Saturday, November 21, 2015

Bringing up Baby (1938)

Director: Howard Hawks                               Writers: Dudley Nichols & Hagar Wilde
Film Score: Roy Webb                                  Cinematography: Russell Metty
Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Charles Ruggles and Barry Fitzgerald

Though I haven’t gone back to reassess her later work with Spencer Tracy, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that Katharine Hepburn is one of my least favorite actresses from the golden era. There’s a vast difference between most of the leading ladies of the period who are making an effort to give a quality performance and Hepburn, who thinks she’s so great she doesn’t have to try. Bringing up Baby was not successful on its initial release, though it did eventually make back its production costs after a few years. But in the decades since it has earned the reputation as a classic screwball comedy. Howard Hawks had recently signed with RKO and while waiting on production of Gunga Din, he remembered reading a short story by Hagar Wilde and immediately had RKO purchase the rights. But this film was delayed as well while the studio attempted to negotiate the rights to the song, “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby.” He had Hepburn in mind for the female lead all along and instructed Wilde and screenwriter Dudley Nichols to tailor the screenplay to her. Further delays happened when they couldn’t get a panther--the animal in the original story--and had to change it to a leopard, which was available.

Cary Grant plays an anthropologist and Virginia Walker his straight-laced assistant. The two of them are going to be married the next day, but she insists that nothing interfere with his work and that they not even have a honeymoon . . . much to Grant’s disappointment. He goes golfing that afternoon to drum up a donation to the museum, and winds up meeting Katharine Hepburn instead. She’s a go-getter and initially oblivious to Grant’s bumbling charms. That night, still trying to find George Irving, he meets her again in a restaurant and even after learning that he’s going to get married--especially after learning this--she decides to spend as much time with him as possible. That includes an early morning phone call explaining that her brother has left her a leopard to take care of, and being the only zoologist she knows she desperately needs his help. From there things only get increasingly zany, as Hepburn takes Grant and the leopard, named Baby, out to her country house and she steals his clothes after he takes a shower. When her aunt arrives, May Robson, he learns that she is Irving’s client, the woman who is going to donate the million dollars and now he thinks he’s ruined his chances. Even worse, the dinosaur bone that he needs to finish the brontosaurus at the museum has been taken by Robson’s dog and buried. While Grant is exasperated beyond all measure, Hepburn is in love and it’s clear she’ll get him in the end.

The humorous dialogue, while cleverly written, is actually upstaged by the slapstick, something I’m normally immune to. But the pratfalls are actually quite wonderful in the way that they seamlessly integrate into the story and don’t seem forced at all. The leopard is a bit much, but then so is the entire film. Grant’s harried behavior is as relentless as Hepburn’s behavior is obtuse. While the rest of the character actors move in and out of the scenes, it’s essentially a two-star vehicle. But Grant and Hepburn have no subtlety at all, and the frenetic pace, the overlapping dialogue, and the endless physical comedy leave the viewer numb after a while. That said, it is an impressive feat, and as a whole the work is admirable in its ambition. Charles Ruggles and May Robson don’t appear until the second half of the film, but make equally comedic foils for the lead team. Barry Fitzgerald does a workmanlike job, but it’s Walter Catlett as the hick constable that really steals the show at the end of the picture. Roy Webb’s music is barely noticeable behind the antics on the screen, though the special effects work with the leopard by Vernon Walker are exceptional.

The essay in The A List by Morris Dickstein begins by citing the difficulty of dealing with romantic relationships after the production code tightened down on anything sexual. Thus, screwball romantic comedy was born, flourishing in the later half of the Depression. The film is notable for being the first time that Grant played against type, normally as the troublemaker, and took on the role of the harassed innocent, something he would ironically become know for in films like Arsenic and Old Lace, and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. Dickstein likens Hepburn’s role to the kind perfected by Carole Lombard, and it makes the viewer wish she could have played this part too. Early in the film the character--or more accurately caricature--of the psychiatrist, played by Fritz Feld, expresses the primary theme of most screwball romantic comedies, that opposites attract and that love reveals itself in conflict. Dickstein also notes the quality of the physical comedy, especially torn and missing clothing that is even better than the witty dialogue. The ending, while almost whiplash inducing, nevertheless symbolizes the relationship between Grant and Hepburn as well. For my money, Bringing up Baby, is just a little too wild to be enjoyable, but it’s equally clear there’s also a lot more to the film than can be gained on a single viewing.

No comments:

Post a Comment