Bringing Up Baby

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USA, 1938

Director: Howard Hawks

Production: RKO Radio Pictures Inc.; black and white, 35mm; running time: 102 minutes (some sources state 100 minutes). Released 1938. Filmed in RKO studios and backlots.

Producer: Cliff Reid; screenplay: Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde, from a story by Hagar Wilde; photography: Russell Metty; editor: George Hively; music score: Roy Webb.

Cast: Cary Grant (David Huxley); Katharine Hepburn (Susan Vance); May Robson (Mrs. Carlton Random); Charles Ruggles (Major Applegate); George Irving (Alexander Peabody); Virginia Walker (Alice Swallow); Barry Fitzgerald; Walter Catlett.



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Bringing Up Baby employs the successful formula of such classic films as It Happened One Night and My Man Godfrey in which madcap heiresses pit their senses of fun, irreverence, and total irresponsibility against the seriousness, logic, and dignity of working class heroes. In such screwball comedies of the 1930s the leading couple's courtships of verbal battles provide a series of humorous sexual conflicts that are overcome but unresolved in the reconciliation during the "happy endings." Bringing Up Baby takes the antagonisms and extremes embodied in the screwball comedy a little further than any of the other films of the genre.

Starring Katharine Hepburn as the completely dotty heiress and Cary Grant as an overly stuffy, self-important paleontologist Bringing Up Baby exaggerates the lover-antagonist formula of the screwball comedy for a humorous battle between the sexes in which the stereotypes of sex roles are reversed. Hepburn's character is the aggressor, and her relentless pursuit of Grant engages him in a series of comic misadventures which become increasingly foolish as the movie progresses. Grant's character, who by nature is docile, submissive, and dutiful, has his dignity stripped away layer by layer in the course of Hepburn's bizarre schemes. But director Howard Hawks uses the division of his characters into masculine and feminine stereotypes in order to allow each to have a liberating effect on the other. When the two are united as a couple at the film's end, the effect is an uneasy integration of sex-role principles.

The Hawksian formula of sex-role reversals contained in comic opposites provided the underpinnings for Hawk's screwball comedies from the 1930s through the 1950s. In such movies as Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, Ball of Fire, I Was a Male War Bride, and Monkey Business, Hawks relied on assertive heroines to peel away the dignity and mock seriousness of bumbling feminized heroes. As each hero's sense of identity and self-image crumbles, the ensuing confusion provides the comedy and the key to his liberation from a narrow restrictive code of behaviour. In such films as Bringing Up Baby and I Was a Male War Bride, Hawks pushes his male characters' sexual confusion to such extremes that they are forced to parade around in women's clothing.

Bringing Up Baby enjoys frequently revived popularity today due to its breakneck pace, superb comic timing, humorous swipes at sex roles, and partnering of Hepburn and Grant. But when the film was initially released in 1938, it met harsh criticism and indifferent audiences. Hepburn, who headed the Independent Theatre Owners Association list of "box-office poison" movie stars, grated on the critics' nerves. In addition to Hepburn's seeming unpopularity, a critical disdain for what the New York Times reviewer called a "zany-ridden product of the goofy farce school" may have contributed to the film's lack of success. However, in 1962, Sight and Sound critic Peter Dyer attested to the reversal in status and popularity of Bringing Up Baby: "The durability of Hawks's films lies in the way that they have a mysterious life of their own going on under the familiar, facile surfaces. It is the constant cross-graining of cliché and inventive detail which produces the shock of pleasure his best work provides."

—Lauren Rabinovitz