I recently watched Bringing Up Baby, a 1938 screwball comedy film directed by Howard Hawks. Screwball comedies were common in the 30s-40s, taking a traditional romance story and turning it into a farce. Critics liked this movie, but it only did modestly at the box office. Its reputation has grown into it with time, however; it’s now considered a comedy classic. It’s vaguely paleontology-related enough (one of the lead characters is a paleontologist) that I’m gonna write about it here.
The film’s lead characters are Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), a harebrained, mischievous socialite, and David Huxley (Cary Grant), a passive, awkward paleontologist (oh hey, another David in paleontology). The two meet by chance at a golf course when the latter attempts to discuss funding for his museum (the exterior of which is live-acted by the AMNH) through a middleman, and the former accidentally makes off with first his golf ball and then his car. And then Susan ends up with the titular Baby – a leopard sent to her from South America (ow, right in the biogeography). The rest of the movie is filled with fumblings and hijinks involving a stolen dinosaur bone, chickens, rich people, a second, more aggressive leopard, a dog, and jail.
This movie’s great. It’s fast-paced, energetic, and still funny. A good deal of the comedy is built around slapstick, comedic misunderstandings and double entendres, which thankfully slipped by the Hays Code. Maybe I’m just a sucker for farces, but I think the comedy has managed to hold up very well over the years. The acting is great – props to Hepburn’s motormouth, interactions with the leopard, and chemistry with Cary Grant (the two would costar in three other movies). It all adds up to an amusing and charming movie. Go with the flow, and you’ll probably have a good time watching it.
One thing in particular stood out in my mind while watching this: Katharine Hepburn’s character comes off as a *winces in anticipation of thrown fruit* “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” long before that was even a concept. The term was originally coined to point out how the trope is sexist and a sign of bad writing – the quirky woman only exists to make the male lead happy, and never pursues a life of her own (Rabin 2014) – and it’s in this sense that I’m using it. Susan Vance is clearly a progenitor of the trope, but she also comes off as a bit different than the stereotype. She her own agendas, at one point even tugging on David Huxley’s emotions to get what she wants. Instead of being an immediate light in his life, she more or less wrecks it over the span of two days (but he falls in love with her anyways). Her more negative habits, including taking things that aren’t hers, aren’t just quirky traits that endear her to the male lead – they cause legitimate problems for her and those around. She weasels her way out of her legal troubles with her own cunning. And she doesn’t come off as some male writer’s wish fulfillment, because she wasn’t: a woman, Hagar Wilde, came up with the story, and she co-wrote the final script, being in charge of the characterization and comedy (McCarthy 2000). I’d argue Susan’s a plenty more solid character than the archetypal (i.e. regressive and sexist) MPDG, given the context of the film, 1930’s gender norms, and Katharine Hepburn, who built a career out of defying said gender norms.
The leopard was great. The animal actor, Nissa the leopard, had been in movies for years by this point, and was one of the most personable leopards in Hollywood. She was trained by leopard specialist Olga Celeste, who appreciated leopards precisely because of their danger and fearlessness (Harris 1916). Katharine Hepburn filmed most of her scenes with Nissa, because she was awesome. They got along really well, in part because Hepburn wore a certain perfume the leopard liked (Carter 2016). Cary Grant really did not want to be near the leopard, so they resorted to doubles, rear-projection, and matting multiple shots together. RKO had plenty of practice with this with 1933’s King Kong, and the end result looks really good.
How does this movie fare paleontologically? David’s main goal is to acquire one last bone to complete a Brontosaurus mount. An understandable goal for a 1930’s museum worker. The bone he seeks, the “intercostal clavicle”, does not exist in Brontosaurus, nor anything else (clavicles are not intercostal). Anatomically the film’s skeleton looks… meh? It looks to me like it was primarily modeled after the YPM’s old mount, but not with the same level of care as the casts in Jurassic Park’s visitor center. It’s better than the one from One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing, at least. I like how the foot bones are clearly fake and look different to the rest of the skeleton, as if to imply the feet weren’t preserved.
I don’t feel I can effectively quantify movie ratings yet; it’s all pretty subjective, there are many factors that would play into it, and I don’t know how to polarize the scale. I’ll give it a rating of happy leopard/10.
Fun fact: during filming, Katharine Hepburn dropped a stuffed leopard through the roof of Cary Grant’s dressing room. He was furious (Nelson 2002).
Carter, G. (2016). Katharine Hepburn. New Word City.
Harris, G. (1916). “The Leopard Lady: How Princess Olga Celeste Makes the Selig Animals Act”. Motography 15: 1363.
McCarthy, T. (2000). Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood. Grove Press.
Nelson, N. (2002). Evenings with Cary Grant: Recollections in His Own Words and by Those Who Knew Him Best. Kensington Publishing Corporation.
Rabin, N. (2014). “I’m sorry for coining the phrase ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’“. Salon.