Screwball comedy is, in some sense, the most difficult of all types of comedy. Unlike physical comedy and straight farce, there’s no real safety net, if the audience just doesn’t follow or care about all the carrying-on displayed on screen, no matter how talented the performers or frantic the action, there just won’t be much of anything that they’ll find funny. Thusly does Bringing Up Baby fall flat on its face – not for lack of talent or effort, but for want of any good reason to exist.
Long before Hollywood suits thought it was a good idea to hide Freddie Prinze Jr.’s hottitude under a pair of spectacles (see Boys and Girls, if you dare), it was decided that for a change of pace, Cary Grant should be similarly four-eyed and socially reticent. And so he was cast in Bringing Up Baby as Dr. David Huxley, a nebbish scientist about to marry his icy prig of a colleague and who’s been roped into wooing a rich potential donor to their museum. It’s not that Grant can’t play this guy, he pulls off the role just fine, but the whole enterprise seems reminiscent of covering a fine antique in layers of shellac or casting George Clooney as an antisocial computer hacker with poor fashion sense. Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should.
In the midst of a golf game where Huxley is trying to convince the donor’s right-hand man to contribute a million bucks, Huxley runs into the manic Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), the opposite that the script has assigned him to fall in love with. Again, everything that’s wrong with Vance’s character has nothing to do with Hepburn. More so than Grant in his ill-fitting mannerisms, she fully embodies this will-o-the-wisp, impetuous young lady who screws up Huxley’s life from the moment she enters it. Although the loop-de-loops her character is forced through in order to annoy Huxley – stealing his car, ruining his tuxedo, losing an extremely important dinosaur bone, it goes on in this manner for quite a bit – are cringe-inducing, it’s always a treat to see Hepburn acting with such girlish, giggly delight. There are indeed moments early on in the film where Vance’s exasperating impetuousness and Huxley’s stubborn rectitude have the potential for the makings of a solid screwball comedy.
Let us turn then to the ‘Baby’ of the title, which is actually a leopard. You see, Vance’s brother is in South America, and he decided to ship her a leopard (well you would, wouldn’t you?), which is causing all sorts of havoc. And, since one ostensibly adorable creature isn’t enough, the script tosses in George, Vance’s aunt’s yippy little dog. Not long into the film, Vance has convinced Huxley, even though he’s getting married later in the day, to help her bring Baby to her aunt’s house. Once there, George takes an extremely rare bone that Huxley was carrying around and buries it somewhere. The resulting shenanigans occupy a good hour or so of screen time and far too much of one’s life. Although it could be said that watching Grant and Hepburn battle their way through even the most leaden script is worthwhile, that’s much easier said than done. Director Howard Hawks scares up a good segment of zaniness in a jail towards the end, but even so, the resulting mess is a far, far cry from what he and his stars were capable of.
Bringing Up Baby was a disaster when it first opened in 1938, almost ruining the careers of both Hawks and Hepburn. They both recovered with a vengeance two years later, oddly enough, with Grant, who starred with Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story and was directed by Hawks in His Girl Friday, two of the greatest comedies ever put to film. There are many, though, who today make the argument that Bringing Up Baby is a forgotten treasure, that audiences didn’t know what they were thinking at the time. Don’t believe a word of it. Moviegoers of 1938 knew what to avoid.
The two-disc special edition DVD of Bringing Up Baby is a solid piece of work. Though the picture transfer has a fair bit of grain at times, it’s mostly clear and the sound is sharp. There is a pair of documentaries and commentary by Peter Bogdanovich (who’d later make his own semi-successful screwball comedy in 1972, What’s Up Doc?), plus a collection of Howard Hawks film trailers.