The screwball comedy is something of a lost art. The Coen Brothers can occasionally resurrect it right, but for the most part, filmmakers don’t touch it. Screwball style comedy often deals with witty, fast-paced repartee, a bit of slapstick, and probably a romance between a couple where at least one of them seems to be a bit crazy.
That brings me to today’s entry in the countdown list, a prime example of the genre, 1938’s Bringing Up Baby.
Considering I saw a movie with Katherine Hepburn a couple entries ago, and it was about as different from this movie as it could get, this was a nice treat. Of course, I’ve also since learned the people at AFI updated their 100 movie list, adding some more recent films and taking a few off. And since I’ve already started and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was one of the movies removed from the revised list, I think I’ll stick to the original.
I wasn’t sure where else to put that commentary.
As it is, Bringing Up Baby tells the story of one David Huxley (Cary Grant), a paleontologist who has spent the last four years putting together a brontosaurus for his museum. The last bone is on its way and he’s due to be married to his all-business fiancee Alice in the morning. How all-business is Alice? Her only literal interest is to see to his career. She doesn’t want kids. She doesn’t want a honeymoon.
Methinks David should have talked to her about that first.
As it is, David needs a million dollar grant from a wealthy philanthropist, and as he goes out to woo her lawyer/representative, he runs afoul of a very high-energy woman, Susan Vance (Hepburn). Susan’s sole purpose at first seems to be to ruin David’s life. First she hits his golfball because she assumes it’s hers. Then she steals and dents his car for the same reason. And from there, David can’t seem to get away from her.
As David is expecting to marry dour Alice the next day, the last thing he wants to deal with is Susan. But Susan has a unique problem: her brother sent her a leopard from Brazil. It’s a live animal, tame but alive. As David is the only sort of zoologist Susan knows, she convinces him to come over and help her transport the animal to her aunt’s house in Connecticut. And that’s where everything goes wrong for David, ranging from dogs stealing his fossil, a second leopard, various aliases, stolen cars, and the simple fact that Susan’s aunt is the wealthy philanthropist that David was looking to impress. Naturally it ends well (sort of) for the young couple, but only in a way that exists in the movies.
And that’s fine. No one expects a movie like this to be realistic. Hepburn, usually so stern and formidable in movies I’ve seen with her, is here probably the earliest known prototype of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the young woman who may be a little crazy but whose sole cinematic purpose is to win the heart of a dull boy by bringing him endless excitement, often in an exacerbating way. This is still a prototype, so in this case Hepburn’s Susan falls for Grant’s David long before he will reciprocate. Much of her antics are not there to bring him out of his rut but to keep him close by. Naturally, Susan is meant to be a better match for David than Alice. Now, a crazy klutz like Susan probably isn’t healthy for a long term relationship in the real world, but stuck with David having wacky adventures in a cinematic world is a different story.
Director Howard Hawkes keeps things moving smoothly and briskly. It’s a comedy we probably aren’t supposed to think too deeply about. Why does Susan fall so quickly and easily for David? Does it matter? He seems to fall for her based on the simple premise that she’s responsible for him having what may be the best and worst day of his life. It’s easy to see why Susan might be a tempting target for David’s affections. Hepburn may be acting silly, but she’s still just as formidable here as she will be in later pictures. Her way of talking herself out of some trouble and then landing herself in other trouble will not make for dull times, but I would wonder what she sees in him. Aside from being a handsome man, he’s rather dull and a stick-in-the-mud who would probably try to hamper her nonstop good times. Then again, maybe she needs a moderating influence just as much as he needs a little spark of fun. It doesn’t much matter. Movies like this end with the couple embracing, and then we don’t need to worry about them anymore. What kind of awful sequel would this have produced? It’s probably a good thing no one tried to make one.
NEXT UP: We’re going back to the West in 1956 when John Wayne and John Ford gave us The Searchers.