Criterion Collection upgrades screwball classic “Bringing Up Baby”

Updated: Jul 25


BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS

Cary Grant as David Huxley, a clueless bespectacled paleontologist, and his dog George, with Katharine Hepburn as the stunning and kooky Susan Vance.


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“BRINGING UP BABY” – THE CRITERION COLLECTION

Blu-ray; 1938; Not Rated

Best extra: Interview with film scholar Craig Barron about special-effects pioneer Linwood Dunn












SCREWBALL comedies don’t get much screwier – or funnier – than “Bringing Up Baby.”

Hollywood legends abound in "Bringing Up Baby" with Howard Hawks directing, and Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn co-starring. Based on a short story by Hagar Wilde, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Dudley Nichols, the plot revolves around David Huxley (Grant), a clueless bespectacled paleontologist who is on the verge both of completing the reconstruction of a rare brontosaurus skeleton, and marrying his buttoned-down assistant played by Virginia Walker.

David needs a lot of money to finish his dinosaur project, and hopes to get an endowment from Mrs. Random (May Robson), a wealthy dowager. But first, David has to get Mr. Peabody (George Irving), Mrs. Random’s lawyer, on his side. In the process of getting to Peabody, David encounters the stunning and kooky Susan Vance (Hepburn), who immediately sets her romantic sights on him to an almost stalker-like degree.

Naturally, things become more complicated and a whole lot sillier when David realizes Susan is Mrs. Random’s niece – and he also becomes involved with trying to figure out what to do with a tamed leopard, named Baby, that Susan’s brother has sent her from Brazil. The supporting cast includes comedy greats such as Charles Ruggles and Barry Fitzgerald, with the canine contribution of none other than Asta of “The Thin Man” movies, who plays a pooch called George.


(1) The RKO production premiered in San Francisco on February 18, 1938. It became a classic after TV airings in the 1950s and revival screenings during the '60s. (2&3) David is nearing the completion of a rare brontosaurus skeleton at the Stuyvesant Museum of Natural History. (4) David is scheduled to marry his assistant Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker) the next day.







Animal lovers may have a problem (I did) with a couple of scenes involving the leopard, which must have been declawed, being dragged on a leash or poked with a chair. But apparent animal cruelty aside, it will quickly become obvious why “Bringing Up Baby” is considered one of the great classics of comedy.

In AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies – 10th Anniversary Edition of America’s greatest films “Bringing Up Baby” is No. 88, positioned between “12 Angry Men” (1957) and “The Sixth Sense” (1999). And, with AFI’s funniest movies list 100 Years…100 Laughs it landed at No. 14 between “Young Frankenstein” (1974) and another screwball “The Philadelphia Story” (1940) also starring Grant and Hepburn.

VIDEO/AUDIO

The folks at Criterion compiled the best pieces of a duplicate 35mm negative and a 35mm print for their 4K restoration (1.37:1 aspect ratio). The black and white film looks great in most scenes, but drops in sharpness during composite shots involving the leopard. To ensure the safety of the cast they were filmed separately, merging the two in the lab to create a new master shot. The 1080p presentation has plenty of gradation from highlights to shadows, and excellent contrast in both day and night scenes. There’s also a handsome filmic grain throughout.

The mono audio track is also very fine, with dialogue always clear, balanced with sound effects and Roy Webb’s score providing the perfect background music. English subtitles are provided.



The misadventures with Susan Vance

(1&2) David meets Susan Vance on the 18th fairway when he accidentally hits his golf ball from the 1st tee onto the 18th. She plays David’s ball instead of her own, then mistakes his car for hers and drives away with him riding on the running board. (3&4) David encounters Susan again at an exclusive restaurant while hoping to meet with Alexander Peabody, who is Mrs. Carleton Randoms attorney. Susan accidentally tears David's jacket, and he steps on her dress, exposing her underwear.





EXTRAS

Criterion has jam-packed this disc with loads of interesting bonus features, including a few very recent ones. These include “Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise,” a video essay by author Scott Eyman; an interview with cinematographer John Bailey about cameraman Russell Metty; and a selected scene commentary by costume historian Shelly Foote about designer Howard Greer.

Archival extras include a 1977 German documentary about Hawks; a 1969 audio interview with Grant; audio excerpts from 1972 of a conversation between Hawks and director/film historian Peter Bogdanovich. There’s a 2005 commentary track by Bogdanovich, who so admired the film, he adapted his own version, “What’s Up Doc” (1972) with Ryan O'Neal as the academic character and Barbra Streisand, who plugs herself in as Hepburn’s Susan. An illustrated booklet contains the original 1937 Hagar Wilde short story and an essay by film critic Sheila O’Malley.

The 2021 featurette about effects wizard Linwood Dunn, presented by Craig Barron, is particularly informative and entertaining. As a FX camera assistant at RKO, Dunn “took optical printers to the next level,” Barron notes. Dunn did effects work for the military during World War II, and later began his own business, creating effects for movies and TV shows such as the original “Star Trek.”

In “Bringing Up Baby,” Dunn came up with ways to protect the actors from Nissa, the trained leopard (“Baby”), whose behavior wasn’t always predictable. Cary Grant was famously terrified of the big cat. Rear projection, split screens, stop-motion puppets, and glass barriers were all used to create some of the impressive scenes with the cast and Nissa. Barron talks about the times he attended presentations by Dunn, and had the chance to meet the man he credits with inventing the sorts of innovations that made movies like “Star Wars” possible.

— Peggy Earle


(1) Susan’s brother shipped her “Baby,” a tamed leopard from Brazil. In the earlier scenes, Hepburn worked well with the leopard in the same shot, and the imagery was much sharper. But later, the leopard clawed toward her and the studio forced all future shots to be filmed separately between the cat and the actors. (2) A hilarious routine between Susan and Constable Slocum (Walter Catlett), in a small Connecticut town, after she parks in front of a fire hydrant. (3) David borrows Susans dressing gown when he realizes shes sent all his clothes to town for cleaning.







(1) Nissa the leopard plays Baby. (2) A tipsy Mr. Godarty (Barry Fitzgerald) is scared by the appearance of Baby. (3&4) David and Susan hunt for his dog George and her Baby. They both fall down a hillside and her net lands over David’s head. (5) They both end up in jail as Constable Slocum asks her questions. (6&7) Everyone soon discovers there are two leopards on the loose.



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