Friday, January 14, 2011

DVD Review: BRINGING UP BABY (RKO, 1938)

I'm of two minds regarding this "classic" screwball comedy -- and, judging by the dramatic division of opinion seen on the movie's iMDB Web site, I'm not alone in my appraisal. The wacky Katharine Hepburn/Cary Grant mash-up contains plenty of hilarious and memorable bits of slapstick and lashings of clever verbal humor, but, BOY, do you have to exercise some patience in order to buy the entire package. For one thing, it's an even bet that you'll want to kill Susan Vance, Hepburn's dizzy heiress character, before the movie is one-quarter over. I have never been a big fan of "comedies of humiliation" in which one individual -- in this case, Grant's hopelessly "square" paleontologist Dr. David Huxley -- receives the brunt of the abuse. Director Howard Hawks' later film I Was a Male War Bride (1949), though less critically revered than Baby these days, actually worked better for me than did Baby because (1) both Grant and Ann Sheridan were affected to some extent by frustration and comic distress while waiting to consummate their marriage and (2) Sheridan was far less annoying than Hepburn. It's not hard to imagine Grant and Sheridan's marriage lasting for a good long while; the hopes for Grant and Hepburn's hook-up seem much dimmer, even without taking into account the ultimate fate of Huxley's painstakingly assembled brontosaurus.



Despite its more irritating aspects, this movie "works" in part because of a superb supporting cast of well-regarded character actors, all of whom are in excellent form. Charlie Ruggles' fluttery Major Applegate, Barry Fitzgerald's bibulous gardener, Walter Catlett's bumbling, self-important constable, May Robson's pompous dowager, and Fritz Feld's stiffly officious Dr. Lehman are as good a "bench team" as I've ever seen, and the fact that their distinctly drawn characters are so different from one another makes for much hilarity, especially in the jail scene near the end of the movie. The only real problem with the cast is that, as Hawks himself admitted later in life, everyone was a screwball of one sort or another (well, perhaps the two leopards and George the digging dog should be excepted), and therefore the audience lacked a character with whom to identify. Well, I didn't think Huxley was that much of a nut, and I definitely identified with his travails, for reasons that anyone who knows me will immediately recognize.

I watched the DVD of the movie twice, once with Peter Bogdanovich's commentary (complete with Bogo's imitation of Hawks' low, drawling voice). The commentary was lightly enjoyable but didn't really explain why this movie, which did not do well upon original release, has ascended so dramatically in terms of critical acclaim. It's funny how many films have been "reassessed" over time, but so little attention has been paid to "reassessments" of the original "reassessors." My verdict: Baby is fun to watch, but don't necessarily believe all the hype.

1 comment:

Joe Torcivia said...

According to IMDB (The most valuable resource on the whole freakin’ Internet?), for Fritz Feld, “Baby” was directly preceded by “Swingtime in the Movies” – the WB musical comedy short I wrote of in my DVD Blog review of George Raft and Humphrey Bogart’s “They Drive By Night”.

Fritz Feld did not do his trademark “POP” in “Swingtime”. Did he do it in “Baby”? If so, is it possible that you may have seen the debut of this gesture?

Apparently, there was a sequel to “Swingtime” called “Out Where the Stars Begin” (later in the same year – 1938), in which Feld plays the same temperamental director character! I wonder if he “POP”ed in that one?