Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Film Review--Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Last week for DVD Verdict, one of my assignments was a four-film collection presented as part of the TCM Classic Films series, specifically in this case, romantic comedies. I had seen none of the films and, because of word limitations and the general tone of the site, doing full reviews of each film is impossible. Instead, I'll do that here. All four films star Katherine Hepburn, tow star Cary Grant, and two star Spencer Tracy. I'll go in chronological order, so we begin in 1938 with Bringing Up Baby.

Katherine Hepburn + Cary Grant + a leopard = hilarity. This is the equation that makes the king of screwball comedies and I'm most struck by how funny and how sweet the film has remained in the seventy years since its release. In 1938, however, it wasn't so much known this way. Hepburn was part of the group that the studios dubbed "box office poison" and, maybe at the time, they were right, though I have a hard time believing it. The film wasn't the bomb it had been purported to be, but it was not a huge hit, especially given the names in the cast and crew. We are a country, however, that will make films like Shakespeare in Love and Titanic super hits, so what do we know.

We begin with a bespectacled Cary Grant sitting atop the skeleton of a brontosaurus. He comes down to talk to his assistant about what he must do tomorrow. First, he must pick up the just discovered final bone in his four year dinosaur restoration and, second, he must get married to his assistant. The scene is stuffed with innuendo; his assistant/fiance telling him in no uncertain terms that this marriage is simply a culmination of their working relationship and nothing, not even a honeymoon, will get in the way of his research. His look of unsurprised dismay is priceless, but he promptly heads out for a golf game with an attorney who, if he plays his cards right, may be able to secure a million dollar grant for his museum.

The action really begins at the club during his game when he finally meets Katherine Hepburn. Her persona would be solidified a couple of years later as Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story and she is playing anything but that character. Here, she is a ditz to end all ditzes, totally self-absorbed and totally fun-loving. She steals his golf ball and steals his car and Grant loses the attorney while chasing after her trying to get his stuff back while she sits there not caring. He agrees to meet the attorney later at a restaurant and, when he arrives, Hepburn is there, too. She is doing some stupid trick, flicking olives into her mouth and drops one on the floor, just in the path of Grant. He slips on it, falling on his top hat, resulting in the following classic exchange:

-I'm so sorry! Oh,'re sitting on your hat.
-I know it
-That's silly. Get up. I'm awfully sorry. I couldn't be more apologetic, really.
-Well, I might have known you were here. I had a feeling just as I hit the floor.
-That was your hat.
-Look at it. Look.
-Yes, well it's too bad, isn't it. Well, Joe here was showing me a trick and the olive got away.
-First you drop and olive and then I sit on my hat. It all fits perfectly.
-Oh yes, but you can't do that trick without dropping some of the olives. It takes practice.
-What, to sit on my hat.
-No, to drop an olive. Now, if your going to be angry with me, what can I do?
-Go away!
-No, I was here first. [he walks away in a huff]

While he hates her right now, she's already fallen in love with him and begins her pursuit, culminating the next morning with a call to his house to help her with "Baby," a leopard her big game hunting brother has sent her. She has mistaken him for a zoologist, so he is the only one who can help her with a wild cat. He's about to hang up when she feigns being attacked by Baby, and he jumps to save her, in spite of his marriage that afternoon. We can clearly see that he's fallen for her as well, even if he can't. All of this in only the first fifteen minutes of the film! From here, she takes him to her aunt's house where the comedy really gets going.

I've gone into enough plot already, but suffice it to say that the resulting mistaken identities, farcical chases and general craziness is some of the funniest stuff I've seen in some time. Hepburn's determination and manipulative sweetness is absolutely charming and, though she'd never play this kind of role again, her performance is appealing and memorable. Grant is far less a heartthrob here than I'm used to and, instead, he plays this sap with relish. At one point, at the aunt's house, Hepburn steals his clothes so he can't leave and he's forced to put on a frilly bathrobe where, of course, he meets the aunt who has just come home. He opens the door for her:

-What do you want?
-Who are you?
-Who are you?!
-Well, who are you?!
-What'd'ya want?
-Who are you?
-I don't know. I'm not quite myself today.
-Well, you look perfectly idiotic in those clothes.
-These aren't my clothes.
-Well, where are your clothes.
-I've lost my clothes.
-But why are you wearing these clothes?
-Because I just went gay all of a sudden!

His little hop while saying that final line is perfectly flamboyant. This would be the first time "gay" was used in this context in Hollywood, though the remark would only serve to make the aunt believe he's completely crazy.

Situationally, the film is utter chaos, often as reminiscent of the Marx Brothers as anything, but this anarchy is held tightly in check by director Howard Hawks. His direction is very straightforward, featuring exceedingly long takes that let the performers pull their lines and pratfalls (which they perform themselves) with a realism that is virtually non-existent in film today. This is testament to the actors' abilities and Hawks' trust in them, which all works to near perfection., While I have a general disdain for animals in film, it is really pretty well-done here. I certainly can't guarantee that no animals were harmed in the making of the picture (there was certainly no ASPCA on the set), the leopard lends a fairly innocuous level of danger and the dog who steals the bone (of course) is a total pro and is the same terrier who plays Asta in the Thin Man films. He's no Rin-Tin-Tin, but he's pretty good.

Honestly, there's a little bit of bloat in the second act; they spend a little too long building for jokes that have minimal payoff. It could be about ten minutes shorter, I suppose, but those ten minutes are a small price to payu for one of the finest screwball comedies ever conceived. If you've never seen Bringing Up Baby, do yourself a favor and watch it; it's a hell of a lot of fun.

[Next: The Philadelphia Story]