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Bringing Up Baby

Our guest blogger today is Dr. Patrick E. White, President of Wabash College, and former professor of film and linguistics.

“Bringing Up Baby,” 1938. Image courtesy of Doctor Macro.

Bringing Up Baby is one of the fastest, funniest, and happiest movies of all time, a singular example of the loose genre of American film, the screwball comedy.  It features two of the greatest actors in all of film, Katharine Hepburn, winner of four best actress Academy Awards (nominated twelve times) and Gary Grant, who never won a regular Oscar, but should have, for half a dozen films in which he wasn’t even nominated, including Bringing Up Baby and Philadelphia Story (both made with Katharine Hepburn), and His Girl Friday with Rosalind Russell.

Screwball comedy is usually seen as rising out of the Great Depression and the audiences need for diversion, centering on madcap tales of wealthy women in seemingly ill-matched or failed relationships with men (at times ex-husbands) in a battle of the sexes full of quick wit and sheer energy.  The couples begin in confusion, antagonism, and distrust, but through contention and shared adventure come to discover or find again not only their right partner, but the best understanding of who they are.

The action of Bringing Up Baby is set in motion by a chance meeting between Susan Vance (Hepburn) and paleontologist David Huxley (Grant) when Susan mistakenly plays David’s golf ball.  Notice how that conversation sets the pattern for the entire film.  She talks fast.  He tries to explain.  She doesn’t listen or answers by her own logic, adventures ensue, and every attempt to clarify, to act reasonably, to simplify, and solve the particular pickle the characters are in at the time is thwarted by chance, misunderstanding, and an ever widening complex circle of confusion that takes in more and more people and continuingly raises the stakes on the troubles swirling around the couple.

Yet, fundamentally, that is the good news.  In screwball comedy, the characters often have the capacity to break the spell and walk away from the craziness.  David Huxley could simply say, “This woman is crazy, and I am not going to deal with her.”  He sometimes begs her to be reasonable and comes close to walking away more than once.   That he does not leave the maelstrom of Susan’s activity, the tumble of her language, her off-kilter reading of the world, however, is finally his saving grace. For without Susan, Davis is secure, mature, respected, dedicated to his work, and engaged to be married to the absolutely no–nonsense Miss Swallow. But as we learn almost immediately, life with Miss Swallow would be all work and no play.

Above all, Bringing Up Baby is about the redeeming value of fun, of play, of a child-like engagement with the world.   The couple meet in the middle of a game of golf, and the film is an enormous game filled with puzzles and childhood games of mistaken identity, let’s pretend, hide and seek, and the exhilaration of the hunt, not just for the found-and-lost-and-found-again leopard, but for Susan and David’s true identity and their love.

Bringing Up Baby is the least solemn of films, but that doesn’t mean it is not a serious work of art. The best of the screwball comedies bear comparison to the Astaire and Rogers musicals, in which the story of affection and love is played out in movement and dance.  Here the dance is mainly verbal, and David Huxley proves his mettle by being able finally to keep up with Susan to “play along” and move, talk, and even sing with her. That language game is necessary but the game is also physical.  Hepburn was a talented athlete – a swimmer, tennis player, and golfer.  Cary Grant got his start in show business as an acrobat and stilt walker. Notice the grace with which Grant and Hepburn exit the country club restaurant together, the look on Cary Grant’s face when he is singing “I Can’t Give you Anything but Love,” to calm the leopard, and the choreography of their running, falling, and walking together.

This film proceeds at an almost impossibly dizzy speed. In dialogue, motion, and expression, the scene before our eyes and ears is constantly changing in a frenetic multiplicity of sensory input. I taught this film for over ten years in a course in Women in Film and many of my students found viewing it to be an exhausting experience. Raised on television shows in which the dialogue is punctuated by a laugh track, characters often tag their best lines with double takes as if in fear that the audience might not otherwise catch the humor. Bringing Up Baby challenges us to let ourselves be pulled, along with David, into Susan Vance’s whirlwind of action, language. When he rushes to “rescue” Susan and finds that she has a real leopard in her bedroom, he commands her “Susan, you have to get out of this apartment.” She responds quickly, “David, I can’t.  I have a lease.” Both characters make sense but speak from different worlds.  This is the verbal wit that the movies discovered when they learned to talk through the early  comedies of sound, but here it is put to a richer purpose than simple laughs.

For as the audience plays along, we gain the capacity to fall in love with Susan Vance and fall in love with the kind of love that David and Susan finally claim.  A love that is true, caring, protective, in synch, exhilarating – and above all – fun, making Bringing Up Baby, to my mind, one of the great love stories in American film.

Come see Bringing Up Baby at Friday night’s screening of Summer Nights. 

Filed under: Film, Public Programs

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