You Haven’t Seen It? : “Bringing Up Baby”

By Kendall Levison

via Bill Damon
via Bill Damon

Most discussions of classic movies seem to focus on serious dramas, historical epics, or dark thrillers. Classic comedies seem to get ignored, despite the fact that making a funny movie is just as difficult as making a serious one. Many people also have the notion that older comedies aren’t funny because they feature conflicts that don’t exist anymore or are somehow inherently boring.

I think it is time to change those misconceptions. And there’s no better place to start than with 1938’s “Bringing Up Baby.”

In the film, Cary Grant plays Dr. David Huxley, a paleontologist trying to secure a $1 million dollar donation for his museum. Katherine Hepburn portrays Susan Vance, an heiress who has recently become the guardian of a pet leopard named Baby. From there, the film’s plot is really more of a series of comic vignettes strung together by a lot of panicked running around. Director Howard Hawks supposedly remarked that the film had no normal characters, only screwballs. “Bringing Up Baby” is considered one of the ‘30s best screwball comedies.

Many scenes rely on the physical comedy from the two leads, like Grant waltzing through a crowded restaurant trying to keep Hepburn from being embarrassed by a rip in her dress. The dialogue is lightning-quick and full of smaller jokes. If you’re not paying close attention, you might miss some of them, including Hepburn wondering to herself if a letter saying Baby likes dogs means that the leopard is fond of dogs or eats them.

It’s strange to see the two main actors in characters so different from the personas they’re known for. The usually suave, sophisticated Grant is surprisingly engaging to watch as the bookish Dr. Huxley and it’s fun to see him so consistently overmatched by the movie’s ridiculous situations. Hepburn’s voice is higher and more breathless than the cultured tones she’d use in later films. She makes Susan an endearing heroine when she could easily come off as a caricature of a silly rich girl.

While we might think of today’s multi-million dollar comedies as over-the-top, “Bringing Up Baby” has some extravagant set pieces of its own. Whether it’s seeing an entire brontosaurus skeleton topple down or watching Grant and Hepburn race across the entire state of Connecticut after a dog and two leopards, the film never shies away from the absurd.

As such, it’s a perfect introduction for someone who isn’t sure they’d like a classic, black-and-white comedy. Even if you miss a few of the film’s more subtle moments, everyone can agree that Cary Grant trying to explain why he’s wearing a woman’s negligée is hilarious.

“Bringing Up Baby” manages to strike a delicate balance. Even among all the madcap adventures, the characters still feel like real people worth rooting for. The film might be silly, but the sharp writing and fantastic cast keep it from ever feeling frivolous. So next time you’re in the mood for something funny, try a comedy from a different era; I think you might be surprised by how fresh an old movie can be.

Kendall Levison is a contributing writer. Email her at film@nyunews.com.

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