Review: ‘Bringing Up Baby’ (1938) | Pop Culture Crossing

            Bringing Up Baby, Howard Hawks’ 1938 comedic romance film, features a hectic story that envelops characters of vastly different persuasions. The film’s performances are strong, but the fast-paced nature of the story will likely leave audiences exhausted when the credits roll. Nevertheless, if viewers want to see Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in more unique roles, Bringing Up Baby is the film to watch.

            The film’s story centers on David, a paleontologist who works at a museum. When a wealthy socialite is set to donate $1,000,000 to the museum, David is tasked with securing the funding. However, when David inadvertently meets the woman’s vivacious niece, Susan, she sets his world and job into a crazed state of upheaval. Complicating the matter is the fact that the woman is scheduled to receive Baby, a tame leopard. When Baby arrives and is in Susan’s care, this adds another layer of comedy and frenzy to David’s challenge of obtaining the funds.

Image Courtesy of RKO Radio Pictures

Image Courtesy of RKO Radio Pictures

            Bringing Up Baby’s pacing is fair. Once David meets Susan, and especially once Baby is introduced, the pace really accelerates, though there were times I found myself wondering when the film would conclude. The third act is a bit overcrowded and cumbersome, but frenzied nevertheless. Tied closely with the pace is the film’s frantic and turbulent tone. Adding to the chaos is the fact that David is often rendered powerless by Susan’s boisterous and forceful qualities. These are common traits of screwball comedies.

Image Courtesy of RKO Radio Pictures

Image Courtesy of RKO Radio Pictures

            An underlying tonal and narrative element is revealed when Susan meets a psychiatrist who specializes in neurotic behavior. Susan, in a rather blasé manner, refers to those who exhibit such behavior as “crazy people.” The psychiatrist aptly retorts that he and his peers try to avoid that term. It does not take long, however, for it to become evident that neuroticism and crazed behavior are the leitmotifs of the film. The smart way in which this theme is subtly illustrated is evidence of the film’s clever writing.

Image Courtesy of RKO Radio Pictures

Image Courtesy of RKO Radio Pictures

            Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn are the film’s principals portraying David and Susan, respectively. This role seem for unique for Grant as it is different from some of his other cool and collected characters. Nevertheless, it is fun to see both actors portray these characters. Grant’s David is a nerdy paleontologist who is kind-hearted and considerate to the core. It just so happens that David fortuitously meets Susan and gets tangled in the subsequent web of unfortunate events, including becoming the target of Susan’s affection.

Image Courtesy of RKO Radio Pictures

Image Courtesy of RKO Radio Pictures

            Hepburn’s Susan clearly juxtaposes David and creates a dynamic balance given the character’s loud, fast-talking, and domineering behavior. Although Susan is draining, the yin and yang of the characters, mixed with Baby and the chaotic story, create a nice package overall. I definitely found myself sympathizing with David in his attempts to stay on task and get away from Susan and Baby. Strong performances by the supporting cast of May Robson, Charles Ruggles, Barry Fitzgerald and Walter Catlett help round of the film’s eclectic dramatis personae.

Image Courtesy of RKO Radio Pictures

Image Courtesy of RKO Radio Pictures

            Bringing Up Baby’s cinematography features a good mix of shots. I was fairly surprised at the amount of trips and falls both Grant and Hepburn took throughout the film. These moments definitely highlight some of the elements of physical comedy.

            The behavior of the animals in the movie are very impressive. I am not sure how the trainers and filmmakers did it, but the film’s use of real animals on set and their actions are noteworthy and one of the movie’s hallmarks. Other elements of production design, specifically the good sets in the estate and museum and the overall wardrobe, are strong. The film’s editing is a bit choppy in parts, which makes for some abrupt and forceful transitions that should have been more polished.

Image Courtesy of RKO Radio Pictures

Image Courtesy of RKO Radio Pictures

            Howard Hawks’ direction of Bringing Up Baby is good. The sharp way in which he is able to communicate the nuances of the screenplay, particularly the aforementioned dialogue between Susan and the psychiatrist, combined with the strong performances from his cast and the animals on set are commendable. The editing and scene transitions should have been better and the third act could have been more distilled, but overall the film is a nice accomplishment for its time.

Image Courtesy of RKO Radio Pictures

Image Courtesy of RKO Radio Pictures

            Bringing Up Baby is an interesting film that has a supremely chaotic story. The stress felt by David in the film will probably be transferred to viewers. Although it is not a must-see, Bringing Up Baby does have some good comedy. If you are looking for a movie that features Grant and Hepburn playing quirky characters, or if you want a classic film with entertaining animals, you will likely be entertained by Bringing Up Baby.

Back Matter:[1]

Distributor: RKO Radio Pictures

Production: RKO Radio Pictures

Director: Howard Hawks

Producer: Howard Hawks

Screenwriter: Dudley Nichols (screenplay); Hagar Wilde (screenplay and story)

Director of Photography: Russell Metty

Editor: George Hively

Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase

Music: Roy Webb

Costume Design: Howard Greer

Budget: ca. $1,073,000

Release Date: February 18, 1938 (USA)

Cinematographic Process: Spherical

Laboratory: N/A

Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

Copyright Holder: RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.

Cast: Katharine Hepburn; Cary Grant; Charles Ruggles; Walter Catlett; Barry Fitzgerald; May Robson

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Rating: Not Rated

Running Time: 1 hours and 42 minutes (102 mins.)