Whether it’s a double take, a quirky meet-cute, or a bumbling female lead clumsily falling over herself, physical comedy is indelibly linked to the romantic comedy genre. In my previous column, on Bridget Jones’s Diary, I argued that in order to understand romantic comedies, you have to look to the 1990s and early 2000s, when many of their tropes were established. But some of them have been there from the very beginning of the genre. The link between physical comedy and rom-coms, for example, began way back in the 1930s, with the rise of the screwball comedy.
Although the true heyday of the screwball comedy was the mid-1930s through the early 1940s, it’s a genre whose cultural legacy has lasted far longer through persistent homage and parody. Generally speaking, these include over-the-top farcical scenarios, slapstick, fast-talking banter, confident women, and a central romance based on a “battle of the sexes.” The first big-screen screwball comedy is widely considered to be Frank Capra’s 1934 film, It Happened One Night, which stars Claudette Colbert as a spoiled socialite and Clark Gable as a down-on-his-luck newspaper reporter who’s chasing a story about her. Its success quickly gave rise to others that shared its spirit: My Man Godfrey (1936), His Girl Friday (1940), and—perhaps the screwiest of screwballs—Howard Hawks’ 1938 classic, Bringing Up Baby.
Bringing Up Baby was released at the tail end of the Great Depression, a time when audiences were especially eager for escapism. It was also less than a decade after talkies had replaced silent films, when filmmakers were still turning to theater for inspiration. And like its fellow screwballs, it owes a lot to farcical plays like Oscar Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest and Shakespeare comedies like Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
But perhaps the biggest influence on it and screwball comedies like it was Hollywood’s adoption of The Motion Picture Production Code—or “Hays Code,” named for Motion Picture Producers And Distributors Of America president Will H. Hays. Created in 1930, but not strictly enforced until 1934, the Hays Code sought to avoid government censorship through a set of self-imposed guidelines—largely based in Catholic doctrine—for what films could and could not show onscreen to avoid lowering the “moral standards” of those who saw them. That meant villains had to be punished, immoral behavior couldn’t be presented in a positive light (or depicted at all), authority figures had to be respected, and Hollywood’s pre-code attitudes toward things like sex, violence, abortion, infidelity, homosexuality, and drug use suddenly had to get a whole lot more chaste.
Of course, the Hays Code didn’t stop filmmakers from wanting to tell complex stories about real-life issues, including love, lust, and sex. They just had to get a lot more clever about it. Thus the screwball comedy was born—a “sex comedy without sex,” as critic Andrew Sarris once characterized it—where the verbal banter and physical comedy provided an acceptable outlet for sexual chemistry. Take, for instance, this iconic set piece from Bringing Up Baby, in which Katharine Hepburn’s flighty heiress rips the back of her dress in a restaurant, then is forced to walk in sync with Cary Grant’s bumbling paleontologist in order to hide her exposed backside. It’s a hilarious, perfectly performed bit of physical comedy, one that also provides a similar cover for Hepburn and Grant to press up against one another in a way that would’ve been considered too risqué in a strictly romantic context.
If you haven’t seen it, it’s impossible to overemphasize how truly bizarre Bringing Up Baby is—less a film than a series of nonstop comedy sketches, loosely tied together by a kooky plot and even kookier characters. Written by Hagar Wilde and Dudley Nichols (and based on a short story by Wilde), Bringing Up Baby opens on Grant’s absentminded paleontologist, David Huxley. David has a lot on his plate. He’s waiting for the arrival of the final bone he needs to complete a brontosaurus skeleton he’s been working on for four years. He’s also a day away from marrying his standoffish co-worker Alice Swallow, while simultaneously preparing for a high-pressured meeting with the lawyer of Mrs. Elizabeth Random, a wealthy woman who’s considering making a million-dollar donation to his museum.
David’s attempts to impress said lawyer, however, are continually undermined by Hepburn’s Susan Vance—an eccentric woman he meets by happenstance, but who coincidentally turns out to be Mrs. Random’s niece. Although he repeatedly tries to return to a life of normalcy, David keeps finding himself sucked into the vortex of chaos that swirls around Susan. It’s not long before she’s roped him into helping her drive a tame leopard named Baby up to her family home in Connecticut, soothing the animal by singing a duet of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” (because that’s the way this film’s logic works).
Once in Connecticut, the madness only intensifies. (As Grant’s character rightfully wonders aloud, “How can all these things happen to just one person?”) Susan conspires to keep David around because she’s fallen in love with him. Meanwhile, he tries to hide his true identity from Mrs. Random as his strange behavior—such as stalking the family dog that’s buried his prized dinosaur bone—makes him appear increasingly unstable. A series of mistaken identities culminates in there being not one, but two escaped leopards running around the Connecticut countryside: Baby, as well as a vicious circus leopard who’s been known to attack people.
Bringing Up Baby was the second of four films Grant and Hepburn made together, and their chemistry is what keeps it from entirely flying off the rails. Although David and Susan are often at odds, you can sense how much fun Grant and Hepburn are having as actors—and in fact, they famously struggled to get through filming without bursting into laughter. It would be generous to say Bringing Up Baby has anything resembling actual character arcs, yet there’s a sense that Susan and David’s coupling brings some balance to their polar opposite personalities. He grounds her eccentricities, while she brings some much-needed fun into his dreary life. And a big—albeit only heavily implied—part of that is sex.
Early on, David’s icy fiancée (a prototype for the many frigid, disposable women in rom-coms to come) tells him their impending marriage “must entail no domestic entanglements of any kind” so as to not interfere with his work. “I mean of any kind, David,” she repeats when he lightly protests. Although David doesn’t seem thrilled about skipping his honeymoon or forgoing the idea of having children, he’s too timid to challenge the path he’s found himself on. It’s not until Susan forcibly, even physically, inserts herself into his life that David realizes just how much he’s been missing out on. (That Susan and David first meet after she steals his ball on a golf course certainly has some metaphorical resonance.)
Once the misunderstandings are all cleared up and the leopards are captured, David realizes that his whirlwind adventure with Susan was the most fun he’s ever had. And even though she accidentally destroys his prized brontosaurus skeleton during their romantic reunion, the two wind up in each other’s arms anyway. She’s brought excitement, love, and sexuality into his previously prudish life, and Bringing Up Baby makes clear the charge he’s given her without ever having them so much as kiss.
Despite its mostly good reviews at the time, and its legacy since as one of the best comedies ever made, Bringing Up Baby was initially a commercial flop. Those divided responses actually make a lot of sense: Howard Hawks takes a “more is more” approach to Bringing Up Baby’s comedy, cramming a verbal or visual gag into nearly every second of its runtime. Before you have time to consider whether one worked, two more have already somersaulted by. Whether you find it all delightfully madcap or incredibly exhausting is up to personal taste, and it’s a more potentially polarizing film than its reputation would suggest. Even Hawks himself wasn’t entirely satisfied: In a 1962 interview with Peter Bogdanovich for Movie Magazine, he admitted, “I think the picture had a great fault, and I learned an awful lot from that. There were no normal people in it. Everyone you met was a screwball, and since that time I have learned my lesson and I don’t intend ever again to make everybody crazy.”
Hawks also once famously described a good film as being one with “three great scenes, no bad ones.” If I’m being honest, I’m not sure Bringing Up Baby entirely fits the bill. The film certainly has more than three great scenes, but it definitely has some bad ones, too—though people would likely disagree on which are which. For the best, I’d stump for the one where David emerges from the shower to learn Susan has sent his only set of clothes away to be cleaned as a stalling tactic. Still struggling to figure out how he got into such a predicament, David dons one of Susan’s frilly dressing gowns, then finds himself arguing with the woman whose house he’s in. As he’s pressed to answer why he’s wearing such strange attire, Grant jumps into the air and yells, “Because I just went gay all of a sudden!”—a Grant ad lib that may be one of film’s first uses of “gay” as a reference to homosexuality (though it’s unclear exactly how Grant is using it). What makes the scene, and Grant’s whole performance, so funny is the way he imbues the previously demure David’s over-the-top physical mishaps and loss of decorum with a perpetual sense of confusion—about Susan, and about the way he finds himself behaving around her.
We tend to associate Grant with debonair leading men as much as we do Hepburn with fiery, headstrong females, so them playing against type feels like they’re subverting their big-screen personas. However, that wasn’t necessarily the case at the time. Although Grant’s early film work did include dashing leading men, the first half of his career was also filled with comedies like Arsenic And Old Lace—and in fact, after being expelled from school at age 14, Grant literally ran away to join the circus. Grant worked as a stilt walker and juggler in the acrobatic troupe The Penders before traveling to America with the group and finding work on the vaudeville circuit. By the time Bringing Up Baby was released, Grant was still relatively new to Hollywood, and low on the list of actors considered for leading roles. In retrospect, however, it’s hard to imagine anyone blending witty banter and pratfalls as deftly as he does.
Hepburn, heading into a career slump after her initial breakout stardom, wasn’t as familiar with comedy as Grant was, but playing a wealthy heiress offered a chance to riff on her real-life persona as a young woman from a wealthy Connecticut family. The production got off to a slow start as Hepburn initially played it far too broadly, but after working with vaudeville veteran Walter Catlett (who would go on to play the film’s bumbling constable), she soon realized the importance of underplaying and found her footing with remarkable confidence.
Hepburn even comes close to stealing the whole film in the scene in which Susan realizes it’s easier to play into the constable’s assumption that she and David are criminals, rather than try to explain the convoluted mishaps that landed them in jail. In a film full of surprises, none are better than watching Hepburn suddenly switch from Susan’s guileless demeanor into the tough-talkin’ criminal persona of “Swingin’ Door Susie.” Hepburn’s gangster drama-parodying mannerisms offer a reminder that early Hollywood was more aware of its own tropes than we often give it credit.
As Hawks admits, Bringing Up Baby isn’t a perfect film. But there’s an undeniable, ephemeral magic that comes from watching him, Hepburn, and Grant all work together on such a madcap story. (Although Grant would go on to work with both collaborators again, this is the sole time Hepburn and Hawks worked together.) And it’s not hard to see why Bringing Up Baby, in particular, and screwball comedies in general had such cultural staying power. While romantic comedies are no longer restrained by morality codes when it comes to sex, the screwball so firmly established physical comedy as part of its onscreen language that it became a hallmark of the genre. Sure, the laziest rom-coms will mindlessly throw in pratfalls the way bad action movies throw in perfunctory car chases, but the best remember that they can do a lot more than just provide laughs. Physical comedy can inform characters, build relationships, and add a spark of sex—even if it’s still subtle enough to slip past the censors.
Next time: When Harry Met Sally and the rom-com legacy of Nora Ephron.