Bringing Up Baby

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(1938, directed by Howard Hawks)

- inducted 2019 –

Bringing Up Baby is the slightly askew story of a boy, a girl and her leopard. The leopard’s name is in the title, but she escaped blame when Howard Hawks’ frenetically paced screwball comedy flopped back in 1938. Audiences didn’t know what to make of this aggressive comedy of aggravation, a film whose main characters were allegedly described by its director as ‘crazy.’ The inspired lunacy of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn cemented the latter’s status as box-office poison, a distinction she shook off two years later when she reteamed with Grant for The Philadelphia Story. That film had a famously drunk Jimmy Stewart; this film has Stewart’s co-star from After the Thin Man, Asta the dog.

“Asta is tasked with burying the film’s MacGuffin, the intercostal clavicle bone that will complete the dinosaur skeleton built by Dr. David Huxley (Grant). The pooch is owned by Susan Vance (Hepburn), whose constant run-ins with Huxley form the basis of every mishap he will suffer. Vance is an intense and destructive force of nature whose Meet Cute with Huxley begins with her playing his golf ball on the course and ends with her inadvertently stealing his car. Things go rapidly downhill from there. Vance keeps misreading Huxley’s antagonistic reactions to her as romantic intent, because her shrink told her that ‘the love impulse in men frequently reveals itself in terms of conflict.’ Vance is further confused by Huxley’s profession—she thinks he’s a zoologist—so she introduces him to Baby, a tame leopard with a narcissistic penchant for songs that include her name. Huxley’s attempt to escape Vance’s clutches is thwarted once that dinosaur bone goes missing. Huxley has to get it back by any means necessary while also avoiding the possibility that he might be eaten by a leopard. Mucho mayhem ensues.

“The comedic impulse in Bringing Up Baby frequently reveals itself in terms of conflict, and Hepburn and Grant practically drown in conflict. Much of the humor stems from Grant’s exasperated response to whatever fresh Hell Hepburn tosses at him. Susan Vance is one of Hepburn’s most daring performances—she’s as exhausting and demanding as the slapstick in a Tex Avery cartoon. If viewers aren’t on the screwball level Hawks’ direction demands, Vance can be extremely off-putting, which might explain the original box office numbers. Yet several decades later, Bringing Up Baby has deservedly earned vindication: it appears on multiple AFI lists and has been designated a classic of its genre. In addition to ‘going gay all of a sudden’ thanks to Hepburn’s lingerie, Grant also engages his acrobatic talent for pratfalls and double-takes. Hepburn proves equally adept and limber with the verbal humor scripted by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde. Both actors alternate as the straight man in their comedic duo, and their flexibility is just one of the numerous, impressive feats performed by this bonkers contraption of a movie.” ~ Odie Henderson

Principal cast: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Charlie Ruggles, Walter Catlett, Barry Fitzgerald, May Robson, Fritz Feld, Leona Roberts, George Irving, Tala Birell, Virginia Walter, John Kelly, with uncredited performances by Ward Bond, Asta, and Nissa the Leopard
Screenplay by Dudley Nichols & Hagar Wilde
Based on the story by Hagar Wilde
Associate producer: Cliff Reid
Photographed by Russell Metty
Art direction by Van Nest Polglase
Gowns by Howard Greer
Film editing by George Hively
Original music by Roy Webb
Sound recordist John L. Cass
Special effects by Vernon L. Walker
Makeup by Mel Berns (uncredited)
Produced by Howard Hawks (uncredited)

USA
Duration: 102 minutes
Languages: English
Filmed in black and white
Sound mix: Mono (RCA Victor System)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1

Produced and released in USA by RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Premiered in San Francisco, California, USA on 16 February 1938

Awards and honors:
- National Film Registry selection, 1990

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