Saturday, May 11, 2013

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Director: Howard Hawks


It would be a film with a unique turn in success. First seen as a failure nearly ruining the career of one of its stars as well as its director, Bringing Up Baby would in time become a classic comedy loved and cherished as one of the funniest films of all time. In this distinctive case it would be the advent of television, an entertainment medium still over a decade away from being part of the American lifestyle, which would bring a strong fallowing to this once throwaway picture. Contemporary audiences hail the feature as director Howard Hawks’ finest achievement, but sadly at the time of its release this picture would be seen as a blemish.

Bringing Up Baby is a screwball comedy of a young, wealthy socialite, her infatuation with a near-sighted paleontologist and her many tight spots she puts him though to keep him around so he may fall in love with her. David Huxley (Cary Grant) is a young paleontologist very much married to his work, so much so that even his fiancĂ© pushes for him to complete his most important work, finish constructing a dinosaur skeleton that has taken years to complete. By chance he meets a free-spirited young lady, Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), who takes a shine to the handsome scientist. Mistaking him as a zoologist, she manipulates David to come to her country home to care for her pet named Baby, a leopard. Problems arise as David’s final skeleton bone is taken by Susan’s dog, while at the same time they try to keep Baby under control. Susan’s actions and gets everyone locked up in jail with the chief constable questioning if their stories are true of a leopard who is roaming the countryside. After these adventures and headaches, David finally returns to work, his purposed marriage ended because of Susan, but not without realizing he cannot live without the fascinating Susan in his life.

The picture is a real off-the-wall story filled with situational moments of comedy that was meant to fluster the character of David, much to the enjoyment of the audience. Hepburn is annoying, but at the same time charming in her own way, a peculiar sort of character. It makes for a film that can be seen as very polarizing, depending on how one may watch it. If one wants a comedy with a story that can be believable, this may not be for you.  Suspension of disbelief is needed to allow oneself to think a straight laced man would allow such a hindrance of a woman to dissuade him from his important work, apparently ruining his life, but come to fall in love at the same time. It is a pure screwball comedy, something one should just sit and let the picture do its thing without it needing to be questioned; a movie one just shuts off his brain and watches.

Director Howard Hawks, then just signed a two picture deal with RKO Pictures, was looking to produce the picture Gunga Din, based on a Rudyard Kipling poem. When Hawks found trouble in the finding the right leading man to cast for Gunga Din the studio shelved the picture and turned his efforts towards a new project in the mean time. The Result would be Bringing Up Baby, loosely based on a short story found in Collier’s Magazine.

The role of Susan was written purely with Katharine Hepburn in mind. By this time Hepburn, the former Academy Award winning actress, had hit a few snags in her recent projects, including Sylvia Scarlett and Stage Door which failed financially at the box office. Hepburn falls just into the role as a well-to-do New Englander who loves to get her way. It was a role tailor made just for her, but that proved to backlash the picture.

The difficult part to fill would be of David. At the time of initial casting Grant’s breakthrough comedy The Awful Truth just finished shooting and was yet to release, and Grant was still very hesitant at the idea of acting in such a screwball comedies. After two weeks of thinking about it and a new contract that added more money for his work in the project Grant agreed to the role. He would be heavily inspired by silent film comedian Harold Lloyd in style with his acting, even wearing similar shaped glasses to the silent legend, which would fit the intellectual type of character that was David.

Previews and critics would lead the studio to believe Bringing Up Baby was a to a sure fired hit, but audiences were less than excited about the picture. Numbers showed the film was a financial failure. The film had promising numbers in major markets such as Los Angeles or Washington, DC, but the film failed to find footing in the vast numbers of smaller markets outside of big cities. The picture even failed to run more than one week out of Radio City Music Hall in New York, cutting its numbers significantly in that major market.

After its initial run Bringing Up Baby would fall short of breaking even. Theater owners seeing that audiences tended to dislike Katharine Hepburn no matter how well she may act, perhaps detesting the smug New England way she tended to carry herself. She would be officially label “box office poison” and the studio would try to relegate this one time Best Actress winner to B pictures. Hawks’ contract would be terminated with RKO and seeing his idea of producing Gunga Din by another filmmaker. Cary Grant, the most sympathetic character in the picture, would not seem to be harmed as he would continue to be seen in many more comedies in the coming years, as his performance was praised.

It was not until years later, in the early 1940s, that Bringing Up Baby would be re-released and finally garner a profit for RKO. As television became a popular form of entertainment in the 1950s Bringing Up Baby became a picture that was thrown onto television stations to fill air time for some networks. As television audience vastness allowed new numbers to view the feature an adoring following began to build and appreciate its quirky characters and silly humor. As time moved on Bringing Up Baby would become a much beloved treasure with vast numbers.

With the growth of the film’s adoration in later generations a loose adaptation would be made of the picture with 1972’s What’s Up, Doc. To show the great appreciation of the picture in the history of cinema Bringing Up Baby would be one of the earliest picture added to the new National Film Registry at the Library of Congress in 1990. The film also appears on many top film lists, including being named in the top 100 list for the American Film Institute all time greatest films, both in 1998 and 2008. The Institute would also place it on one lists of the greatest comedies of all time (#14), and one of the top romantic films in history (#51).

Contemporary audiences find a minor social debating point in the picture with the scene where Cary Grant must wear a ladies robe, because his clothes were taken from him, and when asked why he wearing the robe he exclaims in a moment of humor that he went “gay.” It is difficult to know if by this moment in the 20th century if the term “gay” was used as the slang for homosexual at the time, or was being used for its original definition, as happy or cheerful. It is said that Grant adlibbed the line, a practice used often to keep the energy up in the film, but it is not well known if the slang was yet a term referring to the homosexuals, if it was used in this matter as a derogatory term, or if this marked the beginning of the word in such a case. That early in the 20th century homosexuality was frowned upon by the masses and brings to question whether or not such use was meant to be insulting. That simple word has sparked many small debates, but surely should not take away from the overall picture, as it was said in a moment of humor where Cary Grant was purely flabbergasted by what was happening to him.

Bringing Up Baby lives on as one of the greatest comedies of its time, sadly enjoyed by later audiences instead of its original release. It would hurt its director initially, but would be hailed as Howard Hawks’ masterpiece after all his career was said and done. Hepburn looked to be headed to a quick, sudden end to her stardom, but would bounce back in the near future. Meanwhile Cary Grant would continue to see one of the greatest runs of any actor in cinema as he would star in a number of successful pictures in the coming years after discovering his skill in such comedies. Bringing Up Baby lives on as one of those films that every cinema connoisseur must see and enjoy as it is one of the best early screwball comedies that still entertains.

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