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Monday, July 25, 2011

AFI/BFI #202: Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Director: Howard Hawks
Writer: Dudley Nichols, Hagar Wilde
Composer: Roy Webb (uncredited)
AFI Rank:  97 (1998), 88 (2007)
BFI Rank: -


 One of my favourite comedies of all time is Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972). I knew going in to this viewing that Bogdanovich was paying homage to Bringing Up Baby but that really didn’t prepare me for just how much of What’s Up, Doc? dna was inherited from Hawks’ comedy classic.

For Grant and Hepburn this was their second of four movies together. Grant had already proven himself a great comedic actor but Hepburn came to the picture with no background in comedy. It is hard to imagine whilst watching her superb performance that she needed intensive coaching to get there. Much of her final performance was influenced by Walter Catlett, who Hawks kept on set to help Hepburn with her performance and also played Constable Slocum. The resulting on screen chemistry is simply brilliant and there are very few 70 year old movies that have made me laugh as hard and as often as Baby.

The writing team of Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde is clearly a match made in heaven, so much so that they actually fell in love while writing the screenplay. Nichols had taken home an Oscar three years earlier for The Informer and would pen Stagecoach the following year. This was Wilde’s first screenplay based on her own original short story published originally in Collier’s Weekly magazine. She would deliver a few more movie scripts including Hawks’ I Was A Male War Bride and Red, Hot and Blue before spending the rest of her career in TV. For me this is their best work and was way ahead of its time, perhaps why it stands up so well today.

There is heavy use of optical effects in the picture and they were delivered by a personal hero of mine Linwood G. Dunn, pioneer of the optical printer and visual effects in general. He worked on King Kong, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Citizen Kane and virtually every RKO production including compositing the original RKO logo.

Given all of this it is surprising that the film was such a box office failure in it’s day. Hawks was even fired from his next production at RKO. He felt he had failed at the time but how much of that was due to the poor reception is hard to tell. In retrospect it is possibly his greatest movie.

I watched Baby on DVD (Amazon also has it on streaming) and it looked about as good as you could expect for a 70 year old picture. The two disc set as some nice extras including a commentary from Bogdanovich which is worth a watch. There is currently no Blu ray release date.

To fully appreciate it you need to give it your full attention. Laptops and iPads away. Bringing Up Baby is without question Crucial Cinema and for fans of What’s Up, Doc? and madcap comedies it is essential viewing.

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