Bringing Up Baby

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.

Cary Grant Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby
Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn

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.

cary-grant-may-robson
Cary Grant, May Robson

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.

As of April 25, 2017, “Bringing Up Baby” is scheduled to air on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) on Tuesday, May 30, 2017 at 7:45 a.m. ET/6:45 a.m. CT and Friday, June 9, 2017 at 4:45 p.m. ET/3:45 p.m. CT. Scheduling is subject to change. For the latest information, check out TCM’s schedule. 

Ball of Fire

Ball of Fire, 1941, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Dana Andrews. Directed by Howard Hawks. B&W, 112 minutes.

Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) and seven esteemed colleagues (six bachelors, one widower) are compiling a new encyclopedia of human knowledge. They’re up to the S’s, and Potts is charged with writing the section on slang. He’s come to realize he doesn’t know the meaning of any of the current popular lingo gum-popping youth and anyone else, for that matter, are prone to use.

To right that situation, he gathers a group of assorted citizens to help him learn the meaning of such words as “corny” and “boogie.” In the course of finding just the right individuals, he comes across Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), a nightclub singer needing a place to hide while her boyfriend, Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews), works out his problems with the law.

gary-cooper-barbara-stanwyck-in-ball-of-fire
Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck

Potts, of course, comes to fall for the saucy woman with the salty language, but he’s got tough competition from mobster Lilac.

The movie was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Stanwyck, but won none. It is considered by many to be the last great screwball comedy before the start of World War II (although certainly not the last of that genre). It is a good movie, with a strong script and top-notch cast, but doesn’t move at the same quick pace some of Hawks’ other films did, and is a tiny bit long.

Both Ginger Rogers and Carole Lombard turned down the role of Sugarpuss O’Shea before Gary Cooper suggested Barbara Stanwyck. The two had worked together before, on Meet John Doe, and Cooper felt she’d be a good choice for the part. Billy Wilder, who wrote the script with Charles Brackett, and director Howard Hawks agreed.

Producer Samuel Goldwyn, who owned Cooper’s contract, was anxious to produce a hit with Cooper cast in the lead. Up to that time, the actor’s biggest roles were in movies he made when loaned out to other studios.

barbara-stanwyck-in-ball-of-fire
Barbara Stanwyck

This was the last film for which Wilder wrote the script without directing it himself, and later he expressed dissatisfaction with the finished result, saying the story as he originally wrote it in Germany was stronger and funnier, and didn’t translate well for an American setting. Audiences over the years, however, haven’t seemed to mind.

A tale of how opposites can attract, Ball of Fire is charming, as much because of the supporting cast as the stars.  The seven professors are almost childlike, yet not childish, and seemingly harmless, despite their adept use of innuendo.

It is not Hawks’ or Wilder’s best film, but in this case, second place is still a winner. Cooper, Stanwyck and Andrews are all at the top of their game, making this a movie well worth the watch.

 

 

The Big Sleep (1946)

The Big Sleep, 1946, Warner Bros. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall. Directed by Howard Hawks. B&W, 113 minutes.

Summoned to work on one case, then turned around for the real story, hard-boiled private detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) finds more mystery — and murder — at every turn. It starts with the sultry daughter of his client, Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall), who’s certain not all is as it seems in her father’s instructions for his investigation.

Her sister Carmen (Martha Vickers) has already made an impression on Marlowe, who drily notes her frisky greeting to her father. Her wild reputation is confirmed when Marlowe finds her that evening drugged and hovering over a dead man, with no apparent concern for the circumstances.

He carries her back to Vivian’s care, then returns to investigate the scene he left, only to discover the corpse is gone. The body was apparently that of one Owen Taylor, who later is believed to have driven off a pier to his death.

Early on this movie establishes itself with racy talk and heavy-laden sexual innuendo, and the story is convoluted and challenging to follow. Critics then and now agree: you watch The Big Sleep for the dialogue, not the plot.

Time magazine’s movie critic wrote at the time, “The Big Sleep is wakeful fare for folks who don’t care what is going on, or why, so long as the talk is hard and the action harder.” In a 1997 review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote, “it’s unusual to find yourself laughing in a movie not because something is funny but because it’s so wickedly clever.”

Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart
Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart

Based on the novel of the same name by Raymond Chandler, some questions about the plot go unanswered. In her autobiography, By Myself, Bacall recalled one day when Bogart asked, “who pushed Taylor off the pier?” Everything stopped, she claimed, for no one knew.

Biographers of both Howard Hawks and Chandler tell of the telegram Hawks sent to Chandler asking if Taylor was murdered or committed suicide. Chandler later wrote a friend, “dammit I didn’t know either.”

Yet that confusion doesn’t seem to matter with a movie that contains the famous and provocative “horse racing” conversation between Bogart and Bacall. For her part, Bacall claimed she was somewhat naÏve about the dialogue, not fully recognizing its sexual nature, but no matter. In real life the two were falling deeply in love, and the chemistry between them is palpable. (They married between the time production was completed and the film was released.)

While the movie was made to accent the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall, director Hawks didn’t approve of their romance. He and his wife repeatedly spoke to Bacall about the dangers of this intense relationship, and tried fixing her up with any number of other actors, including Clark Gable.

Hawks owned Bacall’s contract, and after The Big Sleep was completed, he sold it to Warner Bros. In short order, they increased her pay from $350 a week to $1,000.

Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Martha Vickers
Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Martha Vickers

The film was originally completed in 1945, but studio executives were said to be anxious to capitalize both on Bogart and Bacall’s popularity as a couple and Bacall’s image of smouldering sexuality, and didn’t feel there was enough of either element. In January, 1946 several new scenes were shot and a new version of the film was edited.

The 1945 version of The Big Sleep is only two minutes longer than the final, released 1946 version, but about twenty minutes of the actual scenes included in the film are different. A scene detailing the crimes being investigated was cut, as well as much of the footage that included Vickers, reportedly because some thought she was more sultry than Bacall.

A true classic, The Big Sleep is required viewing for all film noir fans and indeed, anyone interested in the magic of filmmaking. Far from a typical murder mystery, it delivers a sharp, calibrated, sexy look at the people and process involved with solving a crime.

His Girl Friday

His Girl Friday, 1940, Columbia Pictures. Starring Rosalind Russell, Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy. Directed by Howard Hawks. B&W, 92 minutes.

This classic comedy reigns with its sharp banter, sophisticated stars and satirical plot.

Ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), returns to the newsroom to inform her ex-husband — and fellow newsman — Walter Burns (Cary Grant) she’s quitting and getting married again, this time to safe, secure insurance agent Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy).

It’s not long before we see mild-mannered Bruce is all wrong for the fiery Hildy, and the witty and sly repartee between Walter & Hildy makes you wonder what tore them apart.

Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday
Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell

The why’s and wherefore’s of Hildy’s decision to leave Walter and her choice of Bruce are quickly revealed, but it’s no surprise when the impending execution of a possibly innocent man overtakes her reporter’s instincts. She puts the wedding on hold while pursuing the story, and all the while Walter is working on winning her back with some less-than-honorable methods.

Those not familiar with Grant’s comedic skills may be surprised at his adeptness with the art. His timing, subtlety — and lack of it when necessary — made him one of the great romantic comedy actors of his day. Yes, he’s suave and handsome, but that’s only part of his charm.

Russell is his match in every way, and the two definitely have chemistry. As Hildy, wrapped in the quick pace of both the conversation and the plot, she gives a fine portrayal of a woman in a man’s world, long before that became much of a reality.

Rosalind Russell
Rosalind Russell

Poor Ralph Bellamy. His performance as the milquetoast and enamored fiancé is perfect, but as such, Grant and Russell outshine him.

The mockery of the world of news reporting and the hijinks that surround a dramatic case are, we trust, exaggerated. The remaining cast, keeping up with its stars but never overpowering a scene, support the satirical spirit of the story. It is, however, the interaction between Grant & Russell that make up the best parts of the movie.

This is a great rainy Saturday afternoon film, but don’t wait for a downpour to watch it.