Saturday, 5 December 2015

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

(This blog post is part of the "Try It, You'll Like It" Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently and Sister Celluloid)

For the classic film buff there can be nothing more frustrating than a relative or friend who does not share his or her appreciation of classic movies. Perhaps they have preconceived notions about classic films (too slow, too corny, et. al.). Perhaps after growing up with colour television they simply have a bias against films shot in black and white (as many of the classics were).  Regardless, it seems likely that they have never seen a classic film beyond perhaps The Wizard of Oz (1939) or It's a Wonderful Life (1946). At the very least, it seems clear that they haven't seen the right classic film. Let's face it. There are those classic films that even the most stubborn modern viewer can't help but appreciate, and often those classic films will trigger a lifelong love affair with the classics.

I honestly believe one of those films that could turn anyone into a classic movie fan is Bringing Up Baby (1938). Never mind that Bringing Up Baby is one of the best examples of the screwball comedy in existence. It also happens to be fast paced (much faster paced than some modern comedies) and it has some humour that is surprisingly modern for the era (with one line that got completely past the Production Code Administration). 

Bringing Up Baby originated in 1937 when director Howard Hawks was trying to get production rolling on RKO's adaptation of  Rudyard Kipling's Gunga Din. Unfortunately Gunga Din would prove to be a problem for Mr. Hawks, who was not able to get some of the cast he wanted. Quite simply, MGM refused to lend Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Franchot Tone to him for the film. Frustrated with the entire project, Howard Hawks began looking for something else to direct. He found it in the story "Bringing Up Baby" by Hagar Wilde, published in the April 1937 issue of Colliers. RKO bought the film rights for the story for $1004. As to Gunga Din, it was passed to director George Stevens and RKO released the film in 1939. Of course, it too would become a classic.

Howard Hawks soon learned that the original short story's author, Hagar Wilde, lacked the experience to complete the screenplay. He then turned to Dudley Nichols, who was then perhaps best known refusing the Oscar for Best Writing, Screenplay for The Informer (1936) because the Screenwriters Guild was on strike at the time. Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde worked together on the script, which underwent numerous changes before its final version.

As to the female lead role of Susan on Bringing Up Baby, the script was specifically tailored to Katharine Hepburn. RKO had its doubts as to Miss Hepburn in the role, primarily because it had been some time since she had a box office hit. Regardless, they agreed to the casting of Katharine Hepburn. The male lead role of David proved a bit more difficult. Howard Hawks wanted Harold Lloyd in the role, but producer Pandro S. Berman vetoed the idea. The role was offered to Leslie Howard, Fredric March, Robert Montgomery, Ronald March, and Ray Milland, all of who turned it down. Howard Hawks then turned to Cary Grant. Mr. Grant was not particularly eager to play the role, but Howard Hawks simply advised him to the play the part as if he was Harold Lloyd. In fact, in Bringing Up Baby Cary Grant even wears horn-rimmed glasses of the sort for which Harold Lloyd was famous.

Some well known characters actors filled out the rest of the cast. May Robson was cast as Susan's Aunt Elizabeth. Charles Ruggles played big game hunter Major Horace Applegate. Barry Fitzgerald was cast as Aunt Elizabeth's gardener and George Irving as her lawyer. Even the dog George was played by a veteran actor:  Skippy, the terrier best known as Asta in the early "Thin Man" movies.

Shooting on Bringing Up Baby was set to start on  September 1 1937, but would be delayed due to various factors. Before shooting began RKO had to get the rights to the song  "I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby", which was pivotal to the film's plot. Howard Hawks also hired  Robert McGowan and Gertrude Purcell to do some uncredited rewrites of the script. Robert McGowan borrowed a gag from Harold Knerr's comic strip Dinglehoofer und His Dog, which meant RKO had to pay King Features $1000 for the use of the gag. Bringing Up Baby finally began shooting on September 23, 1937. Shooting on the film fell behind in a large part because of its stars. Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn extemporised a number of the film's lines, with the end result being that one or the other of them (and often both) would break into laughter. Howard Hawks also frequently changed the dialogue and even entire scenes. Complicating matters was the fact that Howard Hawks often took his time shooting various sequences for the film. Scheduled to be shot in five days, Howard Hawks took twelve days to shoot a scene in a jail. Scheduled to end end shooting on November 20 1937, shooting on Bringing Up Baby did not end until January 6 1938.

Upon its initial release Bringing Up Baby received mostly good reviews. Unfortunately, its box office would also be somewhat disappointing. The film performed very well in such major cities as Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Cincinnati, Denver, and Portland. Unfortunately it did very poorly in both New York City and the Midwest. Ultimately Bringing Up Baby earned only $715,000 at the American box office.

Fortunately, while Bringing Up Baby did not do well at the box office upon its initial release, the film would grow in popularity over the years. It made a small profit when it was re-released in the early Forties and grew even more in popularity when it began airing on television in the Fifties. By the Fifties Howard Hawks was being recognised as an auteur by the writers of French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema and Bringing Up Baby was being regarded as one of his classics. 

Today there should be little wonder why, despite a disappointing box office take on its initial release, Bringing Up Baby should become regarded not only as a classic, but by many as the quintessential screwball comedy. The premise of Bringing Up Baby is deceptively simple. Palaeontologist Dr. David Huxley finds his life disrupted by the free-spirited Susan Vance and her pet black leopard Baby. While the premise of the film is simple, its plot certainly is not. Once Susan and Baby enter David's life, complications mount upon complications, building towards the film's climax. Bringing Up Baby is fast paced, even for a screwball comedy, with gags coming so fast that one can easily miss them if he or she isn't paying attention. While the emphasis is on laughs in Bringing Up Baby, David and Susan are still fully developed characters, even if both of them are a bit left of centre.

Ultimately the fast pace and large number of gags in Bringing Up Baby make it ideal for converting those who think classic films are boring or uninteresting. Even those people who "don't like black and white films" will find it hard not to resist the movie. Quite simply, Bringing Up Baby is so funny that anyone who watches it without laughing probably isn't human.

Regardless, Bringing Up Baby has long been regarded as one of the greatest comedies of all time. In only the second year of the the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, 1990, Bringing Up Baby was selected for preservation. In their initial list of the greatest American films of all time, 100 Years...100 Movies, the American Film Institute ranked Bringing Up Baby at 97 in 1998. When the list was updated in 2008 Bringing Up Baby was ranked at no. 88. The National Society of Film Critics ranked Bringing Up Baby even higher in its list of 100 Essential Films, on which it was placed at no. 14. In 1999 the magazine Entertainment Weekly placed Bringing Up Baby at no. 14 on its list of the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time. Bringing Up Baby is then not only a very funny movie, but also one that is widely regarded as one of the very best classic films.


Peter Putzel said...

I've tried watching this a number of times, but can never get through it. Perhaps if I can catch it as part of a #TCMParty, I'll be able to make it to the end with the help of others.

Caftan Woman said...

"I wasn't going to hit George!"

I love this movie with a passion. It is totally nuts!

Silver Screenings said...

I've grown to really love this film. The first time I saw it, I wasn't that enthusiastic about it. But now I agree – it is a very fine comedy and a perfect film to introduce to others.

Fritzi Kramer said...

Thanks so much for joining in! This has been one of my favorite films since I was a wee ankle-biter and I definitely agree it's an ideal intro for naysayers. Old films are boring, are they? The nightclub scene alone should have been rolling in the aisles.

Virginie Pronovost said...

This is my 2nd favourite film of all times! Excellent review Terence. Very informative. Sad that this film was a box office flop on its release... :(
And I completely agree with you when you say "For the classic film buff there can be nothing more frustrating than a relative or friend who does not share his or her appreciation of classic movies. "


I can't imagine anyone but Cary Grant as David. I mean, how Leslie Howard, Fredric March or Ray Milland could scream "I went GAY all of a sudden" in a fluffy robe?
Bringing Up Baby was one of the first classic movies I watched, because Katharine Hepburn was, since the beginning of my classic film addiction, my favorite actress. And it certainly has stood the test of time - and even got better as the decades passed.
Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

Joe Thompson said...

This is one of my daughter's two favorite movies. It is also one of mine. I think this would be a very good choice to get people turned on to classic movies. I had not know that Cary Grant was trying to do Harold Lloyd. It makes sense.