Saturday, January 10, 2009

This Month on TCM: "Bringing Up Baby" (1938)

On Tuesday, January 20th, TCM is showing one of the definitive examples of Hollywood's screwball comedy genre: Bringing Up Baby. A flop in its day, it's gone on to make best-of lists and certainly favorite-of lists of many a film lover.

If It Happened One Night is the prototype of the screwball comedy then Bringing Up Baby is the working definition. It Happened One Night had one foot in '30s realism; it knew it was escapism for the masses. Bread lines loom in the background of Capra's film but Baby is all escapism, with no pretense of seriousness. This makes It Happened One Night the better film perhaps, but gives Baby the comedy edge. Bringing Up Baby is 102 minutes of the purest comedy.

The thing about Bringing Up Baby is, well, despite starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, you have to be in the mood for it. This has a lot to do with the characterization of Susan Vance, Katharine Hepburn's character. She's a childish, selfish, spoiled idler. You have to get caught just right to let Susan slide by you. And it helps that Hepburn, who we're familiar with as anyone but an idler, embodies her. As Grant's David tells Susan, "... In moments of quiet I'm strangely drawn toward you, but well there haven't been any quiet moments." It's that kind of dicotomy that will draw you to actually liking Susan, and enjoying watching her.

Once in the mood, the film zips by, particularly the early scenes, and only gets a bit bogged down when a parade of character actor parts get introduced toward the finale. However, each of those character actors gets their laughs in as well, particularly May Robson as Susan's no nonsense aunt.

The movie is about a paleontologist (despite Susan's frequent references to him as a zoologist) trying to land his museum a $1 million gift, only a strange girl appears out of nowhere sidetracking him from meeting his contact and, worse yet, distracting him from his fiancee. Cary Grant as David Huxley, delivers as fine a comic performance as has ever been given. His mastery of exasperation, through facial expression and line delivery is the source of much of the film's comedy. Hepburn works well with Grant's fumblings— as in the classic scene when he must hold his hat against her behind after a "wardrobe malfunction" occurs. And just as Susan brings David out of his shell, Hepburn allows Grant the full expression of his talent-- never upstaging him and complementing his style with a relaxed performance.

The production and direction are markedly the voice of auteur Howard Hawks. Although Hawks notoriously excelled in all genres, his comedies— which also include Twentieth Century (1934), His Girl Friday (1940), Ball of Fire (1942), Monkey Business (1952), others— all have a particularly silly sophistication. They're set in perfectly normal places— a Connecticut country home, a newspaper office, a train— but wherein only-in-the-movies occurances arise. Monkey Business pushed this to the limit in its opening moments when Hawks is heard offscreen directing Cary Grant not to start the scene yet! In Bringing Up Baby, not one but two real-life leopards are introduced, and in fact, drive the plot. "Baby," yes, is a leopard that Susan is watching— sent from her brother, as a gift to her aunt, naturally. And just when Baby gets away from her, a leopard from a nearby circus gets loose. And did I mention there's a missing intercostal clavicle?

This all ends up with an extended finale where mix-up after mix-up occurs and soon every character is in the same room— including the leopards. There is even a chance for Hepburn's Susan to impersonate a gangster's moll, when she puts on the town sheriff. Third-billed Charlie Ruggles, who's character spends his time, mainly it seems, performing a dubbed in "leopard's call" is, with May Robson's Aunt Elizabeth, the voice of reason. These two, however, fall into the general spirit of things when, they too, become prey to the will of Baby.

Again, Bringing Up Baby is best consumed when your in a good mood and want to be in a better mood. If you're miserable, you'll reject it outright. But if life is good, Bringing Up Baby is great.

Bringing Up Baby (1938): If you're game, funny escape with the trademark silly sophistication of Howard Hawks and a particularly brilliant comic performance by Cary Grant.

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