Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Starring: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Charles Ruggles, Walter Catlett, May Robson, Fritz Feld
Directed by: Howard Hawks
Released by: RKO Radio Pictures
Synopsis: David Huxley (Cary Grant) is a mild-mannered paleontologist beleaguered by problems. For the past four years, he has been trying to assemble the skeleton of a Brontosaurus but is missing one bone (an "intercostal clavicle"). To add to the stress, he is about to get married to a dour woman, Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker) with a severe personality and must make a favorable impression upon a Mrs. Random (May Robson), a wealthy woman who is considering donating one million dollars to his museum. The day before his planned wedding, David meets Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) by chance on a golf course. She is a free-spirited young lady and, unknown to him at first, happens to be Mrs. Random's niece.
Review: Throughout film history there are movies that at first fail to ignite reaction from audiences, either because the concept was too ahead of its time or too surreal to comprehend, or it was simply bad. But thanks to theatrical re-releases, home video releases and word of mouth from people that gave it a chance, films once deemed as the worst of its kind quickly find an audience and are hailed as the best ever made. Bringing Up Baby is one of these films. Originally a box office flop, big enough to deem many of its actors “Box Office Poison”, now, it is labeled as one of the best screwball comedies ever made, and I agree one hundred percent with that sentiment.
I have said it before, but Cary Grant is a fantastic actor that can turn any role, be it comedic or dramatic, into a shining example of extraordinary performances. Bringing Up Baby isn't an exception. The story demands for near manic performances and Grant passes it with flying colors. He even has one of the most controversial and simply hilarious lines ever mentioned on film. I won't spoil it for you, but have to see it to believe it.
Best of all, Katharine Hepburn is able to keep up with Grant and at times even surpasses him. Hepburn is known for playing strong, highly spirited women that can stand up to any man but still be very feminine and graceful. Bringing Up Baby changes things up a bit with a character that is clearly ditzy. Always well intentioned, but ultimately screwing things up with her good intentions. Still, Hepburn evokes a strong presence and is far from the stereotypical dumb broad. She is physical and outgoing in the way she sees life, and we can't help but be fascinated by it.
Integral to the plot is Baby, a real leopard that drives the entire story. Surprising for the era, the leopard interacts directly with the actors and while the potential for danger is there, the actors do very well. In fact, you can even tell who is comfortable having a leopard around (pssst....it's Katharine Hepburn!) and who is secretly afraid (hint hint...he wears a pink bathrobe later on!). But regardless, the leopard creates a lot of comedic scenes and is easily one of the most memorable characters in the movie.
Another element that makes Bringing Up Baby a classic of comedy is the writing. In many ways the film was ahead of it time in how dialog and character interaction is written. Nearly everything that comes out of the character's mouth is comedy gold, fueled even further by dynamic delivery. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong in nearly every scene and it's all a wonder to witness thanks to the energy of its actors, something very important when creating a comedy like Bringing Up Baby. The pacing is excellent, it never drags nor does it all go by too fast.
Normally, I would be talking about the film's flaws, be it major or tiny in this section of the review. But looking back, there is very little to hate or complain about Bringing Up Baby. The only real complain I can muster is that it may feel too episodic for some. Each scene is an event on its own that ties to the main narrative. While many movies do this, some fans are not appreciative of this story concept. Even then, the film handles this very well and it shouldn't be too big of a distraction.
In the past, I have said that it gets hard to rate a comedy film since humor is subjective, and what may be considered funny by some might not be for someone else. But Bringing Up Baby is excellent in its writing, pacing and characters I can't give it a low rating. It's unfortunate that the film didn't find an audience when it was released decades ago. Time, however, was kind to this film, allowing fans to discover its maddening brilliance. Cary Grant fans, Katharine Hepburn fans or even leopard enthusiasts shouldn't miss this film.
Rating: 5 filmstrips out of 5