Group Writing: Bringing up Baby

 

I signed up for Group Writing and chose my theme well before the events of January 6th and its aftermath plunged me into despair. Given what has transpired and what we will face after today, it seemed at first wrong somehow to focus on a screwball comedy from the 1930s. But then, life was not exactly a picnic in 1938, either. I’m sure that the assault on American values was felt keenly throughout the Depression, the New Deal, and their aftermath. It had only been 2 years earlier when FDR also proposed packing the Supreme Court. So that which is old is new again, unfortunately.

And yet, during those dark days, the screwball comedy was born. The first screwball comedies were Bombshell and It Happened One Night in 1933-34. But I believe the form reached a peak with Howard Hawk’s masterful 1938 comedy Bringing up Baby starring Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, and a leopard. If you haven’t seen it yet, I suggest that you do so instead of watching the inauguration. It too features a fossil.

We watched Bringing Up Baby over the holidays. I first saw it in college on film night and laughed from beginning to end. I still laughed this time, even after having seen it many, many times. It is a complete delight from beginning to end. It has two wonderful human stars in Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, still fairly early in their careers. And two wonderful animal stars at the height of theirs: Skippy the wire-haired terrier, whose stage name was Asta (yes, that Asta) cast as George the wire-haired terrier, and Nissa the leopard whom I’m not sure had a stage name although she should have, because apparently, she had eight films under her belt by that time. (That long run-on sentence should be said in breathless, screwball comedy style in a New England accent). In fact, according to Wikipedia, the original script called for a panther, but no tame ones were available so the role was changed to a leopard. This perhaps explains why one of the characters says that he brought her back from Brazil rather than Africa. In any case, I suspect it was her breakthrough role as she got to play both Baby the tame leopard and the wild escaped zoo leopard. A feline actor’s dream!

Why do I know any of these things? Because this was the first time I watched the movie with a smartphone so of course I spent equal time watching the film and browsing the internet looking up information about the film. My curiosity was first piqued over the classic scene where Cary Grant answers the door wearing a filmy woman’s bathrobe. Rather than me describing it, you can watch it here:

When Cary Grant jumps up and says “Because I just went gay all of a sudden!” when asked why he was thus attired, I was curious about what he meant by “gay” in 1938. It certainly seemed to be a reference to homosexuality, but I was surprised it would get past the censors and I didn’t know when the word had taken on that connotation. Turns out I wasn’t the only one who was curious. First, it appears that he ad-libbed the line. Second, no one knows what he meant but it turns out that gay was already in use in the homosexual underground in the 1920s, although it wouldn’t go mainstream until 1969 and the Stonewall riots. Rumors of Cary Grant’s sexuality swirled nearly his entire career, mainly because he was roommates for many years with Randolph Scott and there were many magazine photos showing them in what appeared to be domestic bliss. But according to his daughter, he was not gay and there are those five marriages. When his co-star Katherine Hepburn was asked about it she quipped “Everyone is called a homosexual in Hollywood.” But back to our film…

What else did I learn?

Katherine Hepburn loved acting with the leopard but Cary Grant was terrified of her. He would use a stand-in whenever they needed to appear together. However, after she made a lunge at Katherine Hepburn during one scene, I gather the higher-ups became rather nervous having a live leopard with two valuable stars. From then on they resorted to various special effects tricks and even a stuffed leopard in one scene to make sure there were no more close calls. I don’t think Grant and Hepburn were actually in a car with Nissa here. But it’s good to know that Kate was game!

Katherine Hepburn seemed to me to be born to play the role of Susan Vance the flighty heiress but apparently, this was her first comedic role and she struggled. She tended to overact and tried too hard to be funny. They enlisted an old vaudeville actor Walter Catlett to work with her. She took his instruction to heart and relaxed into the role and was so grateful that she asked that he be cast in the movie. He plays Constable Slocum.

Christopher Reeve modeled his Clark Kent on Cary Grant’s performance. Which I could immediately see as soon as IMBD told me.

Unfortunately, the film flopped when it came out. Well, it actually flopped some places (New York and the midwest) and did very well in others (California and Washington DC). Hawkes hypothesized that it was because everyone in the film was a nut – he had no serious characters and he thought that turned the audience off. Except in California and Washington where I guess their tolerance for nuts is much higher. It certainly is now. Unfortunately, its poor performance contributed to Katherine Hepburn’s reputation as box office poison, a label that Cary Grant helped her shed two years later with the Philadelphia Story. But Bringing Up Baby gained in popularity and stature over the years and has now has taken its rightful place as one of the great all-time comedies.

There is much more I could say, but alas it is time to leave the old and come back to the new. I don’t expect this piece to attract much attention on this of all days, but I hope for a few my piece of fluff takes your mind off of the screwball comedy that is to come. Only I strongly suspect I won’t be laughing.

Published in Group Writing
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  1. Sisyphus Inactive
    Sisyphus
    @Sisyphus

    I have always loved this film. I first saw it at a tender age and the fossil skeleton held a special fascination for me. And having a younger brother who was energetic in fulfilling his role as chaos locus, I identified with the Grant’s character suffering the Hepburn character. Once they caught wise to the fact that the leopard was more trained than tamed, they used a big sheet of glass to partition off sets and placed actors and leopard on opposite sides. I used it to warn my children about the dangers of wild animals, letting them know that the sane characters were the ones afraid of the big cat.

    • #1
  2. Gossamer Cat Coolidge
    Gossamer Cat
    @GossamerCat

    Sisyphus (View Comment):

    I have always loved this film. I first saw it at a tender age and the fossil skeleton held a special fascination for me. And having a younger brother who was energetic in fulfilling his role as chaos locus, I identified with the Grant’s character suffering the Hepburn character. Once they caught wise to the fact that the leopard was more trained than tamed, they used a big sheet of glass to partition off sets and placed actors and leopard on opposite sides. I used it to warn my children about the dangers of wild animals, letting them know that the sane characters were the ones afraid of the big cat.

    Apparently if you look hard enough, you can see the reflection off the glass in the bathroom scene.

    • #2
  3. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Skippy was a genius.

    Gossamer Cat: Skippy the wire haired terrier, whose stage name was Asta (yes, that Asta) cast as George the wire haired terrier…

    I think casting a wire fox terrier to play a wire fox terrier is probably discriminatory type casting. All Skippy really wanted do was play Lassie. He even took out an option on the book, only to have MGM crush his dreams.

    Actually, there was a connection between those two famous pooches besides their studio. Skippy was owned by Henry and Gale Henry East. She had been a comedienne in silents but was left behind in the new era of sound. After Skippy found success as Asta (The dog made $250.00 a week in The Great Depression) the Easts hired some assistants, one of which was Rudd Weatherwax. Weatherwax would go on to train the collie that appeared in the original MGM Lassie feature. In a shrewd business move he forfeited an entire year’s salary at MGM in exchange for the rights to the Lassie name and then turned that into a 17-year run as a weekly series on CBS television.

    Myrna Loy

    In the first half of the 20th Century WFTs were very popular, even without Skippy’s star turn. Those of us that have “owned” one (I’m on my fourth) know that WFTs don’t have owners, they have “staff.” They are intelligent and energetic and often prone to trouble making. Several times when I was in a TV production truck I would reach into my computer bag for something and come up with a dog toy instead. If your “hoomans” won’t let you dig holes in the backyard that doesn’t mean you can’t bury stuff.

    Among their famous adherents were Myrna Loy (she owned two), Ava Gardner, Jack Lemmon, Miriam Hopkins, Warren Williams (the first screen Perry Mason) and King Edward VII.

    They are the absolute royalty of the Westminster Kennel Club having taken Best in Show a record 15 times.

    Ava Gardner and Friend
    • #3
  4. Gossamer Cat Coolidge
    Gossamer Cat
    @GossamerCat

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Skippy was a genius.

    Gossamer Cat: Skippy the wire haired terrier, whose stage name was Asta (yes, that Asta) cast as George the wire haired terrier…

    I think casting a wire fox terrier to play a wire fox terrier is probably discriminatory type casting. All Skippy really wanted do was play Lassie. He even took out an option on the book, only to have MGM crush his dreams.

    Actually, there was a connection between those two famous pooches besides their studio. Skippy was owned by Henry and Gale Henry East. She had been a comedienne in silents but was left behind in the new era of sound. After Skippy found success as Asta (The dog made $250.00 a week in The Great Depression) the Easts hired some assistants, one of which was Rudd Weatherwax. Weatherwax would go on to train the collie that appeared in the original MGM Lassie feature. In a shrewd business move he forfeited an entire year’s salary at MGM in exchange for the rights to the Lassie name and then turned that into a 17-year run as a weekly series on CBS television.

    Myrna Loy

    In the first half of the 20th Century WFTs were very popular, even without Skippy’s star turn. Those of us that have “owned” one (I’m on my fourth) know that WFTs don’t have owners, they have “staff.” They are intelligent and energetic and often prone to trouble making. Several times when I was in a TV production truck I would reach into my computer bag for something and come up with dog toy instead. If your “hoomans” won’t let you dig holes in the backyard that doesn’t mean you can’t bury stuff.

    Among their famous adherents were Myrna Loy (she owned two), Ava Gardner, Jack Lemmon, Mariam Hopkins, Warren Williams (the first screen Perry Mason) and King Edward VII.

    They are the absolute royalty of the Westminster Kennel Club having taken Best in Show a record 15 times.

    Ava Gardner and Friend

    I was hoping this post would inspire people to post more interesting tidbits. Yes, I’m afraid animal actors do get type cast. The WHT don’t get to be the heroic ones, but then again, the collies don’t get to be the cheeky ones.

    • #4
  5. Gossamer Cat Coolidge
    Gossamer Cat
    @GossamerCat

    EJHill (View Comment):
    Skippy was a genius.

    And apparently quite a savvy business man. I don’t think I made 250 per week when I started working 50 years later!

    • #5
  6. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Gossamer Cat: I was hoping this post would inspire people to post more interesting tidbits.

    I read my dog this comment. She says I could not have possibly written anything more interesting. 

    • #6
  7. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

    Peter Bogdanovich is a fan, and ripped it off a bit in What’s Up Doc. See, for example, coat ripping.

    • #7
  8. Gossamer Cat Coolidge
    Gossamer Cat
    @GossamerCat

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    Peter Bogdanovich is a fan, and ripped it off a bit in What’s Up Doc. See, for example, coat ripping.

    Yes, that’s right. I saw What’s Up Doc long time ago but remember nothing at all about it. But my friend who was watching Bringing up Baby with me said it reminded her of What’s up Doc. Of course, it should be the other way around.

    • #8
  9. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Gossamer Cat: When Cary Grant jumps up and says “Because I just went gay all of a sudden!” when asked why he was thus attired, I was curious about what he meant by “gay” in 1938. It certainly seemed to be a reference to homosexuality, but I was surprised it would get past the censors and I didn’t know when the word had taken on that connotation. Turns out I wasn’t the only one who was curious. First, it appears that he ad libbed the line. Second, no one knows what he meant but it turns out that gay was already in use in the homosexual underground in the 1920’s, although it wouldn’t go mainstream until 1969 and the Stonewall riots.

    A friend of mine was receptionist. Her given name was “Gay.” She found this most inconvenient at parties.

    “Hi, I’m John.”

    “I’m Gay.”

    She complained: “I don’t have anything against homosexuals, but why did they have to pick on me? Why couldn’t they have been joyous, or ebullient, or cheerful or something?”

    • #9
  10. Caryn Thatcher
    Caryn
    @Caryn

    Bringing up Baby is one of my all time favorite movies. Cary Grant was perfect, Katherine Hepburn was perfect, Baby was perfect. Not a hair wrong in the whole movie. I think it’s time to watch it again.

    Any time is a good time to watch Cary Grant. Did he make a single bad movie? 

    I’m also particularly fond of Houseboat, from something like 20 years later. Still screwball, still charming.

    • #10
  11. Gossamer Cat Coolidge
    Gossamer Cat
    @GossamerCat

    Percival (View Comment):

    Gossamer Cat: When Cary Grant jumps up and says “Because I just went gay all of a sudden!” when asked why he was thus attired, I was curious about what he meant by “gay” in 1938. It certainly seemed to be a reference to homosexuality, but I was surprised it would get past the censors and I didn’t know when the word had taken on that connotation. Turns out I wasn’t the only one who was curious. First, it appears that he ad libbed the line. Second, no one knows what he meant but it turns out that gay was already in use in the homosexual underground in the 1920’s, although it wouldn’t go mainstream until 1969 and the Stonewall riots.

    A friend of mine was receptionist. Her given name was “Gay.” She found this most inconvenient at parties.

    “Hi, I’m John.”

    “I’m Gay.”

    She complained: “I don’t have anything against homosexuals, but why did they have to pick on me? Why couldn’t they have been joyous, or ebullient, or cheerful or something?”

    I think Karens are feeling similar right now.

    • #11
  12. Gossamer Cat Coolidge
    Gossamer Cat
    @GossamerCat

    Caryn (View Comment):

    Bringing up Baby is one of my all time favorite movies. Cary Grant was perfect, Katherine Hepburn was perfect, Baby was perfect. Not a hair wrong in the whole movie. I think it’s time to watch it again.

    Any time is a good time to watch Cary Grant. Did he make a single bad movie?

    I’m also particularly fond of Houseboat, from something like 20 years later. Still screwball, still charming.

    No he didn’t. I love him in his comedies and in his more serious roles equally. Mr Blanding Builds his Dream House is also a favorite of mine. He was one for the ages.

    • #12
  13. Charlotte Member
    Charlotte
    @Charlotte

    Paging @garymcvey. Gary McVey to the white courtesy phone.

    Lovely post, @gossamercat!

    • #13
  14. Charlotte Member
    Charlotte
    @Charlotte

    Percival (View Comment):

    Gossamer Cat: When Cary Grant jumps up and says “Because I just went gay all of a sudden!” when asked why he was thus attired, I was curious about what he meant by “gay” in 1938. It certainly seemed to be a reference to homosexuality, but I was surprised it would get past the censors and I didn’t know when the word had taken on that connotation. Turns out I wasn’t the only one who was curious. First, it appears that he ad libbed the line. Second, no one knows what he meant but it turns out that gay was already in use in the homosexual underground in the 1920’s, although it wouldn’t go mainstream until 1969 and the Stonewall riots.

    A friend of mine was receptionist. Her given name was “Gay.” She found this most inconvenient at parties.

    “Hi, I’m John.”

    “I’m Gay.”

    She complained: “I don’t have anything against homosexuals, but why did they have to pick on me? Why couldn’t they have been joyous, or ebullient, or cheerful or something?”

    Mr. Charlotte has an Aunt Gay who is married to a dude named Ken. Ken’s standard line for introductions is, “Hi, I’m Ken and my wife is Gay.”

    • #14
  15. Gossamer Cat Coolidge
    Gossamer Cat
    @GossamerCat

    Charlotte (View Comment):

    Paging @garymcvey. Gary McVey to the white courtesy phone.

    Lovely post, @gossamercat!

    Thank you very much @charlotte !

    • #15
  16. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    In the aforementioned What’s Up, Doc, Ryan O’Neal also patterned his look on Grant’s, right down to the Clark Kent eyeglasses. Peter Bogdanovich was the equivalent of a baseball phenom, a rare director that came out of film criticism. His love of the old films and appreciation for their directors was sincere. When What’s Up, Doc opened, the poster tag line was “Screwball Comedies–Remember Them?” It did okay, but fact was, no, few people remembered them by then. Bringing Up Baby and other films like Ball of Fire were given a second life by Bogdanovich and other 70s directors with long memories and screening room pallor. 

    Targets gave him a chance to make the jump to making movies instead of just writing about them, and The Last Picture Show was a critical and financial success, giving him the chance to do what Bogdanovich would do again and again thereafter–do a showoff imitation of a Golden Age style of moviemaking. 

    Nice post, Gossamer Cat! And thanks for summoning me to the courtesy phone, @charlotte!

     

    • #16
  17. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Charlotte (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Gossamer Cat: When Cary Grant jumps up and says “Because I just went gay all of a sudden!” when asked why he was thus attired, I was curious about what he meant by “gay” in 1938. It certainly seemed to be a reference to homosexuality, but I was surprised it would get past the censors and I didn’t know when the word had taken on that connotation. Turns out I wasn’t the only one who was curious. First, it appears that he ad libbed the line. Second, no one knows what he meant but it turns out that gay was already in use in the homosexual underground in the 1920’s, although it wouldn’t go mainstream until 1969 and the Stonewall riots.

    A friend of mine was receptionist. Her given name was “Gay.” She found this most inconvenient at parties.

    “Hi, I’m John.”

    “I’m Gay.”

    She complained: “I don’t have anything against homosexuals, but why did they have to pick on me? Why couldn’t they have been joyous, or ebullient, or cheerful or something?”

    Mr. Charlotte has an Aunt Gay who is married to a dude named Ken. Ken’s standard line for introductions is, “Hi, I’m Ken and my wife is Gay.”

    Apple’s PR chief in the 80s introduced himself, “Hi, I’m Fred HOAR”, emphasizing his last name, and then after a pause he’d say, “And that’s spelled F-r-e-d”. 

    • #17
  18. Gossamer Cat Coolidge
    Gossamer Cat
    @GossamerCat

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    In the aforementioned What’s Up, Doc, Ryan O’Neal also patterned his look on Grant’s, right down to the Clark Kent eyeglasses. Peter Bogdanovich was the equivalent of a baseball phenom, a rare director that came out of film criticism. His love of the old films and appreciation for their directors was sincere. When What’s Up, Doc opened, the poster tag line was “Screwball Comedies–Remember Them?” It did okay, but fact was, no, few people remembered them by then. Bringing Up Baby and other films like Ball of Fire were given a second life by Bogdanovich and other 70s directors with long memories and screening room pallor.

    Targets gave him a chance to make the jump to making movies instead of just writing about them, and The Last Picture Show was a critical and financial success, giving him the chance to do what Bogdanovich would do again and again thereafter–do a showoff imitation of a Golden Age style of moviemaking.

    Nice post, Gossamer Cat! And thanks for summoning me to the courtesy phone, @charlotte!

     

    I’m so glad you dropped by! I was surprised to read that the screwball genre only lasted for about a decade. Perhaps WWII reduced the appetite for this type of comedy. I will give What’s Up Doc a new look. Particularly as I was just reading about it and completely forgot that it also starred Madeline Kahn, who is definitely one of my favorite all time comediennes.

    • #18
  19. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    Gossamer Cat (View Comment):

    Caryn (View Comment):

    Bringing up Baby is one of my all time favorite movies. Cary Grant was perfect, Katherine Hepburn was perfect, Baby was perfect. Not a hair wrong in the whole movie. I think it’s time to watch it again.

    Any time is a good time to watch Cary Grant. Did he make a single bad movie?

    I’m also particularly fond of Houseboat, from something like 20 years later. Still screwball, still charming.

    No he didn’t. I love him in his comedies and in his more serious roles equally. Mr Blanding Builds his Dream House is also a favorite of mine. He was one for the ages.

    I’m joining in going back to classic movies for a bit of relief. I remember seeing Bringing up Baby on a college date as part of a classic film series. 

    This post is part of our Group Writing Series under the January 2021 Group Writing Theme: “Old and New.” We have lots of open dates awaiting your participation. New here, or haven’t posted in months/years? You are especially encouraged to join in the conversation. Stop by soon, our schedule and sign-up sheet awaits.

    Interested in Group Writing topics that came before? See the handy compendium of monthly themes. Check out links in the Group Writing Group. You can also join the group to get a notification when a new monthly theme is posted.

    • #19
  20. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Gossamer Cat (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    In the aforementioned What’s Up, Doc, Ryan O’Neal also patterned his look on Grant’s, right down to the Clark Kent eyeglasses. Peter Bogdanovich was the equivalent of a baseball phenom, a rare director that came out of film criticism. His love of the old films and appreciation for their directors was sincere. When What’s Up, Doc opened, the poster tag line was “Screwball Comedies–Remember Them?” It did okay, but fact was, no, few people remembered them by then. Bringing Up Baby and other films like Ball of Fire were given a second life by Bogdanovich and other 70s directors with long memories and screening room pallor.

    Targets gave him a chance to make the jump to making movies instead of just writing about them, and The Last Picture Show was a critical and financial success, giving him the chance to do what Bogdanovich would do again and again thereafter–do a showoff imitation of a Golden Age style of moviemaking.

    Nice post, Gossamer Cat! And thanks for summoning me to the courtesy phone, @charlotte!

     

    I’m so glad you dropped by! I was surprised to read that the screwball genre only lasted for about a decade. Perhaps WWII reduced the appetite for this type of comedy. I will give What’s Up Doc a new look. Particularly as I was just reading about it and completely forgot that it also starred Madeline Kahn, who is definitely one of my favorite all time comediennes.

    What’s Up Doc was Madeline Kahns film debut. I just watched it last weekend. It’s great, although Ryan O’Neal plays a bit too dim for my taste.

     

    I just watched Bringing Up Baby in November, for the first time in a couple decades. It honestly wasn’t as funny as I remembered. I enjoyed it, but was underwhelmed compared to my memory of it.

     

    • #20
  21. Gossamer Cat Coolidge
    Gossamer Cat
    @GossamerCat

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):
    I just watched Bringing Up Baby in November, for the first time in a couple decades. It honestly wasn’t as funny as I remembered. I enjoyed it, but was underwhelmed compared to my memory of it.

    I suspect there is the element of surprise in this type of comedy that might dim one’s enjoyment after seeing it once. The unexpected twists and turns delight the first time. I certainly don’t laugh as hard now as I did the first time. But I still love it.

    • #21
  22. Shauna Hunt Inactive
    Shauna Hunt
    @ShaunaHunt

    We watched Charade last week and I think I will look for Bringing Up Baby because it’s one of my favorites! I also love The Philadelphia StoryArsenic and Old Lace, and The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer (?). Myrna Loy and Shirley Temple were wonderful in it!

    • #22
  23. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

    Shauna Hunt (View Comment):

    We watched Charade last week and I think I will look for Bringing Up Baby because it’s one of my favorites! I also love The Philadelphia Story, Arsenic and Old Lace, and The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer (?). Myrna Loy and Shirley Temple were wonderful in it!

    As I got older and feel less and less attached to what appears these days in the movies, I realize that I’m extremely fortunate to be able to view an older catalog of many, many great films. Given the success of TCM, it certainly appears that I’m not alone.

    • #23
  24. Gossamer Cat Coolidge
    Gossamer Cat
    @GossamerCat

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    Shauna Hunt (View Comment):

    We watched Charade last week and I think I will look for Bringing Up Baby because it’s one of my favorites! I also love The Philadelphia Story, Arsenic and Old Lace, and The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer (?). Myrna Loy and Shirley Temple were wonderful in it!

    As I got older and feel less and less attached to what appears these days in the movies, I realize that I’m extremely fortunate to be able to view an older catalog of many, many great films. Given the success of TCM, it certainly appears that I’m not alone.

    Agreed. I had moved away from classic movies for a few years, but the pandemic has brought me back to them. I have more time to watch them but I also find them comforting as I’m not hit over the head with wokeness all the time.

    • #24