AVA 3001: Topics in Film and Media Arts
27 May, 2005
The Screwball Comedy Bringing up Baby
As much as we all hate the f****** censors, the motion picture era under the strictest censorship of all time produced one of the wittiest genres known to women and men. In 1934, the fully enacted Production Code forced writers to say things like 'intersession classes' when they really mean 'inter-courses'. Bringing up Baby is the epitome of screwball comedy born in the early days of the Code. That is to say, it's a romantic comedy hallmarked by gender role reversal and double-entendre.
Has Cary Grant ever been accused of 'being whipped' or 'being on a leash'? If my friend David were getting married to an Alice, I would say, "You do whatever she tells you and there's no honeymoon? You'll never get any leopard that way." The opening scene in Bringing up Baby says everything. Alice barks orders at both men in the room. She effectively thinks for her fiancé with comments such as "David, No slang. Remember who and what you are." and "Let Mr. Peabody win." The audience quickly defines Alice as not only a romantically frozen decision-maker but as the one who 'wears the pants.' Literally, Alice dons a suit and hairstyle commanding respect while David bumbles around in a constricting smock. David's submissive clothing carries over to golf course where he meets Susan, who wears pants in most scenes.
David unconsciously plays the paradigmatic female role to Alice but Susan has to beat him into submission. From the moment they meet, Susan prevents David from getting a word in edgewise. David begs her not only to shut up but also to leave him alone. Susan orchestrates a bazaar plot to keep David around. She steals David's pants and jacket, compelling him to put on a hyper-effeminate negligee. All the while, he is too thick-headed to see the plot unfolding.
Susan may be overbearing to the extreme and a habitual car thief but at least she is interested in David's bone. Almost anytime a character refers to the bone, the audience can derive a double meaning. The expressions 'trying the bone in the tail' or 'why would I walk around with a bone' for example, express possible misuses of the bone. Any audience member old enough to tell time should know the proper use of a bone (it’s not to create a lifeless skeletal dinosaur child). Just as David has his bone to recover, Susan has her leopard. Again, the pattern of double-entendre gives a subtext to the narrative. David explains to Susan and to the youth in the audience who may not have experience first hand that 'When a man is wresting a leopard he’s in no position to run.' Comments from Susan such as 'I have a leopard' and 'the leopard is restless' reassure David that he is not barking up the wrong tree. Remember, even with the more carnal Susan, David remains on a leash, not able to think or do his own will.
The supporting characters help reinforce the basic gender reversals of Bringing up Baby along with the elevated social class of the characters. Screwball comedies, in contrast to other film genres during the depression, typically revolve around upper-class characters. One hundred percent of this story’s characters have a decent life with a roof over their heads. Random and a few others do a whole lot better than just that with ample leisure time. This scenario differs enormously from the real world, which the 1930’s audiences wished to escape.
In Bringing up Baby, the hierarchal structure contains women at relatively higher strata than males. The millionaire philanthropist Elizabeth Random holds the highest position. Her lawyer, Major Applegate, and the sheriff fit into levels directly below her. Then David, of course, is troubled with the headache of two women superiors, which never appear on-screen together. The female maid seems of higher rank than the stereotypical drunk Irish gardener does and at times even possibly higher than the sheriff. When the sheriff calls to confirm Elizabeth Random’s whereabouts, the maid’s answer determines his actions, in essence giving her the power to decide his behavior.
Whether or not the hierarchy is relevant at any given time, male characters act more like the ditsy female leads of Keaton comedies while the women play against type as well. From David who trips and falls at the most comically timed moments to the verbally awkward Porky Piggish Major, the audience sees glaring common sense thrown out the window by male players. David displays a childlike enthusiasm over news of a bone. He childishly runs in fear from both Baby and George. The sheriff’s equally childlike attention span allows Susan to steal a car right before his eyes and later escapes out a window from police headquarters. The deputy just thought he locked David’s cell. What a coincidence, the sheriff just thought David was supposed to walk around outside his cell. The gardener, a figure reminiscent of the boy who cried leopard, cannot differentiate reality from hallucinations. Most of all, Major Applegate, a specialist of big game hunting, mistakes a leopard call for a loon and then ends up losing to Susan in a hunt to capture the leopard. Apparently, Major Applegate knows nothing about leopards. The women, in comparison, are the image of authority, power and in some cases, reason. Alice manages David in the opening. Elizabeth Random asks David why he is wearing a robe and coordinates the dinner conversation around hunting. As with many one-sided conversations Susan and David have, Susan eccentrically criticizes David’s golf game from his car. Overall, she hatches a decent plot to keep David around, as she does with her jailbreak.