Bringing Up Baby – The Best Pictures of 1938 (#1)

It has been pointed out to me that my choices on these lists reflect a bias toward comedy. If I wanted to dispel that notion, choosing Bringing Up Baby as the best picture of 1938 would do little to that end. (Thankfully I don’t care to dispel it.) Despite this bias, I don’t think any movie lover could seriously argue an affection for the antics of Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant under the skillful direction of Howard Hawks could only be explained by a unshakeable prejudice for comedy. It is a brilliant movie by any measure.

Other comedy directors like George Cukor and, a little later, Preston Sturges kept their stories rooted firmly in the real world peppering their realms with eccentric characters. Hawks on the other hand only used the real world as a rough outline for this picture. Every character is, to varying degrees, a nut. The straight man is missing from the comedy equation here – the cast is all Gracie Allens, Bud Abbotts, and every other comic half of comedy duos. The only exception is Mr. Peabody, the long suffering, serious attorney in the midst of all the loons. (Then again he may seem normal because we see him so little. Had Hawks decided to give him more screen time I have a feeling he would have turned out just as ridiculous as everyone else.)

It might sound like a risky strategy to pack the movie with so many wackos. With whom, after all, can the audience identify? And when do they get a chance to catch a breath? The genius of the movie is there is no one to identify with and there is never a chance for the audience to catch our breaths. It’s a whirlwind of zaniness that never feels real, but is always engaging. It simply works.

And how can it not featuring a scatterbrained paleontologist (Cary Grant) trying to find a lost intercostals clavicle, the final piece he needs for his brontosaurus, while trying to wed to his all-business fiancée Miss Swallow. Getting in the way of both are hare-brained heiress Susan Vance (Katherine Hepburn), her gruff aunt (May Robson), a yappy fox terrier named George, a jittery big game hunter, an alcoholic gardener, an over-zealous constable, an arrogant psychiatrist, a man-eating leopard, and a tame,  affectionate leopard named Baby.

Hawks created a world where it is plausible that two leopards could be loose in Connecticut at the same time, that Susan could pass herself off as crime moll Swingin’ Door Suzy, that Susan just happens to be the niece of the woman Grant’s character David is trying to get a one million dollar grant from, that David could pass himself off as a man recovering from a nervous breakdown, that Susan could try to pass David off as a big game hunter the very night another big game hunter is coming to dinner, etc. It’s a world of misunderstandings and mishaps, of coincidences, disasters, accidents, and ruses all crafted, engineered, and executed by a master filmmaker for our laughter. What more could we ask for from a film?

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15 Comments

Filed under 1938, Yearly Best Pictures

15 responses to “Bringing Up Baby – The Best Pictures of 1938 (#1)

  1. Alright, I loved the 45 minutes I saw of this, and sure Ill finish this one soon.

  2. Coincidentally, Katie-Bar-The-Door and I saw Bringing Up Baby last night at the AFI Silver here in Maryland, along with Mister Muleboy and Michele. It is a truly funny movie, and of course Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn had terrific chemistry together. As always.

    There were a lot of kids and teenagers in the audience — don’t know whether of their own accord or at their parents behest, but they definitely liked it.

    Good pick.

    • Well that is a nice coincidence and nice to hear about the youths in the audience. It seems comedies are the way to get younger audiences into classic movies. I went to a series of Buster Keaton movies last year and lots of people brought their kids. They seemed to love the movies, despite being in black and white and silent. Hopefully a good experience with Keaton or “Bringing Up Baby” will inspire some of them to seek out more diverse movies.

  3. “It has been pointed out to me that my choices on these lists reflect a bias toward comedy. If I wanted to dispel that notion, choosing Bringing Up Baby as the best picture of 1938 would do little to that end. (Thankfully I don’t care to dispel it.)

    LOL Jason!!! Well, few could take you to task for this terrific choice, and I won’t be one of them, though it is my WitD colleague Allan Fish, who will agree with the #1 placement for this year (it’s one of his favorite films of all-time) The Hawks/Hepburn/Grant Trifeca is a big winner here I must admit. Your passion shines through every line here!

  4. I believe this is one of the very first movies we ever watched with you for movie night. As such I had practically nothing to compare it with, but I remember loving it — and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” 🙂

  5. Cristiane

    “I was born on the side of a hill!”

    Inspired choice.

    • Thanks Cristiane! And you have highlighted an inspired line from the movie. One of my favorite exchanges is between Cary Grant and a delivery guy:
      Grant: “I’m getting married today.”
      Delivery Man: “Don’t let it throw ya, buddy.”

      I don’t know why that tickles me so much, but I laugh every time I see it.

  6. John Greco

    I watched this recently again and it is just a brilliant comedy. Grant and Hepburn (she is wonderful in this) make a great team. The scene toward the end where Hpeburn breaks her heel and starts walking with one good shoe was improvised by Kate and kept in the film by Hawks. A delight from beginning to end.

    • Thanks John, I didn’t realize that scene was improvised. It is certainly a funny moment, but the movie is chalk full of them.

    • ladcrp1

      Far better Grant/Hepburn than Tracy/Hepburn.

      Spencer did much to crimp Katharine both personally and professionally. If only Hepburn had been so strong with Tracy as she was with the rest of her life. She let Tracy treat her like crap.

      Tracy was a spineless drunk that refused to divorce his wife. That left Hepburn hanging.

  7. ladcrp1

    Asta Shines!!!

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