Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Directed by Howard Hawks

While I’m not a big fan of the word, if ever the term “madcap” applied to a film it has got to be Bringing Up Baby, about as good a piece of comedic lunacy to be put on film.

Director Howard Hawks was crazy for motion and speed and you particularly see how he uses it in movies like Baby and, two years later, His Girl Friday.

In Baby, the scenes move quickly and, characteristic of Hawks, the dialogue is rapid (to say the least).

As with many of his films, Hawks’ story uses the same basic set up, a kind of battle of the sexes.

In this case, it’s Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn – both very intelligent but both also with several foibles. But clearly equals – neither really has an advantage over the other, which is deliberate on Hawks part. His female leads were always portraying strong women.

The story of Bringing Up Baby is absurd … a less-than-savvy academic type (Grant), obsessed with completing his brontosaurus skeleton (by adding the missing “intercostal clavicle”) runs into an intelligent though scatterbrained heiress (Hepburn) who falls in love and determines to have him while attempting to keep tabs on a music-loving leopard her brother has sent from Brazil (and which gets mixed up with a much nastier leopard that escapes from the zoo).

Prof. David Huxley (Cary Grant), Susan Vance (Katherine Hepburn), Aunt Elizabeth Random (May Robson) and George, the dog (Asta).

As the above probably indicates, much of the comedy is broad and slapstick. Grant’s pratfalls are priceless (as are Hepburn’s), as are the double takes (reaction shots) that fill the film.

But while a great deal of the humour is visual (like the torn coat and gown scene) there is also a great deal of humour in the dialogue.

Hepburn in particular is hilarious when she speaks and completely twists everything others say, getting them completely muddled as she manipulates to get her way.

The element of lunacy is key to screwball comedies like this. You see it in Hawks’ comedies as well as those of Preston Sturges (like The Palm Beach Story). This antic element generally originates in the lead female character as it does here, in Baby with Hepburn’s Susan Vance, or Carole Lombard’s Irene Bullock in My Man Godfrey. And the comedy generally comes out in a combination of physical, visual humour and witty dialogue.

There’s no doubt that the story of Bringing up Baby is essentially silly. But that’s why it is so funny.

'Baby' and Susan (Katharine Hepburn).

The contrast between Grant’s serious, scholarly Dr. David Huxley and what is happening both around and to him, as well as the disparity between his character and Hepburn’s Susan, are where the humour resides.

And the film’s execution, between the performances of Grant and Hepburn, as well as those of a fine supporting cast, and Hawks’ bang-on direction make for a comedic gem of a film.

For my money, this is one of the best comedies ever made. However, it did have one flaw, at least according to its director. As Todd McCarthy quotes in his biography of Howard Hawks, the movie, “… had a great fault and I learned an awful lot from that. There were no normal people in it. Everyone you met was a screwball and since that time I have learned my lesson and I don’t intend ever again to make everybody crazy.”


Bringing Up Baby – Special Edition is a two disc set that comes as a pretty good package, one fitting the movie’s status as one of the great comedies.

The image is good – not everything you might want but for a film from 1938 you really can’t ask for much more. It’s fairly crisp and the contrasts are good. As for the sound, it’s about what you would expect – mono, with not a great deal of range.

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby.

There are quite a few special features – commentary by Peter Bogdanovich (I haven’t listened to it yet but he’s usually pretty knowledgeable on these older films), and two features.

These include a lengthy Cary Grant: A Class Apart and The Men Who Made The Movies: Howard Hawks.

This latter is narrated by Sydney Pollack and uses quite a few clips of Hawks being interviewed … which is kind of interesting, especially if you’ve read Todd McCarthy’s Hawks biography, Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood.

Hawks was not the most reliable witness, liking to make up stories because they played better in his versions. 

2 Responses

  1. megan says:

    Susan -“Your golfball, your car…it there anything in the world that doesn’t belong to you?”, while coopting David’s golfball and car.
    David -“Yes, YOU!”

    The problem with negative critics of this movie, whom I’ve read are that they like the ‘straight man’ character take everything literally and in the context of what should normally happen in the real world and the movie doesn’t follow it. They then in turn reject the premise of the movie for that reason alone, when THAT IS the reason for the shock and audience reaction humor towards the actions in the movie. Madcap screwball comedies exist in a MAD reality with presuming and mentally unconnected characters, whose antics and behaviors ARE SUPPOSED to be seen as humorous for the fact no one in the real world would, should or could deal with them or put up with them. We laugh at the chaos and havoc wrought upon/around the main ‘serious’ character trying to keep the straightline in the madness till the other mad characters finally get the clue. Great directors like Hawks know how to bring out the finest actor portrayals and seamlessly weave the seemingly disparate story connections together working the best (yes) cliche comedic vaudeville type pratfalls and dialogue to make a the ultimate best of the screwball comedies of that time. People then were obviously overwhelmed with a ton of poor to mediocre and constant onslaught of ‘screwballesque’ cartoons, comedy such that ‘Bringing up Baby’ was considered just one more, as Hepburn and Grant were not near to their height in iconic performer/actor recognition by the public. So their fantastic work was poo-pooed back then til time proved their movie work majestically displayed.

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