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Bringing Up Baby

Screening on Film
Directed by Howard Hawks.
With Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Charles Ruggles.
US, 1938, 35mm, black & white, 102 min.
Print source: Criterion

A pair of leopards, a pending million-dollar museum donation, a missing Brontosaurus bone known as the intercostal clavicle, and a yapping dog that likes burying things deep in the ground… With its escalating pile-up of absurd plot detail, Bringing Up Baby ranks among the zaniest screwball comedies ever produced in Hollywood. For all its raucous incident and outrageous twists of fate, however, the film is anchored by an affecting if unlikely romance between prudish paleontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant) and ditzy heiress Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), a pair of discontented loners who, on the surface, couldn’t seem more mismatched. As with so many canonical screwball comedies, desire and courting are expressed through verbal combat and a series of stressful crises, with Susan playing the nosy agitator and David the befuddled straight man. But Hawks’ particular strategy here is to use exaggeration to push the usual archetypes into the realm of psychological complexity, treating Susan’s desperate pursuit of love and David’s ascetic resistance to it as pathologically antisocial behaviors that can only be resolved by one another. As Bringing Up Baby propels through rapid-fire dialogue and slapstick on the way to its carnivalesque final act, Hawks never loses sight of his characters’ humanity, knowing full well that their neuroses and hysterics are little more than hang-ups to be grown out of in the pursuit of real happiness.

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