BFI Classics: Bringing Up Baby

Author: Peter Swaab

Made in 1938 Bringing Up Baby is one of those timeless classics that still remains funny today. Made at the height of the critical success of the screwball comedy sub-genre, it starred Cary Grant (fresh from his success in The Awful Truth) and Katharine Hepburn (then considered ‘box-office poison’) in one of their many successful collaborations together. In addition it was directed by the energetic Howard Hawks a master of such films from Hollywood’s golden age. This combined with a script co-written by Dudley Nicols from a story by Hagar Wilde created the perfect storm for a comedy.


Swaab’s book uses this film as an example in defining screwball comedy and uses this as a reference point for many other films made between 1933 and before the genre died out by 1941 (the author does not say why they died out, but the United States entering World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in the December of that year would be an obvious reason in changing the nature of comedy and the psyche of the American people). The author goes backwards and forwards in comparing Bringing Up Baby with other such classics of the genre including It Happened One Night (1934) and My Man Godfrey (1936) defining the screwball comedy as fast-talking comedies in which absurd situations create the story and mentions these and many other similar comedies along the way. It is this fast-talking dialogue which most viewers identify with the screwball comedy. Swaab quotes one study saying that most films of the period contained 150 words per minute while a screwball comedy like Bringing Up Baby consisted of 250 words per minute. Of course this would put quite a strain on the dialogue, but the film never lets up with the exception of what Swaab admits is the sluggish finale in the jailhouse. However, Swaab says that on the many viewings of the film he has also watched this finale in isolation and the result is an excellent piece in its own right that is only out-flanked by the density and pace of the rest of the film.


The story of Bringing Up Baby is zany: a mild mannered museum curator called David Huxley is after a bone to complete his brontosaurus skeleton and is due to marry his uptight assistant the next day. However, in the course of the day of negotiating a donor to the museum he constantly bumps into an eccentric heiress (no screwball seems to be complete without an heiress) who mistakes his behaviour for love. In the process he finds that she is at his every turn and  becomes entangled with this woman; the curator also runs foul of the heiress’s pet leopard and dog. In the end David realises that this was the most fantastic and adventurous day of his life and declares his love for her. Not much makes sense here – but it’s not supposed to.


Swaab’s book is a ‘can’t put down read’ for any fans of the golden age of Hollywood cinema as he delves into the definition and style of the screwball comedy and in particular this films place among the others, as well as of course the production itself, its stars, the struggles between Hawks and the studio (including he and Hepburn’s relationship with mogul Howard Hughes) as well as a little about its legacy. The author also looks at the questions raised at the time and subsequently with the question marks over Cary Grant’s suspected but unsubstantiated homosexuality (he lived with western star Randolph Scott for a while) and whether the moment Grant leaps up into the air dressed in Hepburn’s frilly dressing gown to ironically explode “I’ve gone gay all of a sudden” is just a frustrated tirade at the accusations against him. Of course these snatches help to highlight how much ‘fun’ this film is and this is the theme that Swaab concludes his book with that this was and remains a very FUN film.


Chris Hick


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