The screwball comedy is a nearly extinct subgenre of the standard comedy film. Its heyday was during the 1930s and ‘40s during the Great Depression and usually contained a clash of ideas between the social classes, mixed with romance and fast talking, wisecracking assertive kooks whose actions eventually emphasized the goodness of the common man.
Classic examples of this type and era include: Frank Capra’s 1934 “It Happened One Night”, about a common news reporter who while trying to get the “big story” falls for a runaway heiress, or Capra’s “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (1936) about a common guy who inherits a fortune and helps out the less fortunate. Gregory La Cava’s “My Man Godfrey” (1936) concerns a faithful butler who eventually sees the beauty and charms of the daughter of his wealthy employers, and Preston Sturges’ “The Lady Eve” (1941) is about a pretty con artist who pretends to be a distant member of royalty to steal the money and heart of a wealthy young guy. There were so many others that starred Cary Grant, Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur, or Katherine Hepburn.
This week’s film is yet another fine example of the screwball comedy. Director Howard Hawks’ 1938 “Bringing Up Baby” is the story of a befuddled paleontologist and a silly, flighty heiress was written by Dudley Nichols and Hager Wilde. It starred Cary Grant as the bookish paleontologist, Dr. David Huxley and Katherine Hepburn as Susan Vance, the gal who will win his heart. Along the way, the pair hunts for a missing dinosaur’s bone and contend with a pet leopard named “Baby”.
Things happen quickly in this amazing screwball comedy. After a quiet opening scene in the Stuyvesant Museum of Natural History we learn that Dr. Huxley is not only about to receive the final bone of a complete brontosaurus skeleton, its lost “intercostal clavicle”, but also the very next day he is going to get married to his research assistant Miss Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker).
First, that afternoon he has to meet Mr. Alexander Peabody on a golf outing to discuss a potential one million dollar donation to the museum by an endowment from a Mrs. Random. On the golf course though Dr. Huxley runs into a free-spirited heiress Susan, who not only mistakenly plays his golf ball, but when she hurriedly leaves the parking lot bumps fenders with David’s car.
Within hours Susan hijacks David’s plans, while she guarantees she’ll secure the donation to the museum because she knows Peabody, who she calls “Boopie”, but her aunt is Mrs. Elizabeth Random. Soon they are in Connecticut chasing the pet leopard who along with Aunt Elizabeth’s dog George steal the intercostal clavicle.
In her 2001 book, “Fast Talking Dames” Maria Di Battista she offers this effective analysis of Susan. “…Susan Vance’s license as a fast-talking dame who says and acts on any idea that pops into her head (many of them questionable legality). As played by Katherine Hepburn, Susan Vance is a particularly fine (and refined) if the madcap incarnation of the Hawksian woman.” First identified by film critic Naomi Wise in 1971, “the Hawksian woman was a radical screen presence who existed apart from and beyond the more stolid conventions of movie womanhood. She was given consequential roles to play and was if anything superior to the heroes. The good girl and the bad girl are fused into a single heroic heroine, who is both sexual and valuable. And smart.”
The film is loading with outstanding funny bit parts, like an eccentric big game hunter Major Applegate played by Charles Ruggles and Walter Cutlett’s frustrated Constable Slocum. Barry Fitzgerald’s drunken Mr. Gogarty and May Robson’s Aunt Elizabeth round off the looney supporting cast.
In Robin Wood’s classic 1968 study of Howard Hawks films he notes, “Bringing Up Baby” is “perhaps the funniest of Hawks’ comedies, but not the best” (he saves that for “Monkey Business” 1952). …”The spectator is delighted by small touches of comic business often beyond the critic’s reach…a matter of gesture, expression, intonation.” Among its many comic touches, Wood mentions “the resilience of the male, his ability to live through extremes of humiliation, retaining an innate dignity.”
“Bringing Up Baby” was a box office flop in 1938, but its reputation built slowly over the years and even was the inspiration for Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 “What’s Up Doc?” with Barbara Streisand. Despite directing several other Cary Grant comedy classics, a pair of wonderful Humphrey Bogart adventure films and several John Wayne Westerns, Hawks would only receive one Academy Award nomination for direction in his long and significant career—that was for “Sergeant York” in 1941. He would later receive an honorary Oscar in 1975, five years after his retirement.