Monday, October 6, 2008

The Funniest Screwball Comedy

Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and Howard Hawks. A dog, a leopard, and a dinosaur bone. Charlie Ruggles, May Robson, and Barry Fitzgerald. Some of the most hilarious visual and verbal comedy ever put on film. These are the main ingredients of the funniest example of screwball comedy ever made: Bringing Up Baby (1938).

I've written previously of the classic elements of screwball comedy ("An Unsuitable Attachment: The Classic American Screwball Comedy," July 14, 2008), and Bringing Up Baby fulfills the definition of the genre in every respect. Cary Grant plays David Huxley, a paleontologist engaged to be married the next day to his assistant Alice Swallow, an unromantic, bossy, and humorless woman ("I see our marriage purely as a dedication to your work," she tells him at the beginning of the movie). David himself is only slightly less rigid and conventional than his fiancée. He is a dedicated careerist who seems less excited by the prospect of his imminent marriage than by the news that the last missing bone of the brontosaurus skeleton he is erecting has been discovered and will arrive shortly.

But first he must meet and play golf with the lawyer who represents a potential benefactor, Elizabeth Random (May Robson), a rich woman who is considering donating one million dollars to David's museum. It is at the golf course that he has his first unfortunate encounter with a scatter-brained and impetuous heiress named Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), a character for whom the term "madcap" might have been invented. She appropriates his golf ball and his car and wrecks both the car and, at least temporarily, David's chances of getting the donation.

Unknown to David, Susan happens to be the niece of Mrs. Random, so it is inevitable that their paths will cross again..and again...and again. In fact, once he meets her a second time that evening in a night club, where he has gone (carrying with him the box containing his precious dinosaur bone) to meet the lawyer and try to salvage his chances for the donation, he is trapped with her in a hellish and hilarious relationship that lasts for the rest of the movie, a relationship that involves him not only with Susan but with her aunt, her fox terrier George, a pet leopard named Baby, and other assorted eccentric characters including a tipsy gardener (Barry Fitzgerald), a befuddled big-game hunter (Charles Ruggles), a self-important psychiatrist, and an officious small-town sheriff.

In truth, this impromptu relationship is the result of Susan's almost instant decision that she is in love with David and that to get him she will do anything to prevent him from making it to his wedding the next day. (I said she was impetuous, didn't I?) As in many screwball comedies of the 1930's and early 1940's, the man is the reluctant object of romantic desire, and the woman is the single-minded pursuer. In Bringing Up Baby it is inarguable that Susan's determination to snare David is the initial force that sets in motion the machinery of the plot. And the plot of Bringing Up Baby is indeed a complex and finely tuned machine that once started hurtles forward at breakneck speed and propels the viewer to everything else that happens in the movie.

What I refer to as everything else is so complicated that it is impossible to summarize briefly. As in the best silent comedies, from a prime situation—here the random encounter at the golf course—the narrative builds in a headlong, unpredictable, and cumulatively intricate way that defies synopsis or even concise description. Just when you think the inventory of comic conventions has been exhausted, that every conceivable comic complication has been laid on, Hawks piles on yet another one.

This film is virtually an encyclopedia of movie comedy. It contains everything: pratfalls—on a slippery Martini olive, into poison ivy, down a hillside, into a river, even from the scaffolding of David's brontosaurus skeleton—verbal miscommunication and talking at cross-purposes, mistaken identity, impersonation, comic deception, even a doppelganger in the form of a second (but feral) leopard. Everything in the movie becomes fodder for comedy: clothing, automobiles, golf, gangsters, circuses, academia, psychiatry, law enforcement. Nothing is too serious or too sacred to be spared Hawks's limitlessly inventive and often acerbic comic imagination. The pace is relentless, leaving the viewer not only breathless but overcome with laughter.

Bringing Up Baby is quite simply the funniest movie I have ever seen. The long sequences in which David and Susan follow George the dog, trying to find where he buried that crucial dinosaur bone he has stolen, and in which David and Susan try to capture the escaped leopard using a croquet mallet and a fish landing net are deliriously funny. And when virtually the entire cast, including the leopard, converges on the local jail and Susan pretends to be the hard-boiled leader of a gang of bank robbers, the movie has so far departed from any semblance of reality, logic, and normal human behavior that it seems to inhabit a universe of its own, not unlike one of the more outlandish Marx Brothers movies or plays of Oscar Wilde: silliness so sublime that it is elevated to art.

You might think that with all these mad plot complications, and with all this hilarious physical and verbal comedy going on, the characters would take a back seat. Yet that is not the case, for the characters of Susan and David as impersonated by Hepburn and Grant are the glue that holds the movie together. They are the force that moves the film from the clever mechanics of comedy to the humanity of an evolving romantic relationship.

In a recent blog ("The Definitive Screwball Comedy," September 1, 2008) I described how the main characters in another screwball comedy, The Awful Truth, a married couple who separate and then reconcile at the last moment, were ideally suited to each other all along and that their notions of incompatibility are nonsense. In Bringing Up Baby the situation could hardly be more different. In this movie Susan and David are complete opposites and truly seem to be wholly unsuited to each other.

Yet it is precisely their opposite temperaments and behavior that, paradoxically, make them the ideal match. Susan, like her pet leopard, is untamed, unpredictable, and predatory. (Her pursuit of David might today be referred to as "stalking.") Compared to Susan, David, like his dinosaur, is ossified, without flesh and blood, and lacking animation. She is emotional; he is rational. She is all impulse; he is all control. To put it in Freudian terms, if she is ruled by her id, then he is ruled by his superego. Separately, each is an unbalanced and incomplete personality. Each needs the other to supply the missing parts of his or her temperament, for only together will each become a complete and integrated personality. To accomplish this, Susan has to gain self-control and gravity, and David must learn to loosen his self-control and let himself go.

This is exactly what happens at the end of Bringing Up Baby. Susan applies herself to seriously looking for the missing bone and when she finds it a few days later contritely delivers it to David at the museum. The now subdued Susan tells him that her aunt gave her the million dollars and that she in turn has decided to donate it to the museum herself. And when she apologizes for her behavior, David, who earlier had told her, "Our relationship has been a series of misadventures from beginning to end," finally thaws. "I just discovered that was the best day I had in my whole life," he confesses. "I never had a better time." When the dinosaur skeleton collapses in the last scene and David lifts Susan to the now isolated platform overlooking a pile of dinosaur bones and embraces her, it is more than just another hilarious sight gag. It is the visual evidence that Susan has finally succeeded in her pursuit of David and has now conquered the last remaining rival for his affection—his obsessive devotion to his work.

Regular readers of this blog may well be wondering why, having already named The Awful Truth as the definitive screwball comedy, I am writing about Bringing Up Baby as though that title belonged to it. The truth is that each of these movies is, in its own way, a definitive version of the screwball comedy. But the two films are so different that any consideration of the two movies together results in the proverbial Apples and Oranges situation: yes, they are both fruit, but they are otherwise so unalike that any attempt at comparison would seem impossibly problematic .

One comparison that is possible, though, is that of methods. The Awful Truth and Bringing Up Baby represent opposite approaches to the same end—the classic screwball comedy dilemma of showing how two people who initially appear unsuited to each other discover that this is not the case at all. The Awful Truth exhibits all the Apollonian virtues. It is controlled, balanced, ordered, and temperate. In contrast Bringing Up Baby exhibits all the characteristics of the Dionysian sensibility. It is spontaneous, chaotic, and anarchic, intoxicated with the passion and excess of its own exuberant absurdism. Each is the perfect exemplar, the ideal representation, of its chosen approach. The Awful Truth and Bringing Up Baby—for me these are the twin stars around which the galaxy of screwball comedy orbits.

Apples or oranges? I'll have one of each, please.
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Bringing Up Baby is shown regularly on Turner Classic Movies. The next showing is on Wednesday, October 15, at 5:00 p.m. (PDT).

3 comments:

gag said...

To true, both are delightful movies. For me screwball without The Palm Beach Story and The Lady Eve would be unthinkable.

R. D. Finch said...

Gag, thanks for your comment. Have you read my July 14 post? I briefly discuss both of these movies there. I agree that they are two of the best of the genre. Of the two I prefer "Palm Beach," but I think they're both great movies, as is practically anything directed by Sturges.

pacwarbuff said...

Excellent analysis as always!

What makes Bringing Up Baby enjoyable for me is seeing Hepburn in a full-fledged Hare brain mode. It's miles away from the "Hepburn Persona". Her role as Susan is the main attraction for me and it's the first thing that comes to mind whenever I think of this film.

And Asta sure was on a roll between "Thin Man" films, wasn't he?