Howard Hawks’ BRINGING UP BABY (1938) Pains my Intercostal Clavicle

How can all these things happen to just one person?! That’s exactly what I’m saying.

I usually throw my hands up at about the point where George, the wire fox terrier played by famous pooch Skippy, buries the rare Intercostal Clavicle of a brontosaurus. After that I’m afraid that Howard Hawks‘ highly regarded 1938 screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby (1938) tires me out. The movie uses every conceivable gag known to filmdom and all the elements in it are right up my alley including the film’s two stars who hit every mark with flair, but still it is crazy squared.

The story goes something like this…

Cary Grant plays Dr. David Huxley, a renowned paleontologist at the Stuyvesant Museum of Natural history. David is about to be married to Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker) when he meets flighty heiress Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) at a golf course. He is there to schmooze a potential donor for the museum and she is there just passing her time when she plays his ball instead of her own. The mayhem begins almost immediately and the two get off to a less than auspicious start. Later that evening things get even worse. Susan and David meet again at a restaurant whereupon she causes David more embarrassing moments in front of important people. A terrific scene ensues, however, when the back of Susan’s gown tears and David saves her with his charm and grace.

Susan calls David the following morning. Her brother has just given her a tamed leopard named Baby and she’d like David’s help with the animal. David, however, is totally against getting involved. He’s excited about meeting Alice to show her the rare brontosaurus fossil he just acquired. All Susan has to do is cry over the phone to make David change his mind so he rushes over to find Baby yearning for its favorite song, “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love.” One thing leads to another and a disgusted David has no choice but to help Susan take Baby to her Aunt Elizabeth’s house in Connecticut. By this point I’m exhausted and there is much, much more to come including lies, an iconic bathrobe, stealing, a lost Baby, the burying of David’s rare Brontosaurus Intercostal Clavicle by George, and eventual jail.

May I say that the absolute best part of this movie for me is Cary Grant? He illustrates once again why he was one of the greatest actors who ever lived. Here, Mr. Grant has ample opportunity to demonstrate his physical comedic talents, looks fantastic in a tuxedo, as we know, but also manages to be a nerd. This man was a gift we should celebrate often.

Perhaps the most important part of Bringing Up Baby is the love that surfaces within Susan for David. Susan confesses her love to Aunt Elizabeth soon after the shenanigans begin. I mean, I can’t blame her, but one gets the impression this is another want of a spoiled child. In the end though, its real love that has surfaced between these two hyper beings and his confession of love for her is worth the price of admission.

The pratfalls and an embarrassing jail fiasco now done, we find out that Alice has dumped David. The dedicated paleontologist is working on a huge reconstruction at the museum when Susan finds him. George has finally dug up David’s lost bone – does that sound right? – and Susan manages to pry a declaration of love out of the man. The two embrace while brontosaurus bones rain around them.

 

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn made four movies together with Bringing Up Baby and George Cukor’s, Holiday both released in 1938 to dismal box office receipts. I recounted how Cary Grant felt about the failure of his films to draw audiences in a previous post, but he’d had a smash hit with the film that preceded Bringing Up Baby, Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth, which for my money beats Baby on several fronts. Although of course, Bringing Up Baby is its own kind of rare and valuable fossil because this type of film would not be made today. We simply don’t have this caliber of star in my opinion. Further, although I adore Irene Dunne, Hepburn is no slouch. Her verbal acuity is legendary and her resume is also filled with wonderful comedies that are still adored by many. Under the tutelage of Howard Hawks, the script for Bringing Up Baby by Dudley Nichols and Hagar White requires an uncanny sense of timing, substantial physical prowess and a verbal ability far beyond that of normal humans. No two stars could’ve delivered this material as effectively and precisely as Grant and Hepburn. Except perhaps Grant and Russell who broke the speed talking record in 1940 with Hawks’ His Girl Friday. That one I adore. For some reason its speed moves exactly along to my rhythm without the palpitations. In any case, Bringing Up Baby is beloved and considered one of the greatest from Hollywood’s golden age. Variety claimed it as definite box office in its 1938 review, but the movie turned out to be a definite flop.

As for me? Well, I continue to watch Bringing Up Baby when the opportunity arises. It’s still a bit much as a whole. I prefer the pieces, the many scenes that delight, but the screwball is off the charts and the lunatics are too often on the rise. That may be the reason audiences didn’t respond to it in 1938. Howard Hawks admitted his mistake in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, “I think it would have done better at the box office if there had been a few sane folks in it – everybody was nuts.” I agree. Check out the entire list of actors playing these off-the-wall characters here.

Now you know why dealing with all of this pains my intercostal clavicle after each viewing of this movie. I’m not exactly sure where this particular clavicle is, but I think it’s about 3 inches from my shoulder. Anyway, with proper preparation my clavicle and I make it through Bringing Up Baby unhinged – and more appreciative of the film’s stars than ever. Beyond the crazy there is a hell of a lot of class here.

9 thoughts

  1. I can only take screw ball in small dozes but I do love “Baby”. Thanks for a great review. I’ll never understand why it wasn’t successful on its initial release.

  2. This is THE movie that introduced me to the world of classic film. To this day it remains my favorite as do Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and the genre of screwball comedy. There has never been and never will be anyone like Cary Grant.

  3. You expressed my daughter and husband’s feelings about “Baby” precisely. I have a checkered emotional connection to the movie, where there were times I would see it on the schedule and a voice in my head would warn “Not today. For the love of Heaven, not today!!” (The voice in my head gets a little melodramatic at times.) However, for the past couple of years, “Baby” and I have been bosom buddies, so to speak.

    Pleasant surprise: the hubby once caught the “Jerry the Nipper” gag as coming from The Awful Truth. Hooray!

    Remember years ago when we were all doing movie haiku? I tried for days to work something around the seven syllables of Intercosterclavicle. Over to you!

  4. Great summary, Aurora. I am a huge Cary Grant fan, but find his comedy much more hilarious in Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House. He is terrific in everything. But this comedy has everything I love in it.

  5. I know I’m saying this after having only seen this movie once, but I like the insanity of the movie, and prefer it in the screwball comedies I watch (which is why I also like Cary Grant’s Arsenic And Old Lace. It was seeing those movies that improved my opinion of the screwball genre, making it my second favorite film genre!

  6. Admittedly, I didn’t fall in love with Bringing Up Baby immediately. It actually took me a couple re-watches before I started to really get into it and appreciate it for what it was (a wonderful example of screwball comedy). I think the hardest thing for me to accept at first was how manic and zany it was. I felt like I had no time to breathe during my initial viewing!

  7. “Bringing Up Baby” is one of my favorite movies! I think the stars, director, writers, and supporting players (including Skippy the Dog) are top notch! Everyone is at their best in it, and I enjoy it so much! I love Charlie Ruggles and May Robson in this, too!

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