Bringing Up Baby (1938)

6 07 2010

Oh, where does one begin with this movie? It’s Howard Hawks personified and maybe his best work overall. It’s absolutely crazy yet in the most delightful way possible. Screwball comedy has become an overused genre classification that lumps in every comedy from the 1930s into one group, but this truly is a “screwy” movie which sounds more like a criticism than a compliment. Usually when I describe something as “zany” it’s not intended as positive, but this movie is the definition of zany yet it manages to work on every level. Fast-paced, absurd, and relentless, Bringing Up Baby is one of those special films that seems to blow by any type of characterization or restraints.

Hawks was never one for creating extremely rich characters, no, it’s usually people defined by two or three (at the most) personal traits. Here, Cary Grant is the scatterbrained professor, a genius in his field of study, but completely clueless when it comes to human interaction. He is very straight-laced and conservative, which is why his character clashes so much with Katherine Hepburn’s. It all starts when she uses is ball in the middle of a golf game that Grant’s character is participating in only to schmooze Alexander Peabody into donating to the museum. Things go bad, then they get worse. That’s how almost the entire film works, a situation is introduced, some type of failure in communication occurs, and everything that could go wrong – does.

Describing this movie as “silly” would be understatement. Grant’s character, Dr. David Huxley describes his interaction with Hepburn’s Susan Vance as “a series of misadventures” and that’s before the really crazy stuff starts. That sounds like it was read directly from a synopsis on the back of a DVD, but such writing points to the fact that film is somewhat aware of itself. It’s not a super self-reflexive, self-conscious piece in the vein of post-60s Godard but it still manages to poke fun at itself while maintaining it’s frivolous nature and also, perhaps most surprisingly, obtain some type of substance in the romance.

Dr. David Huxley is set up for a very professional wedding with a co-worker, she does not even accept the  idea of a “honeymoon” though he seems fine going along with this. It seems that it is only for the benefit of his career as his idea that they could still “kind of” be a legitimate couple suggests a longing for a real relationship that is suppressed by his stuffy career. That’s why Susan Vance is perfect, she’s the opposite of Huxley (this is not groundbreaking stuff here, obviously) but still has those same “scatterbrain” tendencies and that’s what draws them together. It takes Huxley the entire film to finally admit that he enjoys spending time with Susan. He resists her carefree charm until it breaks him and (literally) destroys his work.

Apparently, the original script for the film indicated a running time somewhere in the realm of three hours. Sure, Hawks’ rapid-fire pacing could have shortened that a little but still, it’s that all out tone that separates the film from all of its comedic brethren. There’s so much to digest, so much to take in within this messy, messy world that rewatches seem mandatory. The fact that Hawks could create such a unique comedic experience and have it go unmatched for over 70 years is enough proof that this film deserves all the attention it gets. If one manages to watch this film without cracking even the slightest smile then there’s no hope for them in this world. It sounds hyperbolic and it is, but it’s hard to not get infected by the joy surging from every frame.

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