POPULAR LEGEND SAYS that Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby was a critical and commercial disaster on its first release—a reception that makes for a neatly ironic contrast to the film’s subsequent status as Golden Age classic. But as Todd McCarthy’s biography of Hawks documents, Baby was enthusiastically received by preview audiences, West Coast critics and film-goers alike; it was only because expectations ran so high that the fizzling expansion into other regional markets seemed so disappointing; and it was only because the release hit rock bottom in New York, the city best able to determine long-term perceptions, that Baby has since been regarded as a flop.
So that dubious legend owes a lot to Frank S. Nugent, then film critic for the New York Times, who gave prominent voice to Baby’s detractors with this compendium of its clichés:
Have you heard the one about the trained leopard and the wild leopard who get loose at the same time? Or the one about the shallow brook with the deep hole? Or the one about the man wearing a woman’s negligee? Or the one about the Irishman who drains his flask and sees a wild animal which really is a wild animal?
You have? Surprising, indeed. But perhaps you haven’t heard the one about the annoying wire-haired terrier who makes off with a valuable object and buries it somewhere and has the whole cast on his heels. That one, too? Well, then, how about the one where the man slips and sits on his top hat? Or the one where the heroine is trying to arouse a sleeper by tossing pebbles at his window and, just as he pokes his head out, hits him neatly with a bit of cobblestone?
Nugent is right in his wrongness. The film is stuffed-to-bursting with stock routines, but this very overflow of familiar gags is essential to its genius. Not only because it sets the film racing at Looney Tunes speed, but because Baby is not just a screwball comedy, it’s a “Screwball Comedy,” capitalized and scare-quoted. It makes sport of its own form. And when all its genre tropes are gathered together, they start to mean something extraordinary in aggregate.
Farce has always been a popular genre for discussing subjects that can’t be addressed directly. It’s a form uniquely able to stage the comedy of repressed sexuality and unconscious drives, offering an idiom for sublimation, projection, transference and cathexis, for telling stories about desires that are displaced, shunned, invalidated or trained on the wrong object. It can show how the desires we think we’ve gotten rid of rear their heads in ways we don’t recognize but are, to the outside observer, unmistakable.
The devices of farce can be attenuated to retain ambiguity, as in most Hollywood screwballs, but when they’re juxtaposed in a maximalist frenzy we can’t help but notice what’s really going on. One of the jokes of Bringing Up Baby is how unsubtle its jokes are, how laughably vulgar the whole affair becomes. This wasn’t lost on the actors; a scene in which Grant misplaces his “bone,” which Hepburn insists is still “in the box,” reportedly took six hours to shoot, the cast was laughing so hard.
“Leashed Passion” by Laurie Lipton, 1996
LITERALLY, THE TITLE Bringing Up Baby refers to a leopard in the film named Baby. The conceit partakes of the same juxtaposition as the Laurie Lipton drawing above. It’s a joke about the dual nature of our unconscious: on the one hand, ravenous, ruthless, and aggressive; on the other, naïve, vulnerable, and infantile, an “inner-child.” “Bringing up” refers both to conversation—as in “don’t bring that up!”, and the movie is nothing if not a litany of unintentional faux pas—and to child rearing. The latter suggests that the product of Grant and Hepburn’s union would be a carnivorous beast, which makes a lot of sense once you’ve seen the movie, but an alternate reading is possible: that the movie is really about Hepburn rearing Grant.
In 2007, critic Nathan Rabin coined the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) to refer to a spectacularly annoying presence in contemporary cinema. Rabin explained:
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition. Audiences either want to marry her instantly (despite The Manic Pixie Dream Girl being, you know, a fictional character) or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate family.
In a follow-up article, Rabin & co. at The Onion A.V. Club listed “16 movies with MPDG’s”, including Almost Famous (Kate Hudson), Garden State (Natalie Portman), Breakfast At Tiffany’s (Audrey Hepburn)—and Bringing Up Baby (Katherine Hepburn). Their description of the film:
For the bulk of her career, Katharine Hepburn played strong-willed patrician types who defied convention, but still maintained a baseline gravity. But in Howard Hawks’ 1938 screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby, Hepburn let gravity go, playing a giggly, scatterbrained heiress who torments stuffy scientist Cary Grant with her crazy demands and pet leopard. By the end of the film, Hepburn has turned Grant as nutty as she is, and as they hang from a crumbling dinosaur skeleton, he confesses that following her manic whims has led to the best day of his life.
While their observations are dead-on with regards to Almost Famous et al., I think Rabin & co. are wrong about Hepburn in Baby. In fact, their description of the movie contains the seeds of its own rebuttal. The MPDG is a fantasy figure built to prop up the male ego; this doesn’t fit with Rabin & co.’s apt line about an “heiress who torments (italics mine) stuffy scientist Cary Grant.” Torments is the right word; she twists Grant according to her “manic whims.” It’s not quite the behavior of an MPDG, as a closer look at Baby‘s plot will illustrate.
STRAIGHT-LACED NEBBISH David Huxley (Grant) meets Susan Vance (Hepburn) on a golf course. He hooks his ball onto her fairway and she confuses it with hers. He tries to explain the mix-up, but we quickly learn that Susan is very unconcerned with whose balls belong to whom. She seems unconcerned with David altogether. The two run into each other again when David spots Susan trying to make off with his car, which is the same model as her own. “Your golf ball? Your car?” she asks. “Is there anything in the world that doesn’t belong to you?” Of course, the joke is on her; she’s the one who claims ownership of everything under the sun. At this point she still has no attachment to David, obviously considers him just a bother.
David and Susan again run into each other at a dinner party; he slips on a cocktail olive that she was trying to throw into her mouth. “You can’t do that trick without dropping some of the olives,” she remarks. It’s at this point that Susan becomes interested in David, following him across a crowded room only to run into the thickly-accented Dr. Fritz Lehman. “I usually talk about nervous disorders,” Dr. Lehman explains. “Oh, crazy people?” “We dislike the use of that word, all people who behave strangely are not insane,” says the doctor, punctuating the statement with an insanely spasmic wince. (Hollywood at this time was brilliant at playing every side against the middle: exoticizing, validating, and discrediting all at once.)
It’s after hearing this observation that Susan plies the doctor with a question: “What would you say about a man who follows a girl around, and then, when she talks with him, he fights with her?” “The love impulse in men frequently reveals itself in terms of conflict,” he declares. This provides the spark that sets the plot on fire. For the rest of the movie, Susan labors under the impression that David is, secretly, in love with her.
This is why she torments him, because he is not yet her ideal lover. She needs to re-educate his spirit in the impulsive, the erratic, and the irrational in order to bring it into line with hers. She’s flattered by the love she, perhaps wrongly, assumes to be directed at her, but she cannot take him as he is. In this sense, Susan is less like today’s MPDGs and more resembles, say, Shakespeare’s Rosalind. In As You Like It, Rosalind has to dress up like a man to teach her suitor, Orlando, how to be a better lover, because Orlando is an incompetent chump. “This only happens in the comedies,” Allan Bloom has noted grimly of Shakespeare’s plays. “When there are no such intrepid women, the situation turns to tragedy.”
Susan doesn’t cross-dress, but she dissembles in all sorts of ways in order to change David’s character. She needs him to be different than he is so she can enjoy him, sexually and otherwise. At one point, while David is in the shower, Susan steals his clothes, sending them into town when the maid could wash them at home, because “there’s no rush.” This forces David to don a frilly lace nightie: the one about the man wearing a woman’s negligee. When Susan’s aunt enquires about his get-up, he screams, “Because I just went gay all of a sudden!” David is getting kinky, as Susan likes it.
NEARLY ALL INTERACTIONS in Baby involve misrecognition. People are unsure who they’re looking at, and when they are sure, they’re usually wrong. The one about the Irishman who drains his flask and sees a wild animal which really is a wild animal.
The only character (somewhat) exempt from this paradigm is Susan. The final joke of the film is that Susan—who hits the wrong golf ball, drives the wrong car, thinks the wrong man is in love with her—is actually right about everything. This is partly because, for much of the movie, she’s the one pulling the strings; Susan, and Susan alone, knows what’s going on. But Susan is right, too, because, as the only character who follows her instincts, she’s the only character in touch with the disorder of desire; in fact, she’s an embodiment of it. The one about the shallow brook with the deep hole.
It turns out David is in love with her. She extracts a confession, after which she destroys the brontosaurus that David’s been building for the last four years. It’s in his initially tentative but eventually good-natured acceptance of this destruction that Susan knows David’s re-education is complete. He is ready to be enjoyed, and we can bet she’s going to enjoy him.
Tom McCormack is an editor for Alt Screen.
A new 35mm print of Bringing Up Baby is playing at Film Forum, June 16th-23rd.