Tuesday, February 1, 2011

BRINGING UP BABY (RKO 1938) Warner Home Video

With its irreverently insane backdrop of a madcap New England heiress on the make, director Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby(1938) remains an advantageous screwball comedy with few rivals. Regarded as a true classic today, at the time of its release the film proved little more than an elegant bauble that failed to catch the public interest so distinctly, it strained the balance sheet of then struggling RKO Studios and also resulted in both Hawks and the film's star, Katharine Hepburn being released from their respective contracts.

Originally a featured story by Hagar Wilde in Collier's Magazine, the screenplay by Wilde and Dudley Nichols pitches calamity on top of misdirection - an amiable blend of lunacy that results in one dire circumstance after the next for the film's reluctant protagonist; palaeontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant). It seems that Huxley's dreams of assembling the skeletal remains of a brontosaurus have been prematurely dashed by the absence of one bone - an intercostal clavicle. Huxley's only reprieve is to impress the rather stuffy Mrs. Elizabeth Random (May Robson) who is willing to at least consider donating one million dollars to the museum for further research.

To complicate matters, David is engaged to Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker) - a straight-laced damsel who would probably suit David's own placidly befuddled exterior - if only he hadn't met zany socialite, Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) accidentally during a golf tournament. Believing David to be a zoologist, Susan stalks him in her hopes that he will give up his career to come to her Connecticut country house and look after 'Baby' - a leopard with an affectionate nature.

Confusing both her aunt and the local inhabitants as to the purpose of maintaining a leopard for a family pet, Susan begins to grow romantically attached to David - an entanglement that first frustrates, then confounds the already immensely confused David.

In one of the film's best loved moments, in an attempt to woo David at the local country club, Susan inadvertently tears the tails on his tuxedo. In response, David accidentally steps on Susan's dress, effectively tearing out the back flap and exposing her panty-clad buttocks to the guests. To save Susan from embarrassment, David hugs Susan from behind with the two doing a spirited march in unison out the club's front door to riotous effect.

Meanwhile, Susan's dog, George (Asta from the Thin Man series) has stolen David's intercostal clavicle from his nap sack and effectively buried the bone somewhere on Susan's farm. After falling into a pond during his search and resolving to take a shower in Susan's cottage to tidy up, David discovers that Susan has whisked away his clothing to be dry-cleaned. Forced to wear one of Susan's frilly and feather trimmed transparent nightgowns to answer Susan's front door, David comes face to face with Susan's aunt - none other than Mrs. Elizabeth Random.

Time and changing social morays have made David's response to Elizabeth's inquiry utterly piquant. When asked to justify his choice of clothing, Cary Grant defiantly leaps into the air, declaring "I just went gay all of a sudden!"

A race against time ensues after Baby and George run off together, pursued by a decidedly untamed and bloodthirsty leopard that has escaped from a traveling circus. Susan and David hunt Baby and George down to the home of Dr. Fritz Lehman (Fritz Feld). Inadvertently breaking into Lehman's home to retrieve David's bone, David and Susan are arrested by Constable Slocum (Walter Catlett). At the last possible moment, all of these errors in judgment are put right by the arrival of Alexander Peabody (George Irving) who has inadvertently captured the circus leopard that he believes is Baby.

Alice gilts David. The museum gets the grant money from Elizabeth and Susan arrives at the museum to find David high atop a scaffold, putting the finishing touches on his brontosaurus. As she climbs the scaffold to declare her love, Susan inadvertently topples the brontosaurus, saved from certain danger at the last possible moment by David - who has at last forsaken pure research for true love.

Bringing Up Baby is blessed by a supporting cast that is a veritable who's who of crazies, including Charles Ruggles as Major Applegate - a pompous big game hunter, May Robson as crotchety Elizabeth Random, and Barry Fitzgerald as the congenial scatterbrain cop, Mr. Gogarty. Director, Howard Hawks infuses his artistic milieu with every screwball gag in the book - and a few never seen since – eliciting the overwhelming and riotous laugh-a-minute that has made the film a one of a kind comedy for the ages.

The rapid fire delivery of dialogue and scenes so confounding and preposterous, elevates the sheer silliness of the piece to near epic levels. But beyond the glib and astute cleverness of the script are Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant - two beloved stars from Hollywood's golden age with all pistons firing at the top of their game.

It's interesting to note that at the time of this film's release Grant's career was on the upswing and Hepburn's on the down. But Kate was never one to give in or give up easily and her performance in Bringing Up Baby is superb beyond all expectation; a stark departure from her usual 'put together' and level-headed gals played opposite Spencer Tracy at MGM.

For his part, Cary Grant is a superior fop, employing his skills as an acrobat as well as an actor to will a genuinely comedic and heartfelt performance. In his capable hands, David Huxley is a man of conviction who cannot seem to bring himself to say 'no' to the woman he thinks he hates, but actually loves.

In the final analysis, Bringing Up Baby is classic Hollywood screwball - a through and through charmer with superior storytelling and a master craftsman at the helm. It is a genuine pity and perhaps an outrage that audiences of its vintage did not think so.

Warner's regurgitation on DVD is a curious one, since it is not the 2-disc SE we get this time around, but a single disc reissue that robs us of the two documentaries originally included on the aforementioned previously issued disc. The transfer is the same, with a gray scale that has been impeccably reproduced from refurbished elements. Contrast levels are superb. There's a hint of edge enhancement now and then, but nothing that will distract. Film grain is kept to a bare minimum and age related artefacts are present. The audio is mono as originally recorded.

The only extra is the retained commentary by Peter Bogdanovich. What we miss out on are two feature length biographies; one of them the superb Cary Grant: A Man Apart that chronicles Grant's entire career and life with great detail and a ton of outtake footage! This reissue does not come recommended because the 2-disc effort is still readily available from internet sources.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)






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