- by Jeff Beck
Bringing Up Baby: A Masterpiece of Farce and Absurdity (Criterion Blu-ray)
The legendary director Howard Hawks had quite the eclectic and distinguished career that included such classics as "Scarface," "Sergeant York," "To Have and Have Not," and "The Big Sleep," but one classic that doesn't get mentioned nearly enough in his long and prolific career is the comedy masterpiece "Bringing Up Baby" from 1938, starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. For over 80 years, it has been making audiences laugh at its extraordinary farces, gags, performances, and the outright absurdity of its plot, and now that the prestigious Criterion Collection is bringing it out for a Blu-ray release, it's time to go back and revisit it to see why it has remained such an enduring and endearing film.
The film tells the story of David Huxley (Cary Grant), a soon-to-be-married paleontologist, who has been working for years on putting together a brontosaurus skeleton, but still needs one more bone to complete it. Meanwhile, he also has to worry about trying to impress a potential donor who is considering giving a million dollars to the museum. David's life becomes even more complicated when he meets Susan Vance (Katherine Hepburn), an eccentric young woman, who quickly gets David involved in several bizarre incidents, including having to deal with a tame leopard named Baby and a dog that loves to bury things (like the missing bone). However, despite all of the frustration, there seems to be a special connection between the two, one that could potentially develop into something more... if they manage to get through their unusual series of setbacks.
When it comes to what has made "Bringing Up Baby" such a great and timeless classic, the first thing that generally comes to mind is just how hysterical it is. Most people might not think that a film from 1938 could make you laugh this much, but the pristine writing from Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde presents a number of fantastic situations that they are able to play with and prolong into a spellbinding series of mishaps, misunderstandings, and misadventures. Just when you think one problem is solved, it seems like there's another one ready to jump in and take its place, and thus continuing to string you along on the film's outrageous journey that sees its stars trying to get untangled from their multitude of conundrums.
Speaking of the stars, Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn are no small part of what makes the film's farces flourish as well as they do. Both actors play it so wonderfully straight that the absurdity of what they're going through comes off as even funnier than if they were purposely trying to make you laugh. Added to this is their expert level of timing of the various gags. Comic timing is not a skill that every actor possesses, but these two make it seem so natural that it only heightens the hilarity of the film's zaniness.
To this day, it's surprising that the film didn't receive any awards attention at the time and equally so to find that it was actually a commercial flop upon its original release. However, its reputation continued to grow over the years as more and more people discovered it. Several decades later, it would be added to the National Film Registry as a significant cinematic achievement and be declared one of the greatest films ever made by the American Film Institute.
Despite the more deserved reputation in the recent decades, as mentioned earlier, it's a film that still doesn't get mentioned enough, which makes this Criterion release all the more significant, deserved, and truly appreciated, for now its poised to have a whole new set of viewers discover it (or rediscover it) and fall in love with its remarkably quirky qualities. This farcical masterpiece remains one of the greatest and most timeless comedies ever made, one that will easily continue to stand the test of time.
"Bringing Up Baby" comes to Blu-ray in a newly-restored 4K digital transfer, presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The transfer is a little grainy, but that's to be expected of an 83-year-old film that's being upgraded to a much higher definition. Regardless, the image still looks quite good for a film of this age. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack sounds better than ever, with all dialogue and sound coming through loud and clear. Overall, Criterion has done a fine job bringing the film back to life, ensuring that fans old and new will continue to enjoy it for a long time to come.
Commentary from Filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich
Select-Scene Commentary About Costume Designer Howard Greer with Costume Historian Shelly Foote
Video Essay on Actor Cary Grant with Author Scott Eyman (19 Minutes)
Interview About Cinematographer Russell Metty with Cinematographer John Bailey (11 Minutes)
Interview with Film Scholar Craig Barron on Special Effects Pioneer Linwood Dunn (13 Minutes)
Howard Hawks: A Hell of a Good Life, A Documentary Featuring Hawks' Last Filmed Interview (57 Minutes)
Audio Interview with Cary Grant from 1969 (36 Minutes)
Audio Excerpts from a 1972 Conversation between Hawks and Bogdanovich (15 Minutes)
Criterion's release comes with a wide array of outstanding extras featuring experts covering a number of topics, including the general making of the film, costumes, and the cinematography, as well as a few interviews with director Howard Hawks and star Cary Grant. All of them are very much worth delving into, especially if you're curious as to how one of the greatest comedies of all time came together.
With its brilliant writing, marvelous performances, and high level of absurd hilarity, Howard Hawks' "Bringing Up Baby" remains one of the greatest comedies ever made. Criterion's newly-restored release comes packed with an excellent collection of special features, including a multitude of fascinating interviews, making this a ridiculously easy recommendation to add to your Blu-ray shelf.
Now available on Criterion Blu-ray/DVD.
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