Bringing Up Baby – movie review

Bringing Up Baby is a 1938 romantic comedy starring Carey Grant and Katherine Hepburn. “Baby”, it turns out, is not a human child, but a young tame leopard.

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Carey Grant is plays a very steady, somewhat dull paleontologist named David Huxley. He is trying to secure a large donation for the museum at which he works. Katherine Hepburn plays scatter-brained socialite Susan Vance, who David meets while in pursuit of his potential philanthropist. Susan is a complete klutz who, through a series of slapstick mishaps, makes David look crazy in front of the very man he is trying to get money from.

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It sounds like it should be a fun movie, but it has a lot of flaws. Surprisingly, it has some parts which were completely  accepted by audiences in 1938, but which modern viewers will consider offensive .

The most shocking moment comes early in the film. When told that there is a wealthy patron who is considering donating $1 million to the museum, Carey Grant says,  “Well, that’s very White of him.”

Later in the film Susan and David go to the home of her rich aunt. There is an Irish gardener who works there.  Because he is Irish, he is portrayed as a comic drunk, with bottles of liquor hidden all over his estate. The actor also has an absolutely terrible fake Irish accent. This portrayal of the Irish as drunkards was quite common in movies of that period, and persisted even into later movies and television shows.

Interestingly, this movie happens to be the first time the modern usage of the word “gay” appears on film. At the Aunt’s estate, there is a scene in which Grant and  Hepburn get their clothing soaking wet. They take showers to clean off  and then change into bathrobes. (Separate showers – this is 1938 after all).  However, Hepburn changes into the man’s bathrobe, which leaves only a frilly pink robe for Grant to wear.

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When the Aunt asks Grant why he is wearing that robe, a frustrated Grant shouts, “Maybe I just went Gay!” It is amazing that this scene got past the censors in 1938, considering how taboo the entire subject of homosexuality was at the time. Perhaps it was allowed since much of the 1938 audience would not yet be sure how the term “gay” was being used. Up until that point the term only meant “happy”. Only people “in the know” in 1938 were familiar with this new phrase.

Bringing Up Baby was not a box office success in 1938. It was 32 year-old Katherine Hepburn’s fist attempt at comedy and it was the wrong type of comedy for her. The comedy in this movie is slapstick, with Hepburn and Grant falling over and smashing into things alot. Hepburn’s character comes across  as attractive and likable, but sort of crazy and not too bright.

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Katherine Hepburn, of course, would go on to to a whole string of successful  romantic comedies, but always where she played the strong, intelligent woman who the audience loved to cheer for. She never again made the mistake of trying to portray herself as a ditz.

Comedy does not translate as well from one generation to the next they way drama does. If we were to rate this movie from today’s point of view we would only give it  2 stars. However, this movie is interesting to see, if for no other reason than to glance back at what American audiences were laughing at 76 years ago.

We rate this movie 3 Stars ***

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