MOVIE REVIEW | ***AFI WEEKEND*** #88. Bringing Up Baby (1938)

“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.
“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.”

The screwball comedy is a cinematic miracle. Or, I should say, the good screwball comedy is a cinematic miracle. It seems like it should be so easy, just get a mismatched romantic couple who start out not liking each other, then pile on misunderstandings, obstacles, culture clashes, coincidences and prat falls until the couple realises they love each other. But it’s the piling on bit that separates the good screwball comedies from the bad. The bad ones fall in a heap. The good ones teeter on the edge of total collapse for long stretches at a time, but somehow always stay standing, no matter how unstable they may appear. And possibly the greatest and classic definition of a good screwball is Bringing Up Baby.

The buttoned down and conservative David (Cary Grant) is a palaeontologist who has been rebuilding a dinosaur skeleton for his local museum for four long years when he finally receives the last bone he needs. Later that day on a golf course, he meets the free spirited Susan (Katherine Hepburn). She has recently received a tame leopard named Baby that she wishes to give to her aunt. Here’s where the screwball coincidences and misunderstandings really start to kick in.

Susan gets it into her head that David’s title of palaeontologist makes him the animal expert she needs to transport Baby to her aunt’s house.   While her aunt turns out to be the wealthy philanthropist Elizabeth (May Robson), a woman David has never met, but who he knows is on the verge of donating a much needed $1million to his museum.   Soon enough, Susan is falling in love with David and trying to keep him from his impending marriage. Not to mention, there are false identities, escaped big cats, love based lies, missing dinosaur bones and screwballery out the wazoo.

I thought I’d seen screwball done well before. I even thought I’d seen Cary Grant screwball done OK in Monkey Business and pretty close to perfectly in Arsenic and Old Lace. But Bringing Up Baby really is a masterclass. So many of the madcap plot convolutions should be infuriating, but the precise direction of Howard Hawks depicting this ridiculousness, along with the performances of Grant and Hepburn, makes it all way too charming to ever even approach annoying.

Grant is as good as I expected, but Hepburn was the real surprise. Not that I’ve seen a whole lot of her work, but I always think of Katherine Hepburn as the ultra confident, ultra competent character, always one step ahead of her leading men. But in Bringing Up Baby, Susan is a love struck, wide eyed innocent. It’s great to see such a different side to an actor who I have only ever seen as the epitome of the exact opposite.

Bringing Up Baby
Directed By – Howard Hawks
Written By – Dudley Nichols, Hagar Wilde

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