Dinosaur bones, wild(ish) leopards, and Cary Grant with nerd glasses: some things are just very hard to explain. The beauty of Bringing Up Baby, though, is that this film doesn’t care; it’s too busy having fun to bother with explaining. Chaos reigns, and the only thing you can know for sure is that things move fast.
So it really doesn’t matter that the plot of this film revolves around Katherine Hepburn’s sharp-nosed socialite and Grant’s bumbling paleontologist smuggling an Amazonian jungle cat onto a Connecticut estate, the consequences of which include spending a not insignificant amount of screen time chasing after a terrier, up roofs, or in jail. Just go with it, because while Bringing Up Baby may not be the best example of the screwball genre, it’s pretty damn close.
Screwball comedies are absurd and mannered both, a meeting of opposites that’s confused and crazy until it’s true love, silly. The eerily well-trained cats portraying the titular “Baby” whom Susan Vance and David Huxley find themselves charged with are quite hilarious – think Mike Tyson’s tiger from The Hangover but with more cuddling and a musical Achilles heel – but the movie’s success ultimately rests on the strength of its two leads.
Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn each bring interesting touches to the broadly sketched characters they play. Poor, benighted David is a Type-A academic, inept and aloof, and the film earns the GDP of a small European nation running rings around him, but Grant plays him a little knowingly – as bamboozled as he is, you get the sense he kinda likes it – which saves him from coming off as a complete schmuck. Katherine Hepburn, as well, in cadence and looks often brings an awareness to the flighty Susan, the sense that she knows exactly what she is doing, that wreaking havoc on David’s ordered world is infinitely preferable to the pain of letting him go. Grant overcompensates for his character’s flaws with a little extra charm, Hepburn grounds hers with instances of vulnerability. When you put the two together, they come off as perfect for each other, each able to be a victim and/or a perp of screwball comedy.
These might be the parents of that “Interesting Man” who drinks Dos Equis
Not that we ever spend too long on boring things like feelings. Bringing Up Baby is, for Bill Waterson fans, the filmic equivalent of Calvinball: the circumstances, the allegiances, even the identities of the players, and especially the rules of the game are all in constant flux. The madcap pacing itself becomes a kind of order, and this is where Howard Hawks’ decidedly not-showy directorial style really serves the film. Because Hawks makes everything visually seem seamless, and moves his story too quickly and too effortlessly for its causality to be questioned, the audience is simply free to enjoy the insanity of the film’s various situations, Grant’s game pratfalls, and Hepburn’s razor wit.
Let’s get into specifics of that insanity for a minute. Bringing Up Baby is highly regarded now by critics, but it wasn’t always so. When the film came out, it was actually slammed for being a little too crazy, the New York Times calling it, “breathless, senseless and terribly, terribly fatiguing.” On one score, they’re right: the amount of jail-time, cross-dressing, and uncontrollable animals packed into this film’s 102 minutes is kind of exhausting. Hawks really doesn’t choose to linger on one situation until many of the characters end up arrested for breaking and entering, and the film uses Hepburn in particular to send up the gangster genre. But because the only time the movie slows down is for satire, the chock-a-block pace of the gags can wear down a viewer, particularly on a first viewing when no end appears in sight.
Speaking so fast is stressful, you guys!
The sheer amount of misunderstandings and standoffs with possibly feral leopards don’t necessarily weigh the film down or induce migraines, but they do bury, a little, several truly inspired comedy sequences among a whole lot of funny, but not necessarily exceptional, gags. And because neither Grant nor Hepburn is completely the straight-man, the duty necessarily falls to the viewer to absorb every crisis the way a sane person would, which isn’t always enjoyably.
However, if you can be patient with it, the film does reward your investment. There’s a beauty to the changing dynamics of the extended jail sequence, for instance, which has Hepburn completely in control of a big cat – just until she realizes it isn’t her big cat. Bringing Up Baby can change comedic directions on a dime, and following all the zigs and zags can wear on a viewer, for sure. But because the characters’ charms remain constant (and constantly crazy), the film never truly wears out its welcome.
As zany and farcical as screwball comedies come, if Bringing Up Baby has a fault, it’s that it is too stuffed full of bits and gags. But Grant and Hepburn, at their sharpest and speediest, make the film a ride worth taking.
Take a Drink: anytime it is obvious that “Baby” is actually stuffed/not actually present within a shot.
Take a Drink: anytime Susan can’t take one of David’s hints.
Do a Shot: anytime anyone sings, “I don’t need anything but love.”