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Leaping Leopards! That Wonderfully Absurd Comedy Known As Bringing Up Baby

“The point is I have a leopard. The question is, “What am I going to do with it?”

I’m not sure if it is before or after Katharine Hepburn asks this question that Bringing Up Baby reaches a point of complete absurdity. If anything, this line is an indication that Bringing Up Baby is unlike most classic Hollywood films.

Released in 1938, Bringing Up Baby stars Hepburn (in her only screwball comedy) as Susan Vance, a free-spirited, accident-prone socialite, and Cary Grant, as David Huxley, an absent-minded, clumsy paleontologist.

One day the mismatched pair meets on a golf course after she takes his golf ball and “borrows” his car. Later, they reunite at a dinner party in a scene filled with pratfalls and missing articles of clothing. Susan, having fallen in love with David, believes that he is a zoologist and uses her new pet leopard, Baby (a gift from Brazil) to lure him to her aunt’s estate in Connecticut. But David wants nothing to do with her.

Trouble occurs when George, the family dog, buries the intercostal clavicle needed to complete David’s brontosaurus skeleton, Baby escapes his cage and is roaming around Connecticut, and everyone else, including Susan’s aunt, a drunken Irish gardener, and a big-game hunter end up in jail.

Bringing Up Baby is a fantastic, wildly entertaining, fast-paced, and an absolutely ridiculous roller coaster ride. Each scene is more manic and crazed than the one before.

Culturally and historically Bringing Up Baby couldn’t be more intriguing or relevant.

When it was released in 1938, Baby was a box-office failure. It was so poorly received that director Howard Hawks was fired from his next picture. Katharine Hepburn, having spent most of the 30s labeled as “box-office poison”, was forced to buy out her RKO contract and return to Broadway.

Today Bringing Up Baby is recognized as the definitive screwball comedy; Hawks is considered by many to be one of Hollywood’s greatest directors; and Hepburn holds the most Oscar wins for Best Actress in history.

Baby is a highly sophisticated comedy, years ahead of its time. The script is filled with hilarious ad-libs and sexual innuendos that somehow slipped past the censors. It is also credited with being the first film to reference homosexuality during a funny and intellectual exchange. Cary Grant, while wearing a woman’s bathrobe, tells another character that he is wearing these clothes, “Because I just went gay all of the sudden.”

Bringing Up Baby’s intelligent humor still registers with audiences today. I have sat through countless recent comedies, particularly of the gross-out variety, but none of those films have received greater laughs than a screening of Bringing Up Baby.

I have personally witnessed its magical affect on numbers of people, ranging from five years old to over eighty. That is something only a truly special and worthwhile film can achieve.

Published: September 27, 2007
The Mount Holyoke News

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