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Bringing Up Baby (January 29, 2009)

Katharine Hepburn, an athletic young woman from a wealthy Connecticut family, had had a contract with RKO since 1932. She won a Best Actress Oscar for Morning Glory in 1933, but by the year this film was made, 1937, she had been in several films which were poorly received at the box office, including George Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett, in 1936, where she played opposite Grant. When Howard Hawks was asked to cast Susan in Bringing Up Baby, he first thought of Carole Lombard, who had worked for him in Twentieth Century. But the studio wanted to use Hepburn, who had three films left on her contract, even though she hadn’t really played comedy before. Grant was not the first choice for the male lead. Robert Montgomery, Fredric March and Ray Milland were all considered. None worked for the studio, so would have to be borrowed. About this time, Grant’s success in The Awful Truth, and the fact that he had a deal with RKO to make four films, led Hawks to cast him as the lead.

The two stars, neither experienced in playing comedy, relied on Hawks’ direction to succeed in their roles. Hawks suggested that Grant watch the films of Harold Lloyd, a very successful comedian of the silent era, whose trademark was round horn-rimmed glasses. Grant modeled his performance on Lloyd. Hepburn overplayed her performance, trying to act funny. Hawks called in Walter Catlett, a veteran stage comic, to show Hepburn that to successfully play comedy, the actor must be very serious. Catlett plays the role of the constable in the picture. Hepburn wrote that she learned from Grant that the more depressed she looked when she went into a pratfall, the more the audience would laugh.

A lot has been made of the fact that Bringing Up Baby, now viewed as one of the essential screwball comedies of the 1930s, and which was added to the National Film Registry of films worthy of preservation in 1990, didn’t make back what it cost at the box office. Its poor commercial performance was puzzling to the industry, and happened despite generally favorable reviews. A lot of issues contributed to its inability to turn a profit, some of them related to its cost. Hawks shot the film for ninety-one days from September, 1937 through January, 1938, when it was scheduled to take forty days. Hepburn’s and Grant’s base salaries, which were substantial, were supplemented with additional penalty payments when the filming ran past the limits set in their contracts. RKO was in deep financial trouble, and the studio didn’t manage the shoot effectively. During production Harry Brandt, of the Independent Theatre Owners of America, labeled Hepburn (at the head of a list of ten other stars) as “box office poison”, which didn’t help the film’s prospects. RKO went into receivership just before the film was released in February, 1938. Bringing Up Baby was purchased, as part of a package of ten films, by Howard Hughes, who was in a romantic relationship with Hepburn at the time. The package was then re-sold to the Loew’s theater chain, affiliated with MGM. Hepburn later bought out her contract from RKO to avoid termination.

Howard Hawks’ biographer Todd McCarthy, has written that this film “represented one instance in which all the fun the actors and filmmakers were having actually spilled into the picture for the audience’s benefit.” I think that says it all, and I hope you enjoy watching that fun tonight.