“This is probably the silliest thing that ever happened to me,” tut-tuts stuffy paleontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant), in Howard Hawks’s 1938 classic Bringing Up Baby. As A. O. Scott has observed, Bringing Up Baby is the “screwiest screwball of them all.” It is so divorced from normal society that its scenes taking place in the civilized daylight can be counted on one hand, while night scenes dominate. All hell breaks loose at night in the form of a couple of leopards terrorizing the countryside, wreaking physical, emotional, and societal havoc. Bringing Up Baby is the silliest thing to happen to American comedy, too, and has been a reminder for eighty-three years (and counting) of how necessary and sneakily profound silliness can be.
The film opens with an exchange the Production Code censors missed. David—sitting on a scaffold above a brontosaurus skeleton, holding an enormous bone—calls to his fiancée, the humorless Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker), “Alice, I think this one must belong in the tail.” Alice, probably unaware of the double entendre of her last name, says, “Nonsense. You tried it in the tail yesterday.” Alice sends him off to golf with Mr. Peabody (George Irving), who is considering securing a million-dollar donation to David’s museum. But David gets sidetracked by a breezy whirlwind named Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), who first steals his golf ball and then steals his car (it won’t be her last car theft), causing David to abandon Mr. Peabody on the golf course and chase her down. In one of the funniest visual gags in the movie, David stands on the car’s running board, hanging on for dear life as this crazy woman careens out of the lot. The next day—after Susan and David cause multiple scenes at a supper club that result in the two literally, if unintentionally, ripping off each other’s clothes—they both receive packages: for David, it’s the “intercostal clavicle,” the bone needed to complete his dinosaur, and for Susan, it’s Baby, a leopard with a yen for the song “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby.” With all those bones, balls, and cats running around, it’s obvious the censors were sleeping on the job.
Over the next twenty-four hours, Susan loses David’s bone, breaks up his engagement, and destroys his brontosaurus. David, pulled along in her wake, wrestles with a leopard in a pond, sings at the top of his lungs underneath a psychiatrist’s window—showing pride in his harmony line—and races around in a negligee, all while trying to maintain what Molly Haskell has called “the ossified shell of his dignity.” The duo collect a cast of eccentrics along the way, including Susan’s judgmental battle-ax of an aunt (May Robson), perpetually horrified by her niece’s shenanigans, and big-game hunter Horace Applegate (Charles Ruggles), who blunders through life in a welter of confusion mixed with a misguided superiority complex. The gardener (Barry Fitzgerald) is a drunk, and the constable (Walter Catlett) gets so befuddled he throws the entire lot of them in jail, threatening to put everyone “on bread and water for thirty days.” In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Hawks theorized about the film’s “great fault”: “There were no normal people in it. Everyone you met was a screwball . . . I think it would have done better at the box office if there had been a few sane folks in it.” Perhaps, but the issue could run deeper: surrendering to chaos without the reassurance of a rebuilt world at the end may not have been what audiences wanted in 1938, exhausted by a decade of financial ruin and looking with anxiety at the clouds of war darkening over Europe yet again.
“Hawks’s sense of humor was silly and cynical, and screwball would prove to be the perfect landscape in which to play out his fantasies of the battle of the sexes.”