At the Stuyvesant Museum of Natural History, palaeontologist Doctor David Huxley is deep in thought about where to put his bone; it’s the day before his wedding to Alice Swallow, he needs to make a good impression on Elizabeth Random, wealthy dame of society who is considering a million-dollar donation to the facility, and he is short an intercostal clavicle for his brontosaurus.
A round of golf with Mrs Random’s lawyer is organised at which David hopes to put forward his case, but on the eighteenth fairway he encounters a blithely indifferent woman who introduces herself as Miss Susan Vance; she’s forward, she’s assured, she’s eccentric, she’s appropriated his golf ball and his car, and accompanied by her pet leopard she’s trouble in a gold lamé gown.
Now regarded as one of the greatest comedies of all time, it seems inconceivable that on original release in 1938 that Howard Hawk’s Bringing Up Baby was poorly received by audiences and critics with leading lady Katherine Hepburn and a group of her contemporaries labelled “box office poison” and barely passing into profit only when it was re-released early the following decade.
Is it simply that Bringing Up Baby was too far ahead of its time to be appreciated, a curse then but a blessing now in that it now plays as timeless, an encapsulation of the golden age of Hollywood starring two of its most iconic stars, Cary Grant, befuddled and bewildered as David, and Hepburn as Susan, while the delightful Nissa and Skippy attempt to upstage them as Baby and Mrs Random’s dog George, also on the hunt for David’s intercostal clavicle?
Aware of the chaos she is creating despite her protestations of innocence and utterly delighted by it, with Susan there is no pause between impulse and action, driving miscommunications and misunderstandings which she exploits to keep David near her then leaving others to make explanations, but there is no malice present even as her dynamic performance creates “Swingin’ Door Susie,” and both Grant and Hepburn are flawless in their performances.
The script credited to Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde, based on Wilde’s short story, the influence of Bringing Up Baby can be seen in Grant’s pairing with “fifth horseman of the Apocalypse” Doris Day in That Touch of Mink and in the shenanigans and dynamic of Ryan O’Neal and Barbra Streisand in What’s Up, Doc? where writer/director Peter Bogdanovich paid direct homage to his coat-ripping inspiration.
Restored on Blu-ray as part of the Criterion Collection in a new 4K digital transfer, Bogdanovich features heavily in the supporting material in an audio commentary from 2005 and in an archive conversation with Howard Hawks from 1972, Hawks also the subject of the hour-long 1977 documentary A Hell of a Good Life, his last interview before his death, while Grant is covered in a video essay on his early career and in a 1969 audio interview.
Cinematographer Russell Metty’s “spectrum of credits” having encompassed Douglas Sirk, Orson Welles, John Huston and Stanley Kubrick, his understated contribution of letting the performers tell the story in long takes rather than multiple cross-cuts is discussed by John Bailey while Craig Barron explores the near invisible contributions of Linwood Dunn, the man who created the RKO studio logo and made the USS Enterprise fly as well as putting Baby in the frame with nervous film stars, essential support when Bringing Up Baby.
Bringing Up Baby is available on Blu-ray from Criterion now