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Viewer Guide: “Bringing Up Baby” and “Made in Belfast”

October 26, 2022 | Richard Peña

REEL 13 DOUBLE FEATURE | BRINGING UP BABY

Bringing Up Baby (1938).

This week’s first feature is Bringing Up Baby, a 1938 screwball comedy starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, directed by Howard Hawks. 

Bringing Up Baby represents the American screwball comedy in arguably its most perfect, crystalline form, the film against which every other pretender to the genre must be compared. Remarkably, the film died at the box office when it was first released. This was the height of Katharine Hepburn’s “box office poison” period, when exhibitors let the studios know that Hepburn was not a favorite of their audiences. Its contemporary canonical reputation only emerged many years later. 

Grant is Dr. David Huxley, a dedicated but seriously distracted paleontologist at the fictitious “Stuyvesant Museum of Natural History” in New York City. When David’s fiancé sends him off to play golf with the lawyer for a wealthy museum patron, hopeful to seal the deal on a million dollar gift, David crosses paths with Susan Vance, a free-spirited eccentric played with enormous wit by Hepburn. In short order and much to David’s total befuddlement, Susan manages to first hijack his golf game and then his car. 

Despite his repeated efforts to be rid of her, Susan manages to keep reinserting herself into David’s life with a kind of crazy reverse logic that defies explanation. As if Susan herself wasn’t enough of a disruptor in embroiling David in an escalating series of chaotic misadventures, there’s also the matter of a pet leopard named “Baby” who can’t seem to get enough of listening to “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” Who knew there were leopards in Connecticut? 

During a delay in the casting process for his next film Gunga Din, director Howard Hawks read a story in Collier’s magazine about a society girl with a pet panther that he felt held promise. Hiring screenwriter Dudley Nichols, Bringing Up Baby was written specifically with Hepburn in mind. 

Finding a suitable leading man, however, proved much more difficult. The common reaction of most actors reading the script was that the role of David Huxley seemed “too brainy,” with Leslie Howard, Ronald Colman, Robert Montgomery, Frederic March and Ray Milland all passing on the prospect. Finally, Hawks’ friend Howard Hughes suggested Cary Grant, who had worked with Hepburn on Sylvia Scarlett. Grant was initially reluctant about the role as well, but Hawks convinced him with the suggestion that he approach the part like an innocent in the style of silent comedian Harold Lloyd, which is exactly what Grant did. 

This being her first film comedy, it took time for Hepburn to hit her stride, with Hawks expressing she was trying too hard to “be funny.” Veteran vaudeville actor Walter Catlett was called in to coach her, and Hepburn expressed her gratitude to him by insisting that Catlett be cast as Constable Slocum in the film. Once Grant and Hepburn got into their groove, the two would regularly crack each other up during shooting. Hawks pleaded with the studio that this was the reason for the film’s extensive production delays, when in fact, Hawks’ almost improvisatory approach to shooting, as well as his frequent excursions to the racetrack, were the real culprits. 

An immediate disappointment at the box office, the film was a downright flop in New York City, pulled from Radio City after just one week. Years later, Hawks’ own assessment of the reason for the film’s failure was its lack of “normal characters.” It wasn’t until Bringing Up Baby started running on television in the 1950s that a new generation came to admire the film for its exquisite plotting and comic invention, and today it’s widely considered one of the iconic films of the Thirties by film scholars and audiences alike. 

REEL 13 DOUBLE FEATURE | MADE IN BELFAST

Made in Belfast (2013).

This week’s double feature continues with Made in Belfast, a 2013 Irish comedy-drama written and directed by Paul Kennedy.   

Ciarán McMenamin stars as Jack Kelly, a successful Irish writer living and working in Paris in self-imposed exile; a native of Belfast, Jack hasn’t made a visit home in eight years. One of the main reasons for this long sojourn is his estrangement from his abusive alcoholic father; another is that Jack’s best-selling debut novel was a thinly veiled roman a clef that exposed some volatile secrets among his Belfast friends, which ultimately contributed to a divorce, making him a persona non grata with his old mates. And then there’s also the matter of his broken engagement to Alice, played by Shauna Macdonald, which Jack abruptly terminated without any explanation. But when Jack’s younger brother Petesy calls to let him know their father is dying from cancer, Jack realizes he can no longer avoid the unresolved issues of his Belfast life, and finally journeys home to face up to his problematic past.  

Made in Belfast marks the feature film directing debut of writer-director Paul Kennedy, who also co-stars in the film as Matty. Kennedy’s acting resume includes such Irish films as Five Minutes of Heaven, 50 Dead Men Walking and Cherrybomb.  

As mentioned in passing by the film’s characters, the city of Belfast has definitely come a long way since its volatile years as the epicenter of the Northern Ireland unionist-loyalist conflict, more commonly known as “The Troubles.” Spanning from the late 1960s to the late 90s, the era also provided the backdrop for director Kenneth Branagh’s 2021 autobiographical film, Belfast.   

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema.  

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