Sunday, April 17, 2011

Bringing Up Baby

Year: 1938
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 88
Writer: Dudley Nichols & Hagar Wilde
Director: Howard Hawks
Star: Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Charles Ruggles

“Bringing Up Baby” is one of those great, one-of-a-kind movies that captures comedy lightning in a bottle in every sense. If I had to brand it, I would say it’s a “Screwball Comedy,” but it’s so much more realistic than the Marx Brothers comedies. And yet I can’t class it with the more sophisticated comedies George Cukor directed…its tone is somewhere in the middle. It makes logical sense on its own terms, but those terms aren’t anywhere near reality. Its brand of humor is certainly polarizing—but I personally consider it the best comedy film I’ve ever seen.

To describe the plot would be madness. It involves a one-million dollar grant David (Cary Grant) wishes to receive for his museum, and how his chance meeting with the eccentric Susan (Katherine Hepburn) keeps muddying those prospects. It also involves a Brontosaurus’ intercostal clavicle, two leopards, mistaken identity, a dandy trick with making olives disappear and numerous recitations of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.”

All through the film Grant and Hepburn circle one another in an odd dance, delivering some of the best dialogue ever committed to film at a rapid fire pace that brings lingering laugh after lingering laugh. Alone, David is a wet blanket of a character under the domineering thumb of his fiancĂ©. And when Susan is by herself, her babblings seem more insane than anything else. But when the two meet, the chemistry is palpable. As great as the direction and script are, if Grant and Hepburn did not immediately come across as two people so frustrated with one another they cannot see that they are meant to be together, then the movie would have imploded. The movie is funny, but it is also a romance where the viewer grows to care deeply about over as the film develops, and the moment Susan realizes she’s head over heels for David is one of those pitch-perfect moments in all of cinema.

Grant’s performance at first seems to be a variation on the one he gave in “Arsenic and Old Lace,” where he slowly went cuckoo after realizing his dear old aunts were killing people, but he does it with such gusto that he gets away with it. But even as I write that I remember, despite what was going on in that film, that Grant remained very romantic with his leading lady, especially at the beginning. Here he seems to have dropped every ounce of sexual charisma he usually brings to his romantic comedies, plasters on a pair of glasses and acts completely dorky and asexual until the final scene.

Hepburn is harder to define—looking at the film the wrong way her character can be grating and her performance even moreso—but I cannot help but fall in love with her. She (Susan) has such a gusto for life, and in the second act when she does everything possible to help David because she loves him (of course everything keeps getting more and more screwed up) you really grow to love her for it.

Something about the way they interact with one another just…works. Simple as that. It would be easy to overanalyze their scenes together and talk about tiny beats and small moments, but why? When something this special works, you shouldn’t question it. I’d rank Susan and David’s chemistry here as second to only my beloved Nick and Nora in the “Thin Man” movies, and that isn’t fair since those two have six movies to impress with.

The entire film has this timeless quality to it that many of the screwball comedies of the late thirties and forties just don’t have. Portions of “The Philadelphia Story” have aged horribly, and movies like “His Girl Friday,” “Topper” and “Dinner at Eight” are still funny and great films, but it helps when they are taken within context of when they were made. “Bringing Up Baby” seems taken out of time entirely…probably because the movie deals with reality on its own terms. If you can buy that there can be such a thing as a domesticated leopard named “Baby” in New England that makes friends with a terrier and will only be calm when sung to, then this is the movie for you. If not…well…there’s just no talking to you.

I’d say that the movie seems cartoonish in places (and I mean that as a compliment), but whenever it gets too loopy for its own good, Hepburn and Grant’s chemistry grounds it. The dialogue is so fast-paced, so quippy and so witty it would be an injustice to reproduce it here. It’s all about the delivery and the way it informs David and Susan as characters. Needless to say, the script juggles at least a dozen balls with ease, complicating things wonderfully and wrapping things up even better.

This is Howard Hawks’ only film on the AFI Top 100, and that’s a huge injustice to one of the best, most versatile directors of his or any time. How is it possible that “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” did not make the list? Or “His Girl Friday”? There are other classics, such as the original “Scarface,” “The Big Sleep,” “Rio Bravo” and the original “The Thing.” The connective thread of his best work is a complete devotion to getting his characters just right before having fun with the concepts and premises.

And if he hadn’t done that here, “Bringing Up Baby” would have been disastrous. But he did. I can’t help but watch the final scene of the film, where Susan teeters back and forth on a high ladder in glee after finding out David loves her, with a huge grin on my face. Like the earlier scene where she realizes she loves him, here is another “just perfect” moment in cinema. I believe in them as a couple, crazy as they may be and crazy as the circumstances they encounter are.

When I was writing my first book, I couldn’t help but give this movie several shout-outs. When I’m in a bad mood, this is the movie I turn to. “Bringing Up Baby” makes me completely, utterly, irrevocably…happy. Simple as that. And what more can you possibly ask for? Taken on those terms alone, it’s perfect.

My Grade (out of 5): *****

All About Eve

Year: 1950
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 28
Writer/Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Star: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders

The secret of “All About Eve” is that it convinces you for a very large part of its running time that it’s much more cynical than it actually is. Considering the film’s title, purposely dry voiceover and the framing of the movie so it begins at Eve’s moment of triumph, one would believe the story is simply about Eve (Anne Baxter) knocking everything and everyone out of her way on her path to stardom, but I think that’s wrong. It’s about those people who survive Eve as she pushes her way through them—they are good, flawed people who ultimately find the strength to be happy despite the fact that the could have easily been roadkill.

We first meet Eve, and those survivors, in the film’s opening minutes, at a theatre awards dinner where she is about to be given, from what I can surmise, the “Greatest Actress Ever” award. The voiceover that introduces us to the characters is provided by Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), a theatre critic and columnist who has declared himself the most powerful man on Broadway. He doesn’t actually say this in the film, but I’m guessing he’s forced that surname into the masthead of his newspaper. A close cousin of the Waldo Lydecker character in “Laura,” he’s the kind of guy who you can’t help but call by his first and last name because to do otherwise would feel wrong, and his words here crackle with wit:

“The distinguished looking gentleman is an extremely old actor. Being an actor, he will go on speaking for some time. It is not important that you hear what he says.”

We soon flash back to how Eve got on that podium, and meet the people she will step all over to get there. Chief among them is Margo Channing (Bette Davis), who Eve basically stalks until she gets an introduction thanks to Margo’s best friend Karen (Celeste Holm). Davis’ performance doesn’t seem like a performance, which is the highest compliment I can give it. Margo has recently turned 40 and is at the peak of her career and skills, but knows she’s now too old to play young 20-somethings. She is horrified about what will happen when the rest of the theatre community realizes this as well. She’s so afraid of her age that she refuses to marry the love of her life, Bill (Gary Merrill, memorable thanks to the extremely annoying way he holds his cigarettes) because he’s a few years younger.

Margo and Eve become “friends” and Eve begins to use Margo’s contacts as stepping stones, making small jumps at first until she ultimately uses blackmail and threats of adultery to get her way. Margo’s maid Birdie (Thelma Ritter) notices things first; “It’s like she’s studying you!” she says to Margo at one point, and soon enough Margo gets wise to what’s happening as well. Mankiewicz is extremely smart to let the characters become privy to Eve’s motives early enough to make them seem wise and not like the idiots in soap operas who can never see what’s right in front of them.

It’s the women that notice everything first, of course, and their men take a bit more time to get it together. All the while I was astounded by how raw and real the characters, particularly Margo, were. When Margo self-destructs at a party for Bill, we are horrified but our hearts still go out to her. Because we recognize Margo as a fragile person, we don’t want Eve to succeed, but of course ultimately Eve’s machinations are just the kick in the pants Margo needs to get herself and her life together.

Eve’s character becomes much more prominent as the film continues, with Mankiewicz phasing Margo and the other characters out once they’ve found their strength and happiness. Davis gets all the huzzahs for her performance while Baxter’s is usually regarded as less-than-stellar, but I don’t know about that. I’m guessing that Mankiewicz wanted her to be a cipher more than anything else, and the way he shoots and blocks her supports that. In his tremendous script, full of intelligence, humor and wit, there isn’t a single line from Eve that lingers in our mind. She never begins a conversation and only seems to speak in response to what other people say. The most initiative she takes (until the final scenes) is to ask questions instead of making blatant statements. Perhaps that is why everyone finds her so acceptable—because she agrees with everything they say and there’s a vagueness about her personality that makes you define her instead of defining herself.

Mankiewicz’s script breaks a bunch of rules about structure, voice-over and narrative point-of-view, but does it with such elegance and ease that you can’t help but go along for the ride. Note, for example, that we never see Margo or Eve actually acting on stage in a film that is about actors. I’ve seen the movie a few times now, and with each viewing I become more in awe of his direction, and that he didn’t stoop to theatrics. The movie didn’t need it. His camera is never showy until the last shot, but its placement and use is still great. Note how he always frames Eve in the frame with Margo and Bill early in the movie, foreshadowing what is to come later. Or how he blocks Margo and Bill breaking up, the most melodramatic moment in the film (purposely so) on a stage among exaggerated props.

Oh, and did I mention Marilyn Monroe is in the movie in a small-but-crackerjack supporting role? She’s never given a major close-up and yet our eyes cannot help from lingering on her no matter what else is happening in the frame. I believe that’s what it means to be a movie star.

Perhaps the smartest move Mankiewicz makes is not allowing Eve to get her comeuppance during the film. She thinks she’s triumphed, but we see that the other characters have moved on from her games and will not have to deal with her again since she’s leaving for Hollywood. And then, of course, there’s Phoebe, Eve v. 2.0. Just her introduction and a small hint of what to come was enough. Anything else would have been unrealistic and far too much. Here is a movie that knows its audience is smart, knows it can get away with subtlety and knows what we come up with for Eve’s fate is so much more delicious than anything that could have been up on screen.

My Score (out of 5): *****