Welcome to Fistful of Features, a celebration of film preservation through physical media and the discussion of cinematic treasures to maintain their relevance in the cultural lexicon. Today we’ll be discussing Howard Hawks’s magnificent screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby now available on Blu-ray courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
“When a man is wrestling a leopard in the middle of a pond, he’s in no position to run.”
-Dr. David Huxley
A commercial flop upon initial release, Howard Hawks’s seminal comedic masterpiece Bringing Up Baby is a great example at what drives genuine laughter, and that’s anarchy. Vaudevillian-turned-actor Cary Grant is the perfect foil to the chaotic free-spirited antics of heiress Susan Vance (Katherine Hepburn). As paleontologist David Huxley, Hawks is having him channel silent film star Harold Lloyd’s The Boy in Safety Last!, and between Grant’s consistently clumsy fumbling and this screenplay’s rapid-fire dialogue, it’s no wonder this performance later inspired Christopher Reeves’s portrayal of Clark Kent in Richard Donner’s Superman.
Adapted from a short story from Collier’s Magazine, the script from Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach), Hagard Wilde, and Robert McGowan wastes no time in tossing comedic obstacles for Dr. Huxley to tumble over. Looking to secure a million-dollar donation for his museum before settling into a marriage of convenience, Huxley catches the eye of fun-loving Susan at a golf course and she refuses to allow him to escape her grasp. After being mistaken for a zoologist, Huxley is conned into transporting Baby, a domesticated leopard who enjoys the soothing sounds of jazz standard “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby” to Vance’s aunt’s farmhouse in Connecticut, and insanity ensues. When David, Susan, and rambunctious canine George attempt to serenade Baby to come down from the roof of a neighbor’s house, the combination of their confidently off key harmony and David’s awkwardly timed finger gestures allows the biggest laughs to come from little moments of bold sincerity. The MacGuffin that ends up driving their adventure is a fictional dinosaur bone, referred to as an intercostal clavicle, that’s meant to complete Dr. Huxley’s prized brontosaurus. The bone is kidnapped by Aunt Elizabeth’s (Mary Robson) adorable dog George, who you’ll probably recognize as Asta from The Thin Man. Soon enters a big game hunter (Charles Ruggles), twirling mustache and all, and a dangerous, temperamental circus leopard, allowing all hell to break loose with uproarious insanity. It essentially feels like a grand wild goose chase at times, not unlike It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
Cinematographer Russell Metty manages to give Bringing Up Baby a sense of grandeur and utilizes the locations like the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History to give David’s museum some authenticity. For example, Matty mostly uses a combination of quarter shots and two shots, rarely using close ups at all. When Susan and David are having their moment of clarity around the brontosaurus skeleton, he manages to squeeze so much into the frame that it gives an overwhelming sense of scope without it actually existing. Proven to be a diversely gifted cameraman who can create mood out of shadows for Orson Welles and emotion with vast colors for Douglas Sirk, Metty is an understated commodity in bringing a sense of awe to this picture’s breakneck comedic sensibility. There’s also some great uses of rear projection for the scenes deemed too dangerous to film with Nissa, who stood in for both animals. Howard Hawks was a master of every genre from war adventures to science fiction and westerns. In the case of Bringing Up Baby, he practically invented his own. This is a genuine classic and the humor is actually more risqué beneath the surface than most would imagine. Take this exchange from David Huxley and Miss Swallow in the museum. David holds up one of the dinosaur bones. “Alice, I think this one belongs in the tail.” “Nonsense. You tried it in the tail yesterday.” This should be essential viewing for anyone interested in how comedy works in film and is a welcome addition to anyone’s Criterion collection.
There are some insightful extras featured on this Criterion disc for those who are unfamiliar with the history of this production and the players involved. There’s an essay on Carey Grant by the author of “Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise” that’s an 18-minute retrospective on his career from his struggling days at Paramount to his success with Hawks and Hitchcock. One can appreciate the dissection of playing the generic object of affection in Mae West pictures to the “fish out of water” everyman that would launch him to Hollywood stardom. One feature that was unfortunately a chore to get through was “Howard Hawks: A Hell Of A Good Life.” This was filmed a month before Hawks’s death in 1977 and he’s very sick and struggles to tell his story. The information itself is great, but is mostly documented elsewhere by Peter Bogdanovich, and his 15-minute audio interview that’s included can be skipped, as well, if you’ve read “Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors.” These two features aren’t as painful as visiting the dentist or watching Space Jam, but they’re not a barrel of fun either. The highlight of the extra features is definitely “But What About My Leopard? The Magic of Optical Effects Pioneer Linwood Dunn.” Film historian Craig Barron explores how essential Lynn’s effects techniques were in a world before Star Wars and goes over the hurdles of using a live leopard on set with the actors. The practical use of Plexiglass® and the inventive use of rear projection in the driving sequence are all laid out in fascinating detail. The most fascinating aspects were how the studios kept their techniques secret from one another since they were in competition, and the wonderful RKO Easter eggs that were pointed out in the museum scenes, such as the stop-motion dinosaur props from King Kong. Apparently, the most efficient way to learn the craft back in the late thirties was to attend one of Dunn’s lectures which is absolutely astounding, considering the wealth of information being one YouTube click away from our thankless fingertips. Imagine if we had people that were as ambitiously creative from that time that had access to what we have and do absolutely nothing with. All in all, this is a great release from Criterion with plenty of features, great artwork, and beautiful transfer.
Bringing Up Baby Special Features
- New, restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- Audio commentary from 2005 featuring filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich
- New video essay on actor Cary Grant by author Scott Eyman
- New interview about cinematographer Russell Metty with cinematographer John Bailey
- New interview with film scholar Craig Barron on special-effects pioneer Linwood Dunn
- New selected-scene commentary about costume designer Howard Greer featuring costume historian Shelly Foote
- Howard Hawks: A Hell of a Good Life, a 1977 documentary by Hans-Christoph Blumenberg featuring the director’s last filmed interview
- Audio interview from 1969 with Grant
- Audio excerpts from a 1972 conversation between Hawks and Bogdanovich
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- PLUS: An essay by critic Sheila O’Malley and, for the Blu-ray, the 1937 short story by Hagar Wilde on which the film is based
Available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection July 6th, 2021.