Thursday, January 19, 2017

Bringing Up Baby


Starring: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, May Robson, Charles Ruggles, Walter Catlett, George Irving

Not Rated (probably G)

It's a common truism that comedies tend not to age well.  Whether through changing cultural norms, a lack of relevance in topical humor, or the ever evolving nature of comedy, what made a person laugh 75 years ago will probably bore today's audiences to tears.  That's not the case with "Bringing Up Baby," which is easily one of the smartest, quickest and funniest comedies I've seen in a long time.

The set-up is simple, which befits a screwball comedy like this.  David (Grant) is a museum researcher vying for a $1 million dollar grant for his research.  The missing bone that he needs to complete the brontosaurus he's been putting together for the past four years is arriving tomorrow, which is the day he is going to get married.  While he's trying to schmooze the donor's lawyer, Mr. Peabody (Irving), he's constantly interrupted by a flighty girl named Susan (Hepburn) who inadvertently botches his pitch.  When David tries to make amends, she turns up again...and ruins everything.  While fixing a wardrobe malfunction, he explains the situation.  It turns out that not only does Susan know Mr. Peabody (she even calls him "Boopy"), her aunt is said donor.  Thus begins a hilarious comedy of errors involving a missing bone and a leopard that probably the least dangerous one in the whole movie.

In comedy, timing is everything.  This is especially true for a screwball comedy, where all the double-talk, hijinks and slapstick must be delivered with mathematical precision...or fall flat on its face.  "Bringing Up Baby" understands this and nails each joke and gag with perfection.  Content-wise, this is a completely harmless film; the most risqué moment is when Cary Grant is forced to wear a woman's bathrobe.  But the situations are so clever and the delivery is so on-target that I had to pause the film a few times to calm down from laughing so hard.

The performers, many of whom came from vaudeville, are 100% on target.  No one misses a beat.  The two central characters are David and Susan, played by screen legends Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn.  Grant plays against his screen image (he usually played suave, debonair men) by being extremely intelligent but socially awkward.  In other words, he's your average nerd.  Katharine Hepburn also plays against type.  Known primarily for playing intelligent, feisty women, here she plays a ditz who's smarter than anyone gives her credit for, albeit in extremely clumsy one.  In fact, Hepburn had to be trained by director Howard Hawks and some vaudeville actors in order to get the timing and comic skills necessary to play the part.  Grant and Hepburn don't sizzle in a romantic way, but that's okay since this is more farce than anything.

The film was directed by Howard Hawks, one of Hollywood's legendary directors.  His career crossed many genres, ranging from war ("Sergeant York"), film noir ("The Big Sleep"), and western ("Red River").  Clearly, the man knew his stuff.  The film's jokes and gags are delivered with clockwork precision.  Perhaps his biggest accomplishment is how well organized it is.  There is a lot going on here, but not once was I lost.

The film is too long and doesn't gain momentum like the best screwball comedies, but something this clever and hilarious is something to be savored.

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