Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Paleontologist, A Lunatic, And A Leopard Walk Into A Bar

Today I'm doing a review for a comedy from the classic era. Hopefully you've heard of it. If your idea of classic comedy is an Adam Sandler film, well, let's just say I hate you.

“My dear young lady, I’m not losing my temper, I’m merely trying to play some golf.” ~ David
“Well you choose the funniest places. This is a parking lot.” ~ Susan

“Now it isn’t that I don’t like you, Susan, because, after all, in moments of quiet, I’m strangely drawn toward you, but… well, there haven’t been any quiet moments.” ~ David

“There is a leopard on your roof and it’s my leopard and I have to get it and to get it I have to sing.” ~ Susan

Bringing Up Baby is a 1938 screwball comedy from director Howard Hawks, teaming Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in a madcap plot hinged on the unhinged. It takes two people who are completely unlike each other, throws them together in a story hellbent to drive them both crazy (one of them starts out as already crazy), and keeps the audience laughing as it goes along. While it was considered something of a flop at the time (Hepburn was considered box office poison when this was first released), over time, its reputation became much more appreciated, and these days the film is considered a classic.

Doctor David Huxley (Grant) is a paleontologist at a prestigious museum when we first meet him, working to finish up a brontosaurus skeleton, but missing one vital bone. He's a prim and proper sort of person, a bit of what today we'd think of as a geek, somewhat socially awkward. He's about to get married to Alice (Virginia Walker), who's determined that their whole marriage ought to be in service of his career, and that not even honeymoons or children should get in the way. He has a chance to secure a million dollar donation for the museum from a wealthy widow, whose lawyer he's having a golf game with. Out on the golf course, he meets Susan Vance (Hepburn), a flighty and off the wall heiress with a rather unusual perspective on logic. They bicker and banter over misunderstandings at the golf course and later when they run into each other again at a restaurant. David hopes he's seen her for the last time... but that's not to be, for the following day, his wedding day, just as he's taken collection of that last fossil, Susan calls him, saying she has a problem with a leopard... thus kicking off the rest of the movie, where David will question his own sanity while dealing with a woman who'll do anything to keep him around, an old aunt who thinks he's crazy, a leopard named Baby who likes a particular song, and a dog named George that won't stop yapping.

The screenplay by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde is drawn from a short story by Wilde. They tailored the script specifically for Hepburn. Hawks had an eclectic mix of films to his credit as a director in the Golden Age of cinema. In the course of his career, classics like Only Angels Have Wings, Rio Bravo, Scarface, The Big Sleep, and To Have And To Have Not were some of his work, so he chose a wide variety of genres. In this case, he cast a mix of splendid character actors in supporting roles, and two leads who had marvelous chemistry onscreen. Hawks paced the film very well, so it moves along briskly. The filming was done partially in sets, but also with exteriors and on location; much of the portion set at an upstate estate were in fact location filming, so the sequences feel very much like a place as opposed to the conveniences of a set. It's also a film that pushes some envelopes for the era- such as Susan walking in on David while he's in the shower, or Susan's dress ripping down the back in such a way that David has to cover for her by walking her out in very close quarters.

The cast is wonderfully loopy in their various roles. May Robson appears as Susan's aunt Elizabeth, and she plays the role as the gruff, no-nonsense domineering aunt who thinks she has enough lunatics in the family. She's the sort of relative you'd change your name and move out of state to avoid. As the story goes along, she gets more and more annoyed, and you suspect as an actress, she's having a lot of fun playing that to the hilt. Charlie Ruggles appears as her neighbour Major Horace Applegate, a big game hunter. From the moment he turns up in the film, he's frequently befuddled by Susan's leaps of logic, David's inconsistencies to stick to his cover story, and the strange sound of an animal he knows can't be in the American northeast.

Barry Fitzgerald, the terrific character actor, turns up as Gogarty, a gardener at Elizabeth's estate. He's overly fond of a good drink, given to talking to himself, and tends to pick fights with policemen. It's a hilarious role in a film filled with off their rocker characters. Fritz Feld turns up throughout the film as a psychiatrist who keeps crossing paths with Susan and David. He too is perplexed particularly by Susan, and we're left wondering just how competent a doctor he really is. It's a fun role though. 

Virginia Walker must play the role of Alice as dour and not fun at all; from the start, the audience has to be thinking David can do a whole lot better. And my favourite among the supporting cast is Walter Catlett, playing the local chief constable, Slocum. He plays the part as a cantankerous, easily distracted cop who finds himself often going off on asides while talking, and thinking that he's stumbled into a major crime ring before the film is done. Catlett brings a befuddled, easily duped quality to the performance, and is one of the many reasons this film always gives me a laugh.

The two leads are the core of the film, and Grant and Hepburn are wonderful in their roles. Grant starts out as the awkward scholar, utterly uncertain of himself, and very gradually loosens up as the story goes along. He seems to evoke the work of the silent movie star Harold Lloyd in his performance, and as he goes from situation to situation, his dignity getting undermined at every turn, Grant brings out the best in David. His exasperation is brilliantly funny, and while his final fate at the end of the film might well land him in an insane asylum someday, at least it would be an enjoyable trip.

Hepburn is a marvel as Susan. She played more dramatic roles before this, and it's said that Catlett assisted her in how to play the character for laughs while being serious. Susan is a unique character in and of herself. She's seemingly a flighty sort of woman, with a strange world view who we suspect might be crazy (well, she is). But she's also a quick thinker, able to improvise on the spot, and utterly fearless. She and Grant bring the ideal chemistry to their roles, even while engaging in some truly awful singing (with backup from George and Baby). 

This film has over time become beloved as a classic, making it onto many lists of great films. It plays for laughs, but at the same time it's smart. Bringing Up Baby is a comedy classic that remains funny and fresh, a screwball film that leaves you laughing long after it's done, with a splendid cast and two leads that shine.  Have you seen it?


  1. I love this movie! The older comedies are usually the best. Today, we're flooded with far too many stoner and slacker "comedies." (Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, Adam Sandler and their peers should be exiled from Hollywood!)

  2. Sigh, they just don't make films like they used to... What a great classic!

  3. I have to second Norma's comment.
    Made all the better by watching movies with your Mum late at night after school or a job.

    cheers, parsnip

  4. Grant + Hepburn = Perfect combination! I also love what Hawks does with the pacing of this film. I've loved every Hawks film I've seen though, even in other genres.

  5. Didn't realize this was considered a flop! I laughed out loud the first time I saw it (many years after its debut) and still love it!

  6. I love Cary Grant and I love this movie! I've seen about five times and I'll watch it five more!

  7. @Norma: the current comedy writers could desperately use some lessons in how to write a good film comedy.

    @Shelly: it's such a good one.

    @LondonLulu: they really don't!

    @Kelly: you should remedy that!

    @Parsnip: quite true!

    @A: he was a terrific director.

    @Cheryl: the first time I saw it, I was falling about laughing.

    @Deb: I'd watch it plenty more times!

  8. Please, please, PLEASE do a Key Largo and Casablanca take! If you already did it, link me. :D

    Or just do a series on Humphrey Bogart!

  9. My wife is going crazy ... she wants to know the punchline to your title!

  10. I've heard of this one many times, but I actually haven't seen it. Hmm, sounds like something fun for this weekend!

  11. I can't remember seeing this one and I love old movies. Maybe it was the Hepburn thing that kept me from seeing it--never was a big fan, but she is a great actress. I love your review and the jaguar makes me want to see it.

  12. I have not seen it, but your review makes me want to. I love Hepburn and Grant. I hope Netflix has it.

  13. I love old movies William, Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn are fabulous together.. I have to confess the old musicals with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly are right up there as favourites :)

  14. As elsewhere noted, "they" don't make movies like they used to. Of course, some of the ones they used to make were awful, but many, like this one, were very good (at least in hindsight).

    Today, it's mostly dreck and a competition between computer operators as to who can come up with the most massive violence and grotesque sequences.

    This is why we so many awards shows. The people involved have no clue whether what they've done is good or bad unless their cohorts applaud their efforts which makes awards shows self-congratulatory placebos for the public who no longer know the difference between Adam Sandler and Cary Grant.


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