Some names on a poster are an instant mark of quality. Often these names are more famous than the films they star in or produce. It’s a strange thing, these marks of quality that precede them. A certain reverence that comes from a long career, a transition from celebrity to legend. We look back at their careers now and it’s often difficult to imagine a world where these people were new on the scene. Cary Grant struggling to find his niche, Katharine Hepburn being regarded by many producers as a pariah who would ensure a commercial flop.
Bringing Up Baby is adorned with some huge names. Director Howard Hawks takes Hepburn and Grant on a screwball adventure with a tame leopard and the intercostal clavicle of a brontosaurus, throwing in some good old-fashioned hijinks for good measure.
Grant’s David is a zoologist working at the Stuyvesant Museum of Natural History. He is getting married, tomorrow, to Alice (Virginia Walker), but before that he needs to secure a million dollars for the museum via a successful golf game with Mr Peabody (Alexander Irving). On the golf course his ball is intercepted by Susan (Hepburn), who then proceeds to accidentally steal his car, and some-how they end up both attempting to transport a Leopard she has in her apartment to its intended owner. It is as ridiculous as it sounds. What follows is various scenes of physical comedy, chaos, anarchy, mistaken identity and misunderstandings. David is left trying to keep track of both the leopard, a dog called George and the Intercostal Clavicle, all whilst hoping he can get back to town in time to marry his fiancé.
Of course, we know from the start that this relationship is doomed, and the plot is a contrivance to bring together Hepburn and Grant. Hepburn is magnetic as Susan; her chirpy confidence shines through the screen. Despite her moments of manipulation and various contrivances she is as likeable as ever. If a little spoilt.
Grant’s David is a Harold Lloyd-esque bumbling fool, drawing brilliantly on his theatrical background to deliver a physical performance that the silent era comics would be proud of. A far cry from the suave Bond-like characters most will have seen in later Hitchcock appearances, he approaches the role with selfless enthusiasm.
The age of the film presents some issues, one wonders at the treatment of the Leopard. So too, with some of the comedy relying on Susan being a terrible driver, and other parts on her being manipulative and thoughtless, make it feel rather dated. However, it was made in 1938, and the fact that the part is played by Hepburn makes it easy to overlook these issues. She can float about selfishly all she likes and still be likeable. Not least thanks to her willingness to really get stuck into the physical comedy rather than avoid humiliation. The chemistry between the leads is solid and believable, you can feel the fun they had and the laughs between cuts radiating from the screen.
This new Blu-ray release from Criterion brings with it a collection of bonus features that once again help you overlook the lack of substance in the film itself. The film is fluff, but it’s production was not, and those who made it are not either. A video essay from Scott Eyman engagingly describes Grant’s slow path to finding his place in Hollywood. This is complimented by historic interviews with Hughes, Grant, and analyses of the skills of cinematographer John Bailey and pioneering special effects artist Linwood Dunn.
- New, restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- Audio commentary from 2005 featuring filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich
- New video essay on actor Cary Grant by author Scott Eyman
- New interview about cinematographer Russell Metty with cinematographer John Bailey
- New interview with film scholar Craig Barron on special-effects pioneer Linwood Dunn
- New selected-scene commentary about costume designer Howard Greer featuring costume historian Shelly Foote
- Howard Hawks: A Hell of a Good Life, a 1977 documentary by Hans-Christoph Blumenberg featuring the director’s last filmed interview
- Audio interview from 1969 with Grant
- Audio excerpts from a 1972 conversation between Hawks and Bogdanovich
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- PLUS: An essay by critic Sheila O’Malley and, for the Blu-ray, the 1937 short story by Hagar Wilde on which the film is based
New cover design by F. Ron Miller
Bringing Up Baby is a charming new release from Criterion, deserving its place as a comedy classic. It is being released on Blu-ray on July 26th.