Blu-ray Review: Bringing Up Baby | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Thursday, September 16th, 2021  

Bringing Up Baby

Studio: The Criterion Collection

Sep 07, 2021 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Arguably the apex of the screwball sub-genre that swept American comedies in the 1930s and early 1940s, Bringing Up Baby is also a high water mark in the careers of stars Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, as well as genre-hopping director Howard Hawks. As with so many films that are the pinnacle of their form, it’s hard to find something new to say about a movie that’s been praised and analyzed for decades. Sometimes it’s just best to let them wash over you and see what jumps out at you along the way.

Despite its current reputation as a classic, Bringing Up Baby was something of a flop upon its release in 1938. Although it did well critically, the film was a financial failure in many parts of the country, resulting in Hawks being dropped from his contract with RKO. It was also another strike against Hepburn during her “box office poison” phase, a career slump that she would not be seen as recovering from until she reunited with Hawks and Grant in 1941 for The Philadelphia Story. Similar to It’s a Wonderful Life, Bringing Up Baby’s modern status as a classic developed slowly over the subsequent decades, both by retroactive critical appraisals and heavy television rotation. Less of an actual narrative and more of a daisy-chain of increasingly insane misunderstandings, the film seems to be actively aware that its plot makes zero sense and is rather an elaborate practical joke being perpetrated on the main character.

The film begins with put-upon paleontologist David Huxley awaiting the arrival of an “intercostal clavicle,” the one bone remaining in the gigantic brontosaurus skeleton he’s spent the last four years assembling. Of distant secondary concern is his impending marriage to his cartoonishly uptight co-worker Alice Swallow, played by Hawks’ sister-in-law Virginia Walker. A chance encounter with Susan Vance, a batty socialite who immediately falls in love with him, turns the next twenty-four hours of Huxley’s life into what he describes as a “series of misadventures from beginning to end.” As noted, most of Grant’s dialogue in the film consists of him trying to rationally explain what’s happening to other characters as they talk over him.

Grant’s Huxley being such an over-the-top stick in the mud is an essential aspect of the precarious balancing act Hawks and his fellow filmmakers perform in order to keep Bringing Up Baby from tipping from madcap to exhausting. From David’s perspective, Katherine Hepburn’s Susan is something of a Manic Pixie Nightmare Girl, her earnest affections turning his life into a living hell. But it becomes clear over the course of the movie that if David just gave an inch and wasn’t 100% against the idea of a beautiful, rich woman being obsessed with him, things would have gone a lot more smoothly. Although she maintains her signature machine-gun chatter and upper-class affectations, Hepburn’s portrayal of Vance is something of an inversion of the imperious, abrasive persona that Hepburn cultivated over the course of her career. Her high-pitched lilt, breathy whispers and stuttering laugh make Susan very specific even as she fulfills her role as a tornado of chaos. Everything else, from the titular leopard, to the goofy supporting characters to missing dinosaur bones is just icing on the cake.


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