Bringing Up Baby: a unique American dream of independence

29 November 2010

Dr Peter Swaab (UCL English) has written a book about the 1938 film Bringing Up Baby as part of the BFI Film Classics series.

Here, he explains how his love of the film has not diminished with time.


Bringingupbaby

Here, Dr Peter Swaab (UCL English) explains his enduring love for the 1938 classic film Bringing Up Baby, the subject of his new book.

“The first time I saw Bringing Up Baby on video (back when video was newish and I was youngish) I laughed so hard that the friends I was with wondered quite what had got into me. It still makes me laugh very hard even after seeing it umpteen times and writing a book about it.

More than just making me laugh though, Bringing Up Baby has a strange power to make me feel happy about the world. It takes such a positive view of human absurdity, gives such a welcome to trusting in luck, nerve and character and puts work and worry so decisively in their place, subordinate to vitality and what screwball comedy tends to call ‘fun’. Funny, certainly, but ‘fun’ too, in the cryptically value-laden sense which screwball gives to the idea of ‘fun’.

The film was directed by Howard Hawks in 1938, some way into Hollywood’s great decade of screwball comedies. In Bringing Up Baby, as many readers will know, Cary Grant plays a naïve and repressed palaeosaurologist who becomes entangled with (and ensnared by) a wilful heiress (Katharine Hepburn). Chaos ensues and romance blossoms as not one but two leopards (plus a dog) are set loose in verdant Connecticut, in this story which wonders why we want animals in our lives and why we sometimes need to behave as animals ourselves.

The 1930s saw a cycle of horror films and also of screwball comedies. Successful films in these fast–moving genres knew about their predecessors and often alluded to them or departed from them. Audiences were smart and informed about the themes and variations involved.

In researching the film in relation to its genre, I came to think Bringing up Baby both as the epitome of screwball comedy and an exception to its rules. An epitome, in its chaos, wildness, a heroine who is far from subordinated, and gags with some comic tradition behind them; an exception in that it’s not moralistic or idealistic, not particularly interested in marriage or remarriage, and not interested in the meeting of wealth and poverty. Although never socially earnest in the admirable way of many screwballs, it is in its own way an American dream of independence. It believes the real way to get on in life – for film-makers as well as scientists – isn’t by deference and respectability but by having sexy fun with the right people.

Like its heroine, Bringing Up Baby never lets up. Its speed is breathtaking. ‘Fun is fun, but no girl wants to laugh all of the time,‘ according to the sage words of Anita Loos’ blonde Lorelei Lee. But in this amazing film we do go on laughing all the time; every scene without exception is a funny one. Life can’t normally take place in such a comic atmosphere and at such a relentlessly comic pace, but perhaps romance can, and the film places its trust in the wild abnormalities of romance.”

Dr Swaab will be introducing two screenings of Bringing Up Baby to celebrate the book’s publication.

The first is at the Barbican Cinema at 8.30pm on Monday 6 December, with a Q&A session after the film. He will then be introducing a screening at the BFI Southbank on 11 January 2011. Visit the links above for further details.

Image: A scene from Bringing Up Baby.

UCL students can book discounted tickets for the Barbican screening at the link above using the promotional code 241110 or over the phone by calling 020 7638 8891 and quoting ‘UCL Film Students’.

Image: Detail from the dustjacket of Dr Swaab’s new book Bringing Up Baby