Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Cary and Kate and a dog and a leopard

One of my all-time favourite scenes: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and Asta the dog singing to Baby the leopard (who joins in, while perched on a rooftop) in Howard Hawks’s Bringing up Baby. A deranged four-member choir. 

Watched the film again after ages. A couple of early scenes didn’t hold together for me as well as I had remembered from two decades ago (we tend to become a little more resistant to, or sheepish about, slapstick comedy as we grow older. I won’t say “mature” or “evolve”, because I think that’s a simplistic way of looking at the consumer-art relationship, and it accounts for much of the silly snobbery in cultural criticism), but the film as a whole is still magnificent, and must have been so daring on so many levels in 1938. Hepburn and Grant did four movies together (only one with Hawks, which has to be one of the big tragedies in film history) and I wish they had done many more. This sort of lunatic physical comedy was well outside Hepburn’s comfort zone, but her chemistry with Grant makes so many things possible — I think she was a lot better with him than she was with Spencer Tracy (and she was pretty damn good with Tracy too). 

I also saw some bits with a commentary track by director Peter Bogdanovich, who was a huge fan of the film (and paid tribute to it in his own What’s Up, Doc?) - I loved the commentary, not because Bogdanovich says many insightful things, but because he is so artless and childlike. This is complete fanboy stuff: he spends much of his time just cracking up at the film, repeating lines and chuckling in delight like he’s a six-year-old all over again, watching it for the first time. It’s great. 

And that last scene with the collapsing dinosaur skeleton, and the whole jailhouse sequence, and Barry Fitzgerald as the gardener, and May Robson as the aunt, and exchanges like “He had a nervous breakdown.” “Had, or has?” … I could go on and on. 

P.S. Anyone interested, please read David Thomson on Bringing up Baby. Sample: “Hollywood is seldom more usefully serious than in its best comedies […] Within the magnificent frolic, the inspired dementia, Bringing up Baby is about life, energy, and the equation of the two. And when David (Grant) admits to Susan (Hepburn) that the collapse of his skeleton, his engagement, and his rather grim, glued-together life has been ‘fun’, something profoundly American and movie-is is being offered. It’s up to us whether we take it or leave it.” (More from Thomson in this piece)

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