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Bringing Up Baby, an Excellent Screwball Comedy

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Dusty is an avid classic movie fan who wants to share movie stories and evoke conversation about them.

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Bringing Up Baby

1 hr. 42 mins Comedy, Romance 1938 7.9 stars

Director: Howard Hawks

Cast: Katherine Hepburn - Susan Vance

Cary Grant - David Huxley

Charles Ruggles - Major Applegate

Walter Catlett - Constable Slocum

Barry Fitzgerald - Mr. Gogarty

May Robson - Aunt Elizabeth (Mrs. Carlton Random)

Fritz Field - Dr. Lehman

George Irving - Alexander Peabody

Virginia Walker - Alice Swallow

Note: Spoiler alert. This review reveals the outcome of the movie

The Torn Dress

Cary Grant shielding Katherine Hepburn from embarrasment

Cary Grant shielding Katherine Hepburn from embarrasment

Synopsis (Part I)

We are introduced right away to one of the leads and in a very short time we come to see that he is scatterbrained and absent minded, not to mention accident prone. His name is David Huxley (played by Cary Grant) and he is a singularly focused paleontologist who is one bone away from completing a brontosaurus skeleton at the museum.

The museum he works for is competing for a million dollar prize offered by a wealthy widow, Mrs. Carlton Random. David’s job is to negotiate with her attorney for that prize, Alexander Peabody (played by George Irving). David has a busy schedule. First he must meet with Mr. Peabody, and then he needs to prepare for his wedding that afternoon to Alice Swallow (played by Virginia Walker). Alice is even more singularly minded than David is. She seems cold as she informs David that there will be no honeymoon – their work is their honeymoon.

David agrees to meet Alexander on a golf course for a game and meeting. David hooks his ball and walks towards it only to find a strange woman playing it. This woman is our other lead, Susan Vance (played by Katherine Hepburn). As much as David is accident prone, Susan is accident producing. The antics that begin to occur render the golf meeting with Alexander impossible. From this point onward David and Susan end up in one mess after another. Within hours he wants to be rid of her forever, but she takes a liking to him, and wants to manipulate the circumstances to keep him in her life.

After David failed to talk with Alexander during the golf outing, they arrange to meet for dinner at a nice restaurant, but as luck, or misfortune, would have it Susan was also at that restaurant. Susan and David manage to accidently annoy a fellow patron, Dr. Lehman, by Susan’s accidently taking Dr. Lehman’s wife’s purse mistaking it for her own. That matter was settled, but other embarrassing incidents occurred there, most notably David stepping on the bottom of Susan’s dress and tearing it off, so that they had to leave in a hurry and no meeting with Alexander occurred there either.

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David receives a package from an archaeological expedition in Utah; it is a bone, the very bone which he has been awaiting in order to complete his brontosaurus, the intercostal clavicle. He has been waiting for this final piece in his puzzle for 5 years.

At the same time Susan receives a package at her house; it is a live leopard, which her brother, a big game hunter, has sent her. The leopard is named, “Baby” (played by Nissa the Leopard). The arrival afforded an opportunity for Susan to spend time with David, something he regrets before it happens. Susan gets confused on what branch of science David is an expert in (which is paleontology). She thinks it’s zoology so she uses her need for sound wild animal advice to invite David over. When he explains that he is not a zoologist she feigns a leopard attack on the phone. David rushes over to rescue her carrying the intercostal clavicle bone with him – he forgets to put it down before he went into rescue mode.

Susan convinces him to assist her in taking the leopard to her Aunt Elizabeth’s farm in Connecticut. Aunt Elizabeth (played by May Robson) is her father’s sister.

The antics of Susan and David continue as they travel to the farm. Oddly enough Baby seems to calm down whenever the song, “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” is played or sung. While enroute they run into pick-up truck hauling chickens and other fowl. Scattered out on the road Baby helps himself to a nice poultry dinner.

They arrive at the farm and secure Baby in a stall in the barn. Now at the farm Susan decides to trap David into staying by taking his clothe while he is in the shower and sending them into town to be cleaned and pressed. Before David went into the shower he had put the box containing the intercostal clavicle down on the bed. Curious about the box Susan opened it. When she saw that it was just an old bone she put it down on the bed and left. Then George, Aunt Elizabeth’s dog came in. The bone was much more interesting to him than it had been to Susan so he took it in order to go and bury it. He has a collection of bones and boots buried in the yard.

Driving Baby to Connecticut

Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and Nissa the Leopard enroute to Connecticut

Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and Nissa the Leopard enroute to Connecticut

Synopsis (Part II)

In the meantime, David comes out of the shower and discovers that his clothes are missing so he finds a woman’s bathrobe to use as garb as he steps out of the bathroom and into an awkward meeting with Aunt Elizabeth. He is angry that his clothes have been taken; she is positively bewildered at seeing a strange man in the house wearing her bathrobe! He’s too tongue tied and flummoxed to explain it and Susan doesn’t know how to explain it either so she makes something up and declares that David is recovering from a nervous breakdown. After the awkward introduction to Aunt Elizabeth, David and Susan go off chasing George around the property encouraging him to dig up the bone he took. Susan casually mentions that her Aunt Elizabeth is none other than Mrs. Carlton Random, who happens to be the woman David is hoping to get the million dollars from for the museum. David pleads with Susan not to tell her aunt who he really is – not even give her his real name. He knows that he has made an awful impression on her and if she knew who he was that grant money would go to someone else. So in a private conversation Susan invents a story for her aunt about who David is and what he does for a living. She says his name is “David Bone” and that he is a big game hunter. Of course she neglects to tell David these things so when asked he is clueless about whom the Aunt Elizabeth thinks he is and what he does.

Soon Aunt Elizabeth receives a friend, a Major Applegate (played by Charles Ruggles), who is, in fact, a big game hunter. Everyone sits down to dinner, but David is inattentive to the conversation as he is constantly watching George who gets up now and then and wanders outside. Each time George leaves David and Susan also go and follow him. The conversation at dinner turns to the topic of leopards and in particular their call. Major Applegate mimics the call and from outside Baby responds; he has gotten loose. The gardener, Mr. Gogarty (played by Barry Fitzgerald) is sneaking a drink in the barn and complaining to himself aloud about how everyone criticizes his drinking habit when he sees Baby. Startled, he drops and shatters his bottle.

David and Susan begin to look for both George and Baby in the forest on the property.

In the meantime the circus in town has go get rid of their leopard who has attacked its trainer. The truck carrying that leopard gets lost at the exact location where David and Susan are looking for Baby. They assume that the leopard on the truck is Baby and they free it, but they can’t control it and it saunters off into the woods.

Eventually they do find Baby sitting on the roof of a neighboring house and to mollify Baby they sing the song they know he likes, “I Can’t Give You Anything, but Love”. The owners of the house come to the window demanding not to be serenaded in the middle of the night. The owner is Dr. Lehman (played by Fritz Field) with whom David and Susan had previously had a run in at the restaurant in New York. Dr. Lehman is a psychiatrist so when David and Susan explain that there is a leopard on his roof he assumes that they are having some sort of psychological problem and draws Susan into his house. At that time the constable arrives and takes Susan and David to jail. Dr. Lehman accompanies the constable to advise him about psychiatric matters with these “dangerous criminals”.

In jail David and Susan try to explain the fiasco to the constable who does not believe them at all. He thinks he has arrested some notorious criminals and will look good in the eyes of the voters in next week’s election. Aunt Elizabeth and Major Applegate come to get Susan and David out of jail and are also arrested. The constable doesn’t believe that they are who they claim to be.

Susan then decides to act the part of a notorious gangster lady, using an accent that would be associated with gangsters and nicknames for her and her fictitious gang. She calls herself “Swinging Door Suzy” and gets the constable’s attention. The constable takes her to his office where she spins a yarn about her gang and their exploits. While the constable turns away for a moment Susan slips out the window and escapes.

Soon afterwards the men who had been transporting the dangerous leopard from the circus arrive at the constable’s office to report the leopard missing. The constable is fed up with all this talk of leopards and locks them up too.

The next to arrive at the jail is Alexander Peabody, Mrs. Random’s attorney who is identified as such by Dr. Lehman. Peabody demands Mrs. Random’s immediate release. At about this time Baby and George arrive. Baby, naturally frightens everyone though David tries to assure them all that Baby is tame.

The next to arrive is Susan with a leopard in tow. She thinks she has nabbed Baby, but in fact she has instead nabbed the bad leopard from the circus. She realizes this when she sees that Baby is already there and panics.

Now with everyone frightened David grabs a chair and fights off the bad leopard and corrals it into a separate jail cell. Crisis averted. Everything is settled and life can now get back to normal. Mrs. Random gets to keep Baby; she had requested it from her son the big game hunter in the first place.

David is back at the museum working on his brontosaurus skeleton. Alice has left him and he feels forlorn. Just then Susan shows up much to David’s chagrin. George has finally dug up the missing intercostal clavicle bone they’ve been seeking. Susan says she has received the money from her aunt and she’s investing it into the museum. She climbs a ladder to get to the top of the brontosaurus where David is. The ladder begins to sway and Susan grabs onto the skeleton to prevent falling with the ladder. But she ends up collapsing the skeleton instead. Nevertheless she proclaims her love for David who responds that he loves her too and the movie ends on that happy note.

Looking for a Buried Bone, George the Dog, Finds a Boot Instead

Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and Asta the dog dig up a boot instead of a bone

Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and Asta the dog dig up a boot instead of a bone


They call this type of comedy a “screwball comedy” which means that every character in the movie has an odd personality. Everyone has some flaw in their personality which adds to the overall comic effect. There is one exception to this however; Alexander Peabody isn’t odd; he is the only normal human character in the entire story. Indeed he is the one who is able to settle the debacle at the end.

Many of the characters are fulfilling stereotypes of the day. Susan is a flighty heiress. David is a nutty professor and Aunt Elizabeth is an eccentric older rich lady, and Dr. Lehman, the psychiatrist, is the crazy shrink who sees a diagnosis in each and every foible that occurs.

The situations that these characters find themselves in really are comical, but they derive from various choices made by their less than normal personalities. To add to the comic mix there is Baby, a leopard. Though Baby is tame it behaves normally for a leopard. This makes Baby the other non-screwball character in the movie. But the interaction between a leopard and wealthy society can hardly be quiet. Throw in a second leopard, a mean one, and the antics abound.

The movie has another prominent animal character and that is George, the dog. There is nothing abnormal about a dog taking and burying a bone, but when he takes David’s intercostal clavicle mayhem ensues. George is a bit of a screwball, however, because of his excessive habit of burying things around the yard. He finds more stuff to bury than would be considered normal – even for a hyper dog.

If George appears familiar to you it is because this dog was in many movies of the time – he is Asta of the “Thin Man Series.” Asta is not just the character name of the dog; it is the actual dog’s name. In fact Asta was in 22 movies in total.

Speaking of seeing something familiar in this movie, you may recognize the house where the majority of the story takes place. Last month’s review was on the movie: Christmas in Connecticut. The same house and grounds were used for this movie as well, although this is the older of the two movies.

Susan Out of the Cell, Pretending to be "Swinging Door Suzy"

Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn

Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn

Tidbits (From IMDB Trivia)

1. Was voted the 24th Greatest Film of All Time by Entertainment Weekly.

2. Included among the American Film Institute’s 1998 list of the top 100 Funniest American Movies – as number 14.

Movie Trailer

The Torn Dress Scene

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