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): *****

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