Bringing Up Baby (1938)
“And so begins the hilarious adventure of Professor David Huxley and Miss Susan Vance, a flutter-brained vixen with love in her heart!”
Director: Howard Hawks
Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Charles Ruggles
Synopsis: While trying to secure a $1 million donation for his museum, a befuddled paleontologist is pursued by a flighty and often irritating heiress and her pet leopard “Baby.”
Typically considered the pinnacle of Hollywood’s relatively short-lived craze for screwball comedy, Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby is one of those Marmite films that divide opinion down the middle. Many will find the frenetic pace of rapidly-spoken dialogue difficult to stomach, while others will relish the quality — and subversive nature — of the writing. Bringing Up Baby is a movie loaded with sexual innuendo, and quite how it managed to tiptoe past the US censors without being hacked to pieces is something of a mystery.
The story sees nerdy zoologist David Huxley (Cary Grant) anxiously awaiting the delivery of the last fragment of bone to complete his reconstruction of a dinosaur on the eve of his wedding to the officious Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker). David is also trying to secure funding from the lawyer Peabody (George Irving), the representative of the wealthy Mrs Carleton Random (May Robson), to fund the continuation of his studies. However, while playing a round of golf with Peabody, David encounters the feisty Susan (Katharine Hepburn) who takes a shine to him, and appears to go out of her way to sabotage his plans to marry Alice. Susan’s exploits result in her pet dog George stealing and burying David’s precious bone and the care of a pet leopard called Baby.
To be honest, I’m one of those who feel that most screwball comedies are too irritating to be truly enjoyable. The style of acting called for by the breakneck pace of the dialogue, and the unlikely scenarios which seem so central to their plots usually leave me cold, as is the case with Bringing Up Baby. While it isn’t difficult to appreciate the sophisticated level of the writing, the character of Susan is intensely annoying and, in real-life terms, a borderline bunny-boiler whose obsessive single-mindedness of purpose is quite frankly terrifying. Most men, when faced with such ferocious determination, would run a mile. David, however, is a weak and bumbling man, essentially emasculated by his starchy fiancee who makes it quite clear from the movie’s first scene that their marriage will be one in which any physical contact will be kept to a minimum. This is where the sustained sexual innuendo kicks in, and it’s this aspect of the story which provides by far the most absorbing element of the film.
The opening scene, which is crammed with double entrendres and innuendo, sets the tone for the entire movie. David holds aloft a large dinosaur bone and says to his fiancee, ‘Alice, I think this one belongs in the tail,’ ‘Nonsense,’ replies Alice, ‘You tried it in the tail yesterday, and it didn’t fit.’ All this shortly before Alice informs David in coded language that they will enjoy no sex once married. Alice is frigid, and has no interest in sex or in David as a sexual being. Contrast this with the final scene, which sees David and Susan sitting atop a scaffold over the rubble that was once the dinosaur (a symbol of David’s former life) after Susan has returned David’s bone to him. When David instructs Susan to go descend the ladder, she replies, ‘When I go down I’ll go down quietly, David.’ The entire movie and its situations are filled with such moments. It’s very clever, very witty and very sophisticated, but the manner in which it is delivered makes Bringing Up Baby a difficult movie for many to sit through.
(Reviewed 15th July 2013)