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The Animals in Film Blogathon: «Bringing Up Baby» (1938)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Howard Hawks, Bringing Up Baby (1938) follows the tribulations of David Huxley (Cary Grant), a mild-mannered paleontologist who has been trying to assemble the skeleton of a Brontosaurus for the past four years, but is missing one bone: the intercostal clavicle. Adding to his stress is his fortcoming marriage to the dour Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker) and the need to impress Elizabeth Random (May Robson), who is considering a million-dollar donation to his museum. The day before his wedding, David meets free-spirited society girl Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) by chance at a golf course. Unbeknownst to him at first, she is Mrs. Random's niece.

Susan's brother, Mark, has sent her a tame leopard from Brazil named Baby (Nissa) to give to their aunt. Believing David is a zoologist, she invites him to her country home in Connecticut to help bring up Baby, which includes singing "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby" to soothe the leopard. Once they get to Connecticut, Susan falls in love with David and tries to keep him at her house as long as possible to prevent his marriage. David finally receives his intercostal clavice, but Mrs. Random's dog George (Skippy) steals it and buries it. During a dinner with Aunt Elizabeth and Major Horace Applegate (Charles Ruggles), a big-game hunter, the family's drunken gardener Aloysius Gogarty (Barry Fitzgerald) accidentally releases Baby from his cage in the garage. Susan and David's search for the leopard eventually lands them in jail, where Constable Slocum (Walter Catlett) refuses to believe their story, until Mrs. Random's lawyer, Alexander Peabody (George Irving), arrives to clear up the situation. Several weeks later, Susan finds David, who is no longer engaged, working on his brontosaurus reconstruction at the museum. After giving him the missing bone, which she found by trailing George, she tells him she has persuaded her aunt to make the large donation. Against his advice, Susan climbs a tall ladder next to the dinosaur to be closer to him. When the ladder starts swaying from side to side dangerously, she climbs onto the skeleton, which collapses right before David grabs her hand. Surveying the wreckage of his work, David gives up and admits that he cannot live without her.

David Huxley: Susan, when a man is wrestling a leopard in the middle of a pond, he's in no position to run.

In March 1937, producer-director Howard Hawks signed a contract with RKO Pictures to adapt Rudyard Kipling's poem "Gunga Din," on which he had done preparatory work in the fall of 1936. When the studio was unable to borrow Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Franchot Tone from MGM to play the three British soldiers in the story, the film was postponed. (George Stevens would eventually shoot it in 1939.) While waiting for "Gunga Din," Hawks began looking for another project that he could quickly put into production. Out of the pile of stories, scripts and treatments that RKO had optioned, he selected Hagar Wilde's "Bringing Up Baby," about a tame panther who gets loose in the Connecticut countryside. Published in Collier's magazine in April 1937, the short story had immediately captured the attention the the studio's reading department; an attached report called its dialogue "hilarious and the possibilities of comic situations limitless." After one reading, Hawks decided to turn it into a film because, he later said, it had made him laugh out loud. RKO subsequently purchased the rights to "Bringing Up Baby" for the economical sum of $1,004.

A New York writer, Wilde had worked in Hollywood once before, for eccentric film tycoon Howard Hughes on a four-week assigment. Samuel J. Briskin, head of production at RKO, was warned that "the experience was so distasteful and unpleasant that she is rather soured on the movies," but she nevertheless agreed to come out to California and work with Hawks on the Bringing Up Baby script. A few weeks later, Hawks realized that he needed a professional screenwriter and turned to Dudley Nichols, who had recently won an Academy Award for John Ford's The Informer (1935). Hawks kept Wilde on to retain the original comic tone and keep the characters consistent with what she had written, while Nichols developed the structure and incident. Gag writers Robert McGowan and Getrude Purcell were later hired by Hawks to make some uncredited script rewrites. 

Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant
The script that eventually made it to the screen was considerably different from Wilde's original story. There was a dog named George and a panther named Baby, who sent to Susan by her brother Mark to give to their aunt Elizabeth. Susan and David must capture Baby in the Connecticut wilderness with the help of the song "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby." However, "David and Susan are already engaged in Wilde's story; the escaped animal is not the means of bringing them together, but the threat that pulls them apart. David is not a scientist in the story and his last name is not Huxley. There is no museum, no Swallow, no brontosaurus, no intercostal clavicle, no golf course, no series of adventures on the road to Connecticut, no constable, no drunken gardener, no big-game hunter, and no jail. The story ends with the recapture of Baby in the Connecticut woods." McGowan added a scene inspired by an episode of the comic strip "Professor Dinglehoofer and His Dog" by H. H. Knerr, in which the professor's dog steals a rare dinossaur bone and buries it.

Meanwhile, Hawks began the all-important casting process. His first choice to play the outspoken society girl Susan Vance was Carole Lombard, his second cousin, whom he had previously directed in Twentieth Century (1934), widely regarded as a prototype of the screwball comedy genre. However, RKO's head of casting Pandro S. Berman insisted that Katharine Hepburn star in the film. The studio agreed to cast her, but had reservations about her salary ($72,500 up front plus a large percentage of the profits) and her uneven box-office record. Always a staunch Hepburn supporter, Berman believed that with the right roles, co-stars and directors she could become the studio's biggest star. Reportedly, Nichols modeled Susan on the Hepburn he had seen on the set of Ford's Mary of Scotland (1936), which he had written. Hepburn and Ford developed a close bond while working on the film, with her playfulness constantly tweaking his more serious nature.

Cary Grant, May Robson and Leona Roberts
Finding a leading man to play opposite Hepburn proved a challenging task. Hawks initially wanted popular silent film comedian Harold Lloyd, but Berman refused to hire him. He also rejected Ronald Colman, offering the role to Robert Montgomery, Fredric March, Leslie Howard and Ray Milland, all of whom turned it down. Hughes, Hawks's close friend, finally suggested Cary Grant, who had just finished shooting his breakthrough film, Leo McCarey's screwball comedy The Awful Truth (1937). At the time, Grant had a non-exclusive four-picture deal with RKO for $50,000 per film; Frank Vincent, Grant's manager, used his casting in Bringing Up Baby to renegotiate his contract, earning him $75,000 plus bonuses that matched all of Hepburn's.

Although Grant was enthusiastic about working with Hawks and Hepburn with whom he has previously co-starred in Sylvia Scarlett (1935) he was unsure of his ability to play an intellectual character. In fact, it took him two weeks to fully commit to the project, despite the new contract. The softspoken Hawks eventually persuaded Grant to do the film by promising to personally guide his performance every step of the way. Hawks also suggested to Grant that he watch some of Harold Lloyd's pictures for inspiration. Grant was so taken with Lloyd's acting style that he copied it, almost gesture for gesture, in his interpretation of David Huxley, down to thick black horn-rimmed glasses, one of the comedian's cinematic trademarks.

Charles Ruggles, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn
and May Robson
The role of Elizabeth Random, Susan's aunt, was given to veteran stage actress May Robson, the earliest-born person to enjoyed a major Hollywood career. She was also the earliest-born actress to receive an Academy Award nomination, for her leading role in Frank Capra's Lady for a Day (1933), but lost to Hepburn for Morning Glory (1933). Character actor Charles Ruggles was borrowed from Paramount to play as Major Horace Applegate, a big-game hunter, while Irish-born Barry Fitzgerald came over from the Mary Pickford Company to appear as Aloysius Gogarty, Mrs. Random's drunken housekeeper. Virginia Walker, who played David's snooty fiancé, Alice Swallow, was one of the first actresses Hawks put under contract and he loaned her out to RKO for the role. She later married Hawks's brother, Bill.

Hawks's two animal actors were established film stars. Mrs. Random's dog, George, was "barked" by Skippy, a Wire Fox Terrier already familiar to audiences as Asta in The Thin Man (1934) and its first sequel, After the Thin Man (1936), and Mr. Smith in The Awful Truth. Skippy was trained by MGM property master Henry East and his wife Gale Henry, a prominent comedian, who would not allow actors to play with the dog off-screen for fear it would ruin his concentration on camera. At a time when most canine players in Hollywood earned $3.50 a day, Skippy's weekly salary was $250,000. As Hawks was unable to find a suitable panther, he decided to change Baby to a leopard so he could cast Nissa, a recent mother of three cubs and an eight-year-old veteran of a dozen films, mostly B-picture jungle adventures. Nissa's home was the Los Angeles Zoopark, managed by the non-profit California Zoological Society, whose famous residents also included Jackie, the second lion used for the MGM logo. She was trained by Madame Olga Celeste, who was always just outside the camera range with a large whip in case Nissa got out of the control.

Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and Nissa
Filming on Bringing Up Baby began on September 23, 1937 with the scenes in Susan's apartment. The company moved to the Bel Air Country Club in early October for the golf course sequence, then to the Arthur Ranch in the San Francisco Valley, which was used as Mrs. Random's estate, both for exterior and interior scenes, daytime and nightime. The start of production was somewhat difficult, as Hepburn struggled to find the "comic rhythm" of her character and often overacted. Hawks had imagined that she would have no problem with the role, since it resembled her own background as "a clever, imaginative, outspoken New England heiress," but he felt that she was attempting too hard to "act" funny. "I tried to explain to her that the great clowns, Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd, simply weren't out there making funny faces," Hawks later said, "they were serious, sad, solemn, and the humor sprang from what happened to them. [...] Cary understood this at once. Katie didn't."

In a measure of desperation, Hawks hired Walter Catlett, a veteran vaudeville comic long who had spent years performing with the Ziegfeld Follies in New York, to get Hepburn to stop "acting" funny and start being funny. Catlett acted out scenes with Grant for her, simply following their natural flow and allowing the laughs to come in from the audience's recognition of the sheer silliness of the situations. According to Hawks, "After that, she played perfectly not trying to be funny, but being very, very natural and herself." Impressed by Catlett's talent and coaching ability, Hepburn insisted he play Constable Slocum in the film so she could call on him for further help. She also credited Grant with keeping her on the right track: "Cary Grant taught me that the more depressed I looked when I went into a pratfall, the more the audience would laugh."

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn filming
the last scene in Bringing Up Baby
Hepburn and Grant frequently socialized off the set, double-dating with their respective partners at the time, Howard Hughes and actress Phyllis Brooks. They were thrilled to be working together and infused the set with their joy and good energy. "We wanted it to be as good as it could possibly be," Hepburn later recalled. "Nothing was ever too much trouble. And we were both very early on the set. Howard Hawks was always late, so Cary and I worked out an awful lot of stuff together. We'd make up things to do on the screen how to work out those laughs in Bringing Up Baby."

One such invention was the hilarious scene in which Grant accidentally rips off the back of Hepburn's dress, revealing her lingeried backside. To prevent everyone from glimpsing this, Grant first covers it with his top hat and then they walk in step with him pressed as firmly up against her back as possible. A similar situation had apparently happened to Grant not long before at the Roxy Theatre in New York, where he had been seated in the front row of the balcony with the head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and his wife. When Grant stood to allow the woman pass in front of him to go to the bathroom, he realized that his fly was open. In trying to zip it back up, he caught the woman's frock in it. The two then had to lockstep to the manager's office in order to find a pair of pliers with which to open the stuck zipper.

Another Grant-inspired moment occurred when Hepburn accidentally broke her heel during a take. Immediately, Grant whispered to her the line "I was born on the side of a hill," an ad-lib that she repeated as she continued to limp along. Grant also improvised the famous scene in which his character is wearing a woman's marabou-trimmed négligée; when asked why, he declares exasperatedly, "Because I just went gay all of a sudden!" (leaping into the air at the word "gay"). In addition, Grant carefully rehearsed Hepburn's moves for the final scene in the film, in which she climbs towards him by ladder, then across the giant brontosaurus skeleton, only to be saved his outstretched hand when she slips off the scaffold. "I told when and how to let go," Grant later said. "I told to aim for my wrists, an old circus trick. You can't let go of that kind of grip, whereas if you go for the hands, you'll slip. She went right for my wrists, and I pulled her up. Kate was marvelously trusting if she thought you knew what you were doing." In the end, virtually no line or scene in Bringing Up Baby was identical to the ones called for in the script. As Hepburn recalled, "Everyone contributed anything and everything they could think of to that script."

Katharine Hepburn and Nissa
Hepburn seemed to be only person on the set of Bringing Up Baby who was comfortable working with Nissa. "I didn't have brains enough to be scared, so I did a lot of scenes with the leopard just roaming around." She wore a heavy perfume that had the effect of making the leopard more playful and put resin on the soles of her shoes to prevent any sudden slips that might startled Nissa. "If Miss Hepburn should ever decide to leave the screen she could make a very good animal trainer," Celeste said. "She has control of her nerves and, best of all, no fear of animals." Grant, on the other hand, was terrified of Nissa and played as few scenes with her as possible. "Cary had always refused to work with the leopard," Hepburn wrote. "Didn't care for it at all. Once, to torture him, we dropped a stuffed leopard through the vent in the top of his dressing room. Wow! He was out of there like lightning." But Hepburn did have one close call with Nissa, in a scene in which she wore a dress with a hem lined with little metal weights: "One quick swirl and that leopard make a spring for my back, and Olga brought that whip down right on [her] head. That was the end of my freedom with the leopard."

When RKO executives began seeing dailies of Bringing Up Baby, they were sure the film was destined for failure. They complained about Grant's owlish glasses and Hepburn's unkempt hair, which they believed reduced the stars' appeal, and Hawks's "hard, unromantic" approach to the story. The director ignored their worries and continued shooting the film in his own way, all while indulging his penchant for improvisation. By the time production wrapped on January 6, 1938, Hawks had delivered Bringing Up Baby 40 days over its original 51-day schedule and $306,000 over its initial $767,000 budget. The studio was so infuriated by this that they immediately fired Hawks from "Gunga Din" and replaced him with George Stevens. Ironically, Stevens was just as painstaking as Hawks, but Gunga Din (1939) which eventually starred Grant opposite Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Victor McLaglen was a big critical and financial success.

Cary Grant, Skippy and Katharine Hepburn
The first cut of the film was sent by RKO to the Production Code Administration (PCA), Hollywood self-imposed censorship board, in early February for approval. Their only concern was the dress-tearing incident, which they found "borderline business [...] might be deleted by a number of the political censor boards, both in this country and England." The PCA also worried about the reference to living political figures Al Smith and Jim Farley which the film amended to Mickey-the-Mouse and Donald-the-Duck. Oddly enough, the PCA paid no attention whatsoever to the film's two most outrageous: Grant's proclamation of going gay and Hepburn's reference to George's "bodily functions." When David asks Susan where George is apt to go, she responds that he is apt to "go" anywhere, a remark that she follows with a giggle, surely to underline the double entendre. Similarly, all the bone jokes got through undetected, including the one in the opening scene in which David, pondering the erect-looking dinosaur bone he holds in his hand, innocently remarks, "This must belong in the tail." 

Bringing Up Baby premiered on February 14, 1938 at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco, where it garnered positive reviews and did "bang-up business." It continued to perform solidly in West Coast and East Coast cities, until it opened at Radio City Music Hall in New York on March 3, to critical and commercial disappointment. Grossing only $70,000, the film was pulled from the Music Hall after only one week, prompting Variety to note that "the Katharine Hepburn draw, as expressed in some quarters, isn't what it used to be." Similarly, Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times wrote, "In Bringing Up Baby Miss Hepburn has a role which calls for her to be breathless, senseless, and terribly, terribly fatiguing. She succeeds, and we can be callous enough to hint it is not entirely a matter of performance." The film's total initial gross came to just over $715,000 in the United States, with another $400,000 earned overseas.

The usual reasons advanced for the relative initial unpopularity of Bringing Up Baby are that "it was too sophisticated, that the characters were too intellectual, that there was no real romance in it, that the lighting was too dark for a comedy." Most famously, Katharine Hepburn was accused by Harry Brandt, president of the Independent Theatre Owners of America an organization of exhibitors that monitored stars' popularity in terms of how much their films earned of being "box-office poison." Brandt's list of performers whose "box-office draw is nil" also included Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Norma Shearer and Fred Astaire. Curiously, Cary Grant was considered by Brandt to be one of several actors who "deserve their high salaries." Hawks, however, had a more subtle reading of why Bringing Up Baby fail to win a large audience, eventually concluding that the film "had a great fault and I learned an awful lot from that. There were no normal people in it. Everyone you meet was a screwball and since that time I have learned my lesson and I don't intend ever again to make everybody crazy." 


This post is my contribution to The Animals in Film Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. To view all entires, click HERE.

Bringing Up Baby edited by Gerald Mast (1988) | Cary Grant: A Biography by Marc Eliot (2009) | Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood by Todd McCarthy (2007) | Me: Stories of My Life by Katharine Hepburn (1991) | TCMDb (Articles) | The New York Times review


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