Bringing Up Baby (1938)

FILM, Film Society
img_bringingupbabyPreviously at the Wellington Film Society: Howard Hawks’s riot act.

I was born on the side of a hill!”, Katharine Hepburn’s hilarious quip as she hops up and down on a broken heel, is the greatest improvised line of dialogue in cinema history. After seeing Bringing Up Baby again on Monday night, that much I’m convinced of. As far as the greatest screwball comedy of all time goes, it’s a closer race—my pick is still Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve (1941), though you’d be hard pressed to find a more quintessential example than Howard Hawks’s 1938 riot act. It certainly has it all: the rat-a-tat verbal sparring of Twentieth Century (1934) and His Girl Friday (1940); the sexual confidence of Ball of Fire (1941) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953); the gender-bending theatrics of I Was a Male War Bride (1949). Of all the Hawks funnies, Bringing Up Baby also seems the most adept at maximizing stock comedic elements. The silly animal antics, a romantic mismatch of epic proportions, and at least several obligatory cases of mistaken identity would offer cheap thrills in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. Here, under Hawks’s astute, functional direction, the organised chaos is a real team effort, with Hepburn and Cary Grant given free reign to make the screwy scenario their own, whether adlibbing famous one-liners or throwing caution to the wind with their unorthodox comic timing and physical spontaneity.

Bringing Up Baby is the second of four movies to unite Hepburn and Grant, and it’s surely the most iconic. It’s also an exemplar of what makes the screwball comedy era still seem so radical: a genre predisposed to formidable comediennes dominating meek males, in an entertainment industry removed for a precious time from the kind of gender scrutiny now typified by that ridiculous question of “are women funny?”, or worse, “are women as funny as men?” (Answer: people are funny.) Hepburn and Grant are not so much as paired in this film as they are set off against each other in anticipation of a violent chemical reaction, and Hawks’s approach, at the risk of underselling the complexity behind some of the shot sequences and choreography under his control, basically amounts to lighting firecrackers and standing back as they flare up. The explosions come when Grant’s David Huxley, a gullible paleontologist (and probable inspiration for Ross Geller from Friends), tries to stand up to Hepburn’s nutty socialite Susan Vance—the fever pitch of their exchanges at once exhilarating and exhausting to watch.

If there’s a shrillness to the incessant chatter, it’s in service of the film’s lasting innovation: overlapping dialogue. The actors don’t just talk fast in Bringing Up Baby; they talk over each other constantly, the cacophony of which is a perfect expression of the zany, frenetic, knockabout nature of the screwball genre. It’s also the key to sustaining the film’s high-energy humour from beginning to end, and indeed, what struck me on this repeat viewing is how free flowing it is as a comedy. Throughout, it never feels like Hawks is setting up a punchline or moving us through the comedic beats. The film is such a giddy and volcanic misadventure that its moments bleed together, much in the same way the characters regularly drown each other out in conversation, or that damn dog (Skippy, of The Thin Man/The Awful Truth/Topper fame) won’t stop barking over the top of everything else going on.

In a brief discussion with two of my Lumière colleagues following the screening, the question of whether Hepburn and Grant’s characters deserved each other came up. Much is made of Hepburn’s Susan as the original manic pixie dream girl (personally, I think you can trace it back further to Marion Davies in The Patsy [1928]), though on account of her sheer belligerence and capacity for destruction (culminating in the obliteration of David’s Brontosaurus skeleton), perhaps stark raving mad lunatic is a more accurate description (or borderline sociopath, reckons Doug Dillaman). Susan’s behaviour towards David is heightened by her lovesickness, but her relentless pursuit of him also seems scarily impulsive, no different from when she steals a car, releases a circus leopard into the wild, or any other myriad of reckless decisions she makes during the course of the film. In any case, although David declares his affection for her at the end, is it love or defeat? The final image of him slumped, speechless, a pile of bones at his feet, suggests surrender more than anything else.

Bringing Up Baby is not a film to wind down to (certainly, not after you’ve just seen The Raid 2[1]). The ideal nightcap would have been to revisit George Cukor’s wonderful Holiday (1938), Hepburn and Grant’s best collaboration by a long shot. Released the same year as Bringing Up Baby, it opens with an identical conceit—a subservient Grant is about to get married, only for the irresistible Hepburn to come along—and also distills a sense of youthful free-spirit through play and performance. On nearly every other level, though, it’s pure antidote: warm, generous, naturalistic, relaxed, and crucially, about two would-be lovers who learn to find themselves before each other. In Bringing Up Baby, once Hepburn gets her hooks into Grant, it’s as if she beats him into submission. In the final analysis, it’s what makes Bringing Up Baby such a superb comedy, but also a rather dubious romance.

Film Societies in fourteen centres run an annual programme of weekly/monthly film screenings. Membership entitles the holder free admission to screenings for a 12-month period. Full details at filmsocietywellington.net.nz, or for information about a film society closest to you, visit the NZ Federation of Film Societies.

[1] Some brief notes on The Raid 2: Director Gareth Evans expands the world of the original film without compromising the level-up structure that made it so effective. This sequel still feels like progressing through a video game, the degree of difficulty increasing with each stage completed, only with richer and more cinematic cut scenes to inform the action. (Plus, some even crazier boss fights: ‘Baseball Boy’ and ‘Hammer Girl’ the pick of Iko Uwais’s adversaries.) The violence is so sustained towards the end of the film that it’s enough to make one queasy, though for me, that feeling is connected to something other than the body count. Released between The Raid and The Raid 2 , The Act of Killing exposed the corruption and shocking impunity of Indonesian war criminals—or “gangsters”, in their words—in a disturbing confessional format. Similarly, The Raid 2 is about gangsters and criminal organisations seemingly immune to punishment, untroubled by law enforcement, and complicit in its deep corruption. As entertaining as The Raid 2 is, one can’t help but be sickened by the thought of the surviving death squad members—especially those obsessed with the movies—reveling in the film’s grisly executions for possibly different reasons.

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Tim Wong is the founding editor of The Lumière Reader. He specialises in film and visual arts criticism, has covered film festivals in Europe and North America, and was the only New Zealand-based critic invited to vote on Sight and Sound’s decennial “Ten Greatest Films of All Time” poll in 2012. He is also a freelance web and graphic designer. In 2015 he wrote and directed Out of the Mist.