Bringing Up Baby, 1938, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant. Directed by Howard Hawks. B&W, 102 minutes.
Respectable, steadfast scientist Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant) is engrossed in his latest project, completing the skeletal frame of a brontosaurus. He sets out to convince one Mr. Peabody of the worthiness of his endeavor, worthy, that is, of a million dollar donation from Peabody’s client, Mrs. Random (May Robson).
He’s rebuffed by Peabody while the two are playing golf, and the outing goes from bad to worse. In the middle of the game he discovers his ball has been appropriated by Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), who goes on to drive off in his car. Susan can’t be convinced she’s wrong, and the scatterbrained young woman proceeds to lead Huxley on a chase for, among other things, his peace of mind.
Susan has just received a gift from her brother, a leopard with the unlikely name of Baby. She’s oblivious to the outrageous nature of this gift, as she is to much of the chaos that ensues wherever she goes. It turns out the leopard is intended for her aunt, Mrs. Random, the woman Dr. Huxley is hoping will donate to his paleontological project. Susan convinces Huxley to help her transport Baby to her home in Connecticut.
Bringing Up Baby did not do well at the time of its release, with critics calling it derivative and predictable. Today, however, it’s considered by many to be one of the top screwball comedies of the era.
Even director Howard Hawks was critical of the film. Years later he said in an interview, “I think the film had a great fault and I learned an awful lot from it. There were no normal people in it. Everyone you met was a screwball.” But he also expressed a fondness for the film in other interviews, saying once, “the most fun you can have is making fun of people…you get a doctor and get laughs out of him, like a psychiatrist, where you drive a psychiatrist crazy like in Bringing Up Baby.” That, it would seem, is a classic element of screwball comedy.
There has been much discussion over Grant’s meaning when, confronted about wearing a woman’s feathered silk robe, Huxley testily responds, “because I just went gay all of a sudden” (leaping in the air on the word “gay”). Many deem that the first time the word was used in a movie in its modern-day sense of “homosexual” rather than “happy,” while etymologists debate how common the term was, including its popularity in Grant’s circles. While the meaning may seem “obvious” to us today, and certainly the amount of innuendo in this film makes that belief laudable, it never was made clear by the director or actors what Grant intended. What does seem certain is the line was ad-libbed, which will forever leave its meaning open to speculation.
The film created a great backlash of ill will for Hepburn, who was labeled “box office poison” after its release and relative failure. That never stopped this phenomenal actress, who two years later turned her luck around with The Philadelphia Story. Playing a ditzy heiress was not her best role; she did well in later roles playing privileged young women who were somewhat oblivious, but was a little irritating as one who is totally harebrained.
Definitive screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby is fast-paced, madcap and improbable. It is not Hepburn’s or Hawk’s finest work, but it is fun, and time has proven its worth.