In the annals of screwball comedy, no film more baldly trumpets its sense of collective character perplexity as much as Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby, a screw-loose comedy of emasculation, inebriation, and performative recalibration that upends the collective narcosis of the everyday world. As with many screwballs, the eyes of the world within the film unmistakably do not understand the two main characters, much as audiences at the time didn’t quite understand the film. The inescapable mania of the picture can cause even the peppiest viewer to catalyze an embolism. Or run away in fear. Whichever comes first.
Misunderstood upon its release, Bringing Up Baby, now enshrined as a beloved classic, isn’t going anywhere eighty years on. Pitting the neutered, stuffy welterweight scientist David Huxley (Cary Grant) with (against) the unflappably improbable Susan Vance (Katherine Hepburn), Hawks’ film was too difficult, almost non-narrative in its flurry of bedlam, to be quite ready for prime-time when it was released. The most Marxian of the screwballs (you can read class into it, but I of course refer to the gleeful anarchic anti-reality impulse of the Marx Bros.), the world of Bringing Up Baby is dangerously off-its-hinges and incontestably ready to topple over and damage society while going about its business. And you wonder why it struggled to find an audience.
Speaking of our two mismatched and uncaged birds (Susan, for her part, has talons drawn from minute one), coincidence draws them together and the calculating Susan takes over when coincidence plainly won’t do anymore. Conjuring a leopard (named Baby) out of thin air, she conscripts the flustered David to help her take the not-so-feral beast to the magical and ever-troubled world of Connecticut on the day David is to be married (undoubtedly, for her part, Susan is the most animalistic creation in the film, and she’s ready to help David draw out his inner rule-breaker and carnivore at any cost). Things go from bad to worse, the dialogue mutates from incandescent to deranged and incandescent, and David learns a thing or two about human togetherness in the wild Looney Tunes woods just to the north and east of New York City.
Not without a trip through the wheat thresher of what Stanley Cavell calls the Green World first, of course. Making play in the land of the almost anti-social wealthy, the Green World is a trip to a far away land of the mind where relationships and social edicts are upturned and washed away under the torrential downpour of human zaniness and unfettered individual energy (it is, of course, conditioned on the ability of the rich to unfetter themselves without worrying about making a living, which is unfortunately a fact we will have to let slide for the time being).
Naturally, all this pandemonium includes the moral quandary of swapping genders overtly (Grant wears a dress at one point) and more subliminally (Hepburn is the unequivocal agent throughout the entire picture) in an expedition into the deepest and darkest abyss of human relationships, a partial liquidation of ossified, constructed gender roles in society. Of course, any and all gender switch-ups are incomplete (Susan’s identity is still conditioned on wanting to marry David, rather than on her existence as an independent type), so the “feminist” claims betrothed upon seemingly all screwballs are necessarily strained. But the film also thrives on incompleteness and strain. From moment one to moment end, this fluxional flurry of a masterpiece grabs us and then, right as we can coalesce around its own throat, it slips away from us to reformulate a new recipe for itself. Much like the ever-improvisable Susan (topping off two decades of American comedy from Chaplin to Capra that value the importance of improvisation), Bringing Up Baby has a curveball for every occasion.
Which can be a double-edged sword, insofar as an endless stream of hairpin turns is a damaging and rocky uphill ride for your life rather than a comfortable and confident feature film. But beneath all the nonsense beats the heart of an ever-curious fable about the presumption that the world is a fixed or incontestable constitution of iron-clad rules rather than a set of loosely-stitched, tenuous guidelines meant to be disrupted. Susan is a fairy after a fact, but she’s also a figure in total control of herself, and she wraps much more than governmental regulations around her fingers. Warping from place to place in a refusal to submit to the laws of time and space, stealing cars left and right as she tears asunder capitalist and liberalist values of personal property and ownership, and even buckling bylaws about rational communication when she reprimands the world’s ossified language by paying no heed to its demands for her, Susan walks the way of disobedience.
Bluntly, Hawks’ inimitable skill as a director is not spectacularly put to the test in Bringing Up Baby, a film that is primarily pleasured to enjoy the company of the unscrupulous but inimitably clever screenplay by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde and the fire-and-ice, totally askew performances of stars Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Still, it’s hardly visually inept; Russell Metty’s cinematography is admirably suffused in a darkness traditionally considered unbecoming of the comedy genre, adding a layer of mystique and anxiety to the midnight leopard search that covers the back-half of the picture. And the editing is comedy filmmaking at its slippery, staccato best. But Baby is a pre-visual picture for the most part, hardly an aesthetic masterpiece but at least a verbal one. Befitting Maria DiBattista’s commentary that “in the talkative world of comedy, however, silence is not something that is broken, or that we subside back into, but something that is achieved. We are not born into a noiseless world”, the dialogue is not circumstantial but a fount for the messiness of human discourse and interpersonal befuddlement, for the conflagration of communication as the presence of the social world of others throws the distinctly contingent nature of the individual into sharp relief.
It’s not perfect. Nothing in Bringing Up Baby approaches the overlapping razor-wire of Hawksian dialogue in this film’s follow-up, His Girl Friday (the also masterful Only Angels Have Wings came in between). And, for that matter, Baby does occasionally reek of a one-size-fits-all screwball must, as though it is afraid to simmer down its ever-boiling top for fear of being charged with lethargy. But Baby at least has the sparkle of discontent and disarray in its eyes, nearly the equal of His Girl Friday (in the latter film, speech is almost literally a battlefield where being heard or discerned is a marvel of personal achievement in its own light, the likes of which prefigure the contested beauty of the mangled sound in Robert Altman’s ‘70s films). The commitment to the confrontational impulses of the human species (one quote, about how the male love impulse often reveals itself in conflict, might sum up Hawks’ career) hissing and popping all over the frame, slathering the screen with venomous energy and puncturing it with unflagging gazes and glares, is nearly impossible to shake off.
Of all the classic screwballs, Bringing Up Baby is the film whose sheer existence is, at best, only tenuously and provisionally linked to reality. It’s the screwball with the animal itch, the feral urge in its eyes. I don’t have much use for staid symbols like the dualistic leopards who resemble the tame and unleashed impulses of the human species, but the askew film, ever estranged from reality, spends too much time convulsing for the rigidity of any symbol to set in. The compulsion of nonconforming restlessness is the film’s animating principle (Stanley Cavell ties it into the American Emersonian tradition of escaping from society with the paradoxical goal of returning to society a reconstructed person). However you look at it though, Bringing Up Baby is much more than a delight. It’s a devious devil-charmer of an unmoored world that positively refuses to submit to you, or to your assumptions about it.