Saturday, February 14, 2009

I can't give you anything but love, Baby!

Happy Valentines Day my fellow cinematic obsessives. I have, for the sake of the occasion, my all-time favorite film, Bringing Up Baby. Yes, it's a movie with roaring leopards, barking dogs, tumbling dinosaurs and a shocking disregard for firearm safety, but it's also my idea of romantic.

Part of what makes Bringing Up Baby so romantic is that it is very old-fashioned. I say that not because it's 71 years old, but because it harkens back to a more innocent time than 1938. From the tin pan alley origins of its theme song to it's breezy college prank plotting, Bringing Up Baby feels more like something out of the twenties than the thirties. And with Cary Grant in full-on Harold Lloyd mode, it's difficult not to recall The Jazz Age. Indeed the screenplay is based a humorous short story from the previous decade. The problems of the characters are those of care-free, self-absorbed rich folks, the sort of ridiculous catastrophes that marked P.G. Woodehouse's best work.

Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) falls in love with a quiet zoologist, David Huxley (Cary Grant), who is trying to woo her aunt for a million dollar donation to his museum. She makes up her mind to deter him from marrying another woman by scheming to get him to help her take her leopard up to her farm in Conneticut. Plot complications such a psychiatrist who believes Susan is a kleptomaniac, an incessantly barking dog (Asta) who steals a "rare" and "precious" dinosaur bone and a "baaaad" leopard escaped from the circus, all click into place at exactly the moment they are needed. The dialog is as fast-paced as it is slyly funny and the entire cast of rock solid RKO studio players (May Robson, Charles Ruggles, Barry Fitzgerald, and Walter Catlett) are up to the challenge of delivering it. Add to that mix Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, a comic team who literally move together as one being in the famous torn coat/torn dress sequence, and you have nothing less than the funniest movie of all time. All that might be enough to make it one of my favorites, but it wouldn't explain to you why I've saved this movie for Valentine's Day.

Bringing Up Baby has served over the years as a bit of manifesto for me. It shows us action is needed and ethics mostly unimportant when what is stake is one's entire happiness. Susan Vance practically kidnaps a man she's met twice in order to keep him around long enough to make him fall in love with her. As Susan explains to her aunt who is curious to know why a rude, naked man is wandering around in her house in a negligee, "If he gets some clothes, he'll go away and he's the only man I've ever loved!" David Huxley is a shy, awkward bookish fellow trapped in the body of a movie star. The man he changes in to at the end of the film--brave, quietly amusing, romantic--is purely Susan's creation. The scene where she drags the snarling "bad" leopard to the jail is a visual metaphor for the way she drags David out of his shell and makes him into a lion tamer. Put another way, there are two lessons to be learned from Bringing up Baby: 1) all is fair in love and war. 2) never leave your keys in your car.

The movie is also very romantic in its Midsummers Night's Dream of a setting. The bulk of the action takes place on a moonlit evening in the woods in June. Susan must be her own Oberon, but there is also the feeling that Fate is right behind her filling in with screwball schemes of its own whenever it appears that David might make his matrimonial date with the aptly named Miss Swallow. The tune "I Can't Give You Anything but Love Baby" not only captures the old fashioned romance, but it is also integral to plot, as it is said to have a calming effect on the leopard. As such David and Susan must roam the countryside singing a fair bit of their dialog to the tune and memorably wind up howling it along with George and Baby under the psychiatrist's window. There is a music to the rhythm of the dialog as well. David's chorus is "be with you in a minute Mister Peabody" and Susan's is "everything is going to be alright." One could make a fairly deadly drinking game out of just the repetition of those two lines of dialog, but I prefer to think of them as a quirky but beautiful love song.


rab693 said...

This movie is also one of my favorites - thanks for posting! I really enjoyed your comments. I laughed out loud at lesson #2. I also like to consider the outcome from David's perspective. He seemed to want more from life than he was likely to get with Miss Swallow (e.g. a honeymoon, children) and Susan opened up a whole new world for him. It was bound to be exasperating and chaotic at times, but never dull!

kda0121 said...

I'm so glad you love this movie as much as I do. I know "serious" film critics may scoff at the notion that a zany screwball comedy could be considered great art, but I think Bringing Up Baby is one of the Great movies in history. It is one of those rare occasions when all the stars and planets were all aligned. The script, direction, actors were all perfect.

AbbyNormal said...

I love this one as well. It is the tops. I don't know why anyone can't see the utter brilliance in this? Of course, I am pretty sure Susan would be slapped with a stalking/harrassment charge if she tried this today. That is one of the many reasons I am glad she is safely preserved in the 20s/30s.

Jennythenipper said...

rab: "more than he was likely to get with Miss Swallow" I'm not gonna touch that one. Too easy.

KDA: I quote Jane Austen, "any person who does not appreciate a good novel is intolerably stupid." I feel the same way about screwball comedy.

April: It's a fine line between nice girl and stalker. A little stalking is necessary esspecially when dealing with a David Huxsley type. You've met Graham. You know that I know what I'm talking about. Yo.

SteveQ said...

I love this movie so much that I pretty much lived it out once. Stacy and I even called each other Susan and David - causing much confusion, but not as much as in the film.

Jennythenipper said...

Did you keep the leopard?

SteveQ said...

Had a bobcat rather than leopard. I think it might've been imaginary.

Should've mentioned part of the confusion was that sometimes I was David, sometimes Susan.