Rambling Reviewer, “Bringing Up Baby”

Directed by Howard Hawks, 1937

This film is another of those “screwball comedies” I like, and in this era when comedies are rare in feature films, it’s a treat to watch. It stars Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in two off-beat roles for both of them. Perhaps that explains why it wasn’t a hit at the time, the audience wasn’t ready for Cary Grant to play a scientist. But it become a classic years later. From the very beginning it’s all about mix ups. Grant plays Dr. David Huxley, a Natural History Museum paleontologist. His fiancé waits while he plays golf with Alexander Peabody, the lawyer for Mrs. Carleton Random, a rich potential donor to the museum. But flighty Susan Vance, played by Hepburn, interferes in his plans. First, she plays his ball on the course, then later she confuses his car with hers and drives off, while he hangs on the running board, yelling. The next evening David is still trying to connect with Alexander Peabody at a fine restaurant, only Susan is there too and their paths cross – literally – as she causes him to fall on his top hat and he splits the back of her gown. Making a graceful exit as a duo from that is comedy in motion. By now Susan has a crush on the hapless David, fiancéd or not. At home Susan has just received a pet leopard she names “Baby.” She calls David to invite him to see it, but when he says he’s uninterested, she feigns distress on the phone, so he has to come to her rescue. Later they drive with the tamed leopard to take it to her aunt’s house, who just happens to be Mrs. Carleton Random. Then in another one of several more mix-ups to come, Susan runs into the back of a poultry truck, and Baby chases some poultry for a meal. Susan and David go into a small town where David buys some meat for Baby. Susan steals a car where “Baby” just happens to be sitting in the back seat. Only it’s not Baby but an untamed leopard that has escaped from captivity. Thus begins a cascade of adventures that upturns the life of socialite Susan and nerdy David into a very satisfying, funny and one-of-a-kind movie experience. The great May Robson (from Lady for a Day) as Aunt Elizabeth and Charlie Ruggles as Horace Applegate complete a fine supporting cast. The cast also includes “Asta” the Wire Fox-Terrier that starred in The Thin Man, The Awful Truth and other movies. Bringing Up Baby was produced at the RKO studio where Katharine Hepburn was under contract and had starred in several films. Comedy was not a type of acting she was comfortable with. Howard Hawks could see it wasn’t working and got one of the actors, a former Vaudevillian Walter Catlett to help her. Kate then asked Hawks to hire him because she needed him. After MGM wouldn’t loan Robert Montgomery and Leslie Howard turned down the role of David, Cary Grant accepted the role. Howard Hawks helped him find the character of David by having Grant think of one of his favorite comics – Harold Lloyd. The scenes with “Baby” were filmed in two separate takes on the same set, once with actors and once without. The films were then combined in the lab to appear as if they were together. Filming locations were at the Bel Air Country Club, the Arthur Ranch in Malibu, and the New England Street at the 20th Century-Fox Studios. The museum scene was also at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History. Just before the movie was finished the Independent Theatre Owners Association placed Katharine Hepburn on their list of “box office poison” actors – based on her last couple of films. She joined Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich so this was not a fatal judgement. Nonetheless, RKO, skirting financial problems during the Depression, decided to halt spending any more money on post-production and marketing. Hepburn had been dating Howard Hughes at the time, and he stepped in and bought the film for distribution through Loew’s theaters. Hepburn then bought out her contract at RKO rather than to make a low-budget movie the studio offered her. Her next movie that also starred Cary Grant will be the subject of the next Rambling Reviewer.
Christian Esquevin is a member of the Coronado Island Film Festival Board of Directors, an avid film aficionado, and the creator of the blog Silver Screen Modes which focuses on the fashions and films of classic Hollywood. He is also the author and researcher for a stunning tabletop book Adrian: Silver Screen to Custom Labelon fashion designer and icon, Gilbert Adrian, the chief fashion designer for MGM studios from 1928 to 1941.




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