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Bringing Up Baby: Special Edition

"Box-office poison." The infamous barb is a well-known slice of Tinseltown vocabulary, but somewhat less known is that it was first applied to Katherine Hepburn. Even more surprising is that she earned the accolade for Howard Hawks' 1938 Bringing Up Baby. At the end of the year, Harry Brandt, president of the Independent Theater Owners of America, compiled a list of the actresses he considered the industry's biggest money-losers, and it was none other than Kate who came out on top. But for the crown jewel of the screwball genre? In fact, Baby — upon its initial release in 1938 — didn't fare well with either moviegoers or critics, and it proved to be a setback for star Hepburn's growing film career; she really wouldn't find her footing until she began her string of successes opposite Spencer Tracy a few years later. For leading man Cary Grant, the numbers reinforced concerns he privately held regarding another screwball, The Awful Truth (1937), which he distrusted because of director Leo McCarey's improvisational shooting style and eventually believed was a success by happenstance rather than design. Baby's initial failure contributed to the demise of screwball, although America's entry into World War II would seal its fate. Thankfully, the introduction of serious film scholarship in the 1960s helped sharpen our understanding of American film genres, and Bringing Up Baby has since become a bona fide cinema classic.

Grant stars as Dr. David Huxley, a New York paleontologist who's concerned with just two things: obtaining funding for his museum, and getting his hands on a rare intercostal clavicle to complete his 50-foot high brontosaurus skeleton. However, while golfing with a potential donor, David has the unfortunate pleasure to run across Susan Vance (Hepburn), an airheaded heiress who can't bother to let anyone finish a sentence before she keeps right on talking about whatever's found its way into her head. A second encounter in a nightclub convinces David that he should never have anything to do with Ms. Vance, but Susan has different ideas — her brother recently gave her a leopard named "Baby" to deliver to their aunt in Connecticut, and Susan (completely smitten with David at this point) ensnares him in a scheme to travel north with her and the big cat. The problem is that David now has possession of his rare intercostal clavicle, and when that goes missing at Susan's aunt's estate (thanks to the family dog), Susan and David have no choice but to launch a scavenger hunt. When Baby goes missing as well, it's all the pair can do to keep themselves out of jail.

*          *          *

While Cary Grant deserves equal billing with Katherine Hepburn on Bringing Up Baby, it very much was her film (Grant wasn't cast until much later in pre-production), and it gave her a solid opportunity to prove she could play against type. Some audiences may not have appreciated it in 1938, but there's no denying her zeal at playing a bubbleheaded playgirl who's alternately scatterbrained and obsessed. Grant — in keeping with his desire to distance himself from the leading-man roles that defined his contract-player years at Paramount — also plays against type, this time hiding his matinee good looks behind a pair of large horn-rimmed glasses in most scenes (a clear homage to Harold Lloyd). In the screwball tradition of having the female lead pursue her male counterpart (as opposed to the other way around in a conventional romance), Grant is harried by Hepburn's inexplicable love for him, and he's further emasculated not only by his browbeating, chaste fiancée (Virginia Walker), but also in one scene when he holds Hepburn's purse; in another famous sequence he dons a woman's dressing gown (in a double entendre that circumvented the Production Code, when asked why he's wearing the frilly smock, Grant leaps in the air and screams in exasperation "Because I just went gay all of a sudden!"). Typical of the genre, Hepburn's character is a moneyed urban socialite, while Grant is an upper-middle-class academic, but the environs of Bringing Up Baby are its most unusual feature: Here, screwball leaves the city and goes to the country, where most of the inanity takes places in the rustic backwoods of Connecticut. Grant and Hepburn carry the bulk of every scene, while filling out Howard Hawks' wonderful cast are Charles Ruggles as Major Applegate, May Robson as Aunt Elizabeth, Hollywood's favorite dog Asta, and Walter Catlett as Constable Slocum — an actor with such delicious screwball timing that Hawks later admitted writing additional scenes just to keep him in front of the camera. Unfortunately, the results were not as favorable as the longer scope of film history. Grant began to shy away from comedies, and within a few years he found his greatest collaborator in Alfred Hitchcock. As for Hepburn, she paid $220,000 to buy out her contract at RKO and headed for Broadway, where she would star in The Philadelphia Story — the eventual film would reunite her and Grant on screen for a fourth and final time.

Bringing Up Baby makes its DVD debut in a spectacular Special Edition from Warner. Disc One of this two-disc set includes the film in a splendid full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) with monaural Dolby Digital audio — the black-and-white source-print is superb with barely a hint of wear. Supplements on the first disc include a commentary by Peter Bogdanovich and a Howard Hawks trailer gallery, while Disc Two offers Turner Classic Movies' feature-length documentary Cary Grant: A Class Apart (86 min.), the additional documentary The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks (55 min.), the Vitaphone short "Campus Cinderella," which appears colorized (18 min.), and the Merrie Melodies short "A Star Is Hatched" (8 min.) Dual-DVD slimline keep-case with paperboard slipcase.
—Robert Wederquist

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