When I recently posted my review of Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), I made what I thought might be the bold claim that Cary Grant’s comedic roles are better than his dramatic ones. Not that he was not a good actor all around. I simply like him better when he is being funny instead of serious. However you, my dear reader, feel on the matter, the pronunciamiento got the attention of an old friend of mine from high school. To my pleasant surprise, she agreed with my statement, though she said she preferred Bringing Up Baby (1938). Not being familiar with it myself, and having a bunch of other movies on my list that I am procrastinating watching, I decided to give it a go. I was glad I did so.
If you are at all familiar with Cary Grant’s comedy, you will find that his Dr. David Huxley in Bringing Up Baby is perfect for him. As a bumbling paleontologist at the museum of Natural History, him and his fiancé, Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker), are putting together the massive skeletal remains of a brontosaurus. They are close to completion, and after four long years of work they are only missing one last, tiny bone, a fictitious part called an intercostal clavicle. There are other pressures as well. The following day he is to get married to Alice, though apparently without the prospect of a honeymoon and all its enticements. For her, only work matters. There is also the hope that they can convince a wealthy dowager, Elizabeth Random (May Robson), to make a million-dollar donation to the museum. In order to affect this gift, her lawyer, Alexander Peabody (George Irving), is acting in her stead with the final decision on the funds. To persuade him, they agree to play a round of gold together. While attempting to retrieve one of his balls, he encounters a woman playing on another hole named Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn). Insisting that his ball is hers, she plays it through and takes his attention away from Alexander. This is only the beginning of David’s entanglement with the quirky Susan. Later that evening, he attempts to repair the damage with Alexander by meeting him for drinks at a fancy club. Unfortunately, Susan is there as well. She happens upon famed psychologist Dr. Fritz Lehman (Fritz Feld), and when she explains to him her fixation on David and their quarrels, Dr. Lehman tells her that she must be in love with David. That is all the convincing she needs. The next morning, intercostal clavicle in hand, David is ready once more to try to get on good terms with Alexander before his appointed marriage. Yet again, Susan intervenes. Convincing him that there is something terrible going on in her apartment, he rushes over to find a live leopard there, a gift from her brother Mark in Brazil. She has named it Baby. It is mostly tame, but whenever it needs extra calming the record player does the trick. Still, Susan intends to take it to her farm in Connecticut, and she gently manipulates David in accompanying her, telling him that Alexander will be meeting her Aunt Elizabeth (yes, that Elizabeth) later that day. When they arrive, her aunt’s dog George steals David’s brontosaurus bone. Further, the groundskeeper, Aloysius Gogarty (Barry Fitzgerald), inadvertently lets Baby loose from the stall in the barn where David and Susan had left the leopard. David is determined to find the bone, and Susan equally so with Baby, and they leave dinner together to do some searching. Their trek through the woods happens to take them to Dr. Lehman’s house, where they are accused of breaking in and entering and loitering, and are arrested together. In the process of trying to prove their identity, Susan tells Constable Slocum to call her aunt. He does, but refuses to believe that such a criminal could have such an aunt. When Elizabeth comes to the station, she is locked up as well for what he believes is lying to the police, not only about Susan but about the supposed leopard on the loose. As it turns out, there are two leopards, Baby and one escaped from the nearby circus. Everything is calmed down, though, when Alexander arrives with Alice and confirms everyone’s identity. The leopards show up, too, further corroborating this fantastical story. Alice is also not pleased with David. On top of not appearing for their wedding, he is in jail with another woman. Feeling he is not the serious person she thought, she calls off their engagement. A few days later, Susan finds David back at the museum, bringing the finally retrieved intercostal clavicle to him as a peace offering. With him on a high platform working on the skeleton, she mounts a tall, unsteady ladder to get his attention. In doing so, she manages to wreck the assembled bones. In exasperation, David asks Susan to marry him, and that is where the movie ends.
I enjoyed Cary Grant’s performance in Bringing Up Baby, but I think I liked Katherine Hepburn more. Grant’s is everything I expected it to be, and thus enjoyable. I am less familiar with Hepburn’s career, though I certainly know of her reputation. In the day of stars like Grant and Hepburn, there were fewer actors and actresses with which to compete. At the same time, there were plenty of people seeking stardom on the silver screen. Hence, if you had the opportunity to become the kind of recognizable celebrity like those two, you had to have quite a bit of talent. From what I do know of Hepburn’s career, my impression is that she mostly took on serious roles. As such, when you see a movie like this one and her ability to play the flighty Susan, it is quite the testament to her acting chops. I found her character endearing, though somewhat worrisome in her willingness to break the law. At one point, she casually steals a car in order to get out of paying a parking ticket. It is clever how it happens, but this square Catholic would not approve of such behavior. What I do appreciate about her from a Faith perspective is her simple trust in the fact that David is the right person for her. There are a mountain of articles, research studies, and advice from family and friends on how to go about finding the one. All of them have their merit, to one degree or another, but they can never give you the full picture as can God. Not that Susan prayed about David. Nonetheless, there is a devotion to her that speaks to a trust in something beyond explanation. Throughout the ages we have referred to it with euphemisms like butterflies in the stomach, or tingles up the spine. In any case, it is a feeling, and true conviction can only come from God.
There are some unfortunate stereotypes in Bringing Up Baby that also somewhat irk this Catholic reviewer, such as Aloysius’ character. I spent too much time in my dissertation talking about the drunken Irishman in American culture for me not to notice such things. Overall, though, the film is fun and sweet, and I would recommend it to anyone in the mood for a classic film.