Monday, February 18, 2008


I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby

By Odienator
On this day in 1938, Bringing Up Baby was unleashed on movie screens by RKO and director Howard Hawks. The public didn’t get it, the critics were less than kind, and Hepburn's status as "box office poison" was cemented. Seventy years later, Baby's been brought up three different times on AFI's 100 Years lists and on at least three "Best Comedies of All Time" lists. It continues to make money and shows up on Turner Classic Movies whenever Ted Turner feels like pimping it out to us. While its vindication is well deserved, I completely understand why the public ran away from this movie. It's exhausting, demanding and crazier than the screwball comedies they had become accustomed to by 1938. Its skewered targets are numerous, it is paced at breakneck speed and it twists and turns to the point of absurdity. It's a full-on attack on the viewer and audiences weren't ready for the assault.

Howard Hawks allegedly said that to get the full effect of Bringing Up Baby one had to realize that everyone in the film was crazy. The first time I saw it, I realized Kate Hepburn's Susan Vance character was off her rocker, and her performance threatened to send me off mine. Hepburn is fearless in her portrayal, but her character is exasperating to the point where one wishes her pet leopard, Baby, would turn her into Meow Mix. Fortunately for Hepburn, this is exactly what is required of the role. Her job is to drive co-star Cary Grant bonkers until he either falls in love with her or brings her a glass of poisoned milk. She makes us feel what Grant feels whenever she's done something annoying to him. Bringing Up Baby is a comedy of aggravation, and much of the comedy stems from Grant's reactions to whatever it is that's frustrating him.

Grant's Dr. David Huxley is a bespectacled nerd of a paleontologist, engaged to an asexual woman with a very sexual name, and waiting for the symbolic delivery of a bone that will make him happy. He's building a complete Brontosaurus skeleton and the one missing piece, an intercostal clavicle, is finally being delivered to him. His fiancée, Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker), reminds him that he has a golf game with Mr. Peabody, the lawyer of a rich benefactor who may give Huxley's museum $1 million to continue his work.

At the golf game, he meets Susan, who mistakenly plays his ball, crashes up his car and drives off with him on it. Later, he meets her again at a swanky supper club at which he is entertaining Mr. Peabody in an attempt to make up for abandoning him earlier. After some funny physical comedy, David accidentally rips the back of Susan's dress off. Susan misinterprets David's attempt to inform her that her ass is being advertised to the public as a romantic gesture, made more misinterpreted by her conversation with an inattentive shrink who tells her "the love impulse in men frequently reveals itself in terms of conflict." Every time she runs into David, he winds up angry and aggravated, so this must be because he has "a fixation" on her. After she realizes her situation, she allows David to help her maintain modesty.

Susan also misunderstands David's occupation. She thinks he's a zoologist, which results in her calling him about her pet leopard. David, quite fed up with Susan after her plan to sweet talk Peabody (whom she knows) backfires with comic violence, isn't interested in hearing about any leopard. Besides, he's getting married in a few hours. Susan tricks him into showing up at her place, upon which she presents him with Baby. Baby is a tame leopard who loves the song "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby" because it features its name. Susan's plan is to keep David as long as possible to prevent him from marrying Alice, and she's aided and abetted by her dog George (Asta from The Thin Man) who runs off with the intercostal clavicle bone David conveniently has brought to Susan's place. George buries it, and isn't telling anyone where it is. Susan is also assisted in her plan by Baby, who escapes from her house, presumably in pursuit of copies of "Baby Got Back" and "I Love to Love You Baby."

Did I mention that Susan's aunt is Mr. Peabody's client, Mrs. Random, the woman who holds David's million dollar check? Or that, for reasons I dare not explain, Mrs. Random meets David while he's wearing Susan's negligee, leading to the most argued about line in Bringing Up Baby? ("Because I've just gone gay all of a sudden!" David replies when Mrs. Random asks why he is dressed in Susan's lingerie.)

The plot is so full of zany antics that recounting them here would be too time-consuming. Instead, I'll confess that I really didn't care for this movie the first time I saw it. Hepburn's character tried my last nerve, and I would rather have seen Grant choke her to death after what she does in the last scene of this movie than fall in love with her. Some years later, I stumbled upon this movie on cable and couldn't stop laughing. I still found Susan Vance frustrating, but I enjoyed seeing Hepburn go for broke. Grant gives a great comic performance, physical one moment and verbal the next, with no regard for how silly he may look. He and Hepburn make a fine comedy team where they both alternate being the straight man. I found myself drawn to how the movie is constructed, and finding much to enjoy about Hawks' sense of timing and the script's rapid fire dialogue. Perhaps subconsciously I'd absorbed Hawks' "they're all crazy" comment, though I vaguely remember the film's shrink saying "all people who behave strangely are not insane." Maybe my taste just got better.

Labels: , , , ,

While I never disliked the film, it is one that takes multiple viewings to warm to. Cary and Kate are great, but for a Hawks-Grant teaming, His Girl Friday has always been my favorite.
This is probably my favorite movie. I loved it the first time I saw it, and I've loved it every time since. I never found Hepburn's character irritating - I always took it on faith that she was the kind of reckless, impulsive kook that couldn't could keep her emotions in check long enough to act like a normal human being. This was also the first thing I'd seen Cary Grant in - when I saw him next (I don't remember what in), it was a shock seeing him play such a suave, dapper character - so for anyone who ever claimed Grant lacked versatility, this film gives lie to that presumption.

Thanks for this elegant tribute to a great classic, Odie. Well done.
I'm with you, Ed, on His Girl Friday. But this movie has grown on me over the years, to the point where I consider it a classic.

Josh R., what I've always loved about Cary Grant is what I love about George Clooney. This is a devastatingly handsome man, but he is not below looking like a damn fool at any moment. I don't think he's as comfortable being suave as he is getting dirty. This doesn't mean he's not great at being suave; I just get the feeling that he'd rather be doing a pratfall. He doesn't take himself seriously. I could buy him as a flustered man as easily as I could buy him as a lady killer. When Hepburn tells him "you really look good without your glasses," Grant doesn't even register the compliment, and I believed his character wouldn't.

It's a damn shame Grant never got an Oscar (I'm looking at YOU, Jimmy Stewart!) or even nominated for a comedic performance. His two nominations were for dramas. Ju-dy! Ju-dy! Ju-dy!
Bringing Up Baby is one of my favourite films, and I've only actually seen it twice.

The thing with it is, Hepburn's character is SOOO crazy, but consistently crazy, or at least I felt like I knew a bit about her by the time it had ended. The script is so tight and full of wit and bite that there is so much to take from the film. Every line is a gem.
Girl, you did NOT just compare George Clooney to Cary Grant. I mean, I'm okay with Clooney, but PUH-LEEZ...
I like the film fine, but I have to agree with Edward that it lacks that final quality that would have otherwise made me love the film. Still, it's better than a kick in the teeth...
I don't think I compared Clooney's looks with Cary Grant's here. I said they both had the similar quality of not caring about their looks on film. They'd rather be acting silly. But I did say in my Michael Clayton review that if Tom Hanks was our Jimmy Stewart, Clooney was our Cary Grant.

And gurrrl, what the fuck are you doing assuming I'd know what constitutes a hot man?
Wasn't thinking so much about looks or hotness (actually, I'd probably fuck Clooney before Grant...although, the way things have been going, I probably stand more of a chance with the dead guy). Just the idea of comparing George Clooney in any way, shape or form to Cary Grant, THE GREATEST OF ALL TIME, struck me as being a bit sacrilegious. Clooney may enjoy being silly, but he certainly doesn't have the acting chops (or the charisma, I'd dare say) that Grant did.
A great comedy. First saw this paired with THE PHILADELPHIA STORY and it was a revelation of versatility and nimble, smooth character negotiation. And just as hard as it'll be for anyone to touch Grant's control of the screen (and himself), it's even harder for me to imagine a filmmaker achieving the Hawks juggling act with similar poise. He was an absolute master.

Thanks for the read, Odie!
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Follow edcopeland on Twitter

 Subscribe in a reader