Hepburn and Grant: On the Funniest Comedy—and Comedic Heroine—of Hollywood’s Golden Age
Jason Guriel Reconsiders Bringing Up Baby As It Heads to the Criterion Collection
This month, the upmarket Criterion Collection, which reissues “important classic and contemporary films,” dusts off Howard Hawks’ 1938 screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby. But “dusts off” isn’t quite right. Dust could never settle on Bringing Up Baby. Hawks’ breakneck picture—a vehicle for Cary Grant and, especially, Katharine Hepburn—never stops moving, and its characters never stop talking. It’s as packed with kinetic energy as a super ball.
The Criterion Collection tends to specialize in artisanal superfoods: Soviet science-fiction, tortoise-brisk character studies, well-smoked French fare. But if fizzy Bringing Up Baby, now available in lavish Blu-ray, isn’t a work of towering art, then neither is Guernica or Gravity’s Rainbow.
The plot is deceptively artless. Grant plays compliant paleontologist David, on the cusp of acquiring (a) an intercostal clavicle, the bone he needs to complete his brontosaurus skeleton, and (b) an equally lifeless wife. (The day before the wedding, the wife-to-be makes no bones about it: David’s work is paramount and the marriage “must entail no domestic entanglements of any kind.”) Hepburn plays Susan, the relentless, charming aggressor. Susan and David meet-cute on a golf course. David has been trying to woo a wealthy backer; Susan will soon be wooing David. She plays his ball—by mistake?—and they’re off.
More plot summary would be pointless. There’s a leopard on the loose (the “Baby” of the title), a big-game hunter, a psychiatrist with a facial twitch, pratfalls into water, a rock that’s thrown at a balcony, a sleepy man who suddenly appears at said balcony, stolen cars, a chicken-wagon crash, a second leopard, olives underfoot, misunderstandings, mayhem. Susan’s dress rips and uncurtains her backside (chastely underweared, but still), while David finds himself in a negligee—and loses himself in the process.
Towards the end, the local jailhouse rounds up all the characters, and a hapless constable tries to parse the chaos. Hepburn has worn down Grant and gotten her man. Grant has gotten his bone. You can guess what happens to the teetering brontosaurus skeleton introduced at the very start of the film. (Says Russian brontosaurus expert Anton Chekov: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.”)
But for all its zaniness, Bringing Up Baby is as crisp and contemporary as any movie of the past century. The characters speak quickly—so quickly they often overlap. It’s a Babel of voices, in which meaning and identity are, as your English prof once said, fluid. David’s transformation from stuffy, museum-grade object to the heroic object of Susan’s desire is a study in slippery, post-something selfhood. The famous negligee scene alone could launch a thousand dissertations. (Susan’s aunt: “Well, who are you?!?” David: “I don’t know. I’m not quite myself today.”)
But Susan herself is the centerpiece: a marvel of sexy, self-sufficient, bloody-minded agency, a strain of cinematic woman Hawks specialized in. (See also Angie Dickinson’s card-player-with-a-heart-of-gold in Rio Bravo, who levels said heart at John Wayne’s sheriff, and gets her man quite tidily.) Hepburn’s take on the Hawksian woman knows what David needs before he does. She engineers a series of small disasters to keep David close, and is blissfully chipper in the face of doom.
When a dog, George, absconds with David’s brontosaurus bone, David and Susan set out on the grounds of her aunt’s farm in Westlake, Connecticut. “Susan, where is he apt to go?” asks David, desperately, turning in circles. “George is apt to go anywhere,” she responds cheerfully. Daring, kooky, and irresistible, she talks a screenplay a minute. But Hepburn’s face—whenever we catch it gazing at poor, beleaguered Grant—says it all. She’s surely the funniest comedic heroine of all time.
The whole thing is beautifully and simply shot by Hawks. (As Orson Welles once said, comparing Hawks to the director John Ford, “Hawks is great prose; Ford is poetry.”) The camera is unfussy and lingers on Hepburn and Grant for long takes, with minimal cutting. The chemistry of these two screwball-crossed stars was clearly real.
“Be rested and on your toes,” says filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich on the disc’s audio commentary track. It’s sound advice for first-time viewers. Bringing Up Baby is faster than The Fast and the Furious and, in its hyperlinguistic way, more demanding than Tarkovsky, Wenders, Godard—name your cinematic superfood. Wit has never worked more quickly, more intensely. Like Hepburn’s deathless, indefatigable Susan, Bringing Up Baby wears you out and wins you over.