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Name: Dan Sallitt
Location: New York, New York, United States

Friday, August 17, 2007

Bringing Up Baby

I saw Bringing Up Baby 12 times in my first 15 years of film-buffery, and then let 20 years go by before my13th viewing last week. My first impression this time around is that there are two films in there, fighting with each other.
  1. One film is about play: play with genre, play on the set. The first scene, in the museum, pushes the "screwball" aspect of screwball comedy so far that it becomes almost nightmarish. Characters like Huxley's fiancee exist only to amuse us with how far comic conventions can be pushed; and Huxley himself is at this point no more than a wink that Cary Grant and Hawks are giving to the audience. Every time the film threatens to wind down, Hawks finds some old vaudevillian to strut and fret through some well-honed bit of business; like Huxley, they tend to mix up the names of their own characters and the ones they are addressing, as if the problems of the set and the problems of the fiction were the same. When the plot depends on a coincidence, Hawks has the actors throw it in our faces. The nakedness of the contrivance is a source of humor in itself - as, for instance, when assorted human and animal characters march in single file into the jailhouse for the climax.

  2. The other film is about people. Hawks here introduces us to his distinctive take on the comedy of power and powerlessness: he likes pushing the protagonist's loss of control into the realm of humiliation, and then, in a compensatory gesture of equal force, he shifts the focus to the humbled protagonist's recovery of his dignity and power - sometimes via detachment, sometimes via exasperation. In the other corner, Susan Vance is explictly amoral, in rebellion against every rule society is selling - and extremely feminine, her strategems couched in the language of girlish seduction, her threat coded as the threat of femininity. Somehow Bringing Up Baby seems more explicitly about sex than other screwball comedies: partly because the focus remains squarely on the boy-girl thing, and partly because Hawks pushes Susan's antisocial qualities so far that it's easy to imagine her breaking the Hays Code as well.

The two films seem to fight with each other because they have different agendas for Huxley, who is a complete nincompoop in the genre-play movie, and a plausible, if displaced, Hawksian hero in the character-based one. One feels the pull even in the presentation of supporting characters: for every Catlett or Ruggles who underlines the screwiness of the film's premise, there's a Hawksian delivery boy murmuring "Don't let it throw you" as he makes his exit.

I don't think this conceptual conflict is a particular virtue. But the film is simply dazzling in the scope of its comic inspiration. Hawks' repertoire of comic modes seems unlimited: he gets laughs with shock cuts and by holding on to master shots, with classical cutting and by withholding the classical cut, with well-staged physical humor and with offscreen sound gags. The film seems improvised to a large extent, but not quite in the style of other improvised films: it's as if Hawks shot and cut the film to enhance the actors' efficiency and mental quickness. Hepburn in particular riffs with Robin Williams-like density.

As is his wont, Hawks pushes the project's comic concept to logical extremes, and Susan's feminine energy leads inevitably to apocalypse in the final scene. (It could be noted in passing that Hawks was happy to build his next comedy, His Girl Friday, around runaway masculinity.) The exaggeration of the movie's chaotic tendencies could be seen as another aspect of genre play, but I prefer to see it as Hawks creating a suitably existential setting for the rather poignant dilemma of his displaced hero.

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