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Songbook

Dream Awhile, Scheme Awhile: The Love Theme in Bringing Up Baby

Dream Awhile, Scheme Awhile: The Love Theme in <i>Bringing Up Baby</i>

The comic climax of Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby (1938) comes when Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn join forces to foil an escaping leopard. While driving the animal to an estate, heiress Susan (Hepburn) and scientist David (Grant) collide with a poultry van. Their car narrowly avoids crashing, but the leopard gets excited by all the tasty birds on offer. At that point, Susan and David do the only thing they can: they break into a rendition of the beast’s favorite song, “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby.” The two muster up a shaky version of the tune, their voices shivering with the terror and excitement of holding on to the big cat’s tail.

This is one of several abortive attempts to perform Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh’s ’20s jazz hit. With the ingenuity of the best screwballs, Bringing Up Baby devises one unbelievable situation after another that demands the frantic singing of this tune. From David and Susan’s discovery that singing calms the beast to a scene in which they conduct an argument to the melody of the chorus, the film uses the song to express the shifting nature of their relationship. No matter how fantastic the context is, each repetition of the song is emotionally precise: they sing it grudgingly, distractedly, then imploringly.

Their panicked singing in the car sets the pace for the many frenzied pursuits and accelerating chases that follow. This is a film that emphasizes stress and suspense in the quest for romance. Bringing Up Baby is driven by a whirling-dervish mania: the race to keep wildness and darkness at bay through feverish banter and the sky-high spirits of Hepburn’s heroine.

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