#3 in my ranking of Howard Hawks’ filmography.
One of the great examples of the Screwball Comedy, Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby was a complete financial dud upon release in 1938 that further cemented Katherine Hepburn’s reputation as box office poison and Hawks’ reputation at spending too much time allowing his actors to improvise. Hawks ended up speaking poorly of the film in later years, wishing he had made at least one of the characters a more straight-laced character on which the audience could latch their emotional involvement on. I don’t know what that would have done to the movie, but I can’t imagine it would have done anything good regarding this movie’s free-wheeling sense of manic energy propelled by its two frantic leads.
Cary Grant plays David Huxley, a nebbish paleontologist on the verge of completing his brontosaurus fossil after four years of work, the last bone to arrive in the mail the next day, as well as on the verge of getting married to his fiancée Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker) on the same day. The complication arises when David is sent to play golf with the lawyer representing a wealthy woman looking to donate one million dollars to David’s museum. His time at the golf course gets quickly derailed by the presence of Susan Vance, played by Katherine Hepburn. She hits his ball and ends up stealing his car, preventing David from spending any time with the lawyer.
Everything that makes this movie fun is the interplay between Grant and Hepburn. They’re two abnormal people trying to fulfill their own desires through the other with intentional obfuscation on one part. It’s a swirl of a certain level of madness that starts on that golf course and grows as they bump into each other at a dinner (where David is supposed to meet the lawyer), and finally we get introduced to Baby when David has to go back to Susan’s apartment to fix a pair of wardrobe malfunctions. The titular Baby is a leopard sent to Susan by her brother from Brazil. Tame and cuddly for a fearsome feline, Baby rubs up against Susan’s leg like a housecat. This is a testament to Hepburn’s bravery because it’s obvious that they are in the same shot and interacting directly, as opposed to Cary Grant who’s never in the same shot with Baby for real unless there’s a plate of glass between them. Scaredy cat.
Anyway, Susan falls madly in love with David through their interactions and plots to get him to go with her to Connecticut to meet her family. Transporting Baby up through the country with the final bone in his possession, David is increasingly flummoxed about how he’s going to get back in time for his wedding, but Susan cheerfully drives them northward. They arrive at her aunt’s house and estate where they have to hide the leopard while waiting for David’s clothes to come back from the pressers because Susan stole them while he was showering. She had accidentally driven into a truck carrying an assortment of chickens and ducks, accidentally letting Baby out of the car before eating several of the animals.
It’s all an elaborate and ever-changing ploy on Susan’s part to keep David nearby her until he falls in love with her. She needs to keep him close even while her aunt’s dog steal’s the dinosaur bone and buries it somewhere on the grounds, her aunt’s friend, a big game hunter, comes to dinner, and they find out that she is the proposed donor for the museum. David looks horrible in the situation that Susan has placed him in, so they have to lie about who he is. It’s classic comedic set up on top of classic comedic set up, and it all works because of the performances as directed by Hawks.
Hawks has a distinct but seemingly subdued style that emphasizes performance over visual trickery. The largest key to how he works is how he directs actors to speak as quickly as possible. This keeps his movies moving quickly, their pace at a rip, which helps in exciting moments as well as comedic ones. The frantic nature of the characters in increasingly frantic situations with a leopard on the prowl, a second, much more dangerous leopard released from a circus in the same area, and a million dollars on the line helps up the comic tension as things seem to be spiraling out of control. Characters talk so fast to each other it can be hard to discern on a first viewing every word, but each word doesn’t matter since it’s window dressing to get to the next comic situation or joke.
That ramping up aspect of the film’s stakes, I think, is what makes the movie work so well. It’s not just that David needs to get back to his wedding, but he has to catch a leopard first. It’s not just one leopard, but there’s a second one. Everyone ends up getting arrested because of the befuddling nature of the ruses that are intertwining all around them. It gets to such a crescendo that when we see Susan pulling a leash with the wild leopard across the screen, it’s a moment of sheer comic brilliance, timed perfectly within the scene and so audacious in concept that it’s shocking and hilarious all at once.
I simply cannot imagine how this would work if Cary Grant’s David was more sedate. I think his arch nature at the beginning as a professional nerd, essentially, is what makes the film work. He’s not just straight-laced, he’s comically straight-laced in the beginning, and the movie, well Susan, is all about getting him to loosen up. Taking him from one extreme to another is the arc on which to hang the film’s action. Getting him from normal to what at the end would be very different. Since Susan is the agent of the change, the one getting David into the hijinks to begin with, she has to be the zany one. So who would be left to normalize?
Doesn’t matter, though. David and Susan are their own kind of crazy as delivered by Grant and Hepburn. They work wonderfully together, apparently loving the process of making the movie so much that they showed up early to the set everyday to figure out new comedic business to try and get into the movie. Hawks manages the chaos with a subtle hand that never takes the focus off of the characters as their situations become more and more insane. It’s delightful and tense and hilarious.