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Criticwire Classic of the Week: Howard Hawks’ ‘Bringing Up Baby’

Criticwire Classic of the Week: Howard Hawks' 'Bringing Up Baby'

now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled out for
attention. This is the 
Criticwire Classic of the

“Bringing Up Baby”
Dir: Howard Hawks
Criticwire Average: A

More than nearly any other director, Howard Hawks had an innate sense of rhythm. Whether he was working on the agreeably ambling western “Rio Bravo,” the fleet, frothy “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” or the visceral, hammering gangster drama “Scarface,” Hawks outdid his “three good scenes and no bad scenes” maxim by knowing when to slow down or speed up. Nowhere is this more evident than in his great screwball comedy “Bringing Up Baby,” which speeds way the hell up and processes gags so quickly that it takes a couple of viewings just to realize just how perfectly constructed and paced they are.

Cary Grant stars as Dr. David Huxley, a mild-mannered paleontologist who, through a series of circumstances that don’t really matter, winds up in the country home of free-spirited heiress Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn). What follows is a series of misadventures and misunderstandings that include: a brontosaurus bone stolen by a dog, a tame pet leopard mixed up with a wild escaped leopard, and an entire household thrown in jail.

Grant loses his suaveness without losing his charm, showing just how funny he can be by allowing himself to be taken out of his element and playing the (relative) straight man to all of the insanity around him. Hepburn is even better as Susan, who she plays as dizzy but never dumb, characteristically independent but sweeter than usual. She’s the joie de vivre to his uptight milquetoast, but she’s never reduced to a mere liberating force for him, with the film putting just as much emphasis on her desires as his. As his pretense to order gives in to her sense of chaos, “Bringing Up Baby” becomes a story of love being possible only when one totally lets their self-seriousness and inhibitions fall away.

What’s most remarkable is that film’s romantic side is indivisible from its comic side; indeed most of the romance comes out of their need to collaborate (and occasionally mess each other up) through a series of increasingly absurd situations. She needs to bring her leopard inside, he joins her in singing “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby.” He needs to get the bone back, she helps him follow around the tiny dog George to find where it’s been buried. The film fits in a book’s worth of innuendoes (““You tried to put it in the tail yesterday and it didn’t fit”) along with the slapstick by never slowing down, and even some of the biggest sight gags (Grant being forced to wear Susan’s frilly robe) barely get a second to register before the film moves along to the next indelible, ineffable moment (Grant shouting “I just went GAY all of a sudden”). As Grant says, “there haven’t been any quiet moments,” but “Bringing Up Baby” proves that sometimes you don’t need them.

More thoughts from the web:

Mike D’Angelo, The A.V. Club

…she steals his clothes and sends them into town, leaving him potentially naked for hours, and he’s forced to put on the only garment available to him, which happens to be the frilliest negligee this side of a drag show. Which, you know, is funny. But it’s funny here, I submit, in large part because of how nonchalantly it’s executed. Think about how that moment would play in one of today’s studio comedies. Either the guy would make a huge sputtering fuss before emerging from the bathroom (cueing the audience to an impending Big Reveal), or there would be a sudden cut to him in his new outfit, possibly involving a slow pan up from his feet to his pained expression. Or both, even. Hawks and Grant, by contrast, underplay like crazy: The door swings open just wide enough so that we can see Grant’s shadow as he struggles into the negligee (which in itself is more visually interesting than almost any contemporary comedy not made by Wes Anderson), and then he just charges right out and the movie barrels on at full speed. We’re asked to process this ludicrous sight with no pause for breath, which is as it should be. Read more.

Jeremiah Kipp, Slant Magazine

“Bringing Up Baby” has some delightfully comic sequences, for sure. But I’m less inclined to remember the dynamics of the gag than Grant and Hepburn’s timing. Grant has a field day with his shamefaced reactions, his ad-libbed hems and haws, and his bursts of mania (“I just went gay all of a sudden!”), and Hepburn, even in a rather thin role, finely exhibits her customarily neurotic charm and winning confidence. They’re quite a pair: a simpering weakling and a spontaneous nutcase. Read more.

Sheilla O’Malley, Capital New York

“Bringing Up Baby” has an energy reminiscent of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in the darkly lit shimmering scenes (most of the movie takes place at night, a departure for a comedy), with nature infiltrating the civilized world, working its magic on all of the participants. Susan Vance, the instigator of the madness, is an adorable irresistible force of fun in a self-serious universe. With all of her heedless impulsivity, she’s the one who knows that people should be enjoying themselves, dammit. Read more.

Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York

“Bringing Up Baby” is also a perfect example of why directors (and even us brilliant professional critics) can often be completely in the dark about what works. If you value plot above all else, the film will leave you cold; it’s basically a lot of running around. If you think comedies should be shot brightly, brace yourself—Russell Metty’s shadowy cinematography approaches the realm of a “Godfather” sequel. And if you believe that true love comes with utter understanding, prepare yourself for a serious letdown. There’s a strong sense that this couple scares each other long after we leave their frenetic company. Maybe that’s why it’s so goddamned romantic. Read more.

Kyle Turner, The Black Maria

How can I forget about the leopard, for whom the film is named? That most deliriously insane of MacGuffins, Baby is that bifurcated possibility of fear and desire, the perfect epitome of how David sees Susan: predator and seductress. He is fascinated and terrified of it, and I’m pretty sure that how’s most people thing of their respective romantic objects of desire: something to want and yet be scared of. The uses of the leopard, as a thing that exists in two and that plays slapstick along with the cast, is fun and highlights the film. That Baby is drawn to that jazz standard “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby”, is clever, and feels like a nod to human in general: however passive or aggressive we are, Love always serves as very strange, enigmatic comfort. Read more.

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