Bringing Up Baby

Director: Howard Hawks
Screenplay: Dudley Nichols & Hagar Wilde (from the story by Hagar Wilde)
Stars: Katharine Hepburn (Susan Vance), Cary Grant (David Huxley), Charlie Ruggles (Major Horace Applegate), May Robson (Aunt Elizabeth), Barry Fitzgerald (Mr. Gogarty), Walter Catlett (Constable Slocum), Fritz Feld (Dr. Fritz Lehman), Leona Roberts (Hannah Gogarty), George Irving (Alexander Peabody)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1938
Country: U.S.
Bringing Up Baby Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Bringing Up Baby

Along with Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934), Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby is arguably the preeminent screwball comedy—a perfect embodiment of the sophisticated charm, witty and rich dialogue, impeccable timing, and imaginatively madcap unreality that made the genre so unique and enjoyable. There is a touch of irony in that statement because, while Capra’s film was a box office hit and major Oscar winner (one of only three films to sweep the top five awards), Bringing Up Baby fizzled during its theatrical release. It was around this same time that the film’s star, Katherine Hepburn, was labeled “box office poison” by a survey of theater managers.

Hepburn plays Susan Vance, a zany (is there any other word to describe her?) heiress who becomes fixated on the bespectacled David Huxley (Cary Grant), a stuffy, overworked zoologist who is engaged to an even stuffier zoologist who doesn’t want “domestic entanglements” like honeymoons, sex, and children to get in the way of their marriage. Through a series of coincidences, misadventures, and planned schemes over the course of two days, Susan burrows into David’s life, throwing it completely out of whack. For the first part of the film, it seems like everything between them is merely a happenstance. However, once Susan finds out that David is getting married the next day, everything she does is in the pursuit of keeping him away from his wedding date in New York. In this way, Susan is the essence of the liberated, strong, and wily woman that characterized the screwball comedies—determined, unembarrassed, and relentlessly committed to her plan.

Susan and David first meet on a golf course when David is trying—in his own awkward way—to woo a corporate lawyer into donating $1 million to his museum. The lawyer represents the actual donor, a wealthy woman named Elizabeth (May Robson), who happens to be Susan’s aunt. By the time the movie reaches its zenith, it has incorporated a big-talking game hunter named Major Horace Applegate (Charlie Ruggles), a small, yapping dog named George that steals a precious dinosaur bone David needs to complete a brontosaurus skeleton, and the “Baby” of the title, a (mostly) tame leopard.

Like the majority of screwball comedies, Bringing Up Baby is distinctly American and upper class in nature. It takes place in a privileged world of golf courses, expansive hotels, museums, and sprawling houses on vast acreage. The slapstick pranks framed in these settings take on entirely different meanings than if they had been taken place in the kind of harsh, poverty-stricken environments—urban ghettos, rural farms—that characterized the worldwide Depression of the era. Instead of being social critique like, for example, Charles Chaplin’s films, screwball comedies were pure, unapologetic escapism. Audiences suffering under the weight of the Great Depression sought the movie houses for escape, and what better escape when you’re in dire straits that to laugh at those better off than you?

But the magic of Bringing Up Baby can hardly be confined to the period in which it was made. Although it wasn’t a box office hit when it was first released in 1938 (in fact, it lost several hundred thousand dollars, partially because Hawks went overbudget), it has gained in status and popularity as the years have passed. It is now widely recognized as one of the essential films of the classic Hollywood era, with outstanding direction by Hawks, perfectly balanced cinematography by the legendary Russell Metty (a regular collaborator of Orson Welles’s who later won an Oscar for Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus), and truly memorable performances by everyone involved, especially Hepburn and Grant, the latter of whom was just coming into his own as a romantic leading man, especially after his starring role in Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937).

The quick, finely tuned dialogue was courtesy of screenwriters Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach, Pinky) and Hagar Wilde, whose 1937 Collier’s short story provided the film’s source material, and Grant and Hepburn deliver it in engaging long takes with perfectly timed wit and sharpness. The tone and rhythm of their petty bickering, with Grant scolding and Hepburn generally misunderstanding everything he says (willfully, it often seems) is an art in and of itself. The physical comedy, including Grant trying to hide Hepburn’s exposed backside when she tears her dress and Grant parading about the house in a marabou-trimmed négligée because Hepburn has stolen his clothes, is only icing on the cake. (Incidentally, that scene is regarded as one of the first instances where the word “gay” was used to connote homosexuality in a mainstream film. When asked why he’s wearing a woman’s robe, Grant jumps up in a fit of frustration and blurts, “Because I just went gay all of a sudden!” How the censors at the Production Code Administration let that line through is a bit of a mystery, with one possible explanation being that they simply didn’t get the double meaning of the word.)

A crown jewel of the classical Hollywood era and one of the finest screwball comedies ever made, Bringing Up Baby is a genuine comic treasure and a film that grows richer and funnier with each viewing. It takes place in a world this is distinctly ours, and yet, has never really existed. It is, in essence, what the magic of the movies is all about—transporting us to another time and place while simultaneously allowing us to see a bit of ourselves.

Bringing Up Baby Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.37:1
Audio
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
    Supplements
  • Audio commentary from 2005 featuring filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich
  • Video essay on actor Cary Grant by author Scott Eyman
  • Video interview about cinematographer Russell Metty with cinematographer John Bailey
  • Video interview with film scholar Craig Barron on special-effects pioneer Linwood Dunn
  • Selected-scene commentary about costume designer Howard Greer featuring costume historian Shelly Foote
  • Howard Hawks: A Hell of a Good Life, a 1977 documentary by Hans-Christoph Blumenberg
  • Audio interview from 1969 with Grant
  • Audio excerpts from a 1972 conversation between Hawks and Bogdanovich
  • Trailer
  • Insert booklet with essay by critic Sheila O’Malley and the 1937 short story by Hagar Wilde on which the film is based
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJuly 6, 2021

    COMMENTS
    Criterion’s new Blu-ray of Bringing Up Baby marks the film’s high-definition debut, and it looks fantastic. The liner notes give an extensive description of the restoration process, which essentially boils down to making 16-bit 4K scans of the two best existing elements: a 35mm nitrate duplicate negative from the British Film Institute and a 35mm safety fine-grain positive. The resulting transfer looks exactly like a late 1930s studio film should look. The image is fairly thick with grain, but not at the expense of fine detail and strong contrast (it was shot, after all, by the same cinematographer who shot Welles’s The Stranger and Touch of Evil). There is a slight softness to the image, which is accentuated by the fact that so much of it is shot in medium and long shots, but this is clearly the intended look of the film. There has been some digital restoration, as the image is clean throughout, with only a few vague signs of wear and age (apparently, the nitrate element was riddled with mold, but that was taken care of with wet-gate scanning). The original monaural soundtrack was mastered from the 35mm optical tracks and is presented in a Linear PCM track that sounds generally clean, with good presentation of the dialogue and effects.

    As far as the supplements go, let me tell you what I really appreciated about what Criterion has assembled here. Rather than just focusing on the obvious elements of the film—namely Hawks, Hepburn, and Grant—they have dug deep into the production and offer us great insight and information about a number of important collaborators whose work often goes unmentioned in discussions of the film (and, in one case, isn’t even included in the credits!). So, we get a 12-minute interview with cinematographer John Bailey about the complexity and subtle intricacy of Russell Metty’s undervalued cinematography; a 12-minute interview with special effects maestro and film scholar Craig Barron about the uncredited Linwood Dunn and how his pioneering work with optical printers and travelling mattes makes possible some of the film’s best shots featuring the leopard; and a selected-scene audio commentary about costume designer Howard Greer by costume historian Shelly Foote. Of course, we still get plenty of other supplementary material, including an excellent audio commentary by filmmaker and historian Peter Bogdanovich from Warner Bros.’ 2005 two-disc DVD set (the pleasure Bogdonavich takes in watching the film while talking about it is its own pleasure); Howard Hawks: A Hell of a Good Life, a 57-minute German television documentary by Hans-Christoph Blumenberg from 1977 that includes an extensive interview with Hawks at his Palm Beach, California, house that turned out to be his last filmed interview; 15 minutes of audio excerpts from a 1972 conversation between Hawks and Bogdanovich; a 19-minute video essay about Grant’s early years as an actor by Scott Eyman (Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise); and a 35-minute audio interview with Grant following a screening of the film in 1969 as part of a “Hollywood in the Thirties” film series presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. There is also a thick insert booklet with an essay by critic Sheila O’Malley and a complete printing of the 1937 short story by Hagar Wilde on which the film is based.

    Copyright © 2021 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (4)




    James Kendrick

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