Rapid charm

‘Oh no, the lizard! The lizard’ I was heard to shout when I first watched Bringing Up Baby—in fact I can remember shouting it. I was three years old. I remember, in no particular order, the ‘lizard’ (in fact a leopard), the collapse of the brontosaurus skeleton, the dog running off with the bone, and the scene where the car is stuck in reverse. It turns out that the car stuck in reverse isn’t in this film, so that must come from somewhere else (if anyone knows where, please do write in and tell me). Other than that, my memories are on point, although I clearly had no idea what any of it meant until I rewatched it for the first time recently.

The movie is a comedy of errors about a leopard. It has working-class Bristolian Cary Grant pretending to be a middle-class American largely concerned with dinosaurs, and upper-class American Katharine Hepburn pretending to be an upper-class American largely concerned with herself. The latter annoys and confuses the former persistently until suddenly, in the last frame of the film, he decides he’s in love with her. It’s really the classic rom-com set-up, but delivered with much less narrative subterfuge than later became customary. Both leads are charismatic: Grant’s face is ridiculous, and must surely have been accidentally dropped in the handsomeness vat during manufacture (perhaps that’s where my allocation went), while Hepburn’s charm is so rapid and voluminous that it swamps anything else that happens to be on screen with her.

I don’t often watch pictures from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Time was they were constantly broadcast on the telly, so I’m familiar with a lot of them, but time has clouded the detail of my recollections. In my imagination, they are characterised by brilliant cinematography and implausible but extremely stylish dialogue, delivered at pace. The memory of their wit and pace led me to assume that this was also what characterised their editing and narrative, but in the case of Bringing Up Baby I was surprised to discover that it’s cut in a way that feels extremely flaccid by contemporary standards—although the dialogue is certainly as frenetic as I expected. I don’t know how representative it is, but for me it has a real TV sitcom feel to the way its scenes peter out, fading partially what seems like seconds after the last line of dialogue (although it’s probably more like half a second). This is particularly weird when Hepburn has the last line, as she otherwise talks fast and continuously.

More knowledgeable people than I will be able to put Howard Hughes’s cinematic technique in its historical context. All I can say is that my sense of the film as TV-like seems to be borne out by the fact that it was actually a flop at the box office in 1938, just about clawing back its costs after a re-release two years later, and that its status as a well-known and well-liked movie stems from repeated showings on TV during the 1950s. It did make me laugh a lot, however. I could see that Spouse was squirming at certain aspects of Hepburn’s character, particularly her habit of bursting into tears to get her own way, but for me most of what might be taken as ‘wrong’ with the movie was subsumed into its period charm. So yes, some of the humour is unintentional, but the film largely works as intended: it’s not meant to be anything other than silly, and Grant and Hepburn have a chemistry that is infinitely entertaining.

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