Movie Review: Bringing Up Baby

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I’m not going to really review Bringing Up Baby, partly because it’s a classic that needs no review from me, but also because I’m more interested in getting some information, some answers to a question.

Bringing Up Baby is one of the classic screwball comedies that emerged during the Great Depression. One could say the screwball comedy emerged as a result of the Great Depression, or as a panacea to the Great Depression, and both statements would be true. It Happened One Night is generally considered to be the first of the genre which featured witty dialogue spoken at lightening speed (and why, I hear myself cry, are there no writers with that wit and urbanity today?) in a battle of the sexes in which the male of the species is usually completely out of his league, outmatched and outwitted by the female who desires him. Sort of like real life. Think of My Man Godfrey, which ends with a totally befuddled William Powell getting married to Carole Lombard completely against his will. Think of Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve, speaking of the wildly outclassed Henry Fonda: “I need him like the ax needs the turkey.” Think of Bringing Up Baby, in which Katherine Hepburn says at one point, “He’s the man I’m going to marry. He doesn’t know it, but I am.”

As a genre, the screwball comedy only lasted until about the end of World War Two, though there were movies both before and after that decade (approximately) that contained a lot of the traditional elements. In fact, there are a lot of movies before, during, and after the approximately ten-year span that are generally lumped into other categories altogether that have included witty repartee and the battle of the sexes and great writing. Another element that characterized the screwball genre was economic inequality: Henry Fonda is the heir to a fortune and Barbara Stanwyck is a grifter; William Powell is (ostensibly) a bum and Carole Lombard is an heiress; Claudette Colbert is an heiress and Clark Gable is an impoverished working-class reporter. In Bringing Up Baby, Cary Grant is a professorial paleontologist try to secure a grant, while Katherine Hepburn is the heiress of the lady offering the grant. That economic element of poking fun at the stinking rich may be one reason why the genre faded after the war—America in the fifties launched into a period of unprecedented prosperity—but it is also one reason why it should be resurrected today. Who more deserving to be mocked and ridiculed than the Wall Street grifters who managed to put middleclass America out of their homes? But as I said, unlike the thirties, we no longer have writers capable of that quality of writing.

Consider this marvelous non sequitur as an example: Charles Ruggles, as a rather timid and diffident big game hunter, is walking at night in the garden of his lady friend’s estate when he spots the leopard. Desperate to get her—and himself—back in the house without alarming her, and befuddled by fear, he says: “Don’t you find a bit chilly without a gun?”

As a movie, Bringing Up Baby is not the best of the screwball genre. (I know, I know. I said I wasn’t going to review it, but I can’t help myself.) Gary Grant was better in His Girl Friday, much of the acting is over the top, some of the situations stretch even our willing suspension of disbelief, the hollow echoing of sound reminds us it was filmed on a stage somewhere in Burbank, and director Howard Hawks drastically blurred the line between urbane wit and slapstick. It was not a great success when it was released, but today it considered one of the funniest movies of all time.

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But the part that really mystifies me, the part I truly do not understand and would love an answer to, is the use of the leopard. Today, all those sequences would be done with a computer-generated animal (think Hildalgo or The Life of Pi), but back then it all had to be done with a real live honest-to-God leopard. Or two leopards, at the very least, since two are featured in the film. How the hell did they do that? I know one of them was supposed to be a tame leopard, and I know there was a trainer there at all times, but if there is one thing you can say about leopards, it is that “tame” can only be used to describe them in the most loose and relative way. How the hell did they do all those sequences? As an art form unto itself, that kind of training seems to have vanished along with the writers.

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And as long as we’re talking about the danger factor, kudos to Grant and Hepburn for sailing right in there and working so gamely with the cat. On a trip to Africa many years ago, Darleen and I were invited into the fenced compound where a mother cheetah had just given birth to kittens. We were able to pat the mother and play with the babies, and it remains one of the highlights in my memory bank. In our group on that trip was a Household Name Movie Star, an award-winning character actor famous for his tough-guy roles and persona. He refused to go into the compound with the cheetahs because, and I quote, “My God! What would happen if one of them scratched my face? It might ruin my career!” Okie dokie. But cheetahs are relatively docile and amenable to training. Leopards not so. How on earth did they do it?

Does anyone know?

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