Bringing Up Baby is a movie I had heard a lot about, but never seen. It sits firmly within the class of films that motivated me to start this project, movies that I thought were required viewing for a self taught film school curriculum. This is partially because it stars two greats of the golden age of Hollywood, Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Surprisingly (to me) The Philadelphia Story did not make this set of critics’ top 100 list, but Cary Grant appears over and over again and Katherine Hepburn also appears a couple of more times. These two names remain amongst the most recognizable when discussing stars of the 30s-40s cinema in general, superstars of the screwball genre in particular.
What is it about their chemistry that illuminated the screen? It feels as if they were aware that they were better together. To be really qualified to write this piece, I should know more about them as individuals and together. Were they friends off screen or just respected colleagues? Was their dynamic mutually acknowledged to better both of them, or was one person more in it than the other? I’m sure there’s a biography out there somewhere dissecting their relationship, but as it stands, when I think of Cary Grant I think of a caddish dreamboat. When I think of Katharine Hepburn, I think of a haughty powerful woman who commands the room.
In truth, Grant was married five times and possibly a hopeless romantic? Katharine Hepburn had at least two significant relationships including one “secret” affair with a married man, Spencer Tracy. Many believe that Hepburn was either bisexual or asexual, and that the Tracy relationship was likely meant to throw folks off the the trail. There are also rumors of sexual exploration on behalf of Cary Grant who apparently experimented with costar, Randolph Scott, and they lived together on and off for twelve years. The only reason I’m lingering on this topic is because part of the joy of watching Bringing Up Baby is the romantic spark between the two characters, but also their relative gender bending role reversals.
This movie is a hallmark of the screwball era. Not only do we have Hepburn and Grant who helped pioneered the genre, there’s also the dialogue, which feels like combat at times — a rapid flow of blows and blocks like a really beautiful martial arts match. Based on a quick Google, the set up for the film is standard for the screwball genre: a crafty, dazzling, woman, toys with a sweet, affably inept man in an attempt to win him over. In this film, Katherine Hepburn’s character, Susan Vance, is the crafty mastermind and Cary Grant’s, Dr. David Huxley, is the sweet oaf who can’t seem to rid himself of her. While watching Bringing up Baby I didn’t realize this was a standard convention of screwball and was just mesmerized by the way Susan pulled in and let out the line she had on David. It feels daring, and like a reversal of many of the romantic comedies I grew up with where the trap is laid by the man and the woman is ensnared (the two that spring to mind as formative are She’s All That and 10 Things I Hate About You, two movies that were formative in my middle school years). Normally there is a reveal and ensuing outrage, but I was so accustomed to seeing the man or men play puppet master, I was relieved to see that in 1939 that role in the dynamic went to Hepburn.
Hepburn is a powerhouse in this film, proving her comedic prowess in a way that I wouldn’t have thought possible for an actress so suited to serious roles. This film, directed by Howard Hawkes, presents a showcase for her range. The highlight for me comes when she talks her way out of a jail cell, and toys with David in the process. She effortlessly drops in to Swingin’ Door Susie and she’s able to demonstrate her acting capabilities and comedic timing:
In the screwball, hundred words a minute, combat mentioned above, this is where it’s revealed that she remains a beat ahead of the pack. Even when she’s not in control, she exudes an air of playing everyone in the room, including the audience. Grant on the other hand, is a straight man. He sets her up and his buttoned up buffoonery is the perfect compliment to her zaniness. He is routinely pushed outside of this comfort zone, and yet he’s unable to extract himself from her web, despite seemingly faithful efforts to do so. This dynamic brings out the best in both of them, and part of the roots of their great performance is their respective willingness to push the boundaries of their expected presentations. At times this is directly part of the joke, as with Swingin’ Susie, or when Cary Grant tried to explain his attire by exclaiming “I just went gay all of a sudden!”
Not only are these two of the most lauded stars of the golden age of Hollywood, they also connect on a level that escalates the other actor, eliciting the best from each other. The fact that I can write this whole long winded essay and not even mention that “baby” in this film is a leopard speaks volumes to the quality of the performances. There is a clear artistic trust between the two stars, and watching them push these characters to outer bounds and the other was there to counterbalance the extreme.