An avalanche of rapid-fire dialogue, slapstick humor, and gags from start to finish barely scratches the surface of the madcap genius that is 1938’s Bringing Up Baby. The screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s are the golden era of pre-Woody Allen and post-Chaplin comedy, and Bringing Up Baby is surely one of the definitive films of that form. With stars Cary Grant (My Favorite Wife) and Katharine Hepburn (Woman of the Year) at the height of their comedic abilities, it is a non-stop laugh riot. And shy of Modern Times, I’d be hard-pressed to name a comedy from before the 1960s that’s as consistently hilarious as this Howard Hawks classic.
Humor in the purest sense of the word is derived from the unexpected and, like poetry, well-timed repetition. You expect one thing to happen to your heroes but, with expert timing, something else occurs. Say what you will about the non-intellectual nature of slapstick, but setting up the right series of physical gags and pratfalls takes perfect coordination of writer, director, and actor for it not seem contrived or silly. And what makes the screwball classics of Hollywood’s Golden Age so memorable is the ease with which its films transition in and out of hilariously painful physical humor, verbal ping-pong, and constantly escalating situational humor. And, from start to finish, Bringing Up Baby succeeds on every perceivable comedic front without ever having to resort to gross-out gags, foul language, or raunchy sex.
Clumsy paleontologist David Huxley (Carey Grant) is a brilliant figure in his field but something of a nervous, put-upon mess. His fiancee, Alice (Virginia Walker), insists that they not have a honeymoon for their wedding which is only a day away and that David return immediately to his work, which involves putting the final bone in piece to a massive Brontosaurus skeleton, after their wedding. The pressure on David is compounded by a golf session with the lawyer of a rich woman who wants to give $1 million to David’s museum. And on that fateful golfing trip, after David hooks his starting drive, his life is changed when he meets Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn).
Susan is a desperately ditzy and oblivious heiress. And, in her first meeting with David, she steals his golf ball (because it was on her fairway) and then, leaving the golf course, she drives David’s car without his permission so that it would be easier for her to get out of her parking spot later. And though David positively loathes Susan from first sight, she is struck head over heels for him and concocts increasingly zany schemes so that he will not make it to his wedding. From saddling David with her pet leopard Baby to dragging him to Connecticut on the promise to make amends on costing him his golf meeting with the lawyer, the adventures and laughs never stop once the pair are together.
Ignoring the complete lack of sexual chemistry that Cary Grant ever seemed to have with any of his female co-stars (his rumored homosexuality not withstanding, he should be able to at least pretend it), Cary Grant is a deliciously funny comic performer. Yes, his dramatic turns in films like Penny Serenade are brilliant, but his sardonic and deadpan comic delivery are a wonderful delight. David is very much a reactive role as he has to respond to the various misadventures Susan (the meatier part) drags him into and with every sigh, roll of his eyes, and exasperated shrug, Cary Grant had me in stitches. Not to mention the verbal rhythm he established with Hepburn’s motor-mouth Susan.
But, let there be no question, this was Katharine Hepburn’s show, and she commands the attention of every scene. The performance is astounding, not just in a comedic sense (though she gets many of the film’s biggest laughs) but in the whole range that Hepburn draws from. Cary Grant is a handsome, charming man, but there’s nothing sexual about him. He never seemed attracted to Susan. And so while Katharine turns Susan into a tough, air-headed, scheming, scatter-brained brilliant mess, she also played Susan in the thrall of a gradual swoon towards David, and the romantic aspect of the film would have fallen apart were it not for her natural magnetism and vulnerability. With the exception of Diane Keaton and Irene Dunne, few female stars have been able to dominate a film as thoroughly as Katharine Hepburn.
I harped on this during my introduction but Bringing Up Baby was an astoundingly flexible and multi-faceted comedy. It’s one of the talkiest screwballs this side of My Man Godfrey (the similarities between Katharine Hepburn’s character in this and Carole Lombard’s in that are eerie). But, the physical humor is just as expertly pitched and Buster Keaton would have been proud. Few films have ever made the consistent toppling of shelves, tables, and human beings so refreshing. Bringing Up Baby‘s instincts for when to have David or Susan take a spill are perfect. And, then of course, the gags are endless such as a moment at a fancy restaurant where Susan accidentally tears David’s coat and then David accidentally tears Susan’s dress and they have to waddle their way out of the restaurant to spare her dignity.
When Bringing Up Baby was first released, it was something of a critical and commercial flop but it has been vindicated by the annals of history as the classic it truly is. Some old films age poorly, but the best seem as fresh today as the did 75 years ago. Bringing Up Baby has lost none of its pleasures. Proving my long-held belief that real comedy is timeless, I can’t imagine anyone stepping into this world and not finding themselves rolling in the aisles when all is said and done.
Final Score: A