Back in the 1930s, a sub-genre of American romantic comedy emerged that has come to be known as Screwball Comedy. Screwball comedies usually involve a heroine who, in the parlance of the Depression era, is something of a “screwy dame,” meaning she’s a little crazy — unpredictable, impulsive, headstrong, and able to manipulate and cajole in order to get the guy she wants. These films often include farcical situations, slapstick, and something I’m especially fond of: fast-paced repartee. Director Howard Hawks was particularly good at getting his actors to execute the latter. Some of the best examples of the genre are IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, MY MAN GODFREY, THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, and two Hawks gems, HIS GIRL FRIDAY, and the decidedly kid-friendliest screwball comedy of ’em all, BRINGING UP BABY.
Watching BRINGING UP BABY is a great way to introduce girls to the work of Katharine Hepburn, who was a trailblazer for women, whether it came to wearing pants or controlling her career: when it was in a slump, she bought the rights to the hit play “The Philadelphia Story,” so the studios had to come to her to buy it, and then she got to pick her co-stars too. (Another great Hepburn film for girls is LITTLE WOMEN, but that’s for another post.) BRINGING UP BABY pairs the great Kate with the charming, smart, ridiculously handsome, ever-so-funny-when-he’s-exasperated Cary Grant. They’re joined by the wire-haired terrier who played Asta in THE THIN MAN movies, and a magnificent leopard who plays the “baby” of the film’s title.
In the film, Grant is David, an easily flustered paleontologist, and Hepburn plays Susan, a free-spirited young woman from Connecticut who is smitten with David upon first meeting. In a series of contrivances and mishaps, Susan gets David to Connecticut to help her with Baby, the tame leopard her brother has sent her from Brazil as a gift for her aunt. The aunt just so happens to be the woman Grant needs to impress to get more money for the museum where he’s trying to assemble a brontosaurus skeleton, for which he needs one last bone. Both Baby and the dinosaur bone go missing — the latter due to Susan’s terrier George. Pretty soon there are two missing leopards roaming the wilds of suburban Connecticut: the tame Baby, who calms to the song “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” and the other a dangerous wild cat accidentally set loose from a nearby circus. Susan, David and George are in pursuit.
Susan realizes early on that David’s the man for her — he just doesn’t know it yet. She does anything and everything she can to make sure he stays with her and isn’t available to his all-too-serious fiancee Alice, even at one point stealing his clothes, which forces him to dress in a negligee. By the film’s third act, Susan and David are temporarily jailed, but it all ends, as it should, quite happily … though David’s precious dinosaur skeleton doesn’t stand a chance when Susan’s in the room.
I first showed BRINGING UP BABY to my daughter when she was seven years old. Though we had to stop and start a few times for some quick explanations — for instance, what is a paleontologist? and why were the actors talking so fast? — she was instantly in love with both the dog and the leopard, and by the time the second leopard was on the loose, we had to stay up late and get to the movie’s end. The animals were what hooked her first — but the comedy is what made her watch to the finish. Now it’s become one of our mother-daughter watch-together favorites.
Lest you think the movie’s strictly for girls, know this: even my son temporarily put aside his aversion to black-and-white to see what those animals were up to, and when I followed it up soon after with a showing of THE THIN MAN, featuring that very same dog, he forgot all about his preference for color movies. When the movie’s good enough to get kids over the hump of no color, it turns out black and white is just fine.
BRINGING UP BABY (1938) Directed by Howard Hawks, Screenplay by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde. With Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant.