Bringing Up Baby

Welcome to Week 1 in the Saturday Cinema series! We are watching our way through a diverse list of 40 films, selected in a five-round cinema draft. You can view the list, ratings, and latest comments on IMDb: Saturday Cinema Draft 2016.

I was lucky enough to draft first. I chose the 1938 Howard Hawks classic “Bringing Up Baby” starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant.

There’s a lot of great information about the film on its Wikipedia and IMDb pages. I’ll include those links here at the top. All of the information below comes from those two sources. And this post is still in-progress…

Bringing Up Baby (1938) on Wikipedia.

Bringing Up Baby (1938) on IMDb.

Bringing Up Baby (1938) on IMDb

Howard Hawks

Hawks signed a contract with RKO to direct a film adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Gunga Din, which was already in pre-production. When RKO was unable to borrow its desired MGM stars for the film (Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Franchot Tone), the production was delayed and Hawks looked for a project to work on in the interim. In April of 1937 he happened across “Bringing Up Baby,” a short story by Hagar Wilde published in Collier’s magazine. Hawks literally lol’d as he read the story of David and Susan trying to recapture a panther in the wilds of rural Connecticut using the big cat’s favorite song, “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby.” He immediately wanted to make it into a film, and RKO bought the screen rights for $1,004.

Hawks brought Wilde onboard to work on the characters, hired screenwriter Dudley Nichols for the screenplay, and worked with both throughout the summer of 1937 to create a considerably more complicated story and a 202 page script (which would have amounted to a running time of approx. 3h 22m). Although Carole Lombard (Hawks’s cousin) was considered for the part of Susan Vance, Katharine Hepburn was cast, partly because of her similarities to the character: a strong-willed young woman from a wealthy New England family. The 30-year-old Hepburn was already an Academy Award Winning Actress—”Morning Glory” (1933)—and commanded a hefty $75,000 salary. Her recent films had not been commercially successful, causing some to speculate that by casting Hepburn RKO would be lucky to break even on Bringing Up Baby.

Cary Grant

The part of David Huxley was more difficult to cast. Hawks wanted silent-film comedian Harold Lloyd for the part, but RKO rejected the idea. Ronald Coleman was likewise rejected. RKO then offered the part to Robert Montgomery, Fredric March, and Ray Milland (all of whom turned it down). Ultimately it was Howard Hughes who suggested Cary Grant for the role. Grant (age 33 at the time) had a lifetime of theatre experience, including some 1920s vaudeville fame, but had only starred in crime films and dramas before his 1937 breakout romcom hit, “The Awful Truth.” The film hadn’t been released at the time Grant was cast for Bringing Up Baby, but it’s possible that Hawks saw a rough cut that convinced him to follow up on Hughes’s recommendation. Grant had a good agent who bargained to increase Grant’s contract salary to $75,000 per film (up from $50,000) and got him the same bonuses Hepburn was promised.

Despite the great deal, Grant took two weeks to decide whether he would take the role. His main concern was that he doubted in his own ability to play an intellectual character. Hawks talked him into it, promising to coach him along the way. Among his advice to Grant: watch Harold Lloyd’s films, and whenever he was to portray extreme nervousness in a scene, think about a man imitating a whinnying horse. As a nod to Lloyd, Hawks had Grant wear nerdy glasses (one of Lloyd’s trademarks). Hawks was repeatedly pressured by RKO studio execs to get rid of Grant’s glasses, but Hawks stuck to his bespectacled guns.

Katharine Hepburn

As it turned out, Cary Grant was able to play an intellectual character rather well. Who’da thunk? But Hepburn struggled with her part. Calling on her theatre experience from her days on stage at Bryn Mawr, she tended towards overacting. Howard Hawkes tells the story like this:

The great trouble is people trying to be funny. If they don’t try to be funny, then they are funny. I couldn’t do any good with her, so I went over to an actor who was a comic for the Ziegfeld Follies and everything, Walter Catlett, and said, “Walter, have you been watching Miss Hepburn?”

He said, “Yeah.”

“Do you know what she’s doing?”


And I said, “Will you tell her?”

He said, “No.”

“Well,” I said, “supposing she asks you to tell her?”

“Well then, I’ll have to tell her.”

So I went over to Kate, and I said, “We’re not getting along too well on this thing. I’m not getting through to you, but there’s a man here who I think could. Do you want to talk to him?” She came back from talking with him and said, “Howard, hire that guy and keep him around here for several weeks, because I need him.” And from that time on, she knew how to play comedy better, which is just to read lines.

Apparently Catlett made his point by running through scenes with Grant, demonstrating that oftentimes serious is funny. After that, Hepburn simply played herself. She also wanted Catlett around in case she needed further coaching in the future, convincing Hawks to cast him in the role of Constable.

After a bad start, Howard Hawks grew to respect Katharine Hepburn tremendously for her comic timing, ad-libbing skills and physical control. He would tell the press, “She has an amazing body – like a boxer. It’s hard for her to make a wrong turn. She’s always in perfect balance. She has that beautiful coordination that allows you to stop and make a turn and never fall off balance. This gives her an amazing sense of timing. I’ve never seen a girl that had that odd rhythm and control.”

Money Trouble

The production finished 40 days late and $330,000 over budget. The early delays had to do with obtaining the rights to the song “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby,” and then the rights to use an idea from a comic strip about a dog burying a palentologist’s bone. RKO acquired rights for $1,000 each. Later delays were more to do with Hawks, who loved letting his actors improvise and ad-lib, and Grant and Hepburn, who often couldn’t keep from laughing during filming. The scene where Grant asks Hepburn where his bone is took an entire day to film, from 10am to after 4pm, because of laughing fits that ruined takes. With the exception of Nissa the Leopard (who was cast when they were unable to find a panther as in the original short story), everyone had overtime clauses in their contracts. Grant and Hepburn each made about $120,000, and Hawks (whose initial contract was for $88,000) made over $200,000. RKO was outraged and fired Hawks, paying $40,000 to cancel his contract for Gunga Din.

More from the Trivia page on IMDb

Near the end of filming, Katharine Hepburn’s name appeared in a trade ad placed by the Independent Theatre Owners Association at the top of a list of performers they considered “box-office poison.” Also on the list were Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. The publicity about Hepburn’s lack of popularity did little to help the film at the box office.

Concerned about Katharine Hepburn’s bad press, RKO decided to shelve the project before spending any additional money on editing, scoring and advertising. Howard Hughes, who later bought RKO, purchased the film from RKO and had it booked in the Loew Circuit.

RKO was still committed to pay Katharine Hepburn for two more films at $75,000 apiece. To get rid of her they assigned her to make a B-movie, Mother Carey’s Chickens (1938). Rather than make that film, Hepburn bought out her contract for $220,000.

The scene in which Susan’s dress is ripped was inspired by something that happened to Cary Grant. He was at the Roxy Theater one night and his pants zipper was down when it caught on the back of a woman’s dress. Grant impulsively followed her. When he told this story to Howard Hawks, Hawks loved it and put it into the film.

David’s response to Aunt Elizabeth asking him why he is wearing a woman’s dressing gown (“Because I just went gay all of a sudden!”) is considered by many film historians to be the first use of the word “gay” in its roughly modern sense (as opposed to its archaic meaning of “happy, carefree”) in an American studio film. Among homosexuals, the word first came into its current use during the 1920s or possibly even earlier, though it was not widely known by heterosexuals as a slang term for homosexuals until the late 1960s. The line was not in the original shooting script for the film; it was an ad lib from Cary Grant himself. The censors were likely unfamiliar with the term and assumed it to mean “gaga” or “senile” in the context.

Christopher Reeve based his performance as Clark Kent in four “Superman” movies on Cary Grant’s “David Huxley” from this film.

There is no musical score for the film, with the exception of the opening and end titles.

Howard Hawks said that he failed at making a good comedy here because of the characters were too “madcap”, with no straight men/women to ground it. This comment may have resulted from his disappointment at the film’s commercial failure at the time of its release, although many now consider it Hawks’ best film.

This film employed a great deal of split screen and optical tricks, such as rear screen projection, so that having the big cat in close proximity to the actors (especially Cary Grant who was more worried about acting with the cat than Katharine Hepburn) could be kept to a minimum. (Hepburn is sometimes shown petting and handling Baby. The leopard’s trainer praised Hepburn, stating that Kate was fearless and could become an animal trainer if she so desired.) Most of the split screens had a lot of movement in them, which meant the dividing line had to be moved around as well. Even the scenes of Susan dragging the mean Leopard on a leash are split screened. You can see that the rope does not line up. A puppet Leopard was also used in some shots. It’s most clearly seen in the shot after Susan gets the Leopard dragged into the jail. The reaction shot immediately afterwards, shows David and Mrs. Random with “Baby” the Leopard on the table. The Leopard is a puppet.

The scenes which involved Baby roaming around freely, notably in Susan’s apartment, had to be done in a cage, with the camera and sound picked up through holes in the fencing.

Katharine Hepburn was generally fearless around the young leopard ‘Nissa (II)’ who played “Baby” and even enjoyed petting it. Cary Grant was less fond of the big cat and a double was used in the scenes where his character and the leopard had to make contact.

Katharine Hepburn had one very close call with the leopard. She was wearing a skirt that was lined with little metal pieces to make the skirt swing prettily. When Hepburn turned around abruptly, the leopard made a lunge for her back. Only the intervention of the trainer’s whip saved Hepburn. The leopard was not allowed to roam around freely after that, and Hepburn was more careful around it from then on.

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