Saturday, April 7, 2012

A Painful Delivery

Film: Bringing Up Baby
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I’m going to say something relatively controversial here—Bringing Up Baby annoyed the living shit out of me. There. I said it, and I’ll say it again if I have to.

I really didn’t expect this. Cary Grant is one of my favorite actors, I’ve always liked Katherine Hepburn, and I even like Howard Hawks pretty well. This film is in many ways the birthplace of the screwball comedy, and so I came to it expecting to love every frame. Instead, 15 minutes in, I was ready to turn off the player and walk away from it. I. Am. Annoyed.

The reason is because Bringing Up Baby manages to do everything that a screwball comedy does, and does it all in a way that makes me angry. It gets all of the pieces right, but combines them into an annoying whole. Screwball comedies trade on the idea that crazy things happen in the lives of its characters mainly because of mixed-up communication. Because they are comedies, everything works out in the end, but it’s a long time getting there because of the trips and hiccups along the way.

In the case of this film, all of this falls squarely in the lap of Susan (Hepburn). It caused me to consider what makes this film different in my opinion from the typical screwball comedy that I tend to enjoy, and it comes in the form of Susan, the spoiled little rich girl who stands at the heart of all of the problems.

See, in many a screwball, things happen as a matter of course in the proceedings of the plot. Things get mixed up because of miscommunications or mistaken identities. That’s the source of Top Hat, for instance. One person thinks someone is someone else, and through a number of missed chances, continues to think that. And it works. Often, the zaniness is there for a specific reason. In The Philadelphia Story, for instance, Katherine Hepburn puts on an act as a way to shoo the press off of her. Sometimes, like with His Girl Friday, the characters simply get caught up in something above their heads. It’s not the fault of the characters, who are smart and funny.

But not here. Oh, not here at all. Here, our main female character is clueless and walks through life causing havoc for other people and not caring enough to realize what a complete menace she is. This isn’t an endearing trait. She steals people’s cars at random, destroys a man’s life’s work, potentially damages his professional reputation, and, because there has never been a single consequence of any of her actions ever, is oblivious to the fact that her actions are almost universally destructive. And we’re supposed to root for her.

Dr. David Huxley (Grant) has been working on the skeleton of a brontosaurus for four years and needs only a bone called an intercoastal clavicle to finish. Finally, one has been found on a dig he has sponsored, and it will arrive in the morning, which also happens to be the day he is to be married to his priggish and emotionally cold assistant, Alice (Virginia Walker). The day before the wedding, he is to play golf with Mr. Peabody (George Irving), the lawyer of the wealthy Elizabeth Random, who is planning on donating $1 million somewhere. David, naturally, wants that money to go to his museum.

Enter Susan, who destroys the golf game, wrecks David’s car and then steals it, destroys his tuxedo that evening, and knocks the lawyer unconscious with a rock. She also receives a live leopard from her brother in Brazil, and deciding that David is a zoologist rather than a paleontologist, recruits him to help her. And, naturally, it turns out that the wealthy Elizabeth is her aunt. This doesn’t help, as she proceeds to destroy David’s reputation with the woman who can support his museum. Oh, and she decides that she’s madly in love with him to boot.

And, of course, there are the screwball antics that make the screwball comedy work otherwise—Elizabeth’s dog steals the bone (despite the fact that it would be petrified and unappealing to a dog unless the dog also likes rocks). The baby of the title—the leopard—gets out and causes havoc, and everyone eventually ends up in jail.

Through all of this, Susan is blissfully unaware of anyone but herself. Nothing that she does to David (and she does a lot) matters to her because it either serves her purposes or—and this is the key to my aggravation here—she doesn’t care enough to find out why it matters. No one can tell her anything, and it’s not because she knows better. It’s simply because she doesn’t care. She does what she wants, and if she’s not in trouble for it, damn the carnage and collateral damage. I know there are people who live in their own little bubble of self-satisfaction, caring nothing about what goes on farther away than three feet in front of them. I don’t like being told that this is someone I should like and respect. I don’t like this character, I don’t want her to get what she wants, and the predictable ending only makes it more frustrating.

The entire love story turns on this attitude, in fact. She decides that she loves David, and thus the poor man is doomed. He doesn’t get to have a say in it. Should he decide that he could justifiably kill her, it doesn’t matter. She gets what she wants because she just does, and if you don’t like that, too bad. That’s the world she lives in, and collateral damage doesn’t matter as long as her life continues blissfully unaware of consequence.

In other words, I’d have been happier if Baby had eaten her.

Why to watch Bringing Up Baby: It’s where screwball comedy really got its start.
Why not to watch: Holy crap, Susan is annoying!


  1. I have to say I disagree with you on this one. This is one my favorite films from the 1930s--I think it is LOL funny. Still, everyone doesn't like the same thing, and, so, I enjoyed reading why it annoyed you. You do make some good points in this respect--but I still disagree. LOL

  2. "I know there are people who live in their own little bubble of self-satisfaction, caring nothing about what goes on farther away than three feet in front of them. I don’t like being told that this is someone I should like and respect. I don’t like this character, I don’t want her to get what she wants, and the predictable ending only makes it more frustrating."

    Your review describes, rather accurately, how I've always felt about Woody Woodpecker. Bugs Bunny usually has righteous anger on his side, but Woody was pretty much the way this Susan seems to be: selfish, destructive, and suffering no consequences.

  3. @Kim--That's the reaction I expect from most people. I know this film is beloved, and I wanted to be-love it, too. I'm genuinely shocked and disappointed.

    @Kevin--Nice. I didn't think of that, but it's a solid comparison.

  4. I saw this film quite a few years ago, so my memory is a little dim, but I do seem to remember thinking that I wouldn't have married her, but that I did like the film well enough.

    I saw her as a sign of the times for when this film was made. Quite a few movies from back then would have a woman doing something completely childish and the men just having to put up with it because, well, they were women. Fast forward several decades and now it is almost always the men that are portrayed as overgrown children, which women have to put up with. Maybe at some future point the pendulum will swing back the other way.

    I understand where you are coming from on wondering why so many people like what appears to you to be an unlikable character. For me it is Breakfast at Tiffany's. I thoroughly disliked Holly (for reasons I won't get into because they would be spoilers). She shares a lot of the self-centered qualities that you mentioned. I have no idea why this film and especially this character is so beloved.

  5. Right. I think it's very telling in this film that he never tells her that he loves her. She claims it and then repeats it, and he just shrugs because he knows there's nothing he can do. I like to imagine him pushing her off the scaffold.

  6. I saw this as a kid and quite enjoyed it, but I've been fearing revisiting it because of the very issue you had. I fear I'll have the same reaction to it even though I love Hawks, Grant and Hepburn so much. Still, it's a film I'll sit down and watch again one day.

  7. Yeah, I see that. I probably should do it again some day, but the pain is pretty fresh. I'm a big Hepburn fan, too (both her movies and her personality), and I've always loved Grant. Sometimes, they just hit the wrong way.

  8. I think you are taking this movie way too serious. She is a walking talking disaster zone the same way Basil Fawlty is a menace to all the guests at Fawlty towers. I would run away screaming if I had to stay at his hotel or spend time with her, but it is hilariously funny all the trouble she gets him into, especially because he is such a perfect victim who really needs to get his life stirred up.

    I know where the annoyance come from, but this is a different sort of film. Think Groucho Marx, not Ginger Rogers.

    1. I would accept that if the movie allowed me to dislike herl In Fawlty Towers, I'm allowed (even encouraged) to think Basil is a twit and a creep. Here, I'm supposed to cheer for her. The other thing is that nothing goes right for Basil Fawlty--he always ends up paying for his stupidity. Susan never has any negative consequences for anything. She's completely self-absorbed and never has a single reason not to be.