In the 1930s a new fast-paced and borderline insane form of movie laugh-making came to the fore in Hollywood: the screwball comedy. Rather than falling into the established pattern of wild comedic characters and suffering straight men, everyone is ridiculous in screwball comedy. For you non-baseball fans out there, a screwball is a little-used pitch that moves in the opposite direction to the more commonly thrown curveball, which lead to the term being taken up to refer to eccentricity. Often considered the peak of the screwball form is Howard Hawk’s Bringing Up Baby (1938), featuring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. And the situation in Bringing Up Baby is indeed eccentric, with Grant playing a nervous paleontologist trying to secure a grant for his museum and Hepburn as a confident but supremely ditzy heiress who tricks Grant into helping her transport the tame leopard Baby to her aunt’s house. The film is even more ludicrous than that sounds, with Hepburn’s lovestruck loon, in particular, serving as one of the most brazenly ridiculous characters to be found in classic comedy. That’s a pretty impressive feat, considering that she co-stars with a very naughty dog and a real, live jungle cat. (102 min.)
J. – I really love old school screwball comedies, so I’m very pleased a few made the Sight & Sound list. We had the excellent fortune to be able to see Bringing Up Baby at the Astor Theatre in a double feature with the even zanier Arsenic and Old Lace (filmed 1941, released 1944). I definitely want to come back to that double feature below, because for me it showcases a problem with the Sight & Sound list, but I suppose I should first give Bringing Up Baby its fair due.
I am a huge Cary Grant fan, and I’m not sure there is another major star who has been able to carry so many different types of films. Straight drama, romance, action, suspense, comedy — he really can do them all. But I think he is at his most impressive in his comedic roles. He has amazing timing, and I’m not sure anyone does a comedic freak-out as well as him. But while he definitely brings the funny in Bringing Up Baby, it is totally Katherine Hepburn’s film. No doubt that is partly because it’s a screwball picture, in which women play a much more dominant role than they typically do in other screen comedies. Specifically, screwball heroines aren’t simply the “love interest” (Hollywood apparently not knowing what else to do with actresses); no, they often are the ones who drive the romantic relationship at the heart of the film. But Hepburn goes well above and beyond any other screwball heroine I can think of, making herself maniacally, possessively, wonderfully insane. But she is able to balance all that crazy with an affectionate and good-natured (if incredibly oblivious) warmth, which keeps her from being grating.
S. – This movie was so much fun! The story-line was utterly preposterous and the characters quite idiotic but Bringing Up Baby is still a delight to watch. I agree that the key to this was the skill of the two leads and their total commitment to the peculiar roles they were cast. Hepburn’s performance borders on frenetic throughout and peaks at full-blown manic numerous times during the film but she always brings the audience with her, she is absolutely luminous to watch. Few people would be able to hold their own alongside the free-wheeling Hepburn but Grant is capable of portraying the flustered intellectual without being swamped by her star-power. When he to succumbs to the frenzy spun around the leading-lady the fun is multiplied. The scene with him completely losing his cool while wearing a fluffy dressing-gown is fantastic.
J. – It is completely preposterous, which is exactly why it is such a delight. I don’t really know why exactly, but a week later I’m still laughing at that little bit when Katherine Hepburn’s character has lost a heel and she starts lopsidedly prancing about saying, “I was born on the side of a hill. I was born on the side of a hill.” Utterly stupid — awesome. I suppose in some ways her character qualifies as the prototype of that omnipresent indie nuisance the “manic pixie dream girl”. I don’t mean that as an insult though, because there is a guileless quality to her character that never really treads into darker territory, and she remains generally positive and committed to snagging Cary Grant no matter what he does, says, or feels (the poor fella). In general I like that the movie never really stoops to the “they fight, lessons are learned, they reconcile” formula of so many romantic comedies. She’s a chipper trainwreck from start to finish and he’s exasperated from start to finish. There’s really no room in this movie for serious emotions, and thank goodness for it — that room is needed for the leopard! (Which, incidentally, is supposed to come from South America, which doesn’t have leopards… is it a jaguar? It certainly looks more like a jaguar than a leopard.)
S. – I like how the pacing of Bringing Up Baby just keeps building. It begins rather benignly with the nerdy professor, David Huxley (Cary Grant), being bossed around by his severe secretary (& soon to be wife). The chaotic introduction of Susan Vance (Katherine Hepburn) results in car damage, a stolen purse, tearing of various garments and leopard wrangling and that is before things get really silly. Once they get to the farm all the characters are just madly playing off each other. This movie does everything it can to defy reality, it is not trying to teach any lessons or explore romantic relationships it is just dragging you along for a wild ride. I think this is the first film on the Sight & Sound list we have watched so far that is purely about entertainment. Would you agree, J?
J. – Actually, I would not, S. — I think that honor goes to another Howard Hawks film we yammered about previously: Only Angels Have Wings. But one of things that I thinks really distinguishes both movies is that they also look marvelous. This film is really impressive visually, particularly for a comedy. Aside from the directing choices aimed at punctuating and enlivening the humor, the film creates some wonderfully atmospheric settings as everyone bushwhacks through the woods at night in search of Baby the leopard. Given that Grant finds Hepburn to be a total nuisance for the vast majority of the film, the atmosphere created by Hawks generates the romance whether the characters want it or not. Only Angels Have Wings was rather similar in that regard, being a high-flying adventure romance that also was richly filmed and made very effective use of both outdoor and indoor locations. In each case, the settings are expertly used to express and define characters in ways that go beyond the performances of the actors — think the shadowy office of the airline in Angels and the ritzy restaurant bar frequented by Susan in Baby. Both films also make some rather excellent use of special effects. Baby is incorporated into the film really well for the most part, often through the use of split screens or some particularly effective rear projection (and some serious bravery or foolishness by Hepburn, who obviously wasn’t particularly afraid of the big cat). Neither film is meant to be particularly challenging or provide insight into the human condition, but both are smashing entertainment in the very best of the old Hollywood tradition.
S. – I would disagree that Only Angels Have Wings is in quite the same league of zaniness as Bringing Up Baby. It is a very entertaining film for sure but there is a little more effort made in character development and not every person on screen is one step away from the loony bin. There is some backstory provided and the sense that the two leads are building some type of meaningful relationship. In Bringing Up Baby the characters are one-dimensional and don’t really give the impression that they exist before or after the film itself, a fact that does not diminish the entertainment value in any way, just adds to the feeling of hyper-reality.
However, I can agree that both films look marvellous. The shenanigans in the woods at night were beautifully shot and the effects used to bring the big cat into the action were well integrated, although Hepburn clutching that scraggy-looking fake tail to try and prevent Baby leaving the car was kinda ridiculous (but very funny). It was pretty obvious that Grant was uncomfortable around the cat, he seems to almost break character when he is near it during an early scene in Susan’s apartment but Hepburn is fearless, further adding to the headstrong aura of her character.
J. – I agree that Only Angels Have Wings isn’t nearly as zany as this film, but then Angels isn’t a comedy. Even so, I feel like many of the films we have yammered about so far (particularly the American films) are aimed squarely at entertainment but achieve list status because they are also pushing the boundaries of cinema in some way or shooting for something more than just a pleasant day at the movies. I don’t think the same can be said of Angels and Baby, neither of which really break new ground or have any particular message or value beyond being a strikingly well-crafted, damn good time — which to my mind makes them deserving enough.
But this conclusion brings me back to our double feature experience. As much as I enjoy Bringing Up Baby, I absolutely adore Arsenic and Old Lace, which is not on the Sight & Sound list but which I think is a superior film. It has a greater number of excellent performances (the Aunts! Peter Lorre!) and manages to be even crazier and loopier than Baby while also presenting some of the blackest comedy the screen has ever seen. And that, in turn, brings me to one of my big, big problems with the Sight & Sound list: where the hell is Frank Capra? How can the list include screwball staples Bringing Up Baby, The Lady Eve (1941), and His Girl Friday (1940) but not include a single Capra film? He’s a marvelous director, and his movie It Happened One Night (1935) pretty much invented the screwball genre and set the standard for all Hollywood romantic comedies to come (and provided part of the template for Bugs Bunny — seriously). I get the impression that the critics get really attached to certain directors, championing them at the expense of others who deserve recognition. I sincerely enjoy Howard Hawks’ work, but surely if he can be awarded six spots on the list, the man who directed It Happened One Night, Lost Horizon (1937), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941), Arsenic and Old Lace, and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) could snag one little old spot. Smells like politics to me — maybe we need Jimmy Stewart to filibuster!