Classic Review: Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Bringing up Baby unconventionally answers the question “can a baby save a marriage?” or in this case, a yet to be initiated affair?

It’s common knowledge that an ordinary solution to a dysfunctional marriage in some couples is found by bringing to the world a baby, a new responsibility shared by the couple that will hopefully bring them closer together. However, whether this solution actually brings the desired outcome has been heavily debated throughout the years, finding most professionals agreeing that it may not be the most reliable ‘quick fix’. Time to disclose that, in this case, the Baby in question is not a seven pound newborn, rather a six foot leopard who enjoys the song I can’t give you anything but love, hence the name, Baby. The symbolism that connects this rather small feline to a baby savior does not only stand in the name and the subtle reference of a soon-to-be happy household in the title of the song. 

David (Cary Grant) is working on bringing a generous donation towards the museum he works for as an old dinosaur bone that completes the project he was working on for 4 years. In the 24 hours preceding his marriage, however, David’s good intentions are consistently derailed by Susan (Katharine Hepburn), a young, chaotic woman who falls madly in love with him. Desperate for his attention, Susan uses Baby as emotional leverage to spend time with David, making him worry about her safety and imposing Baby as a shared responsibility, rather than her own. As David is forced to cater for this huge cat, Susan plots further shenanigans in order to keep David close to her and prevent him from going home and marrying his fiancee. 

Bringing up Baby does a fantastic job at mocking traditional romantic dynamics by continuously turning the tables. The relationship that is trying to be saved through an important shared sense of responsibility is not between the betrothed, rather between David and his stalker. Moreover, rather than the man indelicately running after the woman, it is Susan who continuously imposes her presence on her reluctant conquest. The emasculating situationship between the two main characters reaches a climax as their traditional roles appear once and for all officially reversed through David’s unintentional cross-dressing. When asked about the robe, David has an anger burst that leads him to deliver possibly the most famous line from this film: “Because I just went gay, all of a sudden.”. This line was improvised by actor Cary Grant and has been debated as being one of the first times, if not the first time, that the word ‘gay’ was used in a homosexual context onscreen. The film constantly challenges traditional gender norms, successfully questioning the roles that men and women have to strictly fulfill. 

If we make an effort to turn a blind eye towards what is clearly an attempt to abduct David and its indisputable problematic connotations, as an audience we are able to appreciate the total descent into chaos that makes this film so unique and, to this day, a great watch.

This screwball comedy maintains a certain standard of comedy throughout the 102 minutes of its running time, as the fast-paced conversations that take place between characters end in unexpected, dry and witty punchlines. An example of this can be found in Susan’s comment “You’ve just had a bad day, that’s all.” and David’s quick response “That’s a masterpiece of understatement.”. As the articulate vocabulary and fast pace of the dialogue already triggers giggles within the audience, the humorous nature of the film is enhanced by the absurd nature of most of the obstacles faced by David on his journey to get back to his fiancee. Some instances worth mentioning include the dog burying the prescious dinosaur bone, Susan hiding David’s clothes, causing his subsequent cross-dressing, and the ripping of Susan’s dress. However, the most absurd element of the movie is, without doubt, the leopard. Rumor has it that Baby not only constituted an impediment for David’s character, but also for the actor himself. Cary Grant was apparently “terrified” of the leopard, constituting many difficulties during filming. However, this is thoroughly made up for by Katharine Hepburn’s onscreen chemistry with Baby. The actor reportedly enjoyed working with the leopard and was not bothered by the carnivorous nature of the animal. This ultimately appears through the scene that introduces audiences to Baby, as we see Katharine Hepburn comfortably stroking the leopard that gently rubs his body against her leg. Despite the complications due to Cary Grant’s fear, which influenced the amount of scenes he was able to film with the leopard, the animal gains a central role within the film’s plot and is cleverly used as a form of comedic relief time and again. 

Returning now back to the initial question, does Baby manage to save this yet to be love story? Despite the association made between the leopard and a baby conceived in order to save a decadent marriage, Baby furthers itself from this affiliation as the film goes on. A human baby is known to create certain complications within a couple’s sex life, whilst felines share a great deal of symbolism with sexual appetite. This surfaces throughout the film as, through Baby, Susan is able to awaken desire and excitement in David’s otherwise, quite frankly, boring life. It is because of this passion that David ultimately chooses Susan over his fiancee, giving Bringing up Baby the awaited happy ending. So, ultimately, don’t try and save your marriage through a baby, but maybe try adopting a leopard.