Bringing Up Baby

cary-grant-baby-katharine-hepburn in 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.

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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.

 

 

 

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Adam’s Rib

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Adam’s Rib, 1949, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn. Directed by George Cukor. B&W, 100 minutes.

A distraught wife (Judy Holliday) seeks out her husband (Tom Ewell) as he meets with his paramour (Jean Hagen). With great inexpertise and a shaky aim, she shoots him in the shoulder, wounding his ego more than his body. Their story is headline news, and particularly captures the attention of Adam and Amanda Bonner (Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn), married New York attorneys on the opposite side of the courtroom.

Amanda, a defense attorney, seeks to represent the bewildered and aggrieved wife, while Adam, part of the prosecuting attorney’s team, is assigned the case. For Adam, it is cut-and-dry; the defendant shot her husband and admitted to it, therefore, she is guilty of a crime. Amanda, however, sees a double standard in the way women are treated in the court system and believes a just sentence would be no sentence at all.

The happily married Bonners find their union strained as a result of the courtroom drama, and their belief in each other challenged.

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Jean Hagen, Tom Ewell, Judy Holliday

The movie was nominated for one Academy Award for screenwriting. It was greeted with favor by the press, including The New York Times, whose critic called it “a bang-up frolic” and Variety, who reported the film was “a bright comedy success, belting over a succession of sophisticated laughs.”

This was one of the first major motion picture roles for Holliday, who had come to the attention of the theater-going public in the Broadway production of Born Yesterday. Holliday would go on to make a career of playing scatterbrained yet inadvertantly insightful blondes, the same way she portrayed her character in Adam’s Rib.

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Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy

The script was written by the husband and wife team Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon.  Unlike many screenwriters of the time, Gordon and Kanin wrote independently and sold their scripts to the studios, so they remained free to write the stories they wanted without studio oversight. Working with George Cukor was beneficial, Kanin said in a later interview, because he “was a great respecter of the text.” Cukor, Hepburn and Tracy had input into the story, but the screenwriting remained the domain of Gordon and Kanin.

The sixth of nine films Hepburn and Tracy would star in together, it is perhaps one of their best, along with Woman of the Year. Their chemistry is obvious and, as we know, very real, and their talents equal and balanced. Both are masters of the use of subtle expression and moves, pure communication without words.

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Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy

Adam’s Rib was timely in its portrayal of the woman’s issues of the day, and in many respects, the message is just as relevant today. The courtroom drama may become slapstick and story line a bit improbable at points, but that is part of most comedies, and this is a gem of a comedy.

 

The Philadelphia Story

Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart The Philadelphia Story

The Philadelphia Story, 1940, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart. Directed by George Cukor. B&W, 112 minutes.

Fiery, fiesty Philadelphia socialite Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is ready to marry again, two years after her divorce from C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant). Much to her chagrin, Dexter, a former newspaperman, shows up the day before the wedding with two tabloid reporters he tries passing off as friends of Tracy’s brother: writer Macauley (Mike) Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Elizabeth Imbrey (Ruth Hussey). Tracy isn’t fooled, but agrees to let them stay when Dexter tells her by covering the wedding he’s keeping the paper from a tell-all story about her father and his indiscretions.

Tracy quickly is becoming intrigued by Mike, and the two find themselves together perhaps a bit more often than a proper engaged woman should allow. That doesn’t stop Dexter from keeping a close watch for opportune moments to step in and take back Tracy’s heart.

The story line has taken a turn in that the rivalry is primarily between Dexter and Mike, with the fiancé virtually becoming a non-entity. Yet despite the battle for Tracy’s affection, the two remain gentlemanly toward each other. They are perhaps a little less kind to George, the fiancé, however.

Cary Grant, James Stewart The Philadelphia Story
Cary Grant. James Stewart

Katharine Hepburn first starred on Broadway in the stage version of The Philadelphia Story, and, as a gift from Howard Hughes, owned the film rights. She sold those rights to MGM for the paltry sum of $250,000 in exchange for decision-making power in the selection of producer, director, co-stars and screenwriter.

Her first choices for the male stars were Clark Gable as C.K. Dexter Haven and Spencer Tracy as Mike Connor, but neither were available. Hepburn had not met either man at that point; of course a few short years later she and Tracy would meet on the set of Woman of the Year and begin a life-long affair.

Reviews of the film were overwhelmingly positive. “Terribly funny, terribly upper class,” was how the Time magazine movie critic described it. The New York Times critic wrote: “this (film)… has just about everything that a blue-chip comedy should have—a witty, romantic script; ….the flavor of high-society elegance, in which the patrons invariably luxuriate, and a splendid cast of performers.” Audiences loved it as well, and flocked to see it, breaking a box-office record at Radio City Music Hall.

The Philadelphia Story was nominated for six Academy Awards and won two: Best Actor for James Stewart and Best Adapted Screenplay (based on the 1939 play of same name). Stewart was not expecting to win, admitting in his acceptance speech he’d voted for Henry Fonda. Many believed the award was given to him as compensation for not receiving it a year earlier for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Stewart, Grant, Hepburn
James Stewart, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn

Ruth Hussey gives a compelling performance as the patient, level-headed photographer in love with Mike Connor, despite his apparent oblivion to her affection. Both female characters in this film are strong and independent, qualities not undermined by their love for their men.

Two years after being declared “box office poison” by the Independent Theater Owners of America, Katharine Hepburn proved she was as powerful a leading lady as ever in her role in The Philadelphia Story. Never one to doubt her own worth, she set out to make a movie that proved her star power, and she succeeded.

Woman of the Year

Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy Woman of the Year

Woman of the Year, 1942, MGM Pictures. Starring Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Fay Bainter. Directed by George Stevens. B&W, 114 minutes.

An incomparable combination of cast, director and screenwriters created a timeless film about a powerful woman with a notable lack of expertise in love. The story is compelling, honest and funny, and it’s impossible to ignore the real-life burgeoning romance between Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, who met on the set of this movie. (That love affair continued until his death in 1967).

Hepburn plays Tess Harding, a highly accomplished international affairs reporter, fluent in multiple languages, with a high society background. Enter Sam Craig, a well-respected sportswriter with a more middle-class background, not completely out of her league but a bit foreign to it.

The two work for the same big-name newspaper at a time when newspapers reigned as the source of information, and find themselves thrown together both by chance and by choice. Love seemingly has overcome that which might divide them. Tess takes on the challenge of learning baseball, oblivious about how out-of-place she is at the game. Sam valiantly works the room at a cocktail party for international dignitaries, or tries to, until language barriers bring his efforts to a halt.

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Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn

The future looks bright for this sharp couple, with perhaps some comical transition to wedded bliss in store.

Not so fast. This is a fun and funny movie, but the humor is woven into Tess & Sam’s struggle with their differences. Ultimately, their marriage is tested to a possible point of no return. With a finely written script and keenly portrayed characters, how that struggle unfolds is what makes this such a rich and rewarding film.

The ending falls a little flat, although the message is good, and a bit of background on the making of the film tells us why. The original ending didn’t play well when tested with audiences, so against their wishes, the stars and screenwriters Ring Laudner Jr. & Michael Kanin pulled together something new. Despite the messy changes, Laudner & Kanin won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Fortunately, they were able to keep the final key message intact. It’s a message as true today as it was then, and one that women faced with combining career and marriage will appreciate. Hopefully, their men will as well.

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Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy

This movie has honesty, intelligence, complexity, humor and of course, genuine chemistry between Tracy and Hepburn (the latter was nominated for an Academy Award). Fay Bainter, as Hepburn’s equally liberal and driven aunt, is appealing in her vulnerable and straightforward nature.

This is a classic story for women who want to “have it all” — because it tells us you can’t, but at the same time, you can.