2018 Film Essays

Vague Visages Is FilmStruck: David Pountain on Howard Hawks’ ‘Bringing Up Baby’

Howard Hawks’ kookiest comedy opens with an image of order and structure that also happens to be an image of death. The enormous brontosaurus skeleton stands majestically in the Stuyvesant Museum of Natural History as a monument to the work of one Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant). It has all its parts in place save for the “intercostal clavicle,” a fictional bone that’s due to arrive the next day and the name of which is nothing more than a nonsensical mash-up of authoritative scientific terms. Speaking of ossified existences, the henpecked doctor himself is just a day away from tying the knot with his straitlaced colleague Miss Alice Swallow, entering into a childless (i.e. sexless) marriage to a woman who regards their relationship as little more than an extension of David’s stuffy work life.

Everything is on schedule for a life of drab respectability until a chance encounter with the vivacious Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn). This deceptively ditsy and privately scheming figure proves to be just the force of disruption that the fussy and stress-ridden David so desperately needs, whether he knows it or not. In a genre that always embraced chaos and spontaneity over a life of quiet comfort and predictability, Hawks’ masterful screwball comedy arguably goes the furthest of all in stripping its lead of any sense of dignified stability. Ridiculing the delusions of certainty that are necessary in maintaining the sanity of any productive member of civilised society, Bringing Up Baby delves joyfully beyond the stiff pretences of modern life to reveal the wild and lustful animal that still lies beneath the surface.

Setting off a calamitous and increasingly outlandish series of events that defies concise summation, David is first introduced to Susan on the golf course via two cases of mistaken ownership. David’s aggravated response to someone else touching his things is met with detached amusement. “Your golf ball? Your car?” Susan dismissively retorts as she prepares to drive off in the latter, “Is there anything in the world that doesn’t belong to you?” Given how quickly David loses his grip on his career, love life and all round sense of self in the coming days, the real question may be whether there’s anything in the world that truly does belong to him.

The undermining of David’s sensible, self-serious façade extends to his clothing. His second encounter with Susan begins with him slipping on her dropped olive and crushing his top hat. His coat then falls victim to an accidental tearing before David returns the favour by unintentionally ripping Susan’s dress, rendering him morally obligated to abandon an important business rendezvous with lawyer Mr. Peabody in order to shield Susan’s underwear from public view as she leaves the building. After the love-struck Susan suckers David into coming to her country home in Connecticut, she forces him to stay by sneakily disposing of his entire outfit.

David’s civil way with words degrades at a similar rate. “David, no slang. Remember who and what you are,” Miss Swallow scolds her fiancé in the film’s opening scene, demanding an acceptable standard of eloquence in his language. But in David’s flustered attempts to explain to Alice what happened to him on his first evening of meeting Susan, his incoherent ramblings are just a step above gibberish: “Yes, I did see Mr. Peabody but I didn’t see him… yes, I spoke to him twice but I didn’t talk to him.” As the miscommunications, misunderstandings and outright lies continue to pile up, it becomes evident that words are as liable to confuse as they are to clarify.

Worse still are the blows dealt to David’s masculinity as the traditional gender roles are subverted. Susan conducts herself with seemingly childlike innocence and impulsiveness but her dominance is evident throughout David’s impotent grumbling as she schemes to keep him in her company for as long as possible. Before the film has even reached its halfway point, David has already been reduced to wearing Susan’s fluffy dressing gown for lack of men’s clothing. An exuberantly cracked moment comes when Susan’s stern aunt enquires about his effeminate attire, prompting the exasperated protagonist to leap into the air while sarcastically exclaiming the film’s most famous line: “Because I just went gay all of a sudden!”

This identity crisis goes beyond gender and sexuality. As a reluctant participant in an increasingly elaborate web of deception, David is pushed into assuming the role of “Mr Bone” — a lunatic big game hunter who recently suffered a nervous breakdown — before Susan once again re-casts him in the film’s prison-based climax as notorious criminal “Jerry the Nipper” (a name also imposed on Grant in the classic 1937 rom-com The Awful Truth). When a stranger at one point asks David who he is, his response is an honest admission of resignation: “I don’t know. I’m not quite myself today.”

In the process of losing everything he thought he knew about himself and his future, David ironically comes ever closer to following through on Alice’s advice of remembering who and what he is. But while Alice likely pictures David’s true self to be a civilised and sober-minded gentleman, the film arrives at a drastically different conclusion that’s rooted in the messiness of nature. The brontosaurus skeleton — which Alice insists to be the only “child” of their forthcoming marriage — finds warm-blooded points of contrast in the animal kingdom. When Susan’s bothersome dog George buries David’s intercostal clavicle in the expansive wilderness around her house, David is compelled to mirror the dog’s behaviour, tracing George’s steps and digging where George once dug, in an effort to recover his missing bone.

Meanwhile, the “Baby” of the film’s title is a mammal of more complex significance. As the title implies, this tame leopard is the appropriately quirky surrogate child of David and Susan, who spend much of the film’s second half wandering the countryside pursuing the intimidating but friendly feline. Baby’s dangerous counterpoint, however, arrives in the form of an untameable circus leopard that the two leads inadvertently let loose in the wild.

Between David’s ongoing fear of Susan thwarting his plans and the mischievous calculation that lurks beneath her innocent exterior, it’s also tempting to regard the two leopards as the seductive, dualistic reflection of Susan herself. This would make David her frightened prey, but as anyone who remembers their first schoolyard crush can tell you, there is often a profound link between fear and attraction. As early as their first evening together, David coyly admits to harbouring affection for Susan (“In moments of quiet, I’m strangely drawn toward you…”) before promptly doubling back (“…but — well, there haven’t been any quiet moments.”). In typical screwball fashion, David’s pride and ego are barriers in need of obliterating before he can finally admit to his own feelings.

David huffs and puffs every step of the way to his revelation of love, but it’s evident from the start that some small part of this weak-willed bundle of nerves longs to submit to the whims of Susan and the gleeful disorder she represents. For a man who’s so mentally bound up in the constructs and conventions of the modern world, it can only come as a relief when that old brontosaurus finally comes crashing to the ground.

David Pountain (@David_Pountain) is a London-based writer who has previously contributed to Little White Lies, Asia Times and Eastern Kicks. He is also the editor of the FilmDoo blog.