Sunday, February 7, 2010

52 Perfect Movies: Bringing Up Baby (1938)

When it comes to film comedies of the "golden age" of Hollywood, I usually go in for the classic comedy teams--Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, etc. But there's one major exception for me, a movie that completely epitomizes the "screwball comedy", and one which is proof positive that romantic comedies once had souls and were actually quite funny.

Bringing Up Baby is an utterly charming and arresting film starring two unassailable legends of the silver screen, Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. And arguably, you have them both at the height of their powers here: Grant, cinema's ultimate leading man to this day, and Hepburn, easily the greatest film actress who ever lived.

What amazes me about them both is how adept they are at selling this movie as a laugh-out-loud comedy. Here you have two performers who were literally just as comfortable doing comedy as they were straight drama--and had just as much talent for both. Grant is at his zany, eye-popping funniest here in a performance that's right up there with his turn in Arsenic and Old Lace.

And Hepburn is the comedic glue that holds the whole thing together, playing the perfect flighty, wacked-out foil to Grant's straight man. In fact, I'd say that Cate Blanchett's pportrayal of Hepburn in Martin Scorsese' s The Aviator was more or less an impression of the actress' role in Bringing Up Baby.

The director is Howard Hawks, one of Hollywood's finest craftsmen of the period, and a man who was also be responsible for such gems as Scarface (1932), Sgt. York (1941), To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and even the original horror sci-fi favorite The Thing (1951). Talk about versatility! At this time he was just building his reputation, and does a fine job of doing just that with this wonderfully filmed comic masterpiece.

This film is literally the blueprint for the screwball comedy, and a film I often recommend to those who have a hard time getting into comedy pre-1960, and/or are looking for something to give them a genuine laugh. Grant and Hepburn prove that romantic comedy doesn't have to be dull, cliche-ridden, phony and predictable. It can be genuinely hilarious, bold and irreverent. And a whole lot of fun.

It also has that great song going for it, Jimmy McHugh & Dorothy Fields' "I Can't Give You Anything But Love", one of the most irresistible of Depression-era pop standards. It's sung repeatedly throughout the movie by the characters, mainly referring to Hepburn's pet leopard, Baby--a source of much of the film's outrageous comedy.

You really don't need me to tell you this, but Grant and Hepburn play off each other so well, and that really is the key to this film's magic. When you watch them feeding off each other on screen, you are watching two consummate pros. Hepburn's is a one-of-a-kind presence like no other, infectious from the moment you see her, and building with every word she speaks and move she makes. And Cary Grant... only an actor so sure of himself and his art could so successfully portray someone so completely exasperated and unsure of himself. They are both perfection.

I came across this picture as a teenager, renting it with my then-girlfriend (now lovely wife), and not expecting much more than a fun little comedy flick. What I got was one of the true laugh-out-loud movie-watching experiences of my life. And there are not any comedy films that can really and truly elicit that effect in general. There are many other classic screwballs of the era, films like It Happened One Night and The Philadelphia Story. But for me, this one will always be the best.

And here's another recent review of Bringing Up Baby at the fine blog, The Moon is a Dead World...

NEXT UP: Citizen Kane (1941)


fallon said...

This movie IS perfect! My brother (who I don't think has ever seen a movie made before the 70s and quite frankly couldn't care less) came by once when I was watching it, and ended up staying the whole movie, totally loving it. Amazing the appeal it has to almost anyone.

B-Sol said...

"Infectious" is really the word that comes to mind. The first time I rented it, I was a teenager and didn't know much about it. My girlfriend and I laughed our asses off for most of the ensuing 90 minutes.