Even by the standards of farce, Bringing Up Baby is a ridiculous proposition: The 1938 comedy revolves around a flighty New York heiress (Katharine Hepburn) who seduces a plodding paleontologist (Cary Grant) by roping him into supervising her pet leopard. The film is stuffed with frantic conversations in which people talk over top of each other, and contains several bloopers: Hepburn’s character plays not one but two scenes costumed in distracting veils, and when she calls the paleontologist she met the previous day pretending that the leopard is attacking her, he somehow magically knows her address and rides to the rescue.
On paper, Susan Vance would seem only annoying: She is too talkative, too self-absorbed and too manipulative to be attractive. In a comedy that typifies that odd term screwball, she is screwy – and yet able to use her mental distraction entirely to her own benefit. So if Bringing Up Baby is considered a classic rather than an oddity, it is thanks to one thing: Hepburn’s performance. It is her energy, her charm and her intelligence that rescue Susan from her silliness and make the comedy worth watching – although 1930s ticket buyers weren’t so sure. It has done better with critics over the years than it did with audiences of the day.
Bringing Up Baby is one of the earliest films in the Katharine Hepburn retrospective launching Feb. 18 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and it marked a difficult period in her career. After exploding into Hollywood in her 20s – the retrospective also includes her irrepressible Jo in the first screen adaptation of Little Women from 1933 – she had wound up in a series of flops. Bringing Up Baby didn’t help much.
Her comeback was in 1940 with The Philadelphia Story, based on the Broadway play in which she had also starred and to which she had bought the film rights. It’s interesting then that it was Hepburn’s own concept that she play a blue-blood character who is knocked to the ground in the opening scene: She had determined that audiences found her haughty, and she needed to put some humility on display.
The TIFF programmers cast this humbling in social terms, pointing out that in both The Philadelphia Story and Woman of The Year, Hepburn’s character must be punished for her superiority. Certainly, the patrician Yankee was typecast as such; housekeepers and weekend properties in Connecticut are a fixture in these early comedies.
Still, as she is knocked from an elite perch, the point is that her disruptive personality must be contained by marriage to the right husband. In The Philadelphia Story, she plays an imperious Main Line socialite whose debonair ex (Grant again) steers her away from a second marriage to a conservative bore. In Woman of the Year, her first outing with Spencer Tracy, she plays a brainy foreign affairs columnist who takes five minutes out of her schedule to marry a sports writer – and then drives him away by her narcissistic absorption in her own career. (Their sexual chemistry in the film’s initial love-at-first-sight scenes is palpable, even if accounts are now emerging that the actors’ long-standing extra-marital relationship was actually Hollywood cover for gay lovers on both sides.)
By 1949, in Adam’s Rib, the pairing with Tracy had solidified into battle-of-the-sexes comedy. Hepburn and Tracy play a pair of happily married lawyers but her feminist politics threaten to destroy their home life after she chooses to defend a woman who he is prosecuting for attempted murder. An impassioned defence of female equality – and a lot of guff about appropriate sex roles – ensues before Hepburn’s Amanda learns her lesson.
In one of her occasional forays onto the stage, Hepburn also played Kate in the Shakespearean comedy The Taming of the Shrew. Perhaps the most charitable interpretation of the notion that her vivacious and principled characters need to be slapped down is the one that is often used to justify that play: Kate is a personality out of balance who needs to learn compromise and channel her energies constructively. Woman of the Year ends with a vision of marriage in which a woman can fulfill domestic responsibilities without giving up her professional identity – but it hardly considers whether men might do the same.
And yet, if these romances are filled with attitudes that make a contemporary viewer cringe, they are also prescient in their proto-feminist social concerns. Woman of The Year is about life-work balance; Adam’s Rib addresses domestic abuse, infidelity and double standards while Stage Door, a remarkably female-centric backstage comedy of 1937, which is also included in this program, exposes sexual harassment in showbiz.
Perhaps the gap can be explained by a kind of unconscious subversion. In the denouement, Hepburn’s character will be tamed but in her performances – and in audience memories over the years – what stands out is the unstoppable life force. Tess in Woman of the Year is personified as the journalist in a pantsuit at her typewriter or the lady in the oversized hat cheering a ball game – not the confused wife in a final humiliating kitchen scene where she reveals she doesn’t know how to make coffee or toast. Similarly, in Adam’s Rib, it is Hepburn’s courtroom oratory, not her comeuppance, that steals the show.
By the time she was staring in Adam’s Rib, Hepburn was 42, old for romance by the standards of the day. It was testament to the intellectual and physical energy she projected on screen that in the 1950s she could reinvent herself as half of a different kind of mismatched pair, playing prim spinsters encountering passionate men in The African Queen and Summertime. One of those films ends happily, the other is bittersweet, but nobody needed to humble Hepburn anymore.
Fearless: The films of Katharine Hepburn runs Feb. 18 through April 21 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto (tiff.net)