Classic Films: Bringing Up Baby

Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Directed by Howard Hawks
RKO Radio Studios, 102 minutes, Not rated.

This classic film is #88 on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 American films and it ranks high of my favorite list of screwball comedies. If you don’t know the genre, it was one that messed with traditional gender roles back in the 1930s and 1940s–long before today’s gender-benders were born. Screwball comedies often subverted traditional romances by immersing them in farcical situations in which the scripted gender roles of the day were flipped and further assaulted by barrages of witty repartee. Screwball comedies were the template for battle of the sexes movies; smart money was usually on the woman.

One of the delights of Bringing Up Baby is the demasculinization of Cary Grant. In this movie he is a nerdy paleontologist busily assembling a brontosaurus skeleton that lacks but one bone for completion. We see Grant as David Huxley puttering about in his lab coat and heavy-rimmed black glasses, and being led like a bull by a nose ring by his fiancée Alice Swallow (Virginia Swallow). The two plan to marry later that evening, but a chance golf course encounter with Susan Vance (Katherine Hepburn) will change all of that. Susan is a ditsy, fast-talking, accident-prone socialite who decides on the spot that she is in love with David. We don’t really know why, but screwball comedies are all about situations, not logic.

You want situations? This film has them in spades: a cheetah named Baby, a bone-loving dog named George, a wealthy aunt (May Robson), an alleged big-game hunter (Charles Ruggles), a befuddled constable (Walter Catlett), a pair of inept circus roustabouts, and Grant cavorting about in a frilly dressing gown. You are not meant to take any of this seriously. Bringing Up Baby is essentially a drawing room comedy that opens its doors so that the loonies can cavort both inside and out. Like said drawing room comedies, the humor is broad and ridiculous, as is the very notion of a conventional romance. Bringing Up Baby is goofy and charming–a film I watch every few years simply because it makes me giggle and smile.

Bringing Up Baby also reminds me of Marx Brothers films in that it takes the air out of a wide assortment of stuffy people and authority figures. The jailhouse scenes are kind of dumb if you think about them, but don’t! Law enforcement figures, attorneys, scientists, the monied classes, and psychiatrists take it on the chin in Bringing Up Baby and everything comes at you with machine gun pacing that’s designed to keep you off your stride. Director Howard Hawks is usually considered the second greatest of the screwball comedy directors (after Frank Capra). Watch enough screwballs and you’ll recognize that Hawk is playing to certain formulae, one aspect of which is that he aims for the funny bone, not your intellect. After all, David begins this film as a very serious man and it’s Susan’s zaniness that saves him from that burden–not to mention what would have been a dull, listless marriage to Alice.

A caution: This is a 1938 film, so there are a few references that might trouble the overly PC individual. Early on Grant utters the phrase, “That’s awfully white of you,” a now-inappropriate way of saying you’re a standup person. Just cringe and let it go. You may have a harder time with Barry Fitzgerald’s send-up of a stereotypical Irish gardener with a fondness for drink, but in screwball comedies pretty much everyone is lampooned.

Be wary of reading anything into this film other than playing for laughs. Grant galivanting about in a dressing gown is sometimes extrapolated by those who claim he was actually a closeted gay man. This was a charge raised by Scotty Bowman in The Secret Life of Hollywood and builds off of rumors that Grant and Randolph Scott were lovers. Grant’s daughter doubts said stories and Grant had five wives in his lifetime—a lot of trouble and alimony to pay if these were just beards. But, really, who cares? The best route is to let Baby, George, Susan, and David expose the absurdity of worrying too much about propriety.

Rob Weir

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