Adapting Susan Vance: From Short Story to Script


This post is an excerpt from an academic paper for my Film/Literature Encounters core MA module taught by Dr. Erica Sheen at the University of York.

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The presence of the Katharine Hepburn star persona in Bringing Up Baby (1938) forces a deviation from the film script, transforming the Susan character from a manipulative opportunist into the free-spirited but admirable protagonist represented in the original short story. This is brought about by the character of the Hepburn persona, which includes both the concept of a new brand of American female exceptionalism and democratic coupling with the male lead.

We are presented with three versions of the “Bringing Up Baby” story. The first is the short story by Hagar Wilde published in Collier’s Weekly in the spring of 1937. Secondly, we have the film script for the RKO production of Bringing Up Baby (1938). The final realisation of this story is the film itself, the RKO production directed by Howard Hawks. The Susan Vance character in these three versions presents problems that can only be posed and resolved by the introduction of the Katharine Hepburn star persona.

In his seminal work on Hollywood stardom, Richard Dyer points out:

“Because we are dealing with stars, and not just fictional characters, the specific details of what happens in the plot of the film may matter less than the ‘personality’ that the film as a whole reveals – the star phenomenon emphasizes the kind of person the star is rather than the specific circumstances of particular roles” (Dyer 57).

In the case of Bringing up Baby, for example, a late-1930s audience would have been reading a star text which did not include an understanding of Katharine Hepburn as Spencer Tracy’s life partner and co-star, a significant difference to a current audience who may be unable to read a romantic film text including Hepburn without associating her with the Hepburn/Tracy romantic comedy cycle. However, if the current film audience knows nothing of Hepburn and Tracy or classic film generally when viewing Bringing Up Baby for the first time, the performance will essentially be viewed as a closed reading of both the film and Hepburn’s star text. The Susan Vance character will then exist as the only factor defining the Hepburn star persona for that viewer, until the viewer learns more about Hepburn’s private life, career, or views another of her films.

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In her work “From Reverence to Rape,” Molly Haskell describes Katharine Hepburn as a “superwoman”:

“The superwoman is ‘a woman who, like the superfemale, has a high degree of intelligence or imagination, but instead of exploiting her femininity, adopts male characteristics in order to enjoy male prerogatives, or merely to survive’” (Dyer 54).

A major factor to consider, whenever looking in depth at the Hepburn star persona, is her physical androgyny and the suggestion of sexual ambivalence. While both Garbo and Dietrich also navigated the questions of femininity and homosexuality, Hepburn’s upbringing, education, and disposition lend themselves to a narrative structured on the idea of her adopting the prerogatives of male privilege and independence without sacrificing her womanliness, such as Susan’s economic independence but emotional dependence on David in Bringing Up Baby.

As Joan Riviere points out in her article “Womanliness as Masquerade”:

“Not long ago intellectual pursuits for women were associated almost exclusively with an overtly masculine type of woman, who in pronounced cases made no secret of her wish or claim to be a man” (Riviere 1).

“I have not lived as a woman. I have lived as a man. I’ve just done what I damn well wanted to, and I’ve made enough money to support myself, and ain’t afraid of being alone” (Katharine Hepburn).

However, Hepburn was one of the public figures who was able to prove that this type of behaviour was not exclusively male. One would not describe Susan in Bringing Up Baby as particularly masculine, although she did whatever she wanted and had enough money to support herself. This is why I use the term “feminist” to describe Katharine Hepburn’s persona, though she herself would not have identified with the term. Her behaviour as an exception, both in her private life, public life, and career, shifted the paradigm, thus simultaneously normalising and celebrating a progressive ideal of female possibility.

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As a “superwoman,” the Hepburn character is harder to bring down or chastise. Audiences who are aware of her persona as the intellectual American aristocratic tomboy are less susceptible to suggestion of her being “put in her place,” as it were, because they are already aware of her having her own place as an exception. Placing her within the limitations of a traditional courtship narrative, in which she is the object of desire rather than the pursuer, would be more destructive because it would be seen as unnatural in her case. As an actress who’s persona carries the weight of implications brought about by association with Bryn Mawr College, the Hepburn film text was able to present the functioning contradictions of a gendered America while simultaneously serving as the solution as an exception to those problematic barriers. One wonders if Rivier was thinking of Hepburn when she wrote:

“These conclusions compel one once more to face the question: what is the essential nature of fully developed femininity? …The conception of womanliness as a mask, behind which man suspects some hidden danger, throws a little light on the enigma” (Riviere 4).

In the “Bringing Up Baby” short story by Hagar Wilde, it is clear that David does suspect some hidden danger in Suzan. Despite having a female author, the story is told from David’s point of view in that we are privy to his internal musings about Suzan rather than her thoughts about him. His wariness of her character is evident when he says things like:

“Seeing the expression around her mouth, David knew that she had been successful. He envisioned all the men from the zoo locked in the back of their truck with the ignition torn out” (Wilde 244).

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The comedy of the short story then is that David must work out whether he fears or desires Suzan. Though he consistently pressures Suzan to commit to marriage, he first feels the need to force Suzan to admit that she is reliant on him, thus chastising her character into a more traditionally subservient gender role.

“Establishing your independence is one thing and mucking about in the woods alone at twelve o’clock at night is another” (Wilde 245).

“A furious squeaking sailed into the room from the receiver.
‘Don’t take that tone,’ David said warningly.
‘Da-vid­!’ said Suzan.
‘Am I marvellous?’
‘You’re anything you say,’ wailed Suzan.
‘Are we engaged or aren’t we?’
‘All right,’ Suzan said sulkily’” (248).

This exchange may be appropriate for the Suzan character envisioned in the short story, but it would be problematic to recreate such an exchange between Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Just as it would be implausible to expect a Hepburn character to allow herself to be “put in her place,” it would be equally incredible to suppose that a Cary Grant character would be the one to do it.

The sexual ambivalence of the Hepburn persona in regards to womanliness or femininity as mask is particularly worth considering in relation to the David/Susan relationship in Bringing Up Baby, which is fraught with sexual contradictions to the heteronormative narrative structure. More than any other single factor, casting Cary Grant opposite Hepburn is particularly significant in regards to reading the development of the romantic narrative, which involves the pairing of these two specific personas. As Cavell suggests:

“…Hepburn is characterized by Grant as having or standing for some directorial function. The implication is that the spectator is to work out his or her relation to (the director or) this film in terms of Grant’s relation to…” (Cavell 111).

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While this contrast of persona types is meant to register humour, Hepburn and Grant’s ability to behave as a married couple within the film text prefigures the conclusion of the film. Therefore, the two personae may be comically different, but equal enough to introduce tensions with the possibility of amicable conciliation. The nature of this marriage of star personae is best described as “democratic coupling,” as defined by Andrew Britton:

“The theme of the ‘democratic’ couple… is the creation of a heterosexual relationship based on the social/sexual/professional ‘equality’ of the partners: Tracy and Hepburn, William Powell and Myrna Low, and Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall are all variants of this type” (Britton 178).

The best example of a Katharine Hepburn ‘democratic coupling’ is undoubtedly best represented in the nine films she made between 1942 and 1967 with her long-term lover Spencer Tracy. However, the naturally equalizing chemistry between Hepburn and Grant came across in all their films. They appeared to have had a casual comfort level with each other as performers that benefited both their work and their friendship.

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The important point to be made here is the stars’ inherent equality in their own eyes, their mutual respect for each other. This is especially significant in relation to Bringing Up Baby because their characters are not natural equals, so their democratic coupling in reliant solely on their star texts. In the short story, both Suzan and David are of the same social status, they each have at least one servant, and they are already engaged to be married. They already know each other’s habits and eccentricities and have committed, albeit loosely on Suzan’s part, to spending the rest of their lives together. In short, there is no real question of their romantic compatibility. Not only does this presuppose an attraction and commitment between the two, but it suggests a mutual alliance on the part of the reader with both characters. We are asked to share in David’s admiration of Suzan when he describes her:

“He marvelled at Suzan, who seemed perfectly cool and unaware of the fact that chance plays such an important part in whether one lives or dies and the manner of the latter… She looked like a normal, exceptionally pretty girl of twenty-two, wearing a most attractive print dress…” (Wilde 239).

“David kept his temper because losing it never got him anywhere” (236).

Suzan: “How would you like me not to have any money if I ever decide to marry you?”
David: “I shouldn’t like it. I’ve only just enough to live on in luxury and entertain you. I certainly can’t keep you” (238).

Unlike the short story, the final film presents a dilemma of romantic pursuit, and the question of who is following whom pervades both the script and the film (Cavell). When David tells Susan to “go away,” she responds with “no, I was here first,” to which he responds “then I’ll go away.” She later proposes that the reason he’s following her is because he’s a fixation:

David: “I’m not following you! I’ve been sitting here. I haven’t moved from this spot. Now please, you’re following me!”
Susan: “Don’t be absurd! Who’s always behind whom?”

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The farce shifts away from the comedy of the romantic couple in the Hagar Wilde story jointly pursuing an inheritance by capturing a live wild animal. The more significant chase in the film is that of the two lead characters for each other. As Stanley Cavell explains in “The Pursuit of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage”:

“…we are permanently in doubt who the hero is, that is, whether it is the male or the female, who is the active partner, which of them is in quest, who is following whom. A working title for this structure might be ‘the comedy of equality,’ evoking laughter equally at the idea that men and women are different and at the idea that they are not” (Cavell 125).

Establishing the theme of the chase and the nature of the chase is made evident in the telephone scene toward the beginning of the film. The short story also opens with this scene, but the exchange in both the short story and script does not include the physical action which is so significant in the final product. In the film, David and Susan literally go through the act of “falling” for each other, she when she trips over the phone and he when he runs to her rescue. Equally significant is that neither of these falls is witnessed by the other partner, and that David’s fall is a reaction to Susan’s. Her trip, though unintentional, is used to her advantage as she chooses to pretend she is being mauled by the leopard. It is important to note that her trip was unintentional, as this distinction proves that Susan is more scatter-brained than manipulative.

While David’s trip tells us that he in some measure cares for Susan, it is not made clear at this point whether this is because he is a good man who wouldn’t want anybody to be mauled by a leopard or if it is because he has romantic feelings for Susan. This is a question that is never comfortably resolved over the length of the film. At one point he admits:

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Has he really admitted anything in that case? It is almost as if her were saying “I like you when I like you, but I don’t know if I like you.” It is key to note that after he makes this ambiguous proclamation, she laughs at him as he trips over the curb. While the two are out hunting the leopard later in the film, Susan falls over a log after asserting “I can take care of myself!” She is in tears and David comes to comfort her and ensure her that he does like her and that she can continue to search for Baby with him. It is unclear whether this fall was intentional or accidental on Susan’s part. She is able to achieve her ends by these means, but her scatter-brained demeanour leads us to question whether she is really that manipulative.

This is an example of where the Hepburn persona can answer the question of intentionality. The Susan of the film script is far from admirable. The script makes it clear from the start that David is the protagonist and that Susan is a major disruption to all that he values. This undemocratic nature of the Susan/David pairing forced into the film text is a complexity which only the Hepburn persona can properly mediate. The Susan of the script is manipulative in that she asserts her intentions out loud, not to David but to the audience, to break up his engagement (“Married! That’s what you think!”). Her insistence on always being right (“But it is my ball” and “Susan is dishevelled but triumphant at she drives off”) also contributes to the view of her as an obstacle to be overcome rather than a legitimate romantic partner for David.

It is key to examine here how the role of the script is at odds with Hepburn’s realisation of Susan in the final product. Because the script for Bringing Up Baby was written before Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant were cast in the leading roles, it had to exaggerate the complexities of David and Susan’s relationship in order to convey plot tensions and comedy. However, as Ellis points out, “Adaptation is the vocation of the script,” and once Hepburn was cast as Susan, her very presence articulates the tensions of gender equality while also solving them in her role as “glorious exception.”

“In order to convey character in a script, dialogue tends to be overwritten: information best conveyed by the mise-en-scene, by gesture, staging, environment, is conveyed in words. The act of filming becomes a struggle to reduce words; and in this the actors, jealous of their lines, are too often a hindrance rather than a help” (Ellis 62).

The opposite is the case for Bringing Up Baby, in which Hepburn is more of a help than a hindrance. She restores the democracy of the Susan/David relationship because, as Cavell pointed out earlier, the audience must read her star text in relation to that of Cary Grant. The knowledge of Hepburn’s status as a feminist icon means that she need not over-assert herself within the film text because her very presence implies a strength of persona equal to the male character’s. Unlike a “superfemale” like Bette Davis, both her femininity and autonomy are given without having to be proven within the narrative.

I have already discussed how the conclusion of Hagar Wilde’s short story was constructed with the purpose of restoring a balance of power within the David/Suzan romantic relationship. The ending according to the film script is more assertive in David’s romantic commitment to Susan. Unlike the final film, the script has Susan buried underneath the collapsed brontosaurus. In his frantic bid to rescue her, he undeniably proclaims his love for her. Neither of these conclusions is appropriate for a Susan character portrayed by Katharine Hepburn.

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While Susan is positioned in a climb-down situation in both the short story and the script, the presence of Hepburn’s persona countermands this option. To chastise Hepburn’s Susan too completely would negate the whole element of the comedy of equality. If we have laughed at and enjoyed her wily independence then we cannot be fully satisfied if it is checked. And while an audience is comfortable with her status as an exception, to try to put her in her place would be to admit that she is an example of a prevailing female type that needs to be squashed out. Since this type by association includes the American intellectual aristocracy, then eliminating it would be to admit a major flaw in the fabric of the American social structure.

“Hepburn’s superwoman ‘is able to achieve her ends in a man’s world, to insist on her intelligence, to insist on using it, and yet be able to ‘dwindle’… ‘into marriage’, but only after an equal bargain has been struck of conditions mutually agreed on (p. 230)’” (Dyer 55).

“BUB, while it has obvious affinities with the other comedies, represents Hawks’ most drastic solution to the problem of affirming a heterosexual relationship in the absence of any logical basis on which to do so: it comes as near as any film has ever done to celebrating the end of patriarchal sexuality” (Britton 182).

The popularity of Bringing Up Baby with any given audience depends almost directly on that audience’s relationship with the Katharine Hepburn star persona and the gender-bending associated with it. In the first decade of her career, the American public, as well as the studio heads and movie critics, were uncertain as to how to class Hepburn as an actress, so it isn’t surprising that Bringing Up Baby failed at the time of it released. However, once audiences were able to articulate Hepburn’s persona, they were able return to this film and recognize how the Susan Vance character essentially epitomises all that the public has come to love about the Hepburn persona – her independence, intelligence, and humour. Above all, it serves as an example of how a feminist star persona can radicalise a story and offer the world new possibilities of strength and femininity.

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