In the interests of full disclosure, BRINGING UP BABY is probably the film I’ve watched more times than any other. If the internet has taught us anything it’s that people find it far easier to write about things that they hate than things that they love: just look at any YouTube comments thread or contemplate the fact that anyone would go to the trouble of setting up a hate site for Noel Edmonds. Sitting down to write this I wonder if the film really is as great as I think it is or if I’ve just seen it too many times to be objective. So I put it on one more time, and by the time I get to the scene with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant trying to coax a leopard off a roof by singing ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’ up at it I’m wondering again how anyone could fail to love this film.
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.
But the truth is that Howard Hawks’ screwball comedy was a critical and commercial failure. It barely scraped a profit and famously was the final straw responsible for Katharine Hepburn’s “box office poison” label. If it wasn’t for Neville Chamberlain waving a piece of paper around, critical antipathy towards BRINGING UP BABY would have gone down in history as the biggest mistake of 1938.
The best screwball was P.G. Wodehouse mixed with Groucho Marx. The women talk a mile-a-minute, the aunts aren’t married and some square-jawed matinee idol usually ends up wearing a floral dress. There’s either an eligible batchelor or an available heiress, often pitted against their exact opposite in terms of social class. Capra’s IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934) lines up spoilt socialite Claudette Colbert against roguish newspaper man Clark Gable (and contrary to the title takes place over several nights). In MY MAN GODFREY (1936), yet another spoilt socialite played by Carole Lombard hires a derelict to be her family’s butler, only to end up falling in love with him. BRINGING UP BABY is more sophisticated than either of those films, yet at the same time moves along at an even more breakneck speed.
Paleontologist David Huxley (Grant) spends the whole film looking for his bone. If that sounds like an opportunity for innuendo, it’s an opportunity that’s seized with both hands from the off. David is engaged to be married to his serious, uptight assistant Miss Swallow. They’re expecting delivery of an intercostal clavicle to complete the reconstruction of their brontosaurus skeleton, the dusty bones serving as an appropriate symbol for their sex life:
David: I think this one must belong in the tail.
Miss Swallow: Nonsense, you tried it in the tail yesterday.
Ooh and, indeed, matron. On the eve of their wedding (this one really does happen one night) enter Susan Vance (Hepburn), who becomes a sort of puppet master of the chaos that ensues in her bid to steal David away from her mirror image Miss Swallow. She is one of comedy’s greatest creations, devil-may-care and free-spirited, almost but not completely innocent of the trail of destruction she leaves in her wake. It’s impossible to dislike her but at the same time living with her would be unimaginable:
David: 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.
The ‘Baby’ of the title is a tame leopard Susan is delivering as a gift to her wealthy aunt (unmarried, naturally). There are lots of animals in BRINGING UP BABY: a second leopard who turns out to be Baby’s evil twin, a Jack Russell that steals David’s bone, a truckful of chickens and a dinosaur, to start with. Repeat viewings slowly reveal the in-jokes and hidden gags also packed into the film. An “intercostal clavicle” would be a shoulder blade located between the ribs. The monocle-sporting German psychoanalyst who becomes a pompous foil for many slapstick gags and diagnoses Susan and David’s “love complex” is credited as “Dr Lehman” but Hepburn pronounces it “Ling”, surely a reference to Fritz Lang. There are upside-down horseshoes on the walls of Susan’s house. If the legendary intercostal clavicle is the final piece needed to complete the skeleton then where does the bone which Grant is holding at the beginning belong, the one that might “belong in the tail”? OK, maybe I have watched it too many times. One infamous scene sees David forced to don a woman’s pink negligee after the destruction of his own clothes:
Aunt Elizabeth: Well who are you?
David: I don’t know. I’m not quite myself today.
Aunt Elizabeth: Well, you look perfectly idiotic in those clothes.
David: These aren’t my clothes.
Aunt Elizabeth: Well, where are your clothes?
David: I’ve lost my clothes!
Aunt Elizabeth: But why are you wearing *these* clothes?
David: Because I just went gay all of a sudden!
It is debated whether the word is being used as a reference to homosexuality, but whilst there was obviously enough ambiguity for the line to go untouched by the censors, the usage had been relatively common since the twenties. The line was an ad-lib by Cary Grant, and takes on extra significance given that for many years there had been rumours about his co-habitation with fellow actor Randolph Scott.
Hawks was a true jack of all trades and one of my favourite American directors. He mastered the Western in RED RIVER (1948) and RIO BRAVO (1959), the gangster flick and the film noir in SCARFACE (1932) and THE BIG SLEEP (1946), even the horror film in THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951), and of course the comedy, in BRINGING UP BABY and its follow-up HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940). The lukewarm reception to BABY seems to have affected him deeply however. Years later he remarked:
The picture had a great fault and I learned a lot from that. There were no normal people in it. Everyone you met was a screwball and since that time I have learned my lesson and I don’t intend ever again to make everybody crazy… I think it would have done better at the box office if there had been a few sane folks in it – everybody was nuts.
It just goes to show that the artist is the last person who should have the final say when it comes to the art. I couldn’t disagree more with Hawks here. “Everybody was nuts” sounds like a summing up of the magic of the film. Every single scene is funny without exception and the pace never relents. As mentioned, the failure of BRINGING UP BABY saw Katharine Hepburn labelled “box office poison” but she would fight back in spectacular style. In 1940 she acquired the film rights to Philip Barry’s play THE PHILADELPHIA STORY and negotiated personal veto for the choice of director, producer and cast. The film broke box office records and put her back in the hearts of the American film-going public where she so definitively belonged.