2 January 2004 | bmacv
Utter perfection. Howard Hawks, Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant make the most exquisite comedy of the sound era
In his glorious Bringing Up Baby, Howard Hawks ratchets screwball comedy up to its tautest and springiest level. In clumsier hands, screwball all too often gallops into the frenetic, fraying the nerves; Hawks maintains a presto pace, but never lets the mixups and misunderstandings grow implausible he just glides serenely to something else. (And he makes it look easy, which it isn't: Peter Bogdanovich fumbled in his loose remake What's Up, Doc, making it labored and literal-minded.)
Hawks could barely go wrong with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant as his leads, but the rest of the cast he assembles, human as well as animal, can't be faulted either (with the redoubtable May Robson earning extra credit). And while he draws on stock characters and stereotypes that probably date back to commedia dell'arte the stuffy professor, the blithe rich girl, her crusty dowager aunt, the bumbling sheriff he freshens each one up, making them distinctive, memorable and endearing.
Behind a pair of repressive spectacles, Grant plays the single-minded paleontologist whose path crosses with that of madcap Hepburn, never again to uncross. The plot revolves around a leopard named Baby, a million dollars, an intercostal clavicle bone, a dog named George who buries it....well, it all makes perfect sense while you're watching.
Underneath all the antics, Hawks never loses sight of the pastoral romance that Bringing Up Baby at its core really is (at its most magical in the woods under a full moon, and captured by Russell Metty's lovely photography). Grant's been rooting around in the dirt for so long looking for dinosaur bones that it takes him forever to 'get' Hepburn an airborne sprite who never comes down to earth. (Their alchemy here is rarefied, not the commoner sort of reaction they kindled in the stage-bound The Philadelphia Story.)
Last but not least, the movie features the canine talents of Asta (né Skippy), who appeared as himself in the Thin Man series Nick and Nora Charles' lovable cur. Here he plays George, who, barking his stubby tail off, has no qualms about tangling with Baby the leopard. Is there any question that this high-strung wire-haired terrier is and will forever be (pace Rin-Tin-Tin and Lassie) Hollywood's top dog? How fitting that he should lend his considerable talents to Bringing Up Baby, the most exquisite comedy of the sound era.