Well, kids, it has been a while, hasn’t it? Aside from work and family commitments, it has been tough to carve out some time to talk about…well, anything! So I thought I’d start up a new series idea that I will probably let flounder and eventually lose interest in, but hey, let’s give it the old college try!
This new series idea concerns itself with the films that my late mother enjoyed and therefore passed on to me. As we take our initial dive into the pool into this series, I’d like to first thank you for donning your swimsuits before jumping in. I’d also like to thank those that didn’t feel the need to wear swimsuits before jumping as well, because they are free souls that should never be inhibited in the first place. Now that we’ve got more or less the skinny on that, let’s press on despite this horrible opening.
My mother’s taste lent itself towards the classic movies more so than the modern films. So when the American Movie Classics channel came through the cable box, she was in ecstasy. In those pre-commercial interruption/original television series days, AMC believed in…showing classic movies! Without interruptions! No, really! Whoooooo! These were the halcyon days before it was discovered that Ted Turner owned everything, before AMC’s content soon shrank to airing Francis Joins the Merchant Marines, Backstory episodes based on movies they didn’t have the broadcast rights for, and shows where the characters talk about zombies and then talk some more about zombies.
But back in their heyday, they would air some great uncut movies that my family would shamelessly and gleefully tape straight off the air. Often, they were introduced by the affable Bob Dorian, who became the welcome face of the network. Later, Nick Clooney also joined as an AMC host and would trade off introduction duties with Dorian. (Nick Clooney’s biggest claim to fame these days would be his being the father of arguably the fifth or sixth best Batman, George Clooney.)
My mom and I ate AMC up because they couldn’t be stopped. They’d have marathons of famous actors and directors, special themed airings of related movies, and generally everything that Turner Classic Movies ripped off when it was discovered that Ted Turner owned all filmed entertainment. (Did I mention that Ted owns it all? I just want to make sure that he owns film libraries like most people own…well, there is nothing to compare it to. Let’s just say that we’re lucky that Ted decides to let us occasionally watch the movies that he owns and leave at that.)
One of my mom’s favorite actors was the one, the only, Cary Grant, the definition of debonair. No one today comes close. And his film catalog is beyond incredible. Just his work with Alfred Hitchcock alone is dazzling. (Suspicion, North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief, and Notorious, for those of you playing along at home.) Look at this résumé: The Awful Truth, Charade, The Philadelphia Story, Holiday, An Affair to Remember, Gunga Din, Only Angels Have Wings, The Bishop’s Wife, Arsenic and Old Lace, His Girl Friday…and I can’t go on. Well, I could, but there’s just too many offerings to mention.
Now most of these ended up being favorites and I could go at length about The Bishop’s Wife being the bestest Christmas movie ever, which it is, but today is not the day for that. No, instead I’m going to bring up a film that was not listed in the paragraph above and for fans of Grant, its absence should have set off alarm bells loud and clear: Bringing Up Baby.
Nowadays, there are few films that can pass as out and out comedies. There are only so many dick jokes that one should rely on and even then, they are best handled by Kevin Smith. (The jokes that is, not the dicks, but I digress.) A lot of these comedies are just not given the time in either the writing or in the performance to showcase the full potential of the possibilities for humor. Most comedies now just don’t have the staying power that holds with repeat viewings. There are also those that have been neutered to death so as to not cause “offense”. This results in not many comedies sticking around, becoming memorable. In any case, they would never even think about casting a leading man as handsome, delightful, and overall just plain swell as Cary Grant.
Grant is an anomaly, even for Hollywood. A handsome leading man with a seemingly effortless delivery, Grant could have so easily ended up as a bland face in a myriad of uninteresting roles. However, his choice of projects, certainly starting with The Awful Truth in 1937, led to a fascinating career. Grant was always willing to be self-deprecating, playing comedy extremely well. His dramatic chops weren’t too shabby either. (Give None but the Lonely Heart or Notorious a whirl and you’ll see what I mean.)
Pairing up with Grant is another legend of Hollywood: Katharine Hepburn. Hepburn at the time was considered box office poison, which is one of the reasons given as to why Bringing Up Baby wasn’t a success upon release. But to watch Hepburn in this movie is a revelation. Her timing with Grant is impeccable and her later turns with him in Holiday and especially in The Philadelphia Story are winners as well. Hepburn more than holds her own with Grant and is rather lovely and quirky throughout. She is the instigator of Grant’s problems in the film, handling everything with a wonderful and goofy charm.
The plot moves along at the speed of light, which is a hallmark of a classic screwball comedy. Cary Grant plays a rather withdrawn and easily embarrassed paleontologist who is trying to get a rich widow to donate a million dollars to his museum so he can continue his research. Along the way he bumps into Katharine Hepburn, who not only becomes infatuated with Grant, but also is the niece of the rich widow in question. There’s also a missing dinosaur bone, a series of misadventures with the family dog, and a tame leopard named Baby that enters everyone’s life.
Now to explain further would do a disservice to director Howard Hawks’ movie. Hawks was known for his fast-paced dialogue and Bringing Up Baby is no exception. The viewer is whirled around from incident to accident to mishap and is barely given time to take it all in but is laughing all the same. Hawks was no fly by night director either. His street cred is just as impressive today: His Girl Friday, The Big Sleep, Sergeant York, Rio Bravo, Only Angels Have Wings, Red River, The Thing from Another World, To Have And Have Not. Ah, remember the days when everyone involved with a movie was a legend? Nowadays we’ve got…a lot of fond memories and that’s about it.
Many great character actors are thrown into the mix too: Barry Fitzgerald as the aunt’s gardener, Charley Ruggles as a befuddled big game hunter, Walter Catlett as a baffled constable, Fritz Feld as a psychiatrist, and even Ward Bond in an uncredited role as a cop at the end of the movie. (These were the days when you could have Ward Bond just show up in a slight role. If you don’t know who Ward Bond is, then I feel for you. Get out more often! Stop reading those books and watch a movie once in a while!)
There is one scene in the movie that I must mention because it somehow got past the censors. The Production Code’s Joseph Breen was hard at work with his scissors everywhere else, so that makes this moment even more amazing. Due to circumstances that are far too complicated to get into right now, Hepburn has managed to take Grant’s clothes in order to keep him around longer at her aunt’s house. Grant, trying to find anything to wear, finds a ladies’ bathrobe and throws it on. He runs around the house trying to find the gardener’s room as there might be some men’s clothing he could possibly wear. Grant then bumps into the aunt, who has never met him before. She then asks him why he’s wearing these clothes. Grant, building up to a volcanic moment of frustration, jumps in the air and yells “I just went gay all of a sudden!” Back in 1938, the fact that this line is in a movie is rather remarkable. And it is hilarious to boot.
There are many wonderful examples of the screwball comedy: You Can’t Take It with You, The More The Merrier, His Girl Friday, My Man Godfrey, It Happened One Night, The Lady Eve, The Awful Truth. And even among those wonderful films, Bringing Up Baby is a quintessential entry in that genre. Grant’s performance cemented his future appearances in many screwball comedies as well as other terrific movies. Hepburn would be vindicated a few years later when she made a colossal hit with The Philadelphia Story, also with Grant and Jimmy Stewart. Hawks continued to make amazing films in Hollywood and eventually paired up Bogart and Bacall.
Describing comedy is one of the hardest things to do because it is so very subjective. We can all be scared by the same things, so horror and suspense movies are easy to qualify. Westerns need horses and either John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. A musical must involve spontaneous yet inexplicably well-organized choreography. But comedy is a mite tougher to pin down.
For instance, some find Jerry Lewis hilarious, while others cannot stand him. The Three Stooges appeal to a large audience, but not to everyone. Yet chances are, no matter where your sense of humor lands, Bringing Up Baby will always tickle you no matter how many times you watch it. For me, I constantly stumble onto a line or a reaction that I missed before. When those moments happen, it is a simply sublime experience.
If you have never seen Bringing Up Baby, you are the perfect audience for it. Even if you have seen it, you are still the perfect audience for it. Go see it again and think of a mother and her son joyfully watching American Movie Classics well before Ted Turner owned everything. (By the way, did I mention the 1995 Atlanta Braves were just the best? Just checking to see if Ted is reading this!)
(By the way, since I had no idea where to sneak in this little tidbit: did you know that Superman‘s Christopher Reeve based his approach on Clark Kent on Grant’s Bringing Up Baby role? I think Reeve chose an excellent foundation indeed!)