Top 100 Movie Review: #97 – Bringing Up Baby (1938)

I laughed — Once.

Katherine Hepburn as Susan Vance, Cary Grant as David Huxley, and the titular character Baby the Leopard.

American Film Institute Ranking: #97/100
Academy Awards:
Howard Hawks
My Rating: smooth-star

What is comedy?

It’s a tricky question to answer and is the crux of my problem with this movie. What makes someone laugh: do you prefer witty, ridiculous, crass, situational, ironic, play-on-words, role reversals, self-depreciating, or some combination of the above? This movie has universal appeal with a resounding unison of positive reviews. This is quite different from how it was described at the time of its release, with phrases such as “box-office poison” and such a bomb that it threatened Hepburn’s film career with critics.

Somehow through syndication, this movie gained a steamroller of momentum and now is regarded as the quintessential screwball, romantic comedy that created an entire genre. I can’t help but agree with the original opinion. While the movie appealed to my love of wacky and imaginative, the delivery made this one of the most frustrating films I’ve ever watched.

[Spoilers] Bringing Up Baby’s main comedic ploy is extreme ridiculousness with frantic dialogue between all the characters — non-stop, gushing words fraught with anxiety delivered like a rapid-fire machine gun. As if that weren’t enough, there are multiple scenes where multiple characters do this at once leading to a cacophony of noise. This is repeated incessantly throughout the entire film. These interruptions are not exactly smart and witty (though there a couple gems here). If you think you’d enjoy inviting every person you met in your life who preferred to talk AT you instead of WITH you in, you are in-store for a treat.

Hepburn’s character, Susan Vance, is emblematic of the entire work as her character never takes a moment to breath, using a shrill voice cutting off everyone, and is immensely unlikable. Hepburn’s character is the definition of a psychopath: manipulative and destructive. Her end goal is to steal away David Huxley (played by Cary Grant) from his currently planned wedding, but most of this comes across as a complete disregard for human life, not a well-intentioned but ultimately silly person. She steals at least three cars (including David’s), destroys them to various degrees, lies to anyone and everyone, fakes being mauled for attention, completely disregards his well-being, and more. Did the script writer forget that to like a screw-up you need to give them redeeming quantities?

David Huxley is more likable, the quiet scientist who demurs too early and too often to the devil spawn playing opposite of him, but this, too, has a lot of faults. I’ve always struggled with comedies that make you feel exceptionally uncomfortable and embarrassed for the purpose of comedic relief. I think of Basil from Faulty Towers — sometimes he is so situationally shamed that it makes my skin crawl. The difference here is that Basil does it all to himself, and we understood Basil’s motives (he was trying to attract what he thought was the right kind of person to his hotel). This film makes David Huxley a battering ram as he gets pilloried in all situations, but none of it makes any reasonable sense, especially considering how none of Susan’s actions make any sense.

In the clip below, we are introduced to her character. See how in the beginning they play her as an overbearing but precocious character — a good mix of good and bad qualities. Then a couple minutes later, she steals David’s car, rams into several other cars, and ignore his pleas with that frantically annoying dialogue.  This is supposed to be funny because it is spun later as an attempt to impress David, but none of it is the least bit believable. She has no credibility as someone who has their heart right in the place so it’s hard to feel anything other than disgust for her.

A big schtick of the movie is gender-role reversals, and I’m sure it probably played different than it does now.  David is supposed to be the “man” in the relationship, but instead he is reduced to being completely submissive to his domineering partner. There is even a scene where David is wearing woman’s clothes, does a skip and yells how gay he feels. So much for subtly. Unfortunately, this kind of “ironic” role-reversal doesn’t really add any depth now (and I have a hard time figuring out how it even did then).

Bringing Up Baby GIF-source (1)

The script is set up in a classic screwball manner and revolves around a few different moving targets. The main driving force is the fact that Susan has taken ownership of a Leopard named Baby. Add in the an additional leopard for some switcharoo action, a dimwitted sheriff to jumble what’s really happening, and other domineering characters and you get plenty of zany to work with. The problem is that just because a script is zany does not immediately mean funny: you need the characters to deliver.

So the ending math: we have characters that we don’t like having anxiety-riddled  conversation playing on an irony that is no longer relevant with a script that offers situations but not jokes.  If you can get your kicks just by the shear ridiculousness of a plot, this movie will be a big success with you. If you find yourself shying away from people who cut you off mid sentence, don’t enjoy loud shouting matches and prefer not to let the people close to you disregard your well-being, I would give a pass.

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