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?