Bringing Up Baby (1938, Howard Hawks)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

“Screwball” is as vague and tragically flexible a term, in the end, as “noir.” None of us, in or outside of cinephile circles, can explain explicitly what it is, we just “know it when we see it.” In contrast to the ever-expanding definition of “noir,” screwball comedy demands to be shrunken to a certain aesthetic; touchstones for some, like Twentieth Century and Arsenic and Old Lace, seem to others to violate essential elements of the idea. And what is that idea? Fast-talking characters dealing with increasingly manic situations? Snappy relationship dialogue in the guise of a world that seems to be elevated yet unraveling? Is The Awful Truth a screwball, or is it all too conservative and carefully paced for that? The shrunken scope and easy temperament of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town or His Girl Friday make them perfect for some personal filmographies, scoffed at by others. Can we all agree, then, that the term seems to have been created for Bringing Up Baby? That “screwball” can be declared to achieve its apex here, with all other ideas extrapolating from it, before and afterward?

Indeed, I doubt we can even allow that much of a consensus, but let’s pretend we could. The indescribable yet carefully structured insanity of Howard Hawks’ film is wild in such an unforced manner, imbued with the kind of convicted outrageousness — a supercharged spirit, even — that would set the table for Orson Welles to wreak havoc at RKO a few years later. Quite apart from the volume of laughs here, and it doesn’t do us much good to explain or analyze those, does it, at its core Baby is a surprisingly profound piece of art. The seasoned viewer of classic-era comedies, including brilliant ones like Libeled Lady and The Lady Eve, is put on the defense immediately in Bringing Up Baby, for from its first frames it’s unlike any other film of its time or of any time — simply put, we might declare the statement “he’s thinking” followed by a cartoonishly precise scroll up to Cary Grant in full-on bespectacled “thinking” pose, flanked by a gigantic dinosaur fossil, to be a rebellious bit of open weirdness. That impulse to ruffle feathers is soon revealed to be the source of a certain inspired, poetic lunacy that allows the actors to dance a ballet atop words and actions for the next hour and a half or so.

Within or outside of its genre, this film is indomitable — describe the elements of it and you get what sounds like a terrible Indiana Jones fanfic: an aloof paleontologist and his perpetually scolding wife, a museum trustee and his smitten niece, a dinosaur bone, a dog who won’t stop barking and loves to bury dinosaur bones, and a leopard named Baby who’s comforted by the singing of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby” — because of its magically perverse piling up of catastrophe that’s sensible only in context, with the careful Jenga-like piling up of one slightly improbable scenario atop another, all so slowly that you don’t notice that you’ve managed to be sold on a completely bizarre, almost dadaist film in the end. But fine, this is a comedy so smart from its very opening frame to the last second that it really ought to make anybody who’s wanted to make a movie since feel kind of daunted. A flop in 1938 that temporarily derailed the careers of both Hawks and lead actress Katharine Hepburn, for whom the film was tailor-made, it somehow hasn’t aged even slightly. People would kill to be able to execute this kind of perfect humor half as beautifully now. Writing, directing, delivery, sheer sense of glorious life, all right there like it was filmed late last night. And by the way, it’s really really really funny and Cary Grant is great too.

Grant’s bumbling brilliance as the socially awkward straight man is note-perfect; no actor in Hollywood ever delivered every line with such biting, abstract correctness. Expressive as he is, though, Hepburn carries the film; its exuberance is hers. Her Susan is a firecracker of such luminosity that “Mr. Bone” must finally confess that he, through gritted teeth, has had the best time of his life and the wedding’s off and all of that. What’s more, Susan exposes the hollowness of a film biz that would only ever have men doggedly pursuing their lovers — she looks upon Grant’s sexy-doesn’t-know-it nerd doc as an object of flaming desire and sets about pestering him with grinning, delicious dedication. She sets his world into chaos, and essentially defines romance itself in the process: a tumbling force of unshakeable power that redefines the life around us. Boy says to girl at one point: “You look at everything upside down. I’ve never known anyone like you.”

Of course, Hepburn’s madness could be intolerable in another context, as much as the strange and ever-mounting events large and small that shape the crucial domino-effect at the core of the complicated story never would work in a film that intended to be high drama, but it’s just this impatience with such rational matters that makes Bringing Up Baby such a beacon in film history — not merely is it a comedy, it’s a comedy with memorable and well-drawn characters that mocks the conventions it’s tearing down with sheer joy. Those yelps that Hepburn lets out when things are going her way, that little leap Grant does when he’s telling someone that he just went GAY! all of a sudden, they’re expressions of the tremendous human-to-human energy at the core of all this, a self-awareness you’d never get from Grand Hotel or even Gone with the Wind. They’re building blocks in the film that is finally as close as Hollywood ever came to something truly surreal.

We mustn’t discount the things going on underneath all this, either; Hepburn’s attraction to Grant is about the most lustful thing ever permitted to be seen under the Production Code. Sensuality drips from the dialogue, but never in the more clear-cut fashion of a Lauren Bacall or Veronica Lake movie; so much less refined and dirtier here, with all the talk of bones and digging and getting wet. But nor should we ignore what really counts about all this: yet again, the movie is hilarious, one of the funniest ever made… and as an art form, as a piece of cinema, as a cry out of sheer human open-armed dancing (on the eve of the war, to boot), comedy just doesn’t get much better, nor do movies.

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