Monday, February 18, 2013

Bringing Up Baby Turns 75

The golden era for Hollywood's screwball comedies was well before my time.

I still enjoy watching them, though, and I long ago concluded that they all had certain characteristics that they shared with each other, but I've always kind of felt that "Bringing Up Baby," which made its debut 75 years ago today, was unique.

I'm not really sure why that is so. There was nothing special about the stars — Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. Both had been in screwball comedies before. Most stars in those days probably had. Screwball comedies in general were quite popular.

Hepburn and Grant did have a certain chemistry, though, that made "Bringing Up Baby" a lot of fun to watch. But I suppose most of Hepburn's screwball comedies were with Spencer Tracy.

Some stars got typecast in screwball comedies; others had more varied careers. When I hear names like Jean Arthur and Carole Lombard, I think of screwball comedies and little else. But when I hear names like Hepburn and Grant, for some reason, I think of other kinds of movies as well.

Likewise, there really wasn't anything special about director Howard Hawks' involvement with the project. He made many kinds of movies during his career, including other screwball comedies, although "Bringing Up Baby" was probably his most noteworthy contribution to that genre.

An important element of the screwball comedies was (and still is, in movies that aspire to be screwball comedies today) a strong female character who dominated her relationship with the lead male character. Such a character was the embodiment of what was known as the "Hawksian woman" in those days — able to hold her own (and then some) with any male.

Hepburn fit the mold of the Hawksian woman, regardless of the genre.

And dapper Cary Grant was in many screwball comedies over the years, but he also appeared in very dramatic films. Personally, when I think of Grant's career, I always think first of his work with Alfred Hitchcock, especially in "To Catch a Thief" and "North by Northwest," and Hitchcock's is a name most people wouldn't associate with screwball comedies.

And yet ...

An early Hitchcock movie, "The 39 Steps," included a segment where a man and woman were handcuffed together and fell in love after being thrust together by fate. Clearly an element of the classic screwball comedy.

Maybe what made "Bringing Up Baby" different was the fact that Hepburn and Grant became the "parents" of a homeless leopard. Hepburn was Baby's original parent, I guess. Grant, a paleontologist who was only seeking a benefactor, rounded out the family unit.

Whatever the reason, "Bringing Up Baby" is often mentioned as one of the greatest of the screwball comedies.

I didn't know until long after I saw the movie for the first time that it was designed for Hepburn, that the male lead was never really considered an important part of the cast.

What I did know — or, rather, what I deduced on my own and later confirmed — was that "Bringing Up Baby" was a primary inspiration for 1972's "What's Up, Doc?"

It came out long after the heyday of the screwball comedy, but, nevertheless, "What's Up, Doc?" was one of my favorite movies in the 1970s so, when I saw "Bringing Up Baby" for the first time, the similarities were all too clear to me. Grant's character could have been played by Ryan O'Neal, and Hepburn's character was every bit as screwy as Barbra Streisand's.

But the O'Neal–Streisand partnership really was no match for Hepburn and Grant.