Bringing Up Baby
Viewers new to American comedies of the ’30s are often surprised by the period’s sophistication and wit, two words not usually reserved for Hollywood comedies nowadays. Screwball comedy, in particular, was a genre that offered an opportunity for Depression troubled audiences to enjoy stories promoting a complete reshuffling of the social order, where classes and sexes intermingled with equal agency, random events ensured happy endings, and chaos reigned supreme. The genre was given its start in 1934 when three films were released–It Happened One Night, Twentieth Century, and The Thin Man–and petered out sometime during World War II and the following era of optimistic conformity.
In the last couple of weeks, a string of DVD releases have brought the Golden Age of Hollywood back into the spotlight, with Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century and Bringing Up Baby (1938) in the classic screwball corner, George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story (1940) representing the romantic comedy (a nice resissue, but cinephiles are still waiting for the earlier Cukor/Grant/Hepburn Holiday), Ernst Lubitsch’s satire, To Be or Not to Be (1942), and Preston Sturges’ screwball film (often considered the last of its kind), The Palm Beach Story (1942). Any one of these movies is well worth checking out, but I’ll focus here on Bringing Up Baby and To Be or Not to Be.
Bringing Up Baby
Often considered the “screwiest” of the screwball comedies, director Hawks later suggested he wished he had included at least one sane character in the film, but its off-balance consistency is somehow both hilarious and enchanting.
Cary Grant plays a straight-laced but flustered paleontologist who’s about to be married to a stuffy colleague, but Katherine Hepburn, a playful heiress who (innocently?) takes mischievousness to a whole new level, arrives out of nowhere and wreaks havoc in Grant’s ordered life. Disrupting his golf game, stealing his car, and generally embarrassing him in public, she manages to completely derail his romantic intentions while entangling him in her own life. Her greatest asset is Baby, a pet leopard she inherits that provides her bountiful opportunities for comic crisis.
Grant had already established his reputation as a comedic leading man, but Hepburn’s looney turn was a surprising tangent to her dramatic screen persona (which oscillated throughout the ’30s until The Philadelphia Story solidified her stardom). She is delightful in Bringing Up Baby, frantic and graceful, manipulative and sweet, and her timing is impeccable. Of course, much of the film’s driving rhythm and speed can be attributed to Hawks, whose career of unassuming but effective camera styles, breakneck pacing, and thematic consistency amazed the French auteur theorists.
In fact, there has been considerable critical commentary on the film for some time; one of the most influential is found in Robin Wood’s 1968 study of Hawks’ career. Wood wrote that the film is “perhaps the funniest of Hawks’ comedies but not the best,” highlighted Grant’s progression from Duty to Nature (Superego to Id), and suggested one of the film’s problems is the dubious thought of Hepburn being “a suitable life-partner” for Grant. However, I would suggest this is a trademark tenet of screwball comedies–that “happy endings” serve as temporary moments of stasis rather than any return to social normalcy. (One remembers Sturges’ parody of the stereotypical Hollywood ending at the beginning of The Palm Beach Story: “They lived happily ever after . . . or did they?”)
The new Warner DVD is a lovely 2-disc package with a reasonably good commentary by Peter Bogdanovich, who, as with his commentaries on Welles DVDs, can’t resist offering odd impersonations of the filmmaker’s voice whenever he quotes him.
The DVD release also contains two feature-length documentaries, one on Cary Grant and the other on Hawks (Richard Schickel’s straightforward overview of the director’s career for his 1973 Men Who Made the Movies PBS series, recut with new narration by Sydney Pollack). Hawks’ laconic and understated persona is enjoyably juxtaposed with memorable moments from his films; seen as a whole, it reinforces the claim that Hawks may not have been a formal innovator, but he probably made more great films in more genres than any other Hollywood director.
To Be or Not to Be
Although the screwball genre faced its demise with a growing sobriety in America’s changing worldview, it nevertheless left its mark in several wartime films that emphasized other kinds of comedy. One of those films was To Be or Not to Be, a tremendously accomplished satire of the Third Reich that oscillates between outrageous farce (enlivened with screwball humor) and genuinely suspenseful drama.
The story concerns a Polish acting troupe that is rehearsing an anti-Nazi play when Germany invades Warsaw in 1939, and as part of the troupe’s resistance, it begins to stage false situations and impersonations to confuse the Nazi occupation. The Gestapo’s propensity to resemble a theatrical performance with its own entrances and exits, as well as personal manipulation, thus provides ready-made material for the troupe–and the film itself. The performances (particularly by the two leads, screwball standby Carole Lombard and Jack Benny), exude an aloof elegance, gracefully navigating the seriousness of the drama by highlighting the story’s theatricality without undermining its gravity. The film exhibits a rare example of ironic detachment adding new layers of interpretation without squandering the emotional connections with obvious winks and nudges.
Partly this is because the film is about actors acting (“to be or not to be”–that is the question dramatically and politically), and partly this is because Ernst Lubitsch directed it, a filmmaker renowned for the way he grafted “European sophistication” onto Hollywood comedies. That some of his work is now criticized for its superficial luster makes this film in particular (as well as 1940’s The Shop Around the Corner) a noteworthy example from his oeuvre: a movie shockingly of its time (so much so that it was criticized for being in bad taste) that fully understands that comedy can be one of the most piercing forms of serious engagement.