review for Bringing Up Baby on AllMovie

Bringing Up Baby (1938)
by Bruce Eder review

Bringing Up Baby is the quintessential screwball comedy, and one of the crowning comic achievements in the careers of director Howard Hawks and stars Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. It may also be one of the defining examples of comedy feature film at its purest and most basic. At the time of its release, it seemed to close out the screwball genre: the portrayals in film inflated and punctured an array of movie (and social) stereotypes in as fine a style had ever been accomplished. The screwball comedy originated in the depths of the Great Depression as a reaction to the despair of everyday life, as well as to the publicized antics of wealthy fops and heiresses who seemed oblivious to the fact that people were literally starving to death. The idle rich were the genre's essential ingredient, from satirical pre-screwball efforts such as Zoltan Korda's Cash (an especially offbeat example since it was made in England) to pioneering Hollywood screwball comedies like Gregory La Cava's My Man Godfrey. As time passed, however, other targets became acceptable, including intellectual "eggheads" and eccentric members of officialdom. Bringing Up Baby skewers all of them and more -- including over-zealous psychiatrists and blustery, pretentious upper-class stuffed shirts -- hitting the bullseye with each one. Apart from its acting, pacing, and verbal acrobatics (an essential element of any Howard Hawks talking picture), Bringing Up Baby is a masterful achievement precisely because it distills its diverse ingredients down to the characters. The plot, such as it is, deals with mistakes and mistaken identities (right down to heiress Hepburn's pet leopard) but is really about nothing -- absolutely nothing, to paraphrase a standard articulated by Jerry Seinfeld in the 1990s. Even the one main element of the "story" -- the search for a missing dinosaur bone belonging to the museum where Cary Grant's character works -- is such an obvious, ridiculous comic device, a comedic equivalent to Hitchcock's "MacGuffin" concept. The screwball comedy was never quite the same, nor was any filmmaker or cast able to build a film on such slight material so successfully ever again. Indeed, most attempts that followed -- and there were ever fewer as the 1930s gave way to the 1940s -- seemed increasingly more pallid, awkward, and unimpressive.