Friends often ask me which Katharine Hepburn film is my all-time favorite. I usually hem and haw and feed them a line about how there is a Hepburn film for every occasion. Sometimes I say that the one I saw last is my favorite. Other times I’ll list a top five and watch as their eyes glaze over. Basically, when people ask me about my favorite Katharine Hepburn film, I lie.
Because I do in fact have an ultimate favorite Katharine Hepburn film. My favorite Katharine Hepburn film of all time and in all universes is… Howard Hawks‘s BRINGING UP BABY (1938). Please, don’t judge me.
This week marks the 75th anniversary of BRINGING UP BABY. It’s a movie I can watch a million times and still pee myself laughing. I could recite every single line in every scene, but I still demand absolute silence, waiting with baited breath for each familiar punch line. This is the film I force on all my newby-classic-movie-fan-friends. All right, to be perfectly honest, I did force this movie on practically everybody in my college dorm. If I missed you, you’re gonna have to come over this weekend so we can remedy that.
One of my roommates had to leave half-way through the movie because Susan (Hepburn) was stressing her out too much. Another kept asking me to pause the DVD and explain what had just happened, who had said what, and why. However, there were the other friends (the ones who remained my friends) who enjoyed a good skip through the halls singing “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby” at the top of our voices. With these friends I often had to pause the show so that we could take bathroom breaks because they had been laughing as hard as me (the copious amount of tea that usually accompany any viewing experience with me probably didn’t help)!
Whatever the case, BRINGING UP BABY is a great movie to watch with friends. Whether the memories be good or bad, there’s no doubt that we all bonded over this screwball comedy.
I won’t give you an in-depth synopsis of the film because A.) you need to see it for yourself, B.) there are plenty of other sites where you can find a perfectly decent summary of the plot, and C.) you need to see it for yourself. ‘Nuff said.
However, I can fill you in on some pretty sweet trivia that only a life obsessed with Katharine Hepburn can teach you. You are welcome!
Katharine Hepburn became an immediate hit in Hollywood when she first went out there in the early 1930s, winning her first Oscar for her third film: MORNING GLORY (1933). Unfortunately, a string of mediocre films in the mid-30s resulted in her being label “box office poison” and Hollywood’s “ice queen.”
In order to remedy her soured reputation, the studio signed her up to make a screwball comedy (in contrast to the stuffy period dramas she had been bombing in). BRINGING UP BABY was originally published as a short story in Collier’s magazine. Although the film has become a part of the Hepburn canon, it completely flopped at the time losing the studio a lot of money: “$365,000, give-or-take tens of thousands” (Katharine Hepburn). This was due to both the waning popularity of screwball as a genre and Katharine Hepburn as an actress. Hepburn made one more film in the 1930s (George Cukor’s HOLIDAY (1938) also starring Cary Grant) before returning to the east coast to regroup.
“Baby” the Leopard
The leopard whom Susan Vance (Hepburn) and David Huxley (Grant) chase all through BRINGING UP BABY was an eight-year-old female named Nissa. The trainer Olga Celeste had perfume rubbed onto Miss Hepburn’s leg that would make Baby more playful. They also put resin on the bottom of Hepburn’s shoes so that she wouldn’t slip and startle the leopard. Katharine Hepburn enjoyed working with the big cat, at first…
Trainer Olga Celeste said of Katharine Hepburn: “If Miss Hepburn should ever decide to leave the screen she could make a very good animal trainer. She has control of her nerves and, best of all, no fear of animals.” (Edwards 162)
Co-star Cay Grant said: “Now, Kate was never worried by Baby. She liked to pull her tail, fearless girl that she was, and Baby seemed to enjoy it. Kate didn’t pull very hard.” (Chandler 116)
Because of Hepburn’s comfort level with the leopard, she shot a few of the scenes in the cage with the cat. The camera and sound equipment were poked through holes in the cage. Hepburn remembers when things went south with her relationship with Baby:
“I must add that I didn’t have brains enough to be scared, so I did a lot of scenes with the leopard just roaming around… But – a large but – one quick swirl and that leopard made a swing for my back, and Olga brought that whip down right on [her] head. That was the end of my freedom with the leopard.” (Hepburn 240)
“I make an effort to get along with all of my co-stars, the director, everyone on the set, but I did not wish to establish a relationship with Baby.” (Chandler 116)
Katharine Hepburn enjoyed tormenting Grant: “Cary had always refused to work with the leopard. Didn’t care for it at all. Once, to torture him, we dropped a stuffed leopard through the vent at the top of his dressing room. Wow! He was out of there like lightning.” (Hepburn 238)
Stunts and Scene-Stealing
BRINGING UP BABY is not unlike most screwball comedies in that its scenes are full of a lot of dashing around, running into things, and falling down. In all her films, Hepburn always insisted on doing her own stunts, claiming (and rightly so) that it was much more realistic. Hepburn was an athletic person all her life, and films like BRINGING UP BABY gave her the arena, and the audience, to show off her skill. Hepburn also enjoyed ad-libbing when things didn’t go according to plan. When the heel of her shoe came off during a pratfall, she turned it into one of the most famous lines of the film: “I was born on the side of a hill!”
Director Howard Hawks admired Hepburn’s coordination and balance in making the film: “She has an amazing body – like a boxer. It’s hard for her to make a wrong turn. She’s always in perfect balance. She has that beautiful coordination that allows you to stop and make a turn and never fall off balance. This gives her an amazing sense of timing. I’ve never seen a girl that had that odd rhythm and control.” (Edwards 163)
Cary Grant had trained as a circus performer before he entered the movie business. In SYLVIA SCARLETT (1935) he and Hepburn perform as a part of a travelling troup. In HOLIDAY (1938) they exhibit a few tumbling feats. In the final scene of BRINGING UP BABY, Grant rescues Hepburn from atop a crumbling brontosaurus skeleton. They shot it all in one take. Many years later, Grant remembered his misgivings about the scene:
“Both Kate and I wanted to do the scene, but I voted for not doing it. I had experience in that kind of thing, but Kate had none, as far as I knew. She said, ‘I could do that kind of thing when I was a child. My father strung up a trapeze for us, and I was really good.’ ‘Yes, but that was when you were a child.’ ‘You’ll see,’ she said, but I was still worried… I pulled her up, and it was delightfully easy. She was really light… I asked her if she’d been at all afraid. ‘Oh no,’ she said. She looked innocently into my eyes. ‘I trusted perfectly.’ She said she knew I knew what I was doing. But the thing was, she was the one who had to do it just right. She really was a remarkable athlete, just as she has said. But you know, just the memory of that scene makes me shiver. If Kate had fallen, I’d never have forgiven myself. We were both crazy. BRINGING UP BABY has always been called a ‘screwball comedy.’ Well, we were the two screwballs.” (Chandler 118-119)
Quips, Quotes, and Comebacks
The best thing about BRINGING UP BABY is he script. Every time I watch the movie I hear something new. The multiple layers of humour in each scene certainly keep viewers on their toes. I’ll leave you with some of my favorite lines. Thank you very much for reading this post. I look forward to hearing your own reminiscences about BRINGING UP BABY in the comments below!
Susan to David: “You know why you’re following me? You’re a fixation” … “The love impulse in man frequently reveals itself in terms of conflict.”
Susan to David: “If you had an aunt who was going to give you a million dollars if she liked you, and you knew she wouldn’t like you if she found a leopard in your apartment, what would you do?”
David: “Susan, you have to get out of this apartment.” Susan: “I can’t, I have a lease.”
Susan reading letter from her brother: “‘He’s three years old, gentle as a kitten, and likes dogs.’ I wonder whether Mark means he eats dogs or is fond of them? Mark is so vague at times.”
Susan: “You’ve just had a bad day, that’s all.” David: “That’s a masterpiece of understatement.”
David: “Susan, when a man is wresting a leopard in the middle of a pond, he’s in no position to run!”
David: “Now don’t lose your head, Susan.” Susan: “I’ve got my head – I’ve lost my leopard!”
David: “I bet Miss Swallow knows poison ivy when she sees it.” Susan: “Yes, I bet poison ivy runs when it sees her.”
David: “Now, it isn’t that I don’t like you, Susan. Because, after all, in moments of quiet I’m strangely drawn toward you. But, well, there haven’t been any quiet moments.”