“Now, don’t lose your temper.”
“My dear young lady, I’m not losing my temper. I’m merely trying to play some golf!”
“Well you choose the funniest places; this is a parking-lot.”
In a story of madcap misadventures, we are introduced to a tame leopard, a bone stealing dog, an eccentric Paleontologist, and a frivolous heiress, who are along for a turbulent ride of puzzling obstacles, heir-brained schemes, and unprecedented laughter.
Audiences worldwide are invited to join this maniacal team on their journey of unfathomable events and enigmatic situations in 1938’s, Bringing Up Baby, a film that reunites Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant for the second time in their career.
Bringing Up Baby is a masterpiece of the screwball repertoire, and one that is considered a treasure in cinematic history. Directed by Howard Hawks, and written for the screen by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde, the film was based on a short story that appeared in the 1937 edition of Collier’s magazine. To read Wilde’s story, please click here.
The film adaptation of Bringing Up Baby may have never materialized if it weren’t for Howard Hawks, who had to search around for a new project after his initial idea had failed. Originally, Hawks had his heart set on filming Rudyard Kipling’s, Gunga Din. He had signed a contract with RKO in March 1937 for his work on the film, which had been in pre-production since the previous fall, but when Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Franchot Tone couldn’t be borrowed due to other work commitments, the film was delayed, forcing Hawks to find another assignment.
The answer to his unquestionable search came in April 1937, when he read the story of Bringing Up Baby that was featured in that years Collier magazine. The story was bursting with hilarity, and it was that rich in humor that the movie going public would be able to elude the struggles and hardships from the Great Depression while they become immersed in the whimsical life that was being led on screen. Howard Hawks saw great potential in the article, and was adamant about bringing it to the screen.
In June 1937, RKO purchased the screen rights for $1,004, and shortly after, Hawks began collaborating with Hagar Wilde on the films structure and development. Many aspects were altered, and parts of the films story-line didn’t parallel with Wilde’s original story. In Wilde’s article, Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant’s characters were engaged to be married, and while Grant’s, David Huxley is a scientist involved in the construction of a dinosaur in the film, his profession is not visibly known in Wilde’s feature.
Dudley Nichols, who was best known for his work with John Ford, was hired to write the screenplay. The films comedic elements and character development were left to the deft hands of Hagar Wilde, while the anatomy of the story was handled by Nichols. By the summer of 1937, Hawks along with two other writers had completed the script, which consisted of 202 pages. A few months later, they began co-authoring the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film, Carefree.
“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.”
Despite the fact that the film was loosely based on the short story by Hagar Wilde, the developmental stage of Bringing Up Baby proved to be very tedious. The script underwent several changes. Different scene suggestions were scrapped due to the disagreement between the writers. Wilde was sometimes incensed about the films constant detouring away from his original story, while Nichols wanted to add different scenarios. At one stage an elaborate Mack Sennett inspired pie fight was added, but it was soon removed when Hawks considered it unnecessary.
Katharine Hepburn was a star of the highest magnitude. She had already received an Academy Award for her performance in Morning Glory ( 1933 ), and even though it was still the early days of her career, she had become accustomed to starring alongside the most prominent figures to grace the silver screen, but by 1937, Hepburn’s career was floundering. The films she was being cast in were critical failures at the box office and were not bringing in a considerable profit. Her most successful picture from this period was Stage Door, which was nominated for an Oscar. However, it was not the triumphant hit that RKO had been hoping for.
For years, RKO had been trying to resurrect Hepburn’s waning popularity. A glimpse of Katharine at the beginning of her career show an ambitious actress with great potential. When turmoil struck, the image of Hepburn gradually morphed into a picture of a struggling star who was yearning for consummation. The studio thought that Bringing Up Baby would rescue Hepburn from destruction, but instead, the film was deemed unsuccessful, resulting in Katharine Hepburn being labeled “Box Office Poison”.
Katharine Hepburn’s status at the box office may have been diminishing, but she still proved time and time again that she was an actress with considerate depth and promise. Dudley Nichols was well aware of her capabilities, and wanted her for the female lead in Bringing Up Baby. The script was written specifically for her, and the role of Susan Vance was designed to closely mirror her personality. However, the RKO studio moguls had other ideas. They had their doubts as to whether Hepburn was competent enough to handle a Screwball comedy. They were also concerned about her declining popularity at the box office. Initially, they were campaigning for Carole Lombard to play Susan Vance. Lombard who was known for her inimitable prowess in the genre was sure to make the film a popular success, but Nichols remained adamant about casting Hepburn. Eventually, RKO agreed, and Katharine Hepburn was assigned the role of the flighty heiress.
Finding the perfect actor to play David Huxley was even more challenging. This seemed to be an endless journey into Hollywood’s constellation of male dominating talent that ended in constant disagreement. Howard Hawks wanted Harold Lloyd or Ronald Colman, but this caused a major dispute with Pandro S. Berman, who offered the role to Robert Montgomery, Fredric March, and Ray Milland. When all three stars rejected, Hawks friend, Howard Hughes saved them from the perplexing entanglement by suggesting Cary Grant, who had just finished shooting the 1937 Screwball Comedy, The Awful Truth.
Cary Grant was a highly extolled actor who would go on to have a long and varied career full of triumphant achievements and prosperity. At the time, Grant was celebrating the success of The Awful Truth, and had just landed a non exclusive, four picture deal with RKO for $50,000 per film. Even though Grant was set to attain all the bonuses Hepburn was receiving, he was apprehensive about playing a scholarly intellectual character who inhabited an air of eccentricity. After spending two weeks wavering, Grant finally accepted to play the part.
“There is a leopard on your roof and it’s my leopard and I have to get it and to get it I have to sing.”
Despite his initial hesitations with the part, Cary Grant soon realized that within each passing day he was becoming more and more enthusiastic. Howard Hawks taught him to look at things in a positive frame of mind by promising to coach him throughout the film. His main source of inspiration during this period was Harold Lloyd whose look he was trying to achieve. In fact, Grant’s character, David Huxley is a mirroring image of Lloyd with his horn-rimmed glasses that made Lloyd such a distinguishable figure in cinematic history.
In addition to Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, Bringing Up Baby is famous for its stellar ensemble cast. Howard Hawks insisted that prominent players fill out the supporting roles. Charlie Ruggles, who had a successful career on stage and film was on loan from Paramount Pictures to play the role of Major Horace Applegate. Barry Fitzgerald, who would go on to become one of Hollywood’s most beloved character actors was assigned the role of Aloysius Gogarty, the gardener, while the Australian born actress, May Robson was hired to play Susan’s aunt, Elizabeth Carlton Random. Even Baby and George were portrayed by animal acting veterans. Skippy, AKA, Asta, the famous Wire Fox Terrier who charmed audiences worldwide in an array of movies, including The Thin Man films, in which he was best known for, was signed up to play George, Mrs. Random’s dog, and Nissa, the leopard, who had worked in films for eight years was cast to play, Baby. Originally, the story required a panther, but when the task of finding a panther proved to be erroneous, Baby was changed to a leopard, and because Nissa was already trained, she was immediately hired.
Once the financial aspects for the production were completed, the filming process was set to proceed. On September 23rd, 1937, Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant walked into RKO studios, and were ready to start what was to be a two month shoot, but what ended up being a lengthy assignment that almost lasted for four months. Although most of the time was spent on location at Arthur Ranch in the San Francisco Valley for the scenes at Aunt Elizabeth’s Connecticut estate, the cameras started rolling at Susan’s New York apartment, which was shot on the RKO back-lot. By early October, the cast and crew had moved onto Bel Air Country Club for the golf course scenes, where David and Susan first crossed paths.
From the start, Bringing Up Baby was plagued by turbulent altercations. The dilemmas that fueled the development and pre-production stage had succeeded in causing havoc on the movie set. To begin with, Hepburn had trouble adjusting to her role, and was constantly critical of her comic abilities. As a result, she had a tendency to overact, and when she essayed her character to overplay her funniness, Hawks arranged for Walter Catlett to coach her. Hepburn learned a great deal from Catlett, and became the instrumental force behind him attaining the role of Constable Slocum in the film.
Despite his initial uncertainties about taking on the role, Cary Grant transcended all his expectations and found himself excelling in the screwball comedy genre. The mastermind behind Grant’s success is Howard Hughes who meticulously coached him to find every nuance in his character. After a while, Grant was assisting with the use of props, and was coming up with ideas for different set pieces, which he would bring to the set every morning to rehearse with.
The only obstacles that Cary Grant encountered during the filming of Bringing Up Baby was trying to overcome his fears of the leopard. He had tried so hard to vanquish his terror, but failed at every attempt. For his scenes with Baby, a stand-in was mainly used to play out the scene for him. On her part, Katharine Hepburn displayed no signs of being terrified. She relished her time with Nissa, and to play upon his fear, Hepburn reportedly found pleasure in throwing a toy leopard through the roof of Grant’s dressing room. In her autobiography, Hepburn said of the incident, “He was out of there like lightning.” On one particular occasion, Nissa lunged at Hepburn when she was required to twirl around in her skirt for a scene, but was controlled by her trainer, Olga Celeste, who would immediately crack her whip each time Nissa was misbehaving.
After months of disruptions, the filming of Bringing Up Baby officially came to a close on January 6th, 1938 when they completed the scenes outside Mr. Peabody’s house. For a vehicle that was initially intended to be a short production shot on a low budget, the film was $330,000 more than the estimated price, and was forty days over schedule. RKO producers were not impressed with the finished property, and addressed all the concerns that was burdening them. They also expressed their displeasure in the on-screen appearance of the two stars. Despite their constant display of vexation, Bringing Up Baby passed the Motion Picture Production Code, and cost $1,096,796.23.
The nutty escapades of an erratic paleontologist and a maniacal heroine was a chimerical tale that was guaranteed to enchant audiences, but unfortunately, the film was a dramatic flop on its release. Frank S. Nugent from the New York Times left a scathing review saying the film was “derivative and cliché-ridden, a rehash of dozens of other screwball comedies of the period. He went on to state that Hepburn’s performance was “breathless, senseless, and terribly, terribly fatiguing. If you’ve never been to the movies, Bringing Up Baby will be new to you – a zany-ridden product of the goofy-farce school. But who hasn’t been to the movies?”. On the other hand, Bringing Up Baby managed to survive on the positivity that did circulate. Otis Ferguson from The New York Republic gave a fine analysis by lending emphasis on the films comic rhythm and Hawks masterful direction. As time progressed however, Bringing Up Baby has grown in popularity, and is now considered to be one of the greatest films ever made.
In this delightful tale set in the idyllic world that everyone dreams of visiting, love runs wild for the two protagonists. We are first introduced to David Huxley ( Cary Grant ), a highly intellectual but eccentric paleontologist, who is involved in the construction of a Brontosaurus, and is in need of the last intercostal clavicle to complete the project.
For David, things couldn’t be better. He is engaged to marry his stuffy secretary, Alice Swallow ( Virginia Walker ), who believes that his work is the foundation of their marriage. He is also elated that the bone he acquires for his assignment has been found. Adding to the positive perspective that he has on life is the fact that he is closely being considered for the $1 million from Mrs. Carleton Random that he needs for the project. But when he meets the bothersome and scatterbrained heiress, Susan Vance ( Katharine Hepburn ), he is thrust into the throes of destruction, and becomes entangled on a roller-coaster of misadventures.
Bringing Up Baby is a whimsical account that delves into the illusion of reality, and what many people wish was an authentic analysis of their own life. Susan Vance is a person that everyone aspires to be. She is free-spirited, effervescent, strong-willed, and often times uncompromising with a positive reflection on life. She is not afraid to pursue her dreams and chase after what she wants, even if her target comes in the form of a handsome paleontologist with a scientific approach to life. That young man happens to be David Huxley whose plans are immediately thrown out of orbit as soon he encounters Susan during his golf game with Mr. Peabody.
In hindsight, Susan rescues David from a tumultuous marriage that would have ended in debris. Alice Swallow is an impertinent woman whose saturnine approach to life makes her incapable of love. She doesn’t see David as being the object of her affections. She is only interested in his career. While David yearns for a honeymoon and children, the only thing on the horizon for Alice is work.
“Now once and for all, David, *nothing* must interfere with your work. Our marriage must entail no domestic entanglements of any kind.”
“You mean… you mean…”
“I mean of *any* kind, David.”
Susan is aware of David’s elopement to Alice, but she does everything in her power to prevent it. These plans that Susan has for David can easily jeopardize the chances of him receiving the $1 million endowment from Mrs. Random, who happens to be Susan’s aunt, but for Susan this doesn’t appear to be a problem. Hilarious results follow when because of Susan, David is trapped in Connecticut and becomes the victim of a wide array of outlandish pranks and unusual circumstances.
The films rapid transformation from box-office failure to a celebrated cinematic staple is something that film enthusiasts find mystifying. Back in 1938, audiences looked at Bringing Up Baby from a different viewpoint. They saw it as an unbearably silly and archaic production that was made when the screwball comedy was a declining genre. If it was made a few years earlier the films reception could have been more successful. As the years progressed however, the films popularity has soared dramatically, and even today Bringing Up Baby continues to evoke positivity among modern movie-goers.
Despite the films poor status rating at the box-office, Katharine Hepburn often reflected back on all the joyous occasions that were spent on set. In Bringing Up Baby, Hepburn was evidently in her element. She savored all her moments where she got to be adventuress, and later stated that she enjoyed the scene that had her fearlessly climbing into the leopards cage. Whatever stunt she had to perform, Katharine enthusiastically embraced the challenge.
The prolific efforts from the background team all helped to propel Bringing Up Baby to the highest pinnacle. The masterful cinematography by Russell Metty encompassed all visual elements and aided the film to success, while Roy Webb’s musical aspects assisted in making the production achieve greatness. Difficulties were initially faced when trying to attain the rights for using the song, I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, but eventually everything was cleared, and the use of the song left audiences marveling.
The screen duo of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant may not be as celebratory as Katharine’s storybook romance and on-screen relationship with Spencer Tracy, but in their four film collaboration, the two gloriefied audiences with their intense comic delivery and unrivaled talent. Bringing Up Baby is solid proof that Hepburn and Grant were a team that could not be surpassed.
The scene in which Susan’s dress is ripped was inspired by something that happened to Cary Grant. He was at the Roxy Theater one night and his pants zipper was down when it caught on the back of a woman’s dress. Grant impulsively followed her. When he told this story to Howard Hawks, Hawks loved it and put it into the film.
David’s response to Aunt Elizabeth asking him why he is wearing a woman’s dressing gown (“Because I just went gay all of a sudden!”) is considered by many film historians to be the first use of the word “gay” in its roughly modern sense (as opposed to its original meaning of “happy, carefree”) in an American studio film. Among homosexuals, the word first came into its current use during the 1920s or possibly even earlier, though it was not popularly known as a slang term for homosexuality until the late 1960s. The line was not in the original shooting script for the film; it was an ad lib from Cary Grant himself. It’s more like Grant meant to use the term in the common usage of time., Where it meant happy, or in a party mood.
After a bad start, Howard Hawks grew to respect Katharine Hepburn tremendously for her comic timing, ad-libbing skills and physical control. He would tell the press, “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.”
Near the end of filming, Katharine Hepburn‘s name appeared in a trade ad placed by the Independent Theatre Owners Association at the top of a list of performers they considered “box-office poison.” Also on the list were Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. The publicity about Hepburn’s lack of popularity did little to help the film at the box office.
Katharine Hepburn: Born, Katharine Houghton Hepburn on May 12th, 1907 in Hartford, Connecticut. Died: June 29th, 2003 in Fenwick, Connecticut. Aged: 96.
Cary Grant: Born, Archibald Alexander Leach on January 18th, 1904 in Bristol, England. Died: November 29th, 1986 in Davenport, Iowa. Aged 82.
This post was written for the Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy Blogathon, hosted by yours truly from In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood. To read the other articles from the event, please click here.