Bringing Up Baby (1938)


Now Don’t Lose Your Temper.

Bringing Up Baby (1938)The final assignment seemed like this Film Criticism class’s last push to make me appreciate older movies that are generally regarded with high esteem.  Such movies have commonly been a sticking point for me.  I typically find black and white movies too visually disinteresting and I don’t typically find the sense of humor involved with such older movies meshes with my own.  But I can only assume there was a reason this movie was picked, and I’ll find out as I share my feelings about Bringing Up Baby, written by Dudley Nichols, Hagar Wilde, and Robert McGowan, directed by Howard Hawks, and starring Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, May Robson, Charles Ruggles, Walter Catlett, Barry Fitzgerald, Fritz Feld, and Virginia Walker.

David Huxley (Cary Grant) is a paleontologist trying to mooch some money from Elizabeth Random (May Robson) via her lawyer for funding for his museum.  While on the golf course with him, David encounters a troublesome woman named Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) who starts causing trouble in his life almost immediately.  Not the least of these problems is the fact that she’s the niece of Elizabeth Random and trying to get the money for herself.  Probably the most of the problems is the fact that her brother sent her a leopard from Brazil, and she’s roped David into helping her with it.

Just to get it out of the way early: I did not like this movie.  I found myself desperately grasping at what could have made it popular in the first place.  To me it just seemed like a series of stupid, unlikely, and ridiculous scenarios leading to an equally ridiculous final revelation of the movie.  The subplots of this movie involve a brontosaurus bone, a tame leopard, a feral leopard, and one million dollars just in case someone doubted my claim that the story was ridiculous but I also hesitate to call a movie ridiculous just because it involves coincidentally having not one but two wild cats in the same town.  I do live in Las Vegas, after all.

The main part of the story was a love story, but it wasn’t one I was ever able to get on board with.  Susan just becomes randomly fixated on David and that evolves into love somehow, but this love expresses itself in the form of random pestering and annoyance.  Not all of it was intentional on her part; much of it came as a result of her not paying attention, such as the stealing of his ball on the golf course and the stealing of his car.  But at a certain point she started doing these things intentionally just to get David to follow along with her schemes.  She calls him to help her deal with the leopard even though he has no expertise in such matters and tricks him into joining her, later revealing that she’s inexplicably fallen in love with him sometime in their first couple of disastrous meetings.  Even worse, though Susan had done nothing but annoy David since they first met, he somehow fell in love with her because of it!  I’ve seen ridiculous love stories in movies before, but this one would be a contender for the top.  Movies back then always loved to have a happy ending so they couldn’t just have them part ways at the end, but one thing they neglected was that the ending wouldn’t be nearly as happy for David’s fiancée.  I don’t know why they wouldn’t just remove that part of the story completely.  David didn’t need to be engaged.  It just served as another appointment that Susan was keeping him from.

This movie was attempting to be a comedy, but most of that was lost on me.  I’m not particularly susceptible to slapstick comedy, and the majority of this movie’s attempts were just that.  I guess I got my fill of such attempts at humor in my youth watching Americas Funniest Home Videos.  But I would imagine that even the people that enjoy that type of humor might find that affection tried by this movie.  They do it too much, to the point where it seems diluted.  Every attempt that Susan and David make to walk seems to be a failure.  She trips while talking on the phone with him, he trips when getting out of a cab, she trips while setting the leopard free, etc.

Though there wasn’t much in this movie I found myself appreciating, there was some wordplay that I enjoyed.  The particular instances that come to mind were the conversation between Susan and David on the golf course when he points out the circle on the ball and she says that it wouldn’t roll very well if it wasn’t a circle, the part where she says he picks the weirdest places to play golf when he’s in the parking lot, and the part where she says she can’t get out of the apartment because she’s got a lease.  I do appreciate some clever wordplay and some of these worked for me in the movie.  It felt like they tried for it much more than they succeeded, but they did have some good ones.

Not all of the dialogue was great, unfortunately.  When David accuses Susan of saying anything that comes to mind, I felt like that was a statement on the dialogue of the movie itself.  No one in this movie seems to have a thought or perform an action without expressing it verbally.  When David drops his hat, he doesn’t need to stand back up saying that he dropped his hat.  We know.  We saw you drop it.  We saw it on the floor.  We watched you pick it back up.  When David is feeling stressed out by the situations that Susan is getting him involved with, we are already well aware of that as well.  It wouldn’t have made for much of a movie, but I feel like a lot of the scenarios these people got themselves into would’ve been alleviated if they would just shut up and listen for a few more seconds.  If Susan would’ve shut up, David could have gotten his ball back … or his car for that matter.  They could’ve explained the situation with the leopard to Aunt Elizabeth to avoid that whole mess.

My roommate was a big fan of this movie, and when I brought the movie up to him one of the first things he mentioned was the chemistry between Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn.  I don’t know if I felt the same way.  Individually I didn’t like their characters and I wasn’t even that fond of their performances.  Grant’s nerdy guy character was a little too on the nose and over the top.  I assume they wanted the audience to find Hepburn quirky and charming, but I mostly found her irritating.  There was one moment when I found her overwhelmingly adorable though and that was the moment right after she broke the heel of her shoe.  It wasn’t quite enough to break my first impression of her, but it was really cute.

I guess the last thing that needs to be talked about is the director, Howard Hawks.  I don’t know if I’d be comfortable saying that he qualifies as an auteur.  I think I’d probably have to have seen more than one of his movies to really know if I can see a distinct voice from the director but since he wasn’t credited as a writer of the movie, I don’t know if I would say he had complete control of the vision.  He may have had a vision, but it was for someone else’s words.  I read his section in The American Cinema but I don’t really think even that makes him out to be an auteur.  The section seems to try to glorify the fact that he doesn’t really attempt to do anything new or special, but that he has his own style and just sticks to it.

I didn’t find myself particularly fond of Bringing Up Baby.  I could deal with a story that was a little too ridiculous if it backed that up with some good comedy, but the greater majority of this movie’s attempts at comedy were just random pratfalls.  There were a couple of funny moments of wordplay, but you would first need to wade through nearly constant babbling from the cast of the movie that needed to express their every thought and action verbally in case the audience had chosen the wrong direction to point their seat while watching it.  I couldn’t even really get behind the performances from Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, whose characterizations were too on the nose and annoying for me to find but a few moments of passing affection for them.  Thankfully for this movie, it’s already regarded as a classic and has generally favorable reviews, so it will get by without the recommendation that I just can’t bring myself to give it.  Bringing Up Baby gets “In moments of quiet, I’m strangely drawn toward you” out of “There haven’t been any quiet moments.”

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