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Blu-ray Review: Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby on the Criterion Collection

Howard Hawks’s screwball classic looks and sounds sharper than ever thanks to this magnificent release.

4.5

Bringing Up Baby

Howard Hawks’s 1938 screwball classic Bringing Up Baby is so astounding in its verbosity, so breakneck in its pacing, that it threatens to swallow viewers up if they don’t quickly adjust to its off-kilter, almost musical rhythms. For those who do, there’s a certain poetry to be found in its deluge of witty, rapid-fire dialogue, as awe-inspiring as it is anxiety-inducing. And the film’s delightfully warped sense of humor finds the divine in the absurd, turning the screw in screwball faster and further than perhaps any other entry in the genre has ever done. Hawks matched its tempo two years later with His Girl Friday, but Bringing Up Baby’s gleeful disregard of any semblance of realism or logic takes the audience all the way through the looking glass before shattering it altogether, pushing live-action comedy frantically toward the anarchic and surreal.

At the center of this comedy of frustration and abnegation is Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), a flighty heiress and paragon of privilege who moves about the world as if nothing has a discernible effect on her. The power of her centripetal force is such that it leaves everyone powerless in her wake. Susan’s foil is David Huxley (Cary Grant), a paleontologist eagerly awaiting the arrival of the final bone that will complete his museum’s brontosaurus skeleton, and who’s engaged to his sullen, career-oriented co-worker, Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker). David’s sexual frustration, along with the script’s salacious flair for innuendo, only grows more prominent once he’s swept into Susan’s orbit. David’s hesitance and self-doubt make him putty in her hands, allowing Susan to effortlessly whisk him away from the big city to take Baby, a leopard sent to her by her brother, to her family’s house in Connecticut.

It’s all more than a bit absurd, and more so after Baby gets loose and becomes a mortal danger to the Vance family and their various neighbors. David is even more discombobulated when he finally receives his coveted “intercostal clavicle,” only for the dinosaur bone to be stolen and buried by Susan’s pesky dog George somewhere on the family’s enormous estate. Without his bone or his belle, David becomes even more helpless, even symbolically impotent given the way Susan swats at him as if she’s shooing away a fly. She’s so used to following her own impulses that she never quite realizes the torture she’s putting him through.

As David is put through the wringer time and again, Hawks captures the escalating sexual tension and collective anxiety in David and Susan’s coupling. And David goes from pitching a fit while wearing negligee (Hawks putting Grant in women’s clothes was a favorite, knowing gag of the director’s) to, fittingly, given the screenwriters’ brilliance at innuendo, finding his release once Susan climbs the phallic brontosaurus skeleton and brings it all crashing down.

Love in Bringing Up Baby is a form of insanity—impulsive and irrational, yet completely intoxicating. And the love between David and Susan is evident both in their raucous banter and their physicality, which is rendered cartoonish through slapstick antics, a byproduct of their connection to one another. But their love is also a bit cruel, as Susan always has the upper hand and David is perpetually punch-drunk, unable to resist the charms and cruelties of a woman who’s secretly preventing him from returning to his former life.

For Susan, it’s love at first sight, but for David, falling in love is a much more grueling process, akin to the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly, one of several animal metaphors that Bringing Up Baby toys with across its running time. Susan, like Baby, is dangerous, but it’s through her joie de vivre that David is shaken from the listless stupor of his intellectual rigor, awakened to all the thrilling and maddening byproducts of love that, in toto, Hawks renders as an ecstatic symphony of life. Susan may be a touch nefarious in her manipulation of David, but after all, she’s the one who helps him get his metaphorical bone back.

Image/Sound

Criterion’s newly restored 4K transfer boasts a healthy amount of rich, textured grain and strong black levels that lend a crispness and clarity to the film’s many nighttime sequences. The image has a slight softness to it that’s true to the look of so many Hollywood films from the 1930s, meaning that this presentation is a huge improvement to the waxy, over-digitized look of Warner Home Entertainment’s 2005 DVD release. On the audio front, the uncompressed monaural soundtrack is as good as it needs to be, allowing for the almost superhuman speed of the film’s dialogue to come through loud and clear.

Extras

In his audio commentary, recorded in 2005, director Peter Bogdanovich lavishes Bringing Up Baby and Howard Hawks’s work in general with mighty praise, but be warned, you have to suffer through Bogdanovich’s occasional and ridiculous impressions of Hawks. He drops fascinating tidbits, such as the relationship between John Ford and Katharine Hepburn during the filming of Mary of Scotland serving as the basis for the one between Hepburn and Cary Grant’s characters in Bringing Up Baby. He also touches on Hawks’s particular approach to comedy and the nature of screwball and farce. In a separate, audio-only extra, Bogdanovich shows up again in a 1972 conversation with Hawks about the genesis of Bringing Up Baby.

The rest of the extra features tackle a wide array of topics, from a new selected-scene commentary in which costume historian Shelly Foote discusses the work of Bringing Up Baby’s costume designer, Howard Greer, to an interview with film scholar Craig Barron covering the film’s unique special effects, especially those involving the leopard. A new video essay by author Scott Eyman shrewdly covers the often overlooked early years of Cary Grant’s career, including his work in vaudeville, while an interview with cinematographer John Bailey takes a closer look at the deceptively simple visual style of Hawks’s screwball classic.

The final features on disc are the fascinating, nearly hour-long Howard Hawks: A Hell of a Good Life and audio from a Q&A with Grant following a 1969 screening of Bringing Up Baby. This first-rate edition also includes a 40-page booklet with Hagar Wilde’s 1937 short story on which the script for the film was based and a perceptive essay by critic Sheila O’Malley.

Overall

Howard Hawks’s screwball classic Bringing Up Baby looks and sounds sharper than ever thanks to this magnificent release that attests to its enduring appeal.

Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Charles Ruggles, Walter Catlett, Barry Fitzgerald, May Robson, Fritz Feld, Leona Roberts, George Irving, Tala Birell, Virginia Walker, John Kelly Director: Howard Hawks Screenwriter: Dudley Nichols, Hagar Wilde Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 102 min Rating: NR Year: 1938 Buy: Video

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