Before 2003 there were few RKO titles available on disc, but since then Warner DVD has been carefully moving into that catalog with commendable results. Bringing Up Baby is an all-time favorite and a sure laugh-getter; it's considered to be the top screwball comedy. Most modern critiques applaud its insane anarchy while wondering how 1938 audiences could have rejected it. Howard Hawks offered his best guess: Everybody in the film is crazy, leaving no normal people for the audience to identify with.
Howard Hawks had already shown a terrific ease with madcap comedy in 1934's Twentieth Century, and powered by the energetic Katharine Hepburn, Bringing Up Baby is a hundred minutes of concentrated mirth. In between sly verbal jokes ("I tried it in the rear!"), gender humiliation (Grant ends up in a woman's frilly housecoat) and outright slapstick are episode after episode of confusion and exasperation for Grant's perplexed hero.
Modeling his character after Harold Lloyd, Grant affects an unassuming shyness that makes him the perfect patsy/straight man for Hepburn's dotty troublemaker. Susan Vance functions as a female cross between Bugs Bunny and Groucho Marx, making use of fractured conversation to ambush the opposite sex. But she's also a caricatured "scatterbrained female" stereotype, paying not the slightest heed to other people's attempts at communication and relying on her smile and fluttering eyelids to further her agenda. The surprise is that Susan Vance is funny and charming. Real people who behave as she does (and they're out there) usually end up being the cause of migraines.
But this is screwball comedy and its eccentric supporting cast throw its momentum of outrageous events even more off-balance. The dotty big game hunter played by Charlie Ruggles demonstrates grotesque leopard calls by snorting them through his nose. A psychiatrist convinced that David is an asylum case is himself afflicted with strange nervous tics. Drunken Barry Fitzgerald dodders about doing double-takes at prowling jungle cats. The last act finally gives us Walter Catlett's local sheriff, who regards every incredible happening with the same New England pragmatism. He's the first normal person we've met, but by now everyone seems touched in the head.
The crazy weekend provides a natural excuse for Susan Vance to 'wake up' David Huxley from his scientific calm into a wild new world of romantic possibilities. Critic Robin Wood classified Bringing Up Baby as one of Hawks' pictures about the abandonment of responsibility and a return to childlike anarchy. It made a dandy auteurist case, for Hawks' career was nothing if not consistent. Paul Muni's Scarface is civilized man devolved into monkey-like savagery, and in Monkey Business Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers literally revert to mischievous adolescents. Hepburn's Susan Vance is simply trying to show stuffy David Huxley how much fun it can be to toss rationality aside and cut loose. What could be more fun than a midnight romp in search of a lost jungle cat, charming the savage beast by crooning I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby? As Robin Wood probably also said, David has been spending too much time with the fossilized bones of extinct species (with apologies to his stuffy scientist-fiancée) and Susan is really showing him how much fun it can be to chase the live ones - the leopard named Baby, and her.
By this time Cary Grant was coming into his own as an actor, having firmly established himself as a deft comedic leading man in The Awful Truth. He's amazing here. David Huxley is a bespectacled nerd just waiting for the dashing Grant to burst through ... he works his way from indecision and insecurity, to confusion and exasperation. Katharine Hepburn is likewise showing off in a manner that takes no heed whatsoever of her then-status as Boxoffice Poison, a completely un-earned slur that damaged her career as well as that of Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich. Hepburn has always had her detractors, stemming I believe from viewers who prefer their female stars more demure and less assertive. Susan Vance is the hyperactive, take-charge type that drives other people to nervous distraction while never missing a night's sleep of her own. She makes the script play like her own improvisation, especially her wicked impersonation of a nervy gangster's moll.
Bringing Up Baby flopped on release, yet has been the focus of numerous imitations. Howard Hawks returned to the same kind of material in Man's Favorite Sport? with mixed results, despite the best efforts of the talented Rock Hudson and Paula Prentiss. Peter Bogdanovich's fawning remake adapted the same setup for Ryan O'Neal and Barbra Streisand. Critics tend to slam What's Up, Doc? now but it was a big comedy hit. In the Coen Brothers' hilarious The Hudsucker Proxy, just about the only discordant note was struck by Jennifer Jason Leigh's abrasive attempt to revive Hepburn's fast-talking, wise-cracking gun moll character. Or was she channeling Rosalind Russell? Or Glenda Farrell? The mind blurs.
Howard Hawks' direction is at its best here, barely keeping up with the action while establishing necessary visual clues and paying off his gags in appropriate wide shots. He's even able to do the leopard-prowling scenes in his wide, locked-off style by means of the RKO optical department's clever shifting mattes. Effects man Linwood Dunn used to bring his reel to UCLA, and prominent on it was a demonstration of the 'popping' mattes necessary to put the moving panther into shots with the main characters.
Warners' two disc DVD set of Bringing Up Baby contains one nicely polished transfer of the feature with a carefully cleaned-up soundtrack. As Warners' George Feltenstein has explained, RKO changed hands so frequently that perfect elements are often hard to come by. It's a tad grainier than perfection, but far better than video copies available previously.
Peter Bogdanovich's commentary shows that his interest in the film goes much farther than his own remake; Bogdaonovich spent quite a bit of time with Hawks and even imitates his voice while remembering conversations. Disc two boasts a pair of highly desirable documentaries. Robert Trachtenberg's career docu on Cary Grant is carefully crafted, and Richard Shickel's much older docu on Howard Hawks covers the director's career highlights with an interview with Hawks shot in the desert as he watches his grandson race motorbikes. Hawks doesn't get into the question of who directed The Thing from Another World but he does offer a succinct and non-political reasoning for why his Rio Bravo was a direct rebuttal to Fred Zinnemann's High Noon.
Rounding out the package are a hefty stack of Howard Hawks trailers, a Technicolor live-action short from 1938, and the terrific cartoon A Star is Hatched, featuring a scrawny chicken doing an imitation of Katharine Hepburn.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Bringing Up Baby rates: