Bringing Up Baby Is Still Funny Over 80 Years Later

Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby. Courtesy of RKO Radio Pictures.

Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant bring the hysterics when they team up together in the classic 1938 screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby.

Initially a flop, Bringing Up Baby‘s reputation wouldn’t change until it made its way to television. If not for the film’s initial failure, Hepburn wouldn’t take to the stage in The Philadelphia Story. As we all know, the play would become a film starring Hepburn, Grant, and James Stewart and the rest is history.

Paleontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant) is one bone shy of finishing a brontosaurus. If not for a run-in with heiress Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), he’d get the funds needed to finish the skeleton. Susan ends up deciding to pursue David, lying if she must. There’s so much comedy throughout the film. You’d never have known that Hepburn needed a comedy coach on set! Grant puts on a masterclass in playing comedy on screen in the process. Romantic comedies might not get the full respect they deserve but when you look at an actor like Cary Grant, he makes it look easy! Throw in the Production Code rules of the era when it comes to romance and let’s just say, things played to Grant’s advantage.

Huxley is engaged to Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker) at the start of the film. Meeting Susan at the golf course not only impedes the engagement but a potential donation from Elizabeth Random (May Robson). A run-in with each other in parking lot only precedes their clothes-ripping encounter at the nightclub. Meanwhile, Susan’s brother, Mark, sends a tame leopard, Baby. Susan thinks that David is a zoologist and so she manages to con him into taking Baby to the family farm. Anything that can go wrong…will go wrong. It’s at the farm where things really get interesting because Susan starts falling for David. Oh yeah, her aunt just happens to be Elizabeth Random! In typical comedy fashion, mistakes repeatedly take place. Soon, the entire family ends up in jail. This is by far one of the most hysterical scenes of the entire film.

Grant was a rising star in the late 1930s–not quite the screen legend he would become by the 1950s. Hepburn was unfortunately suffering from a string of flops. Filmmaker Howard Hawks? Well, he was going nowhere while working on Gunga Din for RKO Radio Pictures. Hawks would end up making Bringing Up Baby with the studio assigning Hepburn to the leading female role. Grant, however, wouldn’t be attached until after they went through four other stars. Throw in his RKO contract and Grant was going to get paid regardless of the picture going forward or not. Anyway, they go forward with the film with Hawks wanting Grant to play the role of David in a Harold Lloyd-esque manner. To great credit, the silent comedy legend taught the actor and again, Grant is a riot on screen.

Hawks is the type of filmmaker who just wanted to make good movies. This wasn’t a quick production either, not with Hawks rewriting pages daily. Meanwhile, co-star Walter Catlett worked with Hepburn when it came to acting in comedies. By the end of the shoot, an initial 51-day schedule turned into 93 days in all. More than this, the budget grew over $1 million. When you look at Hepburn and Grant’s earning potential, it was not a good sign. And this doesn’t even take Linwood Dunn’s pioneering optical effects into account because Grant was not sharing a soundstage with the leopard. Ultimately though, Bringing Up Baby became a film for the ages. Grant would team up with the filmmaker on two more films, Only Angels Have Wings and His Girl Friday.

The Criterion Collection recently released Bringing Up Baby on Blu-ray, restored from a new 4K film transfer. Picture-wise, the film is as beautiful as ever.

Thanks to the efforts of both Hepburn and Grant, Bringing Up Baby is one of the best screwball comedies of all time.

Bonus Features

  • Audio commentary from 2005 featuring filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich
  • Video essay on actor Cary Grant by author Scott Eyman (New)
  • Interview about cinematographer Russell Metty with cinematographer John Bailey (New)
  • Interview with film scholar Craig Barron on special-effects pioneer Linwood Dunn (New)
  • Selected-scene commentary about costume designer Howard Greer featuring costume historian Shelly Foote (New)
  • Howard Hawks: A Hell of a Good Life, a 1977 documentary by Hans-Christoph Blumenberg featuring the director’s last filmed interview
  • Audio interview from 1969 with Grant (October 6, 1969 Academy screening/Q&A)
  • Audio excerpts from a 1972 conversation between Hawks and Bogdanovich
  • Trailer
  • English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Sheila O’Malley and, for the Blu-ray, the 1937 short story by Hagar Wilde on which the film is based

DIRECTOR: Howard Hawks
SCREENWRITERS: Dudley Nichols & Hagar Wilde
CAST: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, with Charles Ruggles, Barry Fitzgerald, May Robson, Walter Catlett, Fritz Feld

RKO Radio Pictures released Bringing Up Baby in theaters on February 16, 1938.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.