The Daily Stream: Bringing Up Baby Is Screwball Romantic Comedy Perfection

The movie: "Bringing Up Baby"

Where you can watch it: HBO Max

The pitch: David Huxley is a fussy paleontologist doing his best to handle increasingly strange situations, all caused by a beautiful and eccentric young heiress named Susan Vance. Starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn as the ridiculous romantic pair, it was sadly a commercial flop, in large part due to Hepburn being declared "box office poison" by the Independent Theater Owners of America only a short time before its release. The movie has thankfully earned a reappraisal in the years since, as Howard Hawks' madcap direction and Grant and Hepburn's incredible onscreen chemistry makes this one of the funniest romantic comedies ever made. It's also absolutely filthy, with more sneaky dirty jokes packed in than anyone can really catch on a single viewing.

"Bringing Up Baby" is a mile-a-minute screwball romance where all of the characters are totally bonkers but it doesn't matter because it makes sense within the ridiculous world. This is a story with not only mistaken human identities, but mistaken leopard identities, and the logic of the world is more cartoonish than realistic, so it works. "Bringing Up Baby" was my first screwball comedy and the first black and white movie that I ever loved, and it's a truly brilliant film that everyone should see at least once. 

Why it's essential viewing

When most people think of Cary Grant, they might think of "North by Northwest" or "To Catch a Thief," but the only thing I can picture is the man leaping into the air, dressed in a frilly feminine robe, shouting "I've gone a bit gay all of a sudden!" when asked by Susan's aunt why he's wearing such an unusual outfit. He's absolutely perfect as David, a nebbish and frustrated scientist who acts like a John Oliver character but looks like James Bond. Hepburn is similarly in her element as Susan, and while some critics were unkind to her comedic skills, she's honestly hilarious playing a character that's like a gorgeous, real-life Bugs Bunny. Together they're one of the best onscreen couples of all time, as their banter and arguments are both exceptionally funny and genuinely sexy. I've always thought that the most important element of a romantic comedy is that you want the couple to get together at the end, and with "Bringing Up Baby," it's just about impossible not to root for their loony love. 

Hepburn and Grant's onscreen chemistry ended up being the stuff of legend; their characters flirt and fight with the best of them, using not only their romantic chemistry but their comedic chops to bounce off against one another. They're like a true force of nature that change every person they encounter, and they should get married and have bonkers babies and live happily ever after.

Writing around the rules

"Bringing Up Baby" is brilliant, with more jokes packed into its runtime than any one person could possibly catch in a single viewing. It's an ostensibly family-friendly comedy that has enough slapstick to keep the kids entertained and carefully-worded adult jokes peppered throughout. It's genuinely filthy, too, laced with double-entendres to make anyone with even a mildly perverted sense of humor burst into giggles. The very first lines of dialogue in the film are a play on words, as David discusses where to put a dinosaur bone with his prudish fiancée, Miss Swallow (Virginia Walker). "Alice, I think this one belongs in the tail," he tells her, holding up the dinosaur bone, and she replies with "Nonsense. You tried it in the tail yesterday."

The Hays Code, a set of rules for movies to abide by in the name of "decency," meant that many movies had to make their sexual content as sneakily as possible. Outwardly bawdy sex comedies like those of the 1980s and '90s would get someone in a lot of trouble during the Hays days, but audiences still enjoyed sex jokes, so screenwriters had to get clever. "Bringing Up Baby" is one of the best examples of this kind of writing, based on an original story by Hagar Wilde. Wilde co-wrote the screenplay with Gertrude Purcell, Robert A. McGowan, and Academy Award winner Dudley Nichols, and it's a true work of art in the face of prudish restrictions. 

"Bringing Up Baby" may not have been appreciated for its genius in its time, but it's one of the best screwball comedies ever made and it's pure cinematic joy. Check it out, and if you don't laugh, we'll feed you to the leopards.