Movie of the Week 6/30/14: Bringing Up Baby

bringing_up_baby_1938_lobby_cardAs I’ve said before, my biggest area of ignorance in film is old movies, particularly of the black and white era. I’m also not as big a comedy person; comedies are hardly ever a priority for me relative to other genres. All of which makes movies like Bringing Up Baby perfect for Shiran’s side of our tradition, as there’s pretty much no chance in hell I’ve seen it. Much like Howard Hawks’ other great screwball comedy His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby is marked by some committed and engaging performances and some terrifically-written wordplay. It serves as a great precursor to many of the comedy tropes we now take for granted (to the point of dismissal) but accomplishes them with a great deal of charm and grace.

One thing that the snarky part of my brain kept repeating as I watched Bringing Up Baby was “how has Adam Sandler not remade this?” I’m not really kidding either; it has the same sort of absurd and borderline-nonsensical plot details (Paleontologist! Leopard!) that you’d expect from a Happy Madison production. But unlike Sandler’s work, Bringing Up Baby manages to attain slapstick without being obnoxious or completely inhuman… and without the prevalence of toilet humor and misogyny as well. Part of this comes from the clear establishment of stakes early on: all of the potentially non-sequitur elements are introduced in the first act and then played out over the course of the movie, so rather than being jarring and random they just feel like natural aspects of the film’s world. And it’s all so meticulously constructed that despite the seeming randomness of these parts, it’s not that easy to remove any of them without completely undoing the story. The film ends up with a particular sort of heightened reality, but one that you are gradually and carefully immersed in so you never feel the need to question it.

The biggest asset of the film is certainly the leads: Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn fully commit to the zaniness of the story and each other. Hawks himself was uncertain about the overall quality of the film because he felt there was no straight man in it. I dunno what movie he was watching though, because how else would one categorize Grant’s flustered and put-upon academic? And on the other hand, there’s Hepburn, whose character is so reminiscent of the Hepburn in The Aviator that I wonder if she was really like that or if Cate Blanchett modeled herself on this performance; either way, I can’t help but agree with Shiran’s observation that she might be the first Manic Pixie Dream Girl (for better or worse).

It’s also worth noting the quality of Hawks’ direction, and the subtle technical work he oversees here. Even in what could easily have been a straightforward comedy film, he does some technically impressive things, mostly involving the leopard. When you combine Hawks’ understated technical know-how with the sharp-tongued and well-paced script, and you have a recipe for a quality movie of any genre.

As for Shiran’s take:

I’ve wanted to show Brendan Bringing Up Baby (and more Howard Hawks in general) for a while, but I find now I don’t have much to say about the movie, because it’s executed so perfectly that very little needs to be said. Slapstick is mostly dead as a subgenre of comedy, at least where good comedies are concerned, and this movie makes a compelling case for it’s resurrection. Every single moment leads to a laugh, and not a second is wasted. I do see what Hawks meant about there being no straight man, because Grant’s character is every bit as loony and dramatic as Hepburn’s, though in a totally opposite way. Rather than grounding Susan’s wild antics by being a typical deadpan straight man, David escalates every single situation to even crazier heights, turning Bringing Up Baby a pretty fantastic, original rom-com as well as a slapstick.

Be back soon with more irrelevant movies. Enjoy!

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