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Revisiting Bringing Up Baby for the AFI Project

What's the AFI Project, you ask? For more information, or if you just enjoy my bemused ramblings, read here:

Bringing Up Baby is on the following AFI lists:

The Original Top 100 (#97)
100 Funniest Films (#14)
100 Years...100 Passions (#51)
The Revised Top 100 (#88)

I first watched Bringing Up Baby when I first attempted this project, of sorts, way back when the Original AFI list was published. I watched it on recommendation of a college roommate, who felt the film was hysterical and was excited to watch it with me for my first go. Upon this initial viewing, I was highly annoyed with this film. I could not see how this daffy heiress (played by Katharine Hepburn) and an extremely nerdy and sappy Cary Grant and all of their rather extreme adventures could possibly be funny. I found the film to be the utmost in lunacy and dismissed it readily at the time.

Years later, I found the movie again on cable or something like that, and, against my better judgment, I watched it again. To my complete surprise, the movie struck me as hilarious the second time around. I don't know if it was my mood or frame of mind in which I watched Bringing Up Baby the first time that informed my sour outlook of that viewing, or if the film itself simply takes a minute to grow on the typical viewer, leading to this reversal in my personal estimation of the film. I would guess, based upon the film's history and delayed appreciation, that the latter sensibility is the likelier one to be true.

In Bringing Up Baby, David Huxley (Grant) is a mild-mannered and studious paleontologist who has labored for years on the construction of a Brontosaurus skeleton and is missing but one bone, namely the "intercostal clavicle," which is being shipped to him presently. He is also about to marry a stern woman named Alice, who has instructed David to make a favorable impression on a Mrs. Random (May Robson), a wealthy widow who is considering donating one million dollars to his museum. These are extreme circumstances for any mild-mannered paleontologist, and would cause any amount of due stress, but then David, on the day before his wedding, encounters Susan Vance (Hepburn) while playing golf with Mrs. Random's attorney, and his already stressful world becomes a mass of nervous breakdowns. Susan is a free spirit with an unusual sense of logic. What's more, she takes quite a shine to David, and ultimately ends up with him for the better part of 24 hours, derailing him from attending his own wedding. As it turns out, Susan is Mrs. Random's niece. Oh, and her brother has sent her a tame leopard from Brazil to look after named Baby, a leopard for which Susan demands David's help in accompanying to her aunt's home in Connecticut. As one might expect, all kinds of misadventures and predictable romantic hilarity ensue, though not as predictable as one might believe.

Bringing Up Baby is, in fact, sheer lunacy. The world of Susan and David demands a high degree of suspension of disbelief because it's hard to believe that anyone like Susan could exist, and/or that anyone like David would happen to encounter her and take all of her crazy nonsense lying down (he tries laboriously to get up but never succeeds). It's even harder to believe that Susan, mad as a hatter though she is, would find someone like David so irresistible. The viewer, I think, is really not meant to analyze this situation, and anyone who gets caught in the trap of trying to reason out David and Susan's whirlwind love affair is going to find this film extremely off-putting. It's not surprising, then, that the film tanked upon release and sent director Howard Hawks' and Hepburn's careers into a depressing tailspin.

The key to enjoying this film, however, is to turn off that part of the brain that wants to make sense of what it sees. There is no sense here. Bringing Up Baby is pure and utter nonsense for the sake of being nonsense, and it's this quality, when appreciated for what it is, that renders the film so endearing and so funny. It's the Alice in Wonderland of romantic comedies. There is no real rhyme or reason underlying David and Susan's adventures because there is no rhyme or reason underlying Susan's mode of existence. When a character like Susan is introduced into the equation, all bets are off.

In that vein, Bringing Up Baby may be one of the finest screwball comedies ever to have been created, and this is why the film has enjoyed growing admiration over the decades since its release and is also why the film enjoys AFI recognition. The propulsion of the action here squarely rests upon Susan's shoulders, and box office poison though she may have been labeled after this film's tepid release, Hepburn was equal to the task of bringing this wholly unlikely character to life. Susan is unlike any of Hepburn's other many fascinating characters, also, which alone ensures that the film is worth the watch. Her screws are so loose that the term batty simply doesn't sell the character enough, and yet, her motivations are as straight and as focused as anyone who does not have a leopard amongst their worldly possessions: all she wants is to be loved and, most importantly, to be loved by David. Her performance is timelessly funny, from her twittering giggle to her hilarious short attention span, and loony though she is, she's the hero of the piece. The writing is also top notch, adapting a short story into a film of giddy silliness.

Yet, the film is flawed, though not for the reasons initially believed. The supporting cast, in comparison with Hepburn's naturalness and Grant's attempt at buffoonery, plays a bunch of caricatures that are not nearly as fun to watch as the two leads. Speaking of Grant, commendable though it was for someone so dapper and straight-laced to attempt a then-modern day clown, it clearly wasn't a comfortable fit for him. Grant's performance, though not his best, is believable and winning because his chemistry with Hepburn (four times his screen partner, in total) was so winning. Their repartee and ability to bounce off each other was quite lively, engaging, and extremely watchable, so Grant's awkward bookworm, all the more awkward because it was against his usual type, became as endearing as Susan's free spirit. Bringing Up Baby, then, is worth the watch additionally because of the gamble Grant takes in this film, similar to Susan being unlike Hepburn's usual character fare.

Further, the story is rather implausible, as inventively madcap as it is. Suspension of belief truly must be tossed out the window - as in turned off completely. The potential viewer should simply sit back and enjoy the ride because the adventures of Susan, David, and the leopard named Baby have all the twists and turns of a roller coaster.

Ultimately, though, Bringing Up Baby is funny and induces sincere laughter. It serves its purpose for being made, in other words, and quite effectively, though some of that hilarity is diluted by too many repeat viewings, as the humor of the film is best bolstered by the sense of the unexpected that accompanies David and Susan's adventures. In lieu of the personal ratings scale, I think Bringing Up Baby merits an 8 for having minor flaws but being very good. The film also passes the test; I purchased it for the project, since I've seen it a fair few times prior to the point. If nothing else, "Baby" is charmingly cute - the film and the leopard, that is.

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