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David Thomson on Films: The Flirtatious Game-Playing of Classic Hollywood Romances

There is a passage in Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby in which David Huxley (Cary Grant) and Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) are lost at night in the forest of Connecticut searching for a leopard called Baby and a fox terrier named George. If you don’t know the picture, don’t bother to ask, “Why a leopard?” Your every instinct is correct—there are (and should be) no leopards in Connecticut. 

Yet there might have been. We know now that the ingenious German plan to have a U-boat unload a cargo of fierce cats on that state’s shore in 1942 was aborted only at the last moment. The submarine was crammed with leopards in hammocks, a pack of panthers and the occasional ocelot, all selected from Nazi zoos for their hostile temperament. But on the slow voyage beneath the Atlantic, the sentimental crew so pampered these cats that, by the time the boat was in Long Island Sound, such a purring love-feast existed on board that no one could set the wild life loose. Quite simply it was no longer wild.

You may think that your leg is being pulled, so measure it—there is no change. In fact, the entire incident was classified until very recently, for the vessel, the Bergkatze, never returned to its port. What happened? It is for all of us to imagine. Did the U-boat slip away to the Caribbean, or to a remote land where the bong is plentiful? Did they press on and fall upon the shores of Howland Island where … No, I can say no more. Some secrets stay precious.

I was brooding on such things as I watched Bringing Up Baby once more in a Howard Hawks festival at David W. Packard’s Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto. The film is a farce, a screwball comedy, and people still laugh at it sometimes. But the Hawksian sub-text has risen to the surface, and I have to say that I saw the forests of Connecticut in a different light.

In its day scenes, the film has used real light and what nature provided. At the golf course where David first blunders into Susan’s net, the landscape is as true as Susan sinking a seventeen-foot putt in a single, full shot. The ample estate where the two of them search for the missing intercostal clavicle of a brontosaurus is real country, and there are piles of recently dug earth reaching as far as the eye can see in the steady sunlight.

Then night falls, and the forest becomes a large beautiful set (credited to Van Nest Polglase and Perry Ferguson, both of whom worked on Citizen Kane a couple of years later). The moonlight is as warm as theatrical lighting can make it (shot by Russell Metty). David and Susan pass through this scenery, invariably in full-figure shots. He wears a borrowed suit and she has a flowing full-length off-white dress, with silly flounces (double-layered) at the shoulders, and a floppy black bow at her throat. Her wild hair shines like gold in the moonlight, as Hawks and Metty conspire to offer the loveliest Kate we ever saw.

The figures are like children in the woods, or lovers in the Forest of Arden. The situation is demented (I won’t attempt to explain it), but the imagery and the way of seeing it are fit for paradise. And that is the point of this film. David and Susan are alike only in their dysfunction. David seems to be a top paleontologist, hardly aware of the bone in his id. Susan is a wealthy eccentric, or a mad woman, depending on whether we want to get involved with her or not. David does get involved, because Susan’s huntress instincts prick up when she hears that he is to be married tomorrow. Reason enough to know she is in love with him, and must plot to confound this plan. This resembles the situation of Hawks’ His Girl Friday, where Cary Grant determines to win back his ex-wife, Rosalind Russell, just as she is about to marry another man, one who looks like Ralph Bellamy, and go with him to the dullness of Albany.

This is Hawks’ game-playing, and in games you’re always doing the same things—gaining yardage, putting for money, or cheating. David’s academic eminence is offset by his baby-boy walk, his lack of worldliness, and his having a fiancée who refuses to let a honeymoon or entanglements interfere with the life of bones. Susan offers only entanglements, enough to trap David in her madness. She is quite lovely; she talks as fast as an auctioneer—but she plays golf alone. That’s an easily overlooked detail, yet so revealing of her sociopathic loneliness—a condition David can easily understand, because soon after meeting her he asks her to play another game with him: He will close his eyes and count to ten, and she will disappear. Susan has insane confidence, but Hepburn’s high-pitched voice, so high and breathy, like a wail taking flight, gives her panic away.

So these two misfits come together for a magical night in the forest. No, there is no actual merging, there is not even a kiss. But they embrace in the fun of shared nonsense. Will they marry? One hopes that the states of New York and Connecticut would gently intervene. The possibility of children from their union fills one with alarm. Their only hope is to lose another bone, a dog or a leopard and to be compelled for a year and a day to trek though the enchanted woodlands of Connecticut, singing “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”—because Baby likes that song.

This movie opened on February 18, 1938. It did not do too well with audiences; worse still, Hawks had gone over-budget because he kept thinking of new business to add. I suppose he could have done the whole film in the woods, but that would have lost the early scene in a classy restaurant where Susan rips his tails and then he steps on her dress and is obliged—as a gentleman—to smack his battered top hat (he has sat on it after slipping on an olive liberated by Susan) against her revealed underpants. That sound of the hat guarding her silky honor is one of the most erotic in American film. When he stands so close behind her that he couldn’t get closer, and marches her out of the restaurant, we are looking at the sexual act walking as performed by two desperate virgins.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.