Monday, August 15, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: BRINGING UP BABY (1938)

Howard Hawks' quintessential screwball comedy fell flat at the box office when it first appeared in 1938, but today Bringing Up Baby is widely regarded as a masterpiece of the genre, with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in fine form as the unlikely couple thrown together by leopards, dinosaurs, and the relentless persistence of Hepburn's wacky heroine. The non-stop hilarity runs by so fast that it might take three or four viewings to catch all of the gags, but this is a picture that gets funnier every time you watch it. Outstanding supporting performances from Charlie Ruggles, May Robson, Barry Fitzgerald, and Walter Catlett add to the feast of furiously funny scenes, but the animal actors, including the titular Baby and Asta as George the dog, will have even the youngest viewers in stitches.

Grant stars as David Huxley, a scientist whose dry bones life and engagement to the very professional Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker) are upended when he meets flighty socialite Susan Vance (Hepburn). Both David and Susan hope to receive a million dollar gift from Susan's aunt, Elizabeth (May Robson), but Susan's interference keeps getting David into trouble. Susan loses a pet leopard meant for her aunt, David loses the last bone needed to finish his dinosaur, and everyone ends up in jail thanks to a series of misadventures and misunderstandings.

Bringing Up Baby offers enough cartoon physical comedy and sight gags to make it entertaining even to modern kids, with Grant and Hepburn romping about the Connecticut countryside and literally falling all over themselves. Grant, a vaudeville veteran, is in his natural element, with a talent for pratfalls and double takes reminiscent of the silent stars. His big round glasses, which evoke Harold Lloyd, further the comparison, especially when we see him carried off on the sideboard of a running car and stepping on the back of Hepburn's gown. As lovely and impossibly slim as she was at that age, Hepburn also dives right into the absurd antics; her "born on the side of a hill" bit is perfectly girlish, a moment of pure silly fun. More robust laughs erupt when the supporting players, especially Charlie Ruggles and Barry Fitzgerald, get their chance to react to the presence of Baby, the leopard on the loose, while George the dog, played by A-list canine star Asta, wreaks plenty of havoc, as well.

Beyond the obvious high jinks, however, the film offers a more sophisticated kind of comedy that springs from verbal sparring and the rapid delivery of naughty Freudian gags. David, after all, is a man who has lost his bone, and only a wild thing like Susan can help him get it back. Susan even goes to the extent of renaming David "Mr. Bone," which underlines the point rather forcibly. He's certainly sexually confused by all the chaos that Susan creates. Sabotaged by her desire to keep him around, David ends up in a feathery negligee, at which point he exclaims that he "just went gay all of a sudden!" Later, when Susan complains about losing her heel, Walter Catlett deadpans, "Don't worry about him." The characters deliver these zingers so rapidly that the Breen Office must have missed what they were saying, but at times it's a wonder that this film got past the censors at all. In a picture where Charlie Ruggles and May Robson exchange leopard mating calls by way of flirtation, almost anything can - and does - happen. This is a movie that proves its point about the love impulse revealing itself in terms of conflict, and not just in men.

Be sure to note Walter Bond looming over the other characters in a bit part as a motorcycle cop. For more of Hepburn and Grant, see Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Holiday (1938), and The Philadelphia Story (1940). Howard Hawks also directs Grant in His Girl Friday (1940), I Was a Male War Bride (1949), and Monkey Business (1952). If you love scene-stealing dogs, catch Asta in The Thin Man (1934) and its sequels and The Awful Truth (1937), which also stars Cary Grant.