There are some folks who consider 1938's "Bringing Up Baby" one of the best comedies ever made. I have no objection. It is a funny movie. Funny enough to have made Entertainment Weekly's "100 Greatest Movies of All Time" at number 24; the American Film Institute's "Top 100 Films" at number 97; the AFI's "100 Years...100 Laughs" at number 14; the Internet Movie Database's reader poll of "Top 250 Movies" at number 137; and a 100% positive rating among national reviewers at Rotten Tomatoes. As I say, I have no objection.
The movie's current high esteem is a little surprising when you consider that the public's initial response to it was lukewarm at best. Directed by Howard Hawks and starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and a leopard named Baby, the movie did more poorly than expected at the box office. As David Thomson writes in his history of Hollywood, "The Whole Equation" (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), the movie "did disappointing business from the start. Hawks guessed that it was because there was no one normal in the film (although the leopard is like most leopards you meet). Today that is regarded as the brilliance of the film. Still, it did only $715,000 domestically, with another $390,000 from foreign. The studio lost money (after the marketing costs), and it was a principal reason why Katharine Hepburn was labeled 'box office poison.'" Nevertheless, Hawks quickly recovered with successes like "His Girl Friday" (1940), "Sergeant York" (1941), "The Big Sleep" (1946), and "Red River" (1948); Hepburn regained her standing in Hollywood with "The Philadelphia Story" (1940), "Woman of the Year" (1942), "Adam's Rib" (1949), and "The African Queen" (1951); and Grant's popularity was never in question.
"Bringing Up Baby" shares much in common with its main characters. On the one hand it's breezy, intelligent, and urbane; on the other, it's zany, madcap, and screwball. Because of its buoyant, lighthearted attitude, the movie is easy to enjoy time and again. I confess it does not make me laugh out loud too often, but it never fails to bring a smile to my face almost continuously every time I watch it. Its humor ages well.
Hepburn plays a feisty socialite heiress, Susan Vance, impetuous, impulsive, both brilliant and scatterbrained. The character appears to be somewhat like the young Hepburn herself, who came from a wealthy family, was known as an outdoorswoman, and was used to getting her own way.
Wearing glasses inspired by silent-film star Harold Lloyd, Grant plays a timid paleontologist, Dr. David Huxley, who is just about to be married to a fellow scientist, Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker), at the Stuyvesant Museum of Natural History. But Susan turns David's life upside down when she sets her sights on marrying him herself.
Susan and David first coincidentally meet on the golf course, where Susan ruins his car. Later, she runs into him at a night spot, where she trips him and tears his coat. These are only the beginnings of a relationship that has Susan pursuing continuously and David trying frantically to dodge out of the way.
Complications arise over Susan's caring for a tame leopard, Baby, whose favorite song, naturally, is "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby," which Susan and David periodically sing to it. Then, there are the eventual mix-up of Baby with a vicious leopard escaped from a circus and the loss of a valuable brontosaurus bone that David desperately needs to complete one of his specimens, a bone Susan's dog buries, to complete the lunacy.
It's a battle of wills, as David's stubbornly conservative character eventually gets caught up in Susan's devil-may-care world. Sight gags combine with clever banter to produce a comedy that gets increasingly sillier (and funnier) as it goes along. When David sees the leopard in Susan's apartment, he's scared to death and worried about her safety. "Susan, you've got to get out of this apartment," he pleads. "But, David," she replies, "I can't; I've got a lease."
David is not only getting married and putting the final touches to his brontosaurus skeleton, he's also trying to secure a million-dollar loan from a rich old lady, who just happens to be Susan's aunt. Susan sees this as an opportunity to pursue David further. But when she persuades him to help her take the leopard to her home in Connecticut, everything goes haywire. "Now," says David, "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."
"Oh, don't be so irrelevant," she tells him.
Of course, a good screwball comedy needs a good supporting cast of colorful, oddball characters, and "Bringing Up Baby" has them. Mary Robson is Susan's Aunt Elizabeth, a wealthy widow who hears only the sound of her own voice. Charlie Ruggles is Major Horace Applegate, a dotty old big-game hunter and friend of the aunt's. Walter Catlett is Constable Slocum, forever flustered by the goings on. Barry Fitzgerald is Mr. Gogerty, the aunt's most-often inebriated handyman. And Fritz Feld is Dr. Fritz Lehman, an exasperated know-it-all psychiatrist who pops up everywhere as the accidental victim of Susan and David's escapades.
Exchanged cars, mistaken purses, mixed up leopards, a lost bone, the police, a circus, and everyone winding up in jail make "Bringing Up Baby" one of the funniest and most outrageous films of the thirties (or the forties, fifties, sixties, or any other decade).
Its purpose is only to delight, and it succeeds.
Of course, the picture is presented in a 1.33:1 screen ratio, closely approximating its original 1.37:1 Academy Standard dimensions of the day. The print shows few signs of age or wear, few or no age spots, scratches, flecks, or faded areas. Grain is also at a minimum, and while the images are reasonably well delineated, the black-and-white contrasts are not the strongest I've ever seen. Be that as it may, it's a fine showing for an older movie and quite probably the best shape anybody has ever seen it in decades.
The sound comes to us courtesy of Dolby Digital processing, in 1.0 monaural. It displays an exceptionally clean and clear midrange, which is about all there is to it, with almost no discernable background noise. Highs, lows, and dynamics are pretty much non-issues, they are so limited. You want to hear what the characters are saying? You hear what they're saying. Period.
The movie is done up in one of Warner Bros.' Special Edition two-disc sets. Disc one contains the feature film and an audio commentary by film historian, critic, and director Peter Bogdanovich. Bogdanovich is one of the few commentators I can listen to at any length. If you remember, his movie "What's Up, Doc?" was an affectionate tribute to "Bringing Up Baby," so he has a solid familiarity with the older film. What's more, he was an acquaintance of Howard Hawks, and he includes many Hawks reminiscences along the way (often mimicking Hawks's voice, I might add). I was also pleased that Bogdanovich was never reluctant to laugh spontaneously at many points in the story himself, a sure sign that he appreciates the film as much as he says he does. It's a more personal and intimate commentary than most, from a man you'd like to know and talk with about movies. In addition, disc one contains a Howard Hawks movie trailer gallery with trailers for "Bringing Up Baby," "Sergeant York," "To Have and Have Not," "The Big Sleep," and "Rio Bravo"; thirty scene selections; English as the only spoken-language option; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Disc two contains a pair of well-made documentaries, "Cary Grant: A Class Apart" and "The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks." Neither documentary was created specifically for "Bringing Up baby," but obviously both documentaries contain information about this vital film. More in a minute. In addition, there is a rather brainless, eighteen-minute musical-comedy short, "Campus Cinderella," with Johnny Davis and Penny Singleton; and a Merrie Melodies cartoon in Technicolor, "A Star Is Hatched," that features a load of movie-star caricatures. Both shorts are from 1938.
The newly made documentary, "Cary Grant: A Class Apart," is worthy of the star. Made by Turner Entertainment in 2004, it's eighty-seven minutes long, divided into twenty-three chapters, and suggests that Grant was a far more complex man and a far more diverse and gifted actor than most people think. It is also more candid than most such documentaries about Grant in that it deals in several segments with his alleged homosexual relationship with lifelong buddy Randolph Scott, as well as eliciting honest opinions from family, friends, and coworkers. Among the many people interviewed for the piece are former wives Barbara Grant and Betsy Drake; friends Roderick Mann and Ralph Lauren; directors George Cukor (vintage), Peter Bogdanovich, Howard Hawks (vintage), Mel Shavelson, Alfred Hitchcock (vintage), and Stanley Donen; actors Martin Landau, Ralph Bellamy (vintage), Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (vintage), Dina Merrill, Eva Marie Saint, Jill St. John, Deborah Kerr (vintage), Samantha Eggar, and George Kennedy; screenwriters Sidney Sheldon and Ernest Lehman; film critics Elvis Mitchell and David Denby; authors Nancy Nelson and Todd McCarthy; and film historians Jeannine Basinger and James Harvey. Using interviews, film clips, and excerpts from Grant's own autobiography, the program goes through the star's career examining his life and his films from beginning to end. It's a fitting tribute to a man who started his career in vaudeville as Archie Leach before becoming the screen's most sophisticated leading man, playing with equal ease light-comedy, drama, and mystery, often within the same movie.
The second documentary, "The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks," is equally illuminating, if not quite so absorbing. It was made in 2001 for Turner Classic Movies, it's narrated by actor-director Sidney Pollack, it's fifty-five minutes long, and it's divided into sixteen chapters. Rather than the myriad of interviews we find in the first documentary, this second one is mostly a series of extended vintage interviews with Hawks himself, intermingled with a plentitude of film clips. In a great and revealing line about his 1946 detective classic "The Big Sleep," Hawks says, "You don't have to be too logical; just make good scenes." The man made many good scenes.
Since Warner Bros. discovered the joys of the keep case, as they have here with a slim-line, two-disc package, they have had to give up a little something else. While I was never keen on the old single-disc snapper case, I did sort of like the plastic-and-cardboard foldout container they used for two-disc sets. I always worried about what I would do if one of the plastic center posts broke, but I appreciated all the room the studio had on the inside to print chapter titles, background material, and bonus information. Nowadays we have to depend on a paper insert for all of that, and "Bringing Up Baby" comes with no paper insert. Oh, well....
Consider that "Bringing Up Baby" was made in 1938, yet its humor is timeless. The comedy appeals to those who enjoy verbal wit as well as to those who enjoy laughing at purely physical gags. Now, consider some recent comedies like "New York Minute," "White Chicks," "The Girl Next Door," "Love Don't Cost a Thing," "Garfield," and "Scooby-Doo 2." I'm not sure if public taste or Hollywood's taste is declining. One of the few comedies in the past couple of years that came close to the intelligence of "Bringing Up Baby" was the Coen brothers' "Intolerable Cruelty," and it lost its shirt. What it all boils down to, I suppose, is that everybody is different, and it's a darned good thing for the availability of movies on DVD to accommodate a wide variety of personal preferences.
Meanwhile, I'm putting my money on "Bringing Up Baby" to outlast the "Scooby Garfields Next Door" any day. They don't call "Baby" a classic for nothing.