BRINGING UP BABY —-“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.”
Exalted screwball comedy was not a hit when it came out in 1938, in fact it lost money. Partly that was because it had run way over budget and couldn’t recoup the difference, and maybe partly because its 102 minutes of screwballing never knew when to quit. The director, Howard Hawks, observed that it “had a great fault and I learned an awful lot from that. There were no normal people in it. Everyone you met was a screwball and since that time I learned my lesson and don’t intend ever again to make everybody crazy.” I like this movie, and get a kick out of most of it, but cringe to say that I don’t LOVE it like I’m supposed to: the nonstop nuttiness tends to wear me out. For the “best ever made” praise you’ll need to look elsewhere (easy to find), but one man’s funnybone is another’s “intercostal clavicle”, so pardon my spots. No, it’s not “Because I just went GAY all of a sudden!” *
The clever, subtext-strewn, entendre-dropping script by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde, with a good deal of inspired contributions from the cast, has nerdy paleontologist ‘David Huxley’ (Cary Grant) overjoyed that a dinosaur bone–the “intercostal clavicle” has finally arrived, to fit into his reconstructed brontosaurus skeleton. Then a whirlwind enters his ordered existence, in the ditzy but determined form of heiress ‘Susan Vance’ (Katherine Hepburn) who falls for David like a ton of bones. The madcapper proceeds to lead him on a frantic chase which involves (a) showing him that his stuffed skirt fiancée, ‘Alice Swallow’–don’t ask–is the wrong mate pick, (b) securing a million-dollar donation from her rich aunt ‘Elizabeth Random’ (May Robson), (c) taking ‘Baby’, a pet leopard to Connecticut, (d) re-finding the newfound bone when it’s swiped and buried by her terrier ‘George’, and (e) a half-dozen other situations, including banging up his car, making a scene at a country club, and staying out of jail.
Though this was the wackiest thing he’d done yet, Grant,33, had proven comedy chops, including both Topper and The Awful Truth the year before, but Hepburn, 30, was a freshman to playing screwball: after coaching from Grant, Hawks and co-star Walter Catlett, she honed into the manner like a bee (a WASP in this case) to a sunflower, and delivered a terrific performance: bith she and Grant deliver superb physical skills along with machine-gun patter. The laugh she gave to carefree Susan, a magical tease of trill and twitter, is hilarious.
‘Baby’ (and her dangerous double) were slinked by ‘Nissa’: the big cat was supervised by its trainer, one Madame Olga Celeste, who stood by off camera with a whip. The terrier ‘George’ was played by Skippy (better known as ‘Asta’ from The Thin Man flicks): pooch and feline wrestle with each other–how they pulled this off is a wonder. **
With Charlie Ruggles (more of his patented fuddy-duddy business), Barry Fitzgerald, Fritz Feld, Virginia Walker (‘Miss Swallow’), John Kelly, and sans credit, Ward Bond and Jack Carson.
* Hawk’s determinedly casual methods and the salary contracts of his leads brought the production 40 days over schedule and 40% above its original budget, running the tab up to $1,096,796. If anything makes me screwball wacky it’s trying to cite box office figures with something near accuracy. Cogerson puts Baby 58th place for ’38 and gives it a gross of $3,200,000, but that’s at variance with the tally from Hawks biographer Todd McCarthy, who has the initial international gross at $1,109,000, with a further $150,000 from a ’41 reissue. He says RKO lost $365,000 on it. The studio fired Hawks, and that killed his chance to direct RKOs epic Gunga Din. The president of the Independent Theater Owners of America declared Hepburn “box office poison” (in good company with Crawford, Dietrich and Garbo) and RKO dumped her, after seven years of tailoring 14 films for her, only two of them successful with the public. Her next picture, also with Grant, the delightful Holiday, was then followed by the smash of The Philadelphia Story, again with Grant. Hawks consoled himself with hit after hit. Ironically, Gunga Din, directed by George Stevens, went 40 days and $400,000 over budget. Rediscovered in the 70s, Bringing Up Baby took on a new sheen, aided by the release of What’s Up, Doc?, and its Hawks-idolizing director Peter Bogdanovich crediting the ’38 escapade as his inspiration. Today, everyone goo-goo/gah-gahs over ‘Baby‘ like it was their own infant (or pet leopard). It is funny.
Hawks: “Now if you don’t think that was a hard one to make! Oh, that goddamned leopard—and then, the dog, running around with the bone…Katie and Cary had a scene in which he said, ‘What happened to the bone?’ And she said, ‘It’s in the box’, or something like that. Well, they started to laugh—it was ten o’clock in the morning—and at four o’clock in the afternoon they were still trying to make this scene and I didn’t think we were ever going to get it. I tried changing the line. It didn’t do any good…They were just putting dirty connotations on it and then they’d go off into peals of laughter.”
** Speaking of cool cats and confident characters—-Swedish born ‘Madame’ Olga Celeste (1888-1969) ran away from home when she was 14—to join a circus. She saluted Hepburn, saying “She has control of her nerves and best of all, no fear of animals.” Kate: “I didn’t have brains enough to be scared, so I did a lot of scenes with the leopard just roaming around.” Grant did have the cat-sense to be wary of teeth, claws and quick-change attitudes of the creature, which very nearly got to take a swipe at Kate when the actress turned to fast and her costume whacked Olga’s pet.
FYI–the “intercostal clavicle” is fictitious, so don’t get goofy when your dog unearths something unusual.