfer. Secondly, there is a 1938 Warner Brothers cartoon called “A Star Is Hatched” which is inspired by the Selznick production of A Star Is Born and contains plenty of amusing movie star caricatures.
Rather more substantial is “The Men Who Made The Movies: Howard Hawks”, a 55 minute selection of fascinating interviews with Hawks, a man who claimed to be a jobbing filmmaker and constantly denied any intellectual motives. But his intelligence shines through constantly and makes this worth watching even though it ignores some of his films and skims over others. This was made in 2001 and viewers of Turner Classic Movies may have seen it.
Even better is a detailed and intelligent study of Cary Grant, produced in 2004 by Turner Entertainment and called “Cary Grant: A Class Apart”. This is packed with reminiscences and well chosen clips and offers a generous but reasonably probing examination of one of the greatest film stars of the 20th Century. His relationships are dealt with in some detail, especially his use of LSD and the serial adultery based on an apparent need to constantly prove his heterosexuality. The interviews are marvellous with archive contributions from the likes of Hitchcock and George Cukor - as well as Howard Hawks - and some very insightful observations from Peter Bogdanovich who, needless to say, knew Grant personally.
Although the film itself is subtitled, this does not extend to the extra features. This is a regrettable oversight on the part of Warner Brothers and nor for the first time.
If there is a list of essential American comedy films then Bringing Up Baby would be an inevitable part of it. It’s a very funny film which doesn’t seem to have dated because the world of madness it portrays is already outside the realm of space and time. Warners’ DVD is nicely presented and worth picking up even though its not quite the banquet that their reputation might have promised.