Tuesday, October 7, 2014

AFI Top 100: #88 "Bringing Up Baby"

Cary Grant & Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938)

There was a lot of conversation about this film leading up to our screening Sunday. Sadly, many people were unable to attend who wanted to, which is a shame. At #88 on the AFI Top 100 list, Bringing Up Baby may be the most highly contested—at least by me—and I thought it would benefit the movie to have more stalwart supporters in attendance, even if merely to defend it.

Why does it need to be defended? you might ask. Isn't it one of the funniest movies of all time? Some would say 'yes.' It features Cary Grant's renowned comedic timing, and the lovely Katharine Hepburn playing against type to stretch her comedy muscles. The first film to be designated a "screwball comedy" by director Howard Hawks (you know, because everyone is so 'screwy'), it appears on the surface to be a recipe for success.

Every time I see this movie, I try to give it a fair shake. I really, really do. I want so badly to see what everyone else sees, because they all seem to be having a lot more fun. But alas, it's just not to be. A quick recounting of the plot before I get into the whys and hows of its failures.

Grant plays David Huxley, a befuddled mess of a paleontologist who is thisclose to completing the skeleton of a brontosaurus for his museum. In fact, he needs just one bone: the intercostal clavicle. It's all that matters to him; even his impending wedding to his assistant barely gets a rise out of him—it is a marriage of purely professional convenience, anyway.

Trying to secure a $1 million endowment, David finds himself continuously running into a flighty, obnoxious heiress, Susan Vance (Hepburn) who will—for no reason other than her delusion of love—stop at nothing to burden his life with her insanity and destroy everything he's worked for. What ensues is a frustrating, anxiety-inducing stretch of events throughout the Connecticut countryside, mostly involving Susan's pet leopard, Baby.

I have a hard time even explaining the plot without being snarky about it. Many comedies in the 1930's used this trope of "man plans to marry boring woman, man meets other eccentric lady and their misadventures lead to an everlasting love." Bringing Up Baby isn't the only film to tackle a story in this way; it is just one of the most remembered.

On top of the plot device, however, is what really makes the film (and movies like it) unbearable: All conflict within the movie stems from the characters being incapable of forming complete sentences.

Every character speaks without listening, acts without thinking, and has an unhealthy disregard for the feelings or needs of other people. In short, they're all un-diagnosed sociopaths.

I've heard the genre of "screwball comedy" described as live-action cartoons. In a way, this is true. The characters are overly animated and physical, with the every gag leaving a bit of destruction in its wake. Originally, this move was panned by critics and audiences, but gained appreciation by later film historians during the 1960's. It is now remembered as one of the greatest comedies ever made.

I can't disagree with anything more. Despite those who cite its brilliant timing and wit (how? what? when??), I see the opposite. I see a film that struggles to mash these two horribly incompatible people together with contrived plot and totally surmountable conflicts ("Just walk away from her, you dolt! Get out now!") I see characters that I have no respect for and who have no respect for each other. I see a poor man incapable of speaking up for himself essentially held captive by a lying, manipulative psychopath.

And that just isn't my idea of a good time. In fact, it makes me want to pull my hair out. I can't speak for everyone in my criticism of this movie. I know I may be in the minority. Maybe I don't "get it." But that's alright with me, because after this third viewing, I can say in no uncertain terms that it will be my last.

I am under no delusions that this movie will continue to find its way onto every Top 100 list until the end of time. I don't understand why, and perhaps I never will. All I know is how the movie makes me feel when I watch it, and this one makes me feel like I've taken crazy pills.

Before the screening, I told the movie it needed to work for any star at all. For every 15 minutes where I didn't want to push STOP or punch something, it would earn itself half a star. Not surprisingly, this never happened. Instead, maybe out of pity, I gave a half star for the scene where Baby the leopard plays with George the dog. No matter how unbearable the movie, animals playing together will always make me smile.

Rating:  ½-star / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © RKO Pictures]

For anyone who reads this and disagrees because you love this movie oh-so much, I beseech you: comment and explain to me how that is possible? I'd really love to know. 

Check back next week for #87 on the list, 12 Angry Men — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

1 comment:

  1. This movie is the biggest piece of shit I have ever seen. And I grew up watching screwball comedies of all sorts. What should be on this list is "His Girl Friday," not this giant pile of garbage. I love both Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, and this movie is completely unwatchable. I don't even think I was able to finish it the first time we watched it. When a movie actually makes me want to beat down a woman with a belt, it's probably not doing something right. There is absolutely no excuse for a movie this painful and disjointed to be included on any list, of any kind. Unless it's a list of the most overrated pieces of crap to come out of Hollywood, ever.

    I second the request for an explanation as to how anyone could enjoy this movie. And in order for me to listen to you, you have to have seen it as an adult. Not remember it from when you were seven, because you didn't have any sense of what was good back then.


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