Katharine Hepburn was often – and perhaps not unjustifiably – called out for her lack of acting versatility. Her strong-willed personality, sharp witted sophistication and natural exuberance permeated every character she played and, whilst it worked successfully for certain roles (including the aloof Tracy Lord and the straight-laced Rose Sayer) it was less effective in others (Mary Stuart in John Ford’s Mary of Scotland springs to mind). Hepburn’s distinctive charm was also suited to comedy, and she excels as Susan Vance in Howard Hawks’ screwball classic Bringing Up Baby (1938).
The film saw Hepburn reunited with Cary Grant – the duo had previously starred in Sylvia Scarlett and would go on to appear in two George Cukor films together. The two stars had a natural and vibrant chemistry, off-set they were apparently great friends, and spent time socialising with their respective partners. Bringing Up Baby introduced several elements that would become integral to screwball and established Hawks’ as a leading director in the genre. Hepburn’s eccentric and somewhat excitable heiress is constantly causing trouble, creating outrageous scrapes, and leading her hapless leading man astray; her brazen and impulsive character set a new standard for comedy. Grant was happy to be pursued and his more understated character is content to play second fiddle to the fatiguing Susan.
As a viewer, it’s easy to imagine Hepburn taking her talk-a-minute character off-set and, according to Hawks on Hawks, the director had to encourage Hepburn not to overact during the early stages of production. “The great trouble is people trying to be funny. If they don’t try to be funny, then they are funny.” A Ziegfield Follies comic who happened to be on set was asked to advise the actress about her comedy. The intervention obviously paid off, as Hepburn’s comic timing is impeccable and perfectly pitched.
From the film’s opening, Susan Vance causes trouble. It’s interesting how the actors and director use costume to incorporate recognisable and realistic sketches into the scenes – notably in the restaurant. From the offset Huxley (Grant) is never comfortable with his top hat, twisting it around in his hands and dropping it on the floor when a waitress offers to take it from him. It’s fitting that it’s the act of squashing it that is caused by and re-introduces him to Vance. Similarly, he seems ill at ease in this smart eveningwear attire. The collar on his dress shirt seems to jut uncomfortably into his chin – perhaps it’s just as well he rips the back seam of his tailcoat, as it seems equally ill suited to his character.
In the same scene, Huxley accidently steps on the train of Vance’s elegant cocktail dress and splits the back panel, revealing her underwear. The pair are forced to make an undignified exit – but only after he has protected her modesty with his battered hat – much to the amusement of the other diners. The extraordinary sequence – one part calamity, two parts physical comedy – borders on sexual; clearly it was only the slapstick element that allowed it to be broadcast.
Apparently the scene was inspired by a real-life event; when visiting the Roxy Theatre in New York, Cary Grant observed the head of Metropolitan Museum catch his fly zip in his wife’s dress. The pair had to ‘lock step’ to the managers office where pliers were used to separate the garments.
And of course, who can forget the scene at Vance’s country home when, wearing a gown with elaborate marabou trim, Huxley announces (with a joyful jump) to Susan’s surprised relative that he “just went GAY!” Apparently, the line was improvised on set, which may explain how it managed to slip past the censors. There’s even debate that this is the first time the word was used in a homosexual context on screen; The Celluloid Closet claims that the line was ad-libbed by Grant and wasn’t present in the original script. Regardless, it’s a key point in the film, as it reveals that the straight-laced Huxley is capable (or is influenced by) Susan’s screwball behaviour.
Hepburn’s costumes were designed by Howard Greer, an American costume designer who initially honed his skill in Paris alongside Lucile, Paul Poiret and Molyneux. The elegant wardrobe he designed for Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby emphasised her aristocratic bearing whilst playing up to her eccentricities, including tumbling veils and ruffled loungewear. The film undoubtedly went some way to cementing Hepburn’s ‘established’ style – running around the ground of her Connecticut home in loose fitting slacks and a tunic, she proved that her style (and indeed her comedy) credentials were equal to that of any man.