There’s Always Divorce | Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Film critic Andrew Sarris once, now famously, described the screwball comedy as a “sex comedy without the sex.” In the case of Bringing Up Baby, I say thank the gods for small favors. One can only imagine what sort of leathered and gagged S&M tableau poor David Huxley would have ended up in had the unpredictable and exuberant Susan Vance had full reign to indulge whatever peculiar peccadillo crossed her mind. I’m being literal for the purpose of being humorous, of course, but… the thought did cross my mind as I was watching Howard Hawks’ 1938 screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby.
In the interest of full disclosure I will start by saying, I do not like Katharine Hepburn. There’s something about her as a person, or at least as a persona, that really irritates me. Despite her (considerable, admittedly) powers of performance, this thing cuts through any role that Hepburn is playing. To me, it’s always Katharine Hepburn first and the character second. And Katharine Hepburn annoys me. I generally enjoy a good screwball comedy and I love Cary Grant in a genuine screwball role, but I had put off seeing Bringing Up Baby for a long time. I’ve tried a few times in the past to watch this movie, but I never got past the golf course… or roughly, 5 minutes in. That said, I recently soldiered through my Hepburn aversion, and I’m happy that I did.
Bringing Up Baby strikes me an the apotheosis of the popular screwball comedy genre that saw it’s peak in the late ’30s and early ’40s. I won’t say it’s the best screwball comedy – I won’t even say it’s even Howard Hawks’ best screwball comedy. But all things given, Bringing Up Baby seems to be the screwball comedy on overdrive, taken to it’s
logical, er, illogical artistic conclusion. Each character proves to the screwiest, even screwier than the viewer assumed or could have possibly imagined. The plot is beyond farcical, but as the viewer becomes more involved, is seems to make a certain amount of sense until you realize you’ve been sucked into the madness as thoroughly as Dr. Huxley. Personally, somewhere around the local lock-up scene, I thought, “Please let this end! No more, no more!” and realized that yes, I am Dr. Huxley, trapped in my own confusion and rage, impotent to extract myself from the insanity. Hawks quite deftly tricks us all, just like Huxley, into applying rational solutions to essentially irrational problems. If that’s not nuts, I don’t know what is.
So here’s the set-up… Mild and mannered paleontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant) encounters Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), a flighty and compulsive heiress. She quickly bogs him down in a series of increasingly improbable mis-adventures until they’re both tromping across the Connecticut country side hunting a tame leopard (the Baby of the title) and a wild leopard. Ultimately, they fall in love and the film concludes with a marriage, an implied one in this case, not to mentioned a collapsed brontosaurus. This synopsis, of course, does not do justice to Bringing Up Baby. Like any screwball comedy, the story is at it’s heart very simple and very timeless… boy meets girls, boy falls in love with girl, boy marries girl. But like any screwball comedy, the devil is in the details.
By the release of Bringing Up Baby in 1938, the screwball comedy was a well trod and popular genre of Hollywood film, with it’s own evolved lexicon of tropes and symbol sets. Any screwball comedy worth it’s salt addressed that age old boy meets girl story via inverted gender roles, inverted class roles, or usually both. Typified by a sexually aggressive woman, most often a moneyed one, pursuing a hapless man of lower social station, screwball comedies proved to be wildly popular to post-Depression movie goers. Hindsight being twenty-twenty, this screwball zeitgeist makes sense. The transformed social and economic roles of women that would explode in the WWII era had its roots in the chaos sown during WWI and the Great Depression. Audiences unmoored from traditional norms found relief in the light heard examination of a new, unknown, and chaotic state of affairs. However, despite all the inversion, screwball comedies also typically came full circle, concluding with a marriage, explicit or implied. Despite the chaos, familiar order is restored.
Bringing up Baby delivers on the initial points in a big way. David Huxley is a poor working schlep, a paleontologist who must court the moneyed in order to continue his work. Susan Vance is a spoiled and capricious heiress, who throughout the movie, holds Huxley’s very fate in her hands. As in any great screwball comedy, all of manipulations are to serve her own desires, in this case to marry Huxley. That the end result may coincide with his own needs and funding will be secured is merely incidental. The important point is that Huxley has little choice and is washed on the tide of Susan’s whims. As each ever more farcical situation in the plot requires David Huxley to throw up his hands and give in, so too does the end result.
The gender bending is taken to extremes in Bringing Up Baby. Much could (and has) been said about Hepburn’s androgyny and she is suited for the role of Susan Vance. But in this case, its not Hepburn’s physical appearance so much as the manic energy she brings to dominating every scene with a torrent of words, words, words and the blithe insouciance with which Susan Vance beans men in the head with rocks, steals cars, and drags a wild leopard around by a leash. Cary Grant as David Huxley stakes his claim on traditional male gender roles via polite respect. Grant clings tenaciously to this trait, no matter how absurd the situation, culminating in the completely erroneous cry, “Oh poor darling Susan! She’s in trouble and she’s helpless without me!” Hawks is respectful enough of both his actors and his audience to let the joke play out. After Huxley’s completely absurd and ineffectual claim of Susan’s helplessness we cut to Susan herself dragging a reluctant, wild leopard by a dog leash. Then we see her beat the beast into submission and lock him in a jail cell. Any explanation of these plot points certainly sound like heavy handed symbolism, but the force of the movie sweeps the viewer along on the tide as well. It all seems very logical at the tjme.
In its day, Bringing Up Baby was a disaster. Failing both critically and commercially, it led to Hawk’s RKO contract to be invalidated and forced Hepburn to buy out her contract. The film was neglected until the French critics of the ’50s dusted it, and much of Hawks’ work off for a new examination. But in terms of screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby has it all. So why did it fail? Conventional wisdom contends that the movies was “too sophisticated” for the times, but this seems a little self serving to me. Too sophisticated in what way? Howard Hawks himself concluded that the movie “had a great fault and I learned an awful lot from that. There were no normal people in it. Everyone you met was a screwball and since that time I have learned my lesson and I don’t intend ever again to make everybody crazy.” (Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, Todd McCarthy.)
I think Hawks is onto something. First, Bringing Up Baby is a wild, screwball ride and it is unrelenting in pace and irrationality. Like an amusement park roller coaster that’s fun for a minute but then too much, you kind of want off but are powerless to do anything about it. But I also think the cardinal sin for a 1938 audience is that order is never actually restored. Typically screwball comedies resolved with the most traditional of social norms, a marriage. The woman may wield the power, she may be headstrong, and she may control the purse strings, but she ultimately enters into the contract that is the very symbol of patriarchal control. The man may be out of control throughout the movie, but he too eventually gains the upper hand, if only by actually choosing to marry her. Does David Huxley ever actually choose Susan Vance? Or is the implied marriage at the conclusion of Bringing Up Baby just another wacky notion of Susan’s that he’s powerless to resist? The movie does, after all, conclude with Susan wrecking David’s painstakingly reconstructed brontosaurus. If audiences of 1938 sought a measure of relief by watching a lighthearted and witty examination of their contemporary social chaos, it was probably also a psychological must that some sort of (perceived, at least) order be brought to bear on the chaos.
Bringing Up Baby is a wild ride, and an enjoyable one. For contemporary viewers with a far more flexible sense of social norms, none of the above flaws are really brought to bear. Any interest at all in screwball comedies of the ’30s dictates that you must see this movie. It may be the logical end point of the issues raised in screwball comedies, or it might just be a really fun romp.
Watch the theatrical trailer for Bringing Up Baby.
Bringing Up Baby on The Onion’s A.V. Club
Story telling output report for Bringing Up Baby on Dramatica
Wikipedia entry including “Use of the word gay.”