Criterion Review: BRINGING UP BABY

Finally this comedy classic receives Criterion treatment

It’s more than a little surprising that one of the greatest screwball comedies ever is only this month receiving the Criterion treatment, but it’s worth celebrating nevertheless. Bringing Up Baby matches Katherine Hepburn’s klutzy heiress Susan with Cary Grant’s nerdy scientist David, both hoping to be gifted $1 million by Ms. Carlton Random (May Robson). David gets roped into Susan’s hi-jinks involving a leopard named Baby and a dog named George (aka Asta from the Thin Man series).

Howard Hawks directs the utterly silly 1938 film from RKO. In the conversation with Peter Bogdanovich included in the new Criterion package, director Hawks comments that he might have used “sane people” as characters. But what kind of comedy would that make for? Bringing Up Baby combines class differences and romantic tension with a dash of slapstick comedy and some witty writing to create its own potent humor.

Each viewing of this perennial favorite has me noticing something new. In this most recent watch, I spotted Jack Carson in a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance as a circus worker; I also cried laughing as Cary Grant kept getting up from the dinner table to follow the dog around. Something else I learned from the Criterion package: the glasses David wears are pointedly similar to those of silent actor Harold Lloyd, as Grant plays something very like a Lloyd character in this film.

Super serious David quickly becomes entangled with the lovely but flaky Susan, who falls for him quickly; as he loses his dinosaur bone and they hunt together for a leopard, any semblance of control he had over his situation is soon lost. Grant and Hepburn are at the top of their game here, and the supporting cast is a miraculous combination of talents, as well. It is honestly near perfection to watch.

This Criterion package, overloaded with special features, is a definite celebration of the screwball classic. Given the digital restoration work done here, it’s the best Bringing Up Baby has looked on an at-home screen yet.

The Criterion BluRay package includes:

  • a booklet with an essay on the film by critic Sheila O’Malley, as well as the original short story by Hagar Wilde on which Bringing Up Baby was based
  • a fascinating interview with film scholar Craig Barron on Linwood Dunn’s visual effects for the movie, including Dunn’s use of an optical printer, rear projection and a traveling split screen
  • cinematographer John Bailey (The Kid Stays In the Picture, The Big Chill) analyzes the work of DP Russ Metty, his use of “nuanced lighting,” and how wide shots & dolly shots were incorporated in this film to reduce cutting
  • a video essay by author Scott Eyman, Creating Cary, delves into the actor’s early career, starting with his first movies at Paramount
  • a recognition of Howard Greer’s costuming contributions in a commentary from Shelly Foote accompanies various clips from Bringing Up Baby. This is more of a biography and less of an analysis of the specific costuming used in this comedy.
  • An audio recording from 1969 of a post-screening Q & A with Cary Grant. The sound quality isn’t great, but he does offer an interesting bit on the pacing/timing of vaudeville acts and how such pacing rarely translated well for film productions. He also notes that as far as getting into character, “I just hang loose and do the best I can.”
  • the aforementioned Bogdanovich audio conversation with director Howard Hawks, recorded in 1972
  • a German documentary with Hawks’ last filmed interview, Howard Hawks: A Hell of a Good Life (1977). The filmmakers spent 5 days with the acclaimed director, even following him to car races.
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