Why ‘Bringing Up Baby,’ a secretly dirty movie about crazy people, is a work of genius

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Still from Bringing Up Baby. ()
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It’s hard to believe now that Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby was not a hit at the time of its original release in 1938. In fact, it was such a flop that one of its stars, Katharine Hepburn, was famously labeled “box office poison” by movie exhibitors across the land, and ended up fleeing back to New York, into the welcoming embrace of the Broadway stage.

Now, of course, Bringing Up Baby is viewed as the quintessential screwball comedy and one of the funniest movies ever made (so much for trusting current-day box office results as a predictor of lasting success). Played at breakneck speed, Bringing Up Baby is not quite as fast as Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940), but its pace is so determinedly demented that it has never quite been matched.

Co-written by Hagar Wilde and Dudley Nichols, Bringing Up Baby tells the story of absent-minded professor, Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant, in a real departure for him, but you would think he was born to play such roles), who is one bone away from completing his giant brontosaurus skeleton when he has the great misfortune to be bowled over by dizzy-dame heiress Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), who, in one farcical 24-hour period, ruins his entire life.

From the first second she lays eyes on the bespectacled goofball, she knows she must have him. It’s biological, it’s pheromones, it’s nature asserting its dominance. Before David even knows what is happening to him, he finds himself inadvertently blowing off his own wedding (to the efficient and sexless Miss Swallow, played by Virginia Walker), wearing negligees in other people’s homes, and chasing an escaped leopard with a butterfly net through the Connecticut countryside.

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David Huxley needs a million dollars in order to complete his brontosaurus. During a golf game, he appeals to Mr. Peabody (George Irving), who represents a Mrs. Elizabeth Random (May Robson, in a hilarious performance), a wealthy woman looking to donate money to a worthy cause. The golf game is hijacked, however, by Susan Vance, playing on a nearby green: she steals David Huxley’s ball, and then steals his car, driving off with poor David Huxley clinging to the running boards shouting at her, “This is my car!”, all as Mr. Peabody looks on in amazement.

Huxley can’t seem to shake Susan, even though he speaks to her very firmly at one point, “Now it isn't that I don't like you, Susan, because, after all, in moments of quiet, I'm strangely drawn toward you, but—well, there haven't been any quiet moments.”

Susan turns out to be the niece of Elizabeth Random, so she decides to make everything all all right by driving David Huxley out to her farm in Connecticut, where he can speak to her aunt in person about the donation. In the meantime, though, Susan was sent a leopard named “Baby” by her brother, and Susan just can’t leave Baby alone, so Baby comes along with them to Connecticut, pacing around in the back seat of the car, as David cowers in fear in the front. Once in Connecticut, Baby naturally escapes and David Huxley loses the famed “intercostal clavicle”, the one bone he needs to complete his brontosaurus. So the hunt is on, for both Baby and the bone, and the entire community ends up running through the dark countryside wielding shotguns and ropes and butterfly nets.

Great vaudevillian actor Walter Catlett plays the befuddled ridiculous sheriff who throws everyone in jail, warning them, “The next person who says something about a leopard, I’m putting on bread and water for thirty days.”

Bringing Up Baby has an energy reminiscent of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in the darkly lit shimmering scenes (most of the movie takes place at night, a departure for a comedy), with nature infiltrating the civilized world, working its magic on all of the participants. Susan Vance, the instigator of the madness, is an adorable irresistible force of fun in a self-serious universe. With all of her heedless impulsivity, she’s the one who knows that people should be enjoying themselves, dammit.

Filled with gags and pratfalls (Grant was a talented acrobat, and here he got to show his stuff for the first time), Bringing Up Baby brings the lunatic fringe front and center. Everyone in the movie is openly insane, a choice that Hawks said later was a mistake. He told Peter Bogdanovich in an interview: "I think the picture 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. If the gardener had been normal, if the sheriff had been just a perplexed man from the country—but as it was they were all way off center. It was a mistake I realized after I’d made it and I haven’t made it since. I think it would have done better at the box office if there had been a few sane folks in it—everybody was nuts. Harold Lloyd told me, though, that he thought it was the best constructed comedy he had ever seen."

The script is a masterpiece of structure, with too many double entendres to count. Doug Moston, acting teacher and Shakespeare scholar, used to remind his students that when they were analyzing a Shakespeare play, “If you don’t think a line is bawdy—it’s only because you haven’t worked it out yet.” The same applies to Bringing Up Baby. It is a movie, after all, that starts with the following exchange:

David Huxley (holding up a giant dinosaur bone): “Alice, I think this one belongs in the tail.”

Miss Swallow: “Nonsense. You tried it in the tail yesterday.”

David Huxley loses his bone and over the course of the movie has to get it back. His first encounter with Susan Vance is on a golf course where she steals his ball. He is engaged to a woman named Miss Swallow, and while you could make the case that “swallow” refers to her snippy birdlike qualities, it more likely is descriptive of something she probably doesn’t do.

David Huxley may think that the life he currently lives is the only one for which he is suited, a calm life of scholarly pursuits and scientific endeavor. But Susan, by basically refusing to let him out of her sight, shows him what he is missing.

Huxley considers himself a “dignified” man, and Bringing Up Baby makes the radical suggestion that dignity ain’t all that. Life is to be enjoyed. At one point, David has a revelation and shouts at Susan, awkwardly, “I’ve never had a better time!”

Neither have we, David, neither have we.

A new 35mm print of Bringing Up Baby is playing at the Film Forum from June 17-23. Cary Grant’s daughter Jennifer will appear in person at both the 7:45 show on opening night (June 17) and for a special event celebrating Father’s Day at 3:15 on Sunday, June 19.