Hays’d: Decoding the Classics — ‘Bringing Up Baby’

Hays’d: Decoding the Classics — 'Bringing Up Baby'
Hays’d: Decoding the Classics — 'Bringing Up Baby'

The Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code after censor/stick-in-the-mud Will Hays, regulated film content for nearly 40 years, restricting, among other things, depictions of homosexuality. Filmmakers still managed to get around the Code, but gay characters were cloaked in innuendo, leading to some necessary decoding.

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn are sheer perfection in Howard Hawks’ greatest film, Bringing Up Baby (though His Girl Friday, also starring Grant, comes in a close second). A hapless paleontologist gets roped into a madcap heiress’s search for a leopard named Baby, but at the end of the day, Bringing Up Baby is just about a man looking for a bone.

What is basically an extended penis joke (BOOM!) also features the first cinematic utterance of the word “gay” in reference to homosexuality.

Coincidence? Methinks not.

Though it is regarded today as the quintessential screwball comedy, when Bringing Up Baby first premiered in 1938 it bombed. HARD.

Hawks was fired from his next film, Hepburn was labeled “Box Office Poison” and Grant thought his career was all but over. At the time, Hawks blamed the film’s failure on the zaniness of all the characters, claiming that audiences had no one they could relate to, but Grant plays the ultimate straight man. HIs performance is brilliantly subtle at times and he handles the zaniness of Hepburn’s character with aplomb.

But Baby was clearly ahead of its time as repeated viewings reveal it to be still funny, fresh and fantastic.

The screwball comedies of the 30s and early 40s provided safe ground for all kinds of salacious and scandalous material that somehow managed to squeak by the not-too-bright Hays Office. Film scholar Morris Dickstein referred to the genre as a way of “making movies about sex without any sex in them.”

Screwball comedies also played havoc with traditional gender roles, with the women becoming the pursuers and the men the pursued. In this film, Hepburn’s Susan Vance is clearly the one wearing the pants. Figuratively and literally.  

While Grant’s David Huxley wears….a marabou nightgown:

After previewing Baby, the Hays Office didn’t seem to have any problem with the film’s many double entendres or Grant’s use of the word “gay” — even though the Motion Picture Production Code strictly forbade any reference to homosexuality. In fact they, really only objected to the scene in which Susan’s dress is torn, revealing her granny panties:

Of course, back in 1938, gay still meant “happy” to most Americans. Queens, however, had been using the term to refer to themselves since at least the 1920s, and it eventually caught on with mainstream society after the Stonewall Riots in 1969. That Grant ad-libbed the line, then, should come as little surprise. Rumors of Grant’s bisexuality have swirled about for decades and much has been made of his relationship with fellow ridiculously good-looking leading man, Randolph Scott.

The two shared a “bachelor pad” for over ten years between their various marriages to women and were photographed doing things that hetero bros did back then — like running half-naked on a beach together, hanging out half-naked with a giant ball and sharing a quiet moment in bromantic silhouette against a sunset.

You know, bro shit. But Grant’s daughter denied that her father was gay; he just liked that other people thought so.

Either way, Grant was familiar with the term “gay” to mean something other than happy from the circles in which he ran. Hepburn’s sexuality has often come into question as well, with some even suggesting that she was transgender. Her masculinity certainly helped her out in the role of Susan Vance, for which Hawks praised her impressive physicality:

“She has an amazing body — like a boxer. It’s hard for her to make a wrong turn. She’s always in perfect balance. She has that beautiful coordination that allows you to stop and make a turn and never fall off balance. This gives her an amazing sense of timing. I’ve never seen a girl that had that odd rhythm and control.”

Bringing Up Baby’s popularity has only increased in the over 75 years since it first premiered, spawning homages from gay icons Barbra Streisand (What’s Up Doc?) and Madonna (the regrettable Who’s That Girl?). But they pale in comparison to the original, whose comedic heights are rarely reached in any film of any era.

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