Film & TV

Rewind, Review, and Re-Rate: ‘Bringing Up Baby’: Director Howard Hawks’s Timeless Screwball Comedy

BY Ian Kane TIMEJanuary 21, 2022 PRINT

Not Rated| 1h 42min | Comedy | 18 February 1938

If I’d have known that the 1938 film “Bringing Up Baby” was a screwball comedy that moves along at a breakneck pace, I probably would have better prepared for it. But perhaps it’s a good thing that I didn’t, since the result of being taken along on this uproarious ride is akin to an unexpected roller-coaster ride of laughs rolling up and down one’s funny bone—each situation that its main characters find themselves in keeps amplifying to goofier and zanier heights.

Therefore, everything begins on a relatively calm note. Doctor David Huxley (Cary Grant) is a nerdy and somewhat socially awkward paleontologist who has almost completed the construction of a humongous Brontosaurus skeleton within the Stuyvesant Museum of Natural History. The only thing he’s waiting on is one final dinosaur bone—the intercostal clavicle—and the exhibit will be complete.

He’s engaged to one of his work colleagues, Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker), a woman with a stony countenance who seems to be more passionate about the dinosaurs on display than about David. She chides him for displaying anything that she considers juvenile or peripheral to the scientific work at hand. She deems that even a honeymoon would take away from more serious matters and dismisses the possibility of one, outright.

One of the matters that David has to attend to is trying to persuade high-powered corporate attorney Alexander Peabody (George Irving) to donate a million dollars to the museum.

On a golf course with Mr. Peabody, David learns that the top-flight attorney isn’t the donor, but rather a wealthy woman named Elizabeth Random (May Robson) whom he represents. David believes that if he can impress Mr. Peabody, the latter will put in a good word for him and the money will be donated.

Things take quite a dramatic turn when clumsy heiress Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) shows up on the golf course and nabs David’s ball—mistaking it for her own. As David attempts to explain her error, she ends up jumping into his car and attempts to drive off with it (also supposedly by mistake). Increasingly irritated, David is led further and further away from Mr. Peabody, and in the end comes off as somewhat crazy.

_man in tuxedo and women in gown
Scientist David Huxley (Cary Grant) keeps running into heiress Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn). Is it a coincidence? (RKO Pictures)

David attempts to follow up with Mr. Peabody at a ritzy dining establishment, but he encounters Susan once more—this time the hijinks reach such a feverish (and physical) pitch that both David and Susan end up with frayed clothes. And once again, Mr. Peabody witnesses the unfolding chaos on hand and regards David as an oddball.

Susan soon discovers that David is engaged to marry his fiancée the very next day, and as she has begun to fall in love with him, she concocts an elaborate plan to prevent him from showing up for the wedding. This includes luring him over to her place to attend to the titular “Baby,” a domesticated leopard that Susan’s brother has sent to her while he’s down in Brazil.

leopard listening to music
“Baby” enjoying some music, in “Bringing Up Baby.” (RKO Pictures)

Although I’ve seen some screwball comedies in the past, I don’t think any of them could quite match the peppy pace this film exhibits. Hawks’s direction is perfectly matched with the cast’s spot-on comedic timing, which dazzles with its nonstop barrage of over-the-top antics. At breakneck speeds, we’re transported from one ridiculous situation to the next—one chaotic setting to the next—typically escalating in magnitude.

_a jail scene from Bringing up Baby
David Huxley (Cary Grant) and Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) find themselves in crazy situations. (RKO Pictures)

Amazingly, this film was a commercial flop when it debuted. Although Grant had been trained in comedy, Hepburn hadn’t and therefore received the brunt of the blame for its failure. (She later recovered, however.) Throughout the decades, though, it has become much more appreciated over time and is even considered to be the pinnacle of all screwball comedies by some.

Those who appreciate a riotous (and sometimes bawdy) comedy with a dollop or two of romantic tension should definitely see this raucous piece of screwball cinema, “Bringing Up Baby,” if only for the cheering up of spirits in these sometimes melancholically odd modern times.

‘Bringing Up Baby’
Director: Howard Hawks
Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Charles Ruggles
Running Time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Not Rated
Release Date: Feb. 18, 1938
Rated: 4.5 stars out of 5

Ian Kane is an U.S. Army veteran, author, filmmaker, and actor. He is dedicated to the development and production of innovative, thought-provoking, character-driven films and books of the highest quality.
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