Today’s posting is on Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby, but more on that in a moment. Last week, in praising George Cukor’s Holiday as a product of the Hollywood studio system, I got off onto a bit of a rant about how bad American commercial films have become since the demise of that system. I was completely unaware that Mark Harris covered a lot of the same ground in the February issue of Esquire, in a piece called “The Day the Movies Died.” Harris had much more space, and he knows a great deal more about contemporary Hollywood than I would ever want to know. Although he holds Inception in much higher esteem than I do, the points he makes about the replacement of storytelling skills and character development by technological gimmickry are essentially the same. I promise you I did not know of Harris’s article before I wrote mine. Honest Injun! Cross my heart!
Part of what I wrote was an appeal to several elite actors to be more selective in the projects they chose. Before my blog was even posted, much to my astonishment, I learned that one of these guys had signed up to make The Great Gatsby! Reading further, I found that it was to be made in Australia in 3-D. Wow! What a brilliant idea! How come it never occurred to anybody before that what Fitzgerald’s great, subtle, and intimate novel really needed was an extra dimension? Wait a minute though. Even with 3-D, can such a project be marketed to the brain-addled pubescent masses who are Hollywood’s primary source of income and who see cinema not as the pre-eminent art of the 20th century, but rather as an adjunct to the video game and comic book industries? Methinks there is a need for a catchier title with a little nuance of sex. Perhaps something like Avatar 2: The Dark Prince of Long Island—The Seductive Sands of Syosset (yeah, I know it’s inland, but it’s alliterative) or maybe just Jaws 3-D (or has that been used?). Deep down, I despair that it is too late for the leopard to change its spots.This, of course, brings us to Bringing Up Baby. Howard Hawks (1896–1977) directed more-or-less masterpieces at a half-dozen different studios and in even more genres, and all thankfully in two dimensions. To illustrate his mastery of screwball comedy, one might just as easily have chosen Twentieth Century (1934), His Girl Friday (1940), or Ball of Fire (1941), but I think Bringing Up Baby (1938) is the best, or as Andrew Sarris suggests, “the screwiest of screwball comedies.” Or maybe I just like cats. From his filmed interviews, one gets the impression that Hawks was not a barrel-of-laughs kind of guy. He seemed pretty somber and serious about his profession, and lacking in the sardonic, self-disparaging attitude that passed for humor in his great rival and friend, John Ford. Hawks had suffered the tragedy of losing two brothers in an air crash, and the rest of his personal life (including three divorces) did not appear to offer fertile ground for comedy. (Dudley Nichols, who shared screenwriting credit, also displays a surprisingly light touch. Nichols, Ford’s writer of choice for most of the 1930s and ’40s, seems to gravitate toward such humorless films as Ford’s The Informer and The Fugitive, Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street, and his self-directed Mourning Becomes Electra.) Still, with the possible exception of Leo McCarey, Hawks seemed to have the richest natural gift for pure and sustained comedy of any Hollywood genre director—and not just in his comedies.
Hawks was the great advocate and practitioner of professional commitment and responsibility. Directors, writers, actors—everyone must play their roles to the hilt. The late critic Robin Wood includes Bringing Up Baby in a chapter of his book on Hawks, The Lure of Irresponsibility, which also includes Scarface (the 1932 gangster film we looked at in September) and several of the director’s more far-out projects. The “problem” in Bringing Up Baby is that all of the characters are obsessive in the fulfillment of their designated persona. Cary Grant’s paleontologist is fixated on his dinosaur; Katharine Hepburn is a madcap heiress 24/7; Charlie Ruggles can’t help but be a big game hunter, even in the wilds of suburban Connecticut; and George the dog and Baby the leopard can’t get their minds beyond their dinosaur bone and raw meat, respectively. Wood (ever the moralist) makes a case for this being a flaw in Hawks, missing much, I’m afraid, of what is hysterically funny about the film. I suggest that, for once, we set analysis aside, be grateful that it’s not in 3-D, and enjoy. Bet you leave the theater humming, “I can’t give you anything but love…”