Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
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