In this article, Mast chronicles the making of Bringing Up Baby from production to its opening at the Radio City Music Hall in March of 1938. The film actually began as a short story written by an unknown Hagar Wilde in Collier’s in April of 1937. Titled “Bringing Up Baby,” the story was about a tame panther named Baby that is let loose to roam freely in the Connecticut countryside. Coincidentally around the same time, Howard Hawks signed a contract for a six picture deal with RKO pictures and was told to select a project from a pile of scripts, treatments, and stories, of which “Bringing Up Baby” was one of the choices. Hawks, naturally, picked “Bringing Up Baby” and together with the studio, began to convert the story into a film. Although many of the film’s funniest lines are directly from the short story, writer Dudley Nichols was hired for the script to create a ninety minute narrative out of what was essentially a simple magazine article. In the resulting script, a museum was added, as was the search for an intercostal clavicle. Several jail scenes were added as well, in addition to the mishaps on the road to Connecticut, a drunken gardener, a golf course, and a variety of other gags. The basic storyline was also altered—instead of Baby the panther acting as a threat, tearing apart an engaged couple, Baby the leopard became the driving force uniting two complete strangers.
RKO bought the rights from Wilde for $1000 on June 11, 1937 and the film was scheduled to begin a fifty-one day shoot in September with Katharine Hepburn starring and virtually no leading man. It was not until a week before shooting was to begin that Cary Grant signed on to play the part of Dr. David Huxley. Throughout filming, Bringing Up Baby was met with even more delays as Hawks preferred improvisation, but also extremely complex set-ups for shots in order to achieve the right effect. Shooting eventually ended in January of 1938, forty days over the scheduled fifty-one days of filming, and the first cut of the film which ran 10,150 feet was sent to the PCA board for review. Interestingly, the board did not seem to have an issue with the scene in which Huxley proclaims that he is turning gay or other various scenes with similar subtleties. It did have an issue with Hepburn’s torn dress, however, but despite this, the film was granted a seal in February.
The film was eventually cut down to 9,204 feet and released later that year, achieving modest box office success. It was later re-released in 1940 to a better box office turnout, both domestically and internationally. Total revenues amounted to $1,259,000, which translated to a final profit of $163,000—a modest success for RKO. For the two stars, Bringing Up Baby reflected a lighter and brighter side to their acting abilities and for Hawks, the film confirmed once again, his versatility in filmmaking.
Lent’s article focuses on the change in the depiction of relationships between men and women in films in the 1930s. According to Lent, the screwball comedy which developed in the 1930s, focused on a contemporary relationship between men and women, referred to as “love-companionship,” thus altering and redefining relations between the genders. At a time when Americans were focusing more upon marriage due to the conditions of the Depression, screwball comedy directly addressed love and marriage through sexual and ideological tensions between its two main characters. Lent argues that this divergence from the traditional depiction of love and marriage stems from three major elements: “a redefined image of woman, a redefined view of marriage, and a redefined idea of cinematic comedy” (316).
Lent attributes the development of the new woman to the flappers of the 1920s who shared many similar characteristics with classic screwball heroines. Flappers redefined freedom, social behavior, and the role of women in society, all of which were reflected onscreen by actresses. Screwball heroines became characteristically more free and independent, oftentimes dominating their male counterparts. The sexual liberation and power of the flappers were not directly translated to the screwball heroines due to Production Code measures, but as a result, the role of the male was changed as well, to one of “playful companionship” to provide a greater sense of equality between the two genders. This can be seen in Bringing Up Baby, for the film’s heroine, Susan Vance, actually has the power to control the male character and ultimately, get her way.
The idea of marriage changed in the 1920s from a social and economic institution to more of a union based on sexual attraction. Lent argues that screwball comedies are essentially stories of courtship that develop from friendship to love and that the fast verbal exchanges and physical comedy act as courting rituals that demonstrate such sexual attraction. In Bringing Up Baby, the many adventures of Susan and Huxley mask the obvious sexual attraction between the two, which in the end, results in their mutual love for each other. Throughout the film, there are also many references to the idea of marriage. Huxley’s engagement to Miss Swallow, a stern coworker more interested in the future marriage for career reasons, is contrasted with his many fun adventures with Susan. In essence, the two relationships contrast the traditional idea of marriage with the new, contemporary idea of marriage of the time, which was based more on friendship and fun.
Lastly, Lent states that the appearance of screwball comedy in the 1930s redefined film comedy as well by merging romantic and slapstick comedy into one. This allowed for more sexual innuendo that would have normally not been allowed in romantic movies, but with this merger of comedies, would eventually become known as a comedic element that eventually defined screwball comedy. The physical comedy in screwball also allowed for more intimate touching between characters, reaffirming the sexual and playful nature underlying the relationship between the two leads. The instance when Huxley has to stand closely behind Susan because the back of her dress has torn off, demonstrates this new cinematic gender relationship that eventually helped to redefine intimacy and social ideology as well.
Stanley Cavell’s essay provides an in-depth analysis of various aspects of Bringing Up Baby, ranging from the significance of the repetitive dialogue to the meaning of the embrace at the end of the film. The first part of Cavell’s work focuses mainly on this repetition of dialogue and action throughout the film. Cavell argues that the repetition of these two elements results in double entendres that remain unnoticed by the characters but are comedic for the audience. Citing such examples of the repetition of the word “bone,” for example, Cavell believes that the film’s events can be read as is or as a sexual allegory. This resulting ambiguity can seemingly be attributed to the strict standards of the Production Code of the time, which required the development of a new cinematic language to express sexuality or “inappropriateness.”
The second part of Cavell’s analysis focuses on the ending embrace between Dr. Huxley and Susan. Cavell argues that the embrace must symbolize something as it is noticeably awkward: “one cannot determine whether the pair’s lips are touching” (282), and it takes place in the museum where the film originally began. Interestingly, Cavell believes that this final embrace is a reenactment of Rodin’s The Kiss, and thus questions whether or not Huxley has really changed from the beginning scene. With this in mind, Cavell also discusses the validation of marriage within the context of the film, stating that the repetition of certain elements within the film seems to indicate that marriage cannot be validated from the “outside,” and thus, the characters work to “move directly to the state of reaffirmation” (288), which is ultimately a source of comedy.
The last part of Cavell’s essay examines Bringing Up Baby as a farce. Cavell argues that although the film exhibits many farcical elements such as allusions to other films and has its origins in vaudeville, it is still, oddly, a very self-conscious film.
This article, though full of great commentary on Bringing Up Baby is a bit difficult to read without first reading Cavell’s article titled “Pursuits of Happiness: A Reading of the Lady Eve,” found in Vol 10, No. 3 of New Literary History pp.581-601.
This excerpt from Peter Wollen’s article discusses Howard Hawks’s work in the context of the auteur theory. The auteur theory is the film theory that attributes the particular look and image of a film to the director, as if the director was the only person responsible for creating the film. Wollen’s analysis of Hawks’s films using the auteur theory is thus particularly interesting because Hawks was relatively well-known for the diverse nature of his films. Wollen argues however, that despite having worked in almost every single genre, Hawks still had a particular visual style and tempo. Often using the same motifs and themes in his films, Hawks was therefore able to create his own world that a very specific protagonist inhabited. There are two versions of this “Hawksian” hero, Wollen states. One is the strong professional who is often excluded from society, but also seeks camaraderie with other males. This hero is typically more common in Hawks’s adventure stories. He is usually a cattleman, pilot, fisherman, or racing driver, one who is accustomed to living alone and dangerously. Women often act as threats to this hero and thus, he is usually unmarried or was previously married in the past and suffered some type of trauma as a result.
The second version of the protagonist is the complete opposite, and often appears in his comedies. This hero is usually extremely pliable and inadequate. For example, in Bringing Up Baby, David Huxley is a weak and timid man, who is often overshadowed by Susan Vance’s domineering character. Susan, who is identified with Baby, the animal, poses a threat on Huxley’s peaceful world, that Huxley simply cannot overcome. This theme of role-reversal and regression is thus extremely common is Hawks’s comedic work. The man is no longer the dramatic hero and instead, is more like a humiliated victim. He is easily influenced by the woman and is often involved in scenes of sexual humiliation as well. In Bringing Up Baby, the scene in which Dr. Huxley is forced to wear a woman’s nightgown, can be said to be a manifestation of this gender-reversal as well.
Ronald R. Butters’s article in Dictionaries: Journal of The Dictionary Society of America examines the origins of the relationship between the word “gay” and “homosexual.” Citing Cary Grant’s infamous utterance “I’ve just gone gay all of a sudden!” in Bringing Up Baby as a potential first link between the two words, Butters provides a thorough analysis of all possible connotations of the word and in turn, how audiences of the time would have interpreted the usage of the word in such a manner.
Butters uses Vitto Russo’s novel on homosexuality in American cinema as a framework for his argument, but then refutes Russo’s idea that Grant intended the phrase to denote homosexuality. Russo states that Grant’s line was actually an ad-lib and was not found anywhere in the script. Paired with a “hysterical” leap, Grant’s words, in Russo’s point of view, represents “a rare textual reference to the word gay and to the concrete possibility of homosexuality in Hawks’s work” (198). Butters argues, however, that upon watching the scene again, it appears as if Russo has exaggerated Grant’s actions. He is not a hysterical person with possible homosexual mannerisms, but rather, a frustrated and repressed man who has been forced to wear something extremely feminine after his clothes have been taken from him.
Although Butters disagrees that Grant’s choice of words had any homosexual connotations, he does state that ignoring the statement would also be an “act of lexicographical irresponsibility and perhaps even sociopolitical insensitivity” (199). Therefore, Butters attempts to examine the impact of Grant’s words on the filmmakers who were involved with production and also the reaction of the film’s audience members of the time. Butters claims that there is no evidence that the filmmakers drew the conclusions that gay meant homosexual in this context. What is interesting however, is his argument stating that even if anyone involved in the making of the film recognized this double entendre, they would be among an “in-crowd of Hollywood sophisticates who had strong ties to the repressed homosexual underworld” (199). Thus, it can be assumed that nearly all of the audience members who watched the film in 1938 also did not conclude that Grant’s statement had anything to do with homosexuality. Yet, the context of the word gay in this instance does not seem to fit the standard 1930s definition of happy, joyous, or carefree. Butters argues that Grant’s statement was probably a form of archaic slang that translated into: “I’ve just gone crazy all of a sudden!” (200), which would fit with the craziness of the rest of the movie and would therefore go unnoticed by audiences and more importantly, the Production Code Administration as well.
Shumway’s article discusses the function of romance in screwball comedy as a way of “mystifying marriage.” The author uses writer Stanley Cavell’s Pursuits of Happiness, an analysis of screwball comedy, as a basis and then refutes his argument that screwball comedy enlightens audiences about marriage. Shumway argues that romance essentially contains an element of illusion in itself and this thus translates in screwball comedy, to an illusive view of marriage as well. The idea of illusion also stems from the relationship between romance and desire, which Shumway states is another reason why screwball comedies often involve the rich, for this wealthy world is almost like a false promise that results from romance and love, and functions to heighten desire.
One of the most interesting arguments that Shumway makes in this article is that screwball comedies tend to hint that complete desire and complete satisfaction are attainable and that this specific state is known as marriage. Shumway uses examples from It Happened One Night and The Philadelphia Story to demonstrate that in screwball comedies, even women become objects of desire for the men. What is essential in creating this mystified notion of marriage is ultimately dependent on how the audience views the relationship between the characters. Shumway argues that the classic generic elements of screwball, such as the fast-paced dialogue, functions as a sort of electrical attraction that can be sensed by the audience and hints at the blissful ending of marriage.
The second half of this article consists of a contrasting analysis of Desperately Seeking Susan which reverses a lot of the generic elements of screwball. Beginning with marriage, and ending in divorce, the film presents an alternative to marriage, which in this case is adultery. In this film, marriage is not shown as the culmination of desire, but rather, the failure of romance.
It is interesting however, that Shumway’s analysis does not seem to fit Bringing Up Baby exactly. Despite the implied marriage at the end, which is in a way, mystified by the romance between the two characters, there is also a very realistic view of marriage in the beginning of the film when Huxley is engaged to be married to Miss Swallow, a marriage that would definitely not be one of romance. This could probably be explained by Shumway as a contrast of a “failed” marriage and a successful marriage, to perhaps heighten the illusion of the successful marriage.
The seventh article in the novel, titled Classical Hollywood Comedy, this article (p.123-146), analyzes the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s. Karnick argues that although the plots for these comedies were inherently similar, the humoristic elements in these films helped to distinguish themselves. Along with the similar plotlines, these films have common narrative structures that are further complicated by humor. Humor, according to the author, is the result of incongruity between what is expected and what is actually seen onscreen, and is eventually followed by resolution. This relationship of incongruity and resolution is thus a way to break up the narrative and lessen the predictability of the film.
Karnick also utilizes Vladimir Propp’s methodology of the establishment of genres to analyze screwball comedies. Propp’s work, which compared the themes of 150 Russian folktales by separating parts of tales into “functions,” “spheres of action,” and “moves,” showed that while characters’ names changed between the stories, their functions and actions within the actual narrative did not. Karnick thus uses this theory and applies it to the screwball comedy to explain the recurring plots, but different elements of humor. Karnick is thus able to categorize screwball comedies into two general groups, “Comedies of Commitment” and “Comedies of Reaffirmation.” Commitment comedies, such as Bringing Up Baby, tend to focus on the establishment a central couple, whereas reaffirmation comedies concern the reestablishment of a couple (131). According to Karnick, commitment comedies actually have multiple plotlines. In the case of Bringing Up Baby, Dr. Huxley is concerned about obtaining financing for his museum, but also about searching for the last bone to complete his dinosaur fossil. Commitment comedies also tend to exhibit the clashing of social classes—Dr. Huxley is a highly-educated man who is paired with Susan, a wealthy young woman with no need for a career. The promise of marriage at the end of the film is another characteristic of commitment comedies. In addition to these common themes, Karnick argues that this particular category shares character roles as well. There is a “first partner” (Huxley), an “initial partner” (Miss Swallow), a “second partner” (Susan), a “conscience figure” (Sarah, Nick, Ned), and a “blocking figure” (Mr. Seton). (133).
In the last part of the article, Karnick addresses the reaffirmation comedies, which she argues are essentially continuations of commitment comedies. Thus, like commitment comedies, this particular category also shares common themes, plotlines, and character roles as well.
William Rothman’s essay titled “Howard Hawks and Bringing Up Baby” focuses on the symbols and signs that tend to appear in Hawks’s films. One of the most prominent characteristics is Hawks’s use of a reaction shot which serves to reveal the emotions of a character that would have otherwise remain hidden. In Bringing Up Baby, the first example of this is a vivid close-up on the face of Katharine Hepburn’s character, Susan Vance. Her reaction is one of sadness and disappointment, for it is then that she learns Dr. Huxley, played by Cary Grant, is actually engaged to be married. Hawks also contrasts the reaction shots of Grant and Hepburn throughout the film to further develop the differences between the two characters, and also to create an even more satisfying ending when the two eventually get together in spite of these very differences. Rothman also brings up various signs that Hawks uses throughout many of his films—images of fire to represent sexuality, flowers as a symbol of purity, birds in the case of Dr. Huxley to represent humiliation, and water as a means of seduction. In one scene in particular, both Dr. Huxley and Susan fall into deep water, which according to Rothman, spurs on their courtship.
Rothman discusses Hawks’s reputation as a “functional director” as well. To most, his films appear simple, straightforward, and almost “unintellectual” in value because they appear to sacrifice cinematic technique for the telling of the story itself. In reality, Hawks’s films are filled with dramatic details in each frame, ranging from the look of the spatial environment down to the clothing of each character. Yet, amidst all this complication, Hawks’s camera always seems to have the ability to “appear neutral” while still picking up important details and seamlessly preserving the narrative (96).
Rothman also analyzes the presence of double entendres within Bringing Up Baby and other films made by Howard Hawks. The entire film can be read as a sexual allegory due to the seemingly duplicitous dialogue, actions, gestures, etc. Rothman further emphasizes that despite the obvious presence of allegories within the film, the characters are still very unaware of them. There is “a radical separation between the literal and the allegorical levels, in the sense that the characters are innocent of the doubleness of their words and acts” (104). The comedy, Rothman argues, is essentially derived from this ignorance. In other words, the fact that the characters are so apparently naive and completely unaware of themselves adds to the crazy and comedic nature of the film.
Howard Hawks, Storyteller is an interesting biography that takes a look at the life and work of Howard Hawks, the director of Bringing Up Baby. Hawks was born on May 30, 1896 in Indiana and later moved with his family to Pasadena, California. Growing up, Hawks loved reading stories and building machines—the latter interest eventually led to a degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell University. Yet his love for stories and story-telling eventually won out and in 1917 Hawks began his film career as a prop boy for Adolph Zukor‘s merged distribution company, Famous Players-Lasky. His film career spanned forty years and in the process, Hawks earned directing credits for such notable films as His Girl Friday (1940), The Big Sleep (1946), and Red River (1948), and also various other producing and writing credits, all of which amounted to an incredible body of work that reflected his extremely versatile talent.
Although Hawks proved that he could direct almost any type of film, one of his specialties was the screwball comedy. The sixth chapter of this novel, titled “Comedies of Youth and Age: Bringing Up Baby and Monkey Business” (pp.133-187) offers an interesting comparison between two of Hawks’s most famous screwball comedies resulting in an in-depth analysis of Hawks’s approach to this particular genre. Author Gerald Mast first mentions Hawks’s creation of his characters in his screwball comedies. Unlike other films of the genre that have characters that eventually come to a turning point and reject their screwball ways, Hawks’s characters have a tendency to adhere to their original screwball manner throughout. In Bringing Up Baby, Hepburn’s character maintains her screwball nature even to the last frame of the film in which she accidentally knocks Dr. Huxley’s complicated dinosaur fossil into pieces on the ground. As Mast describes it, Hawks’s films have a “perfect lunacy [that] redefines ‘normality’ and remakes the world in its own image: the lunatic world itself becomes perfectly normal for those who are perfectly lunatic” (137).
Mast then breaks down the film into a five-act structure, where he notes that the ending of the film is usually similar to the beginning—in this case, both scenes take place at the museum. Each act focuses on a slightly different theme or motif to tie together the action and dialogue. One of the most interesting arguments Mast presents is his discussion of symmetry that adds another element of structure to the film. Mast argues that almost the entire film is symmetrical ranging from the characters’ actions to the characters themselves. For example, Dr. Huxley’s life of scientific order is paralleled with Susan Vance’s life of disorder, virtually dividing the beginning of the film into halves. Also, Huxley’s museum is a direct contrast to Vance’s lavish apartment. Many things appear in pairs throughout the film as well—Susan steals two cars, there are eventually two leopards roaming Connecticut, there are two cages, one for humans and the other for animals, etc. This symmetrical patterning, Mast argues, adds to the “wildness” of the film in order to challenge conventional narrative logic—another specialty of Hawks’s.
The second chapter (pp. 29-66) of Romantic vs. Screwball Comedy presents an analysis of the genre of screwball comedy. Gehring argues that the main characters in this particular genre tend to exhibit five key characteristics: “abundant leisure time, childlike nature, basic male frustration (especially in relationship to women), a general propensity for physical comedy, and a proclivity for parody and satire” (29). Gehring cites various films from different time periods ranging from George Cukor’s Holiday (1938) to the comedies of today, noting that each film’s “comic antihero” shares these common characteristics.
Gehring also uses Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby (1938) as a classic example of this particular genre. In Hawks’s film, Dr. David Huxley, played by Cary Grant, is the epitome of the comic antihero. As an absentminded professor (often a recurring character in such genre films), Huxley is essentially a member of “high-society.” He is a relatively wealthy man, despite his need for a million-dollar research grant, and has time to socialize with other members of high society, whether on a golf course, at a dinner party, etc. Yet his high education, paired with his seemingly paradoxical absentmindedness and bumbling personality, also serves as comic relief throughout the film. Referred to as “comic rigidity,” a term used in Henri Bergson’s theory of comic superiority, which Gehring cites, these comedic elements stem from this “inversion” of what is generally the norm for a professional such as Huxley.
Huxley also has a childlike nature, according to Gehring, which is reflected through the dominance of the female character, Susan. Throughout the film it is clear that Susan, played by Katharine Hepburn, is in command—she has the power to alter Huxley’s plans and eventually, his entire future. It is through this dominance that the element of basic male frustration is exhibited as well. Huxley is basically powerless as Susan drags him to Connecticut in hopes of delivering a tamed leopard named Baby. As a source of frustration for Huxley, Susan also draws out Huxley’s displays of physical comedy in various scenes. For example, Huxley often retaliates to Susan’s dominance with physical actions, not words. In a scene where Huxley is simply annoyed with Susan, he pretends to strangle her instead of saying something. Gehring also argues that the presence of physical comedy in screwball comedies is due to the fact that the genre was born out of slapstick comedy from the silent film era. In fact, Gehring mentions that Grant’s character was based on silent film star Harold Lloyd as well as Buster Keaton.
The last part of Gehring’s discussion focuses on the satiric elements of screwball comedies, which the author states was Howard Hawks’s specialty. This proclivity for parody and satire is evidenced in many instances, and is a running theme throughout the film. Like other screwball comedies, Bringing Up Baby, has a tendency to make fun of romance and the characters themselves. For example, Huxley’s engagement of convenience to Miss Swallow in the beginning of the film is a direct comment on marriage and the film’s jail scenes as well as the lavish party scenes poke fun at rich society.Gehring concludes his argument by noting that these five characteristics, though not limited only to screwball comedy, serve to help define the complex genre.