Bringing Up Baby (1938) has to be in the Top 5 list of the best comedies of all times. Directed by Howard Hawks, the film reunites Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, who did four films together in their career. This one was their second, after Sylvia Scarlett. Bringing Up Baby was Hepburn’s first comedy whereas Grant was already well established as the king of comedy.
Unlike the romantic comedies you find today, American comedies from the 30s to the late 50s were very innovative, cleverly written, and centered on strong characters. Women were not only characterized by their search for a husband, and often had the upper hand on their male counterpart. In Bringing Up Baby, Susan (Katharine Hepburn) is the one who runs the show and David (Cary Grant) follows her like a magnet. And the more she gives him a rough ride, the more he seems to fall in love with her. He lets Susan be the active character: she makes all the decisions, she drives the car, she isn’t afraid of the leopard when David makes squeaky sounds… Throughout the whole picture, David’s manhood is threatened. Particularly telling is the scene where David puts on Susan’s robe. From the lines: “No, I don’t want to wear this thing, I just want to get married” to the famous “I just went GAY all of a sudden” (that line was improvised by Grant on set), David ends up looking like a hysterical girl in search of cozy and quiet life with a boring husband (represented by the delicious bride-to-be Miss Alice Swallow).
One of my favorite moments is when David and Susan are looking for Baby (Susan’s leopard). Susan is suddenly feeling guilty for all she has put David through and starts crying. This is Hepburn at her best: one second irritatingly perky, and crying like a child the next. Just hearing Hepburn say “David” is irresistible. Hepburn’s craft is also fascinating to watch in the jail scene. Here again, she takes on the male attributes: her voice deepens, she tones down her sensuality with a limp, starts smoking like a man… Susan’s performance allows her to escape and clear David’s name from the whole misunderstanding.
What is also a tremendous pleasure is to see the two acting together. The dynamic they had still remains unequaled. Even the duo Hepburn later formed with Spencer Tracy didn’t have the same charm. To see Grant and Hepburn handling those quick lines, performing with each other as ballet dancers would, is an extraordinary thing to watch. Just look at that scene where David rips a part of Susan’s dress at the restaurant. Grant and Hepburn not only had wit, they had class.
I would also like to mention some of the secondary characters, who add some more spice to the story: Major Peabody and his hunting stories, the rudeness of Aunt Elizabeth, Mr. Peabody, and of course George the dog (the inspiration for Uggie in The Artist) who also did wonders in The Awful Truth (another classic for another week!). By the way, George is at the center of another great scene: the dog steals a bone David needs for his museum. Susan and David then start following George around the garden, digging holes everywhere the dog stops. But it is hard to do justice to this film in writing, so I’ll stop here. My one advice to you is to watch Bringing Up Baby as soon as you can!