Grade:  A-/B+
Comedy
Would be PG

The dictionary says the noun “screwball” is a baseball pitch or “a crazy or eccentric person.” Baseball may be listed first, but when it comes to the adjective it’s all about film:  “crazy, absurd—relating to or denoting a style of fast-moving comedy film involving eccentric characters or ridiculous situations.”

The dictionary probably should have added, “See Bringing Up Baby,” because Howard Hawks’ 1938 comedy starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, a leopard and a dog is widely considered the quintessential screwball comedy.

Screwball comedies became popular as people could see the light at the end of the tunnel that had been the Great Depression. Often the films involved a romantic couple from different social classes, with one of them a screwball. Plots revolved around an unconventional “courtship” that began as annoyance and ended with attraction. In that respect they’re the quintessential “opposites attract” movies as well.

Screwball comedies are characterized by a flipped social script that featured women as the pursuer and men as passive or befuddled objects of desire. Basically, it was a comic twist on the femme fatale moviegoers saw in the film noir crime movies of the ‘20s and ‘30s. Fast talk and overlapping dialogue were also characteristics of the screwball comedy, as were farcical situations, mistaken identities and misunderstandings, physical comedy, witty and fast-paced plots, and “out-of-uniform” comic situations. What’s more, the “meet cute” that’s become a standard convention in romantic comedies was pioneered by screwball comedies.

This one stars Katharine Hepburn, for whom the screenplay was written. Cary Grant was cast at the suggestion of director Hawks’ friend, the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. Bringing Up Baby took four months to shoot, as production was frequently delayed because Grant and Hepburn kept cracking each other up. It was Hepburn’s first comedy, and when she struggled with the fast talk it made Grant laugh, and that made her laugh. They generate an off-the-rail runaway train energy that the best screwball comedies have, and their energy is contagious.

Highly regarded now—it’s #97 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time list—Bringing Up Baby bombed at the box office and ran for only a week after its Radio City Music Hall premier. Moviegoers just weren’t ready to accept dramatic actress Hepburn as a ditzy screwball. And she can be a lot to take.

As the elegant-but-oblivious heiress, Hepburn is the snowball rolling down the hill that gathers mass and speed and knocks poor nerdy paleontologist David Huxley on his rear end—numerous times. An absurd series of events drives the first act as we witness stranger Susan play David’s golf ball, then ruin his car while insisting it too was hers. All David wants is to influence an attorney representing a rich donor so his museum can get a million dollars (the stakes are high), but there seems to be no escaping Susan, as she seemingly turns up to thwart his every attempt. If she’s not tossing an olive on the floor for him to slip on, she’s swerving into a poultry truck and he’s covered with feathers. At one point, in typical farce fashion, David ends up wearing a woman’s nightgown and that lead’s to an improvised line that’s one of the film’s most famous.

Then there’s the matter of the leopard—played in this film by Nissa, who had been working in Hollywood for eight years. Trainer Olga Celeste was always just off-camera with a whip, and while Hepburn had to wear a special perfume to keep the leopard calm she was unafraid to work with the animal. Grant was another story. Most of the scenes showing him interacting with the leopard were shot with doubles. He was scared to death, and at one point Hepburn teased him about it by tossing a toy stuffed leopard through the roof of his dressing-room trailer. Antics involving a precious dinosaur bone, a leopard who responds to the song “I can’t Give You Anything But Love (Baby),” and George the Dog, who romps and plays with Baby, the leopard sent to Susan’s rich aunt (May Robson), become central to a plot that also features a not-so-tame escaped circus leopard.   

Will the animals and the silliness make up for the fact that Bringing Up Baby is a black-and-white film presented in 1.37:1 aspect ratio? One would hope so. It’s all a matter of adjustment. The more you watch it, the more you adjust to it. When our kids were little we had a 10-minute rule. They had to give a movie a fair chance by watching the first 10 minutes without complaint or distraction. More often than not, they managed to get into the film. And once kids get into this comedy of character and situation, they should find it entertaining.  

Bringing Up Baby remains a likable farce that showcases the talents of two huge stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood. It’s great to finally have it available on high-definition Blu-ray—especially in a Criterion Collection edition that preserves some of the original film’s grain and also includes a nice bundle of bonus features.

Entire family:  Yes
Run time:  102 min. (Black-and-white)
Aspect ratio:  1.37:1
Featured audio:  Digital Mono
Studio/Distributor:  Criterion
Bonus features:  B+
Trailer
Amazon link
Rated “Passed” (would be rated PG for adult situations and brief drinking, smoking)

Language:  1/10—“Jesus” and “crap” are about as raw as it gets

Sex:  1/10—The back of a woman’s dress is torn and her undergarments are partially exposed; Grant delivers his famous ad lib about turning gay “all of a sudden” while asked what he’s doing in a woman’s nightgown

Violence:  0/10—The closest thing we get to violence is a leopard-dog tussle where you can’t tell if they’re playing or fighting

Adult situations:  2/10—There is brief drinking and smoking

Takeaway:  Though Howard Hawks was known for his Westerns, he made two of the three most famous screwball comedies:  this one and His Girl Friday (1940); the man knew what he was doing