Sunday, November 18, 2007
Bringing Up Baby
During my undergraduate specialization in Philosophy I also completed a minor in Cinema Studies. I remember one professor of some renown who taught the introductory Film101 course telling our class that the finest example of a Hollywood movie ever made was Bringing Up Baby (1938). He screened it for us and most of us scratched our heads.
The first thing going against it was that it was a black& white film; my generation had made the switch to colour TV and had come to consider B&W movies to be just filler for stations that couldn't afford the newer stuff. The film also seemed to be just like any other old movie and not that different from most screwball comedies. In fact, Streisand's What's up Doc? (1972) and Madonna's Who's That Girl? (1987) are both based on this film.
I got a chance to see the original recently during one of my insomniac hazes and now have a new found respect for the film. The content may not be that original but the execution is nearly flawless. Howard Hawks' pacing and tone of the film is masterfully integrated with the perfect timing of the repartee dialogue of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. Their chemistry is sparkling as she gets the hapless paleontologist in one ill conceived situation after another and eventually charms him, keeps him from getting married and eventually wins him over.
It's also interesting to note how "gay" Cary Grant is during the film. He was suspected of being bisexual and his character in the film appears in drag, appears to be the bottom to Hepburn's top and even uses the word "gay" for the first time in a Hollywood film which up until then had only been used by insiders of the gay community. Hawksian women in this director's films were also gender-bending by virtue of their aggressive verbal and sexual behaviours
You will find hundreds of examples of more recent movies in which lovable female leads like Meg Ryan or Sandra Bullock play similarly constructed roles only to come across like irritating and precocious children. Hepburn somehow makes the zany airhead charming and sexy without trying too hard to be cute. The film was a terrible flop and nearly ended Hawks' career. Only much later did the film gain the respect and admiration of filmmakers and critics. Add me to that list.