Bringing Up Baby is a Howard Hawks movie, and one of his key screwball comedies. It wasn’t a particular successful at the time. It stars Katherine Hepburn, who at that point was box office poison after initially being very successful (The Philadelphia Story was her big comeback movie) and Cary Grant as Dr. David Huxley.
It’s a very silly movie, a complete farce that sees Dr. Huxley, a palaeontologist who runs a museum, trying to land a million-dollar donation from wealthy heiress Susan Vance in time to get to his wedding with a very dedicated female scientist co-worker. Getting in his way is a leopard called Baby, and its owner. It has a rip-roaring pace across 102 minutes, with great physical comedy and amazing rapid-fire dialogue.
Bringing Up Baby is one of the great screwball comedies from one of the masters of the genre. It’s been influential on so many films, with What’s Up Doc? for example being a clear homage. There’s a whole mistaken identity/people in disguise subplot as Huxley tries not to ruin the deal, and a very famous Cary Grant ad-lib that might be the first use of the word gay on-screen in a homosexual context (when he says “I just went gay all of a sudden” when he’s stuck wearing Hepburn’s peignoir set because she has taken his clothes). Given that Grant was partnered up with Randolph Scott on and off by this point, he no doubt knew what he was doing there.
Hawks originally wanted Harold Lloyd in the lead role, and you can see echoes of that in how Grant is styled here. It would have been a perfect transition to the talkies for Lloyd, but it sadly wasn’t to be. Carole Lombard was also the frame for the part Hepburn eventually got—of course, Hawks made Lombard a star with Twentieth Century. Howard Hughes suggested Grant, and ended up owning the film later although he did not produce it.
Interestingly, the only American city where Bringing Up Baby was a hit was San Francisco, although it also did well with other west coast cities. It was pulled after one week at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, which back then was the kiss of death for a film’s chances. It wasn’t until its second run that it turned a profit, although it had a long and successful life on TV later on.
Bringing Up Baby is just a great movie, completely crazy. It proves what a modern filmmaker Hawks it. Many other films made in the 1930s don’t hold up the way his films do. I prefer it to Philadelphia Story, although that’s also a good movie.
If you haven’t seen Bringing Up Baby, this new Criterion release is the best version of it ever put out. Of course, it’s accompanied by loads of excellent extras: a commentary from Peter Bogdanovich from the 2005 US Warner Brothers release, a new video essay on Cary Grant by Scott Eyman, a new interview about cinematographer Russell Metty with cinematographer John Bailey, an interview with film scholar Craig Baron about special effects pioneer Linwood Dunn, and a selected scene commentary with costume historian Shelley Foote. A 1977 documentary on Howard Hawks that includes his final filmed interview, a 1969 audio interview with Grant, excerpts from an audio interview that Bogdanovich did with Hawkes around the time of his book Pieces of Time, and the trailer. The booklet includes both an essay by critic Sheila O’Malley and the 1937 short story by Hagar Wilde that the film was based on. If you already have the 2005 Warner Brothers US DVD, you may want to keep it as well, because it includes two long documentaries on Hawks and Grant, which were not carried over.