Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Bringing Up Baby

“In moments of quiet I’m strangely drawn to you, but, well, there haven’t been any quiet moments,” David (Cary Grant) tells Susan (Katharine Hepburn) in Bringing Up Baby. No kidding. This fast-paced farce may be only the second best of Howard Hawks’ collaborations with Grant (the best is His Girl Friday), but it’s a world-class screwball comedy.

Even doing his best tamped-down Harold Lloyd impression as a milquetoast scientist, Grant leaks quarts of the seemingly unself-conscious charm and mordant sarcasm that made him so fascinating. The most versatile and irresistible male actor ever to make romantic comedies, he manages to make himself seem almost ordinary, even awkward for long stretches of time here, but just when you think he’s a wallflower, he finds the funny in straight-man passivity. In one of the movie’s best scenes, David fixates on a terrier during a dinner party, popping up to follow the restless dog out of the room every time he trots off. Susan knows why he’s doing it (the dog buried a bone David needs to complete a brontosaurus skeleton he’s been working on for years), but the hostess and her other guest think his obsession is proof that David is nuts—a “fact” they were convinced of in any case. Grant never breaks character or signals for our sympathy, maintaining the prickly dignity of an aggrieved academic who’s doing his best to maintain his temper. His deadpan expression, stiff posture, and curt responses to the guest who’s trying to engage him in conversation, and the crack timing with which he and the dog enter and exit the room, makes me laugh out loud at what could have been a throwaway bit.

Another reason Grant was great in romantic comedies was that he worked so well with his leading ladies. Hepburn preferred working with Spencer Tracy, but she was at her best with Grant. She sparkles and shines here, in what Peter Bogdanovich calls “the single most likeable performance of her career,” as an eccentric heiress who saves David from himself by falling for him and proceeding to rip his too-careful, too-quiet life to tatters. David resists as long as he can, but Susan is the original irresistible force, the unadulterated dose of chaotic life he needs to free him from his suffocating routines—and fiancée.

Bringing Up Baby was the first in a three-picture run of all-time classics Hepburn and Grant made together (they also made Sylvia Scarlett, but we all make mistakes.) The others were Holiday and The Philadelphia Story, and Hepburn is wonderful in all three, but she’s at her least earnest and most approachable here. The bubble of self-satisfaction that she always seemed to travel in doesn’t melt away altogether—Susan is so accomplished, beautiful, and overflowing with life that David can’t help but fall for her, but she never seems to stop talking long enough to hear a word he says—but it softens and takes on comic overtones. Like Hepburn herself, Susan doesn’t appear to need anyone else, but that’s an illusion. Hepburn can’t quite pull off the scene where Susan cries, asking David to assure her that he doesn’t want to leave. Instead, she convinces us of what she wants the way she always does: by going to work. When we see the single-minded intensity with which she pursues David, we know she’s in love.

Hepburn also shows a vulnerability here that she rarely displayed in other roles. Her Susan makes me wonder what she might have done with another spoiled beauty with a heart of gold, the ditzy diva Carole Lombard had played a few years earlier in Twentieth Century. Lombard made Lily naïve and brattily willful. Hepburn might have given her a carefree confidence that could have been just as funny but less cartoonish, a relatable if often absurd woman rather than an obnoxious overgrown child.

Unfortunately, Baby was the only screwball comedy Hepburn ever made. Audiences didn’t respond well to it on its release, and she was eager to find a persona that people would like and shed her “box-office poison” label. Hawks never made another movie as silly as this one either, having concluded that Baby was a box-office bust because “There were no normal people in it. Everyone you met was a screwball. ”

But the long shots the director set up let his actors set the film’s breakneck pace, and Hepburn and Grant kept it going with seemingly effortless ease, mixing pratfalls with unobtrusive athletics (their famous joint walk out of a formal restaurant after he rips the back of her gown took more skill than you’d think). They’re also great with the verbal pyrotechnics, from fast talk ("There is a leopard on your roof, and it’s my leopard, and I have to get it and to get it I have to sing," Hepburn rattles off at 90 mph to a startled psychiatrist) to repetition (“I’ll be with you in a minute, Mr. Peabody!” David keeps singing out to the stuffy lawyer he’s trying to meet up with), to plain-vanilla comic absurdity (“He just follows me around and fights with me,” Susan says of David, with a sweet mixture of perplexity and pride.)

Hawks’ screenwriters never let the action let up, piling misunderstanding on misunderstanding and absurdity on absurdity. By the time the “baby” of the title, a leopard named Baby sent to Susan by her brother, makes his entrance more than 20 minutes in, inheriting a wildcat is just another minor complication.

Most of the humor in Bringing Up Baby, starting with the title, comes from subverting expectations. Contrary to what audiences of the ‘30s might have been expected to expect about gender roles, David is the nervous, sheltered incompetent and Susan the fearless leader of the two. Grant even thumbs his nose at the rumors that he and longtime roommate Randolph Scott were more than platonic friends, not only putting on a frilly woman’s robe but explaining why by exclaiming: “I’ve gone GAY all of a sudden!” And it’s fun to see the Susan and David head out to hunt for their lost leopard armed only with a butterfly net and a croquet mallet.

Russell Metty’s cinematography is beautiful too, its silvery black-and-white flattering Grant’s dark beauty and the flow of Hepburn’s glittery clothes as she strides through the night. I bet the new 35mm print they’ll be showing at Film Forum will look even better than the DVD I’ve been rewatching in recent years, too—not to mention the VHS tape I used to own.

David Thomson says men and women in Hawks’ films resort to “dazzling battles of word, innuendo, glance, and gesture,” to avoid the moment when flirtation becomes love and a couple starts to stagnate. “In other words,” he writes, “Hawks is at his best in moments when nothing happens beyond people arguing about what might happen or has happened.” That pretty well sums up Baby, in which lot of things happen but none of them matter in the least. None, that is, except the one thing we can predict from the start: that Susan and David will fall in love.

Written for The L Magazine

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