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Monday, January 08, 2024

Category Called Comedy #4


CCC: Bugs and Daffy and Bringing Up Baby

HIS BITTER HALF (1950) --- It pains me to see Daffy Duck excessively abused. I’ve often wanted his and Bugs Bunny’s circumstance reversed … give Bugs a taste of what Daffy has too long suffered. His Bitter Half is same marital hell as P. Pig endured in Porky’s Romance (1938), among most trenchant of all Warner cartoons. Daffy it’s true has wed for money, describing himself as impoverished and hopeful that life will improve by responding to a singles ad. The duck as attentive to content of a newspaper seems somehow wrong. To be daffy means to dismiss all trappings of society, but DD had played out his manic string by this time and had to embrace convention to stay relevant. That meant compromising his character in ways off-putting. Bugs Bunny avoided this by always having an opponent, this to keep busy attending to his own priorities and never mind snares a wider sphere would impose. I don’t enjoy Bugs tormenting Elmer where latter doesn’t have it coming, as in The Unruly Hare (1944), Elmer there to survey for the railroad with no intent to do harm until Bugs forces the issue. Here was where the rabbit's popularity began working against him, programmed now to bedevil all comers, and the sooner getting on with that, the better. Daffy differs because for all of venality (over)applied by the fifties, the duck just wanted what was his, and then some, but otherwise held no brief against others, unless clearly provoked. Bugs comes across like a wise-acre schoolyard bully just waiting for helpless sorts to venture near. Among unfair advantage BB enjoys is being able to disappear down his hole at any moment of the contest, and I’ve often wished his victim could follow and hand Bugs comeuppance he deserves.

Bugs at least has sense never to seek counsel or cooperation from a wider world, staying in his own back yard for most part. Daffy is arrogant enough to imagine he can tame hostile environments, marriage an option Bugs would not likely choose. Still I find no amusement in punishment piled upon the duck for mere misjudgment. Postwar Warner cartoons dealt much in domestic traps, Daffy, Porky, the rest, less of forest and lake origin than blight that was suburbia. Was this consequence of animator/writing/directing talent maturing and snared now by manicured lawns and barbecue pits? There seems less freedom in fifties cartoons, Daffy not so zany, seeking but a main chance, bent to compliance by an increasingly corporatized society, postwar lot perhaps of men who drew him. Of handlers, Chuck Jones understood best, and made fresh rather than dispiriting Daffy’s frustration ducking claw hammer that was fifties life, but no more nasty quacks lest he be punished and severely so, as in His Bitter Half where a from-hell wife threatens to “pluck every feather off your scrawny carcass,” and for an alarming fade, does just that (mercifully offscreen). Who asked to see Daffy Duck reduced to vacuuming floors? It was as if to break him meant any of us could be broken, none to overcome enforced order firmly in place. Did then-audiences feel the rebranding process, or was it gradual enough not to register fully? Television told truth stark by following 1938 cartoons with ones from 1958, or vice versa, spin wash or un-wash of favorites to train youth that life has no continuum and that we all are subject to often convulsive change.

BRINGING UP BABY (1938) --- Let me toss the grenade early and suggest that the Katharine Hepburn part should have been reversed with Virginia Walker’s “Alice Swallow,” who enters Bringing Up Baby in the opening scene and is such a dish in "severe" spectacles and dread announcement that marriage to “David Huxley” (Cary Grant) will be wholly platonic, their wedded mission to investigate dinosaur bones and never mind any/all physical contact. Now normally this would be ideal set-up for director Howard Hawks to let Cary Grant thaw such prospect over ninety minutes and make Miss Swallow grateful for overhaul of her attitude. She reminds me of Dorothy Malone’s bookseller in Hawks’ The Big Sleep, of bespectacled and pulled-back hair mien who gives in straightaway to Humphrey Bogart’s manly approach. Did Hawks cast Miss Swallow wrong? --- because I found her most distracting and wondered (hoped) for the rest of Baby’s overlong 102 minutes that she would come back. Now Hepburn would have been ideal as Miss Swallow. We could figure losing her no great loss, indeed I wished KH as “Susan Vance” would get lost so Cary could focus upon Alice and persuade her out of no-honeymoon policy as only Cary Grant could do. My much happier ending would be him doing that and Susan left to make living hell of another hapless man’s life, maybe Jack Carson or Patric Knowles, someone we'd feel less sorry for.

Not that I dislike Hepburn (have said this before, will likely do so again), though Susan Vance is wearying to extreme. Try as I might via viewings over so-far lifetime, there is just no reframing Bringing Up Baby as other than strain severe over a second half, confinement of us alongside a cast in and out of jail cells. Bringing Up Baby lost money ($365K) for a reason, perhaps several besides  Hepburn. Clearly there was limit to wacky as welcome, modern tolerance greater if reports of repertory delight are to be believed, but how much laughing went on in 1938? I’m going to guess it stopped, in fact slammed shut, at some point in this movie, departing audiences to warn friends accordingly. Comedies, at least good ones, habitually did well as everyone is presumed to like humor and will choose it where given the option, hence "comic relief" factored into almost everything. Uncharacteristic response to Bringing Up Baby would need 1938 patrons to explain, but who of them is left? Notice I said patrons as opposed to critics, for critics too often, and still, say what they think they are expected to say, whereas customers speak from the heart. Final scene where David's precious brontosaurus skeleton collapses bothers me to point of fast-forward. Should he accept Susan’s largesse of a million dollars for the museum when she has just destroyed what had been a lifelong dream and project for him? Cary Grant was of course a master at farce, but Hepburn was just discovering it, had to be coached by supporting comedians per Hawks request, outcome an actress drunk on the schooling, giddy with new-found if misplaced confidence, not knowing, perhaps not caring, how an audience will react to her escapades.

There are merry moments in Bringing Up Baby, especially early on when the cast moves around more. Pitfall of screwball can be shouting too much, as here when most of a cast repair to the country house and then to jail. The animals are engaging, especially the cat which I hoped would molest someone just to surprise us. Watching Bringing Up Baby makes us realize how totally Peter Bogdanovich appropriated Hawks and creators’ effort with What’s Up Doc?. Think too of how Hawks copied himself less than ten years before What’s Up Doc? when he re-did the ripped coat and torn dress routine for Man’s Favorite Sport. Had Bringing Up Baby become a buff-driven “thing” by 1963? I don’t know for sure when it began showing up on revival screens, maybe because NC’s revival screens were just for Thunder Road and later Billy Jack. I could wonder too if Cary Grant went to see himself played by Ryan O’Neal. So which --- honestly --- is the better film, Bringing Up Baby or What’s Up Doc? Criterion has a Blu-Ray of Bringing Up Baby where they point up difficulty finding elements, the negative having long gone to dogs. Remarkable how so many titles survive by skin of teeth. Question to close: How many, if any, have seen Bringing Up Baby with a full audience? Did it rouse laughs throughout, or did watchers wilt as some of us tend to?


Blogger Mike Cline said...

It's a very small number of K. Hepburn films in which I can tolerate her.

7:24 AM  
Blogger RichardSchilling said...

The near endless acclaim for Bringing Up Baby ended when TCM began and modern audiences were able to see what Bogdanovich and others (over)praised for years.

It's just a tough film for me to get through, so I skip it. Hepburn's spoiled, oblivious character is aggravating to watch; so I can understand why it flopped in 1938.

Cary's reputation since he passed away has been solidified and enhanced by the continued popularity of The Bishop's Wife, Arsenic And Old Lace, An Affair To Remember and several other films.

The same cannot be said about Katharine Hepburn, who has sort of faded much more than I thought she would. At least so far. There's no multiple bios like Ava Gardner has had; nor the seemingly endless popularity of stars like Judy Garland or Barbara Stanwyck.

I wonder if Hepburn's niece is holding too tight a control on her legacy. One thing's for certain, Bringing Up Baby won't help her posthumously career.

9:00 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

I note the guys doing ad copy for BUB were not above promoting the dog "Asta" from the "Thin Man" movies as a star in its own right.

11:25 AM  
Blogger Randy said...

I've seen Bringing Up Baby once in a revival house setting and must report that it played much better to a full audience than it does (at least in my experience) watching it by yourself or with one or two other people. But then, that's true of many big screen comedies, isn't it?

1:52 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

One of the Boston revival houses ran Bringing Up Baby around 1980, after it had been out of circulation for a long time; they made a big deal about it. I seem to remember wondering why the rest of the audience thought was so funny. In the 1990s I saw it again, alone, and disliked it even more. A few years ago, my wife and I saw it on TCM, and we both actively disliked it, due to Hepburn's character. She's really unpleasant, and kind of crazy. Never understood people's love for it.

6:33 PM  
Blogger Jorge Finkielman said...

I always liked BRINGING UP BABY. To me there is no indication that the film is a flop by seeing it, I'm not saying that it didn't lose money. I would like to know what happened during the sneak previews. Katharine Hepburn was probably the wrong actress in it, but Cary Grant is excellent in here.

I don't agree that the overpraise ended when TCM started. This film was always in rotation on broadcasting stations and later TNT and I vividly remember its first VHS edition.

7:37 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Sometimes there's a lazy assumption we're going to root for a star out of habit, letting the the current vehicle skip the work of providing motivation or giving us a reason to like or dislike a character. Sometimes it works.

Most of the time, Elmer and other adversaries were bent on hurting Bugs, or at least provoking him. Occasionally the rabbit took umbrage when the heavy was abusing somebody else. If none of the above, it was just assumed he had good reason as usual. Likewise most cartoon characters.

Daffy, Woody Woodpecker, Jerry mouse, early Donald Duck ... as often as not they're out to swipe a meal. Sometimes after establishing they're hungry, but just as often because they smelled something cooking and decided they wanted it. Audiences were fine with that -- they were little guys pitted against fat slobs, just like ragged comedians up against brutish waiters from the Depression and before. Even Bugs was excused for raiding gardens or refrigerators. Mickey and Popeye were consistently held to a higher moral standard -- were there any others? -- although Popeye would occasionally punch somebody or break something on general principle.

Romcom and screwball heroes/heroines are similar, especially if the actors have some audience goodwill going in. A rival for the desired object doesn't have to be a villain. She/he merely has to display the slightest whiff of snob, jerk, or bore, and we know we're rooting for the irresponsible nut job. An actual cause for objection, like fortune hunting or two-timing, is excuse for slapstick humiliation and property damage. Miss Grace is merely cold, otherwise she would have lost her dress and been pushed into a muddle in the last reel.


How much of America was living at suburbanite level after WWII? Was it as widespread as movies and TV implied, or was it mostly aspirational? There came a point when most of the theatrical cartoon stars were increasingly middle class, less often scrappy urchins and vagrants and more frequently Joe Doakes.

10:20 PM  
Blogger Cheez Whiz said...

I can sort of understand the Hepburn hate, one fears more than loves the Ice Queen after all, but screwball comedies have their own internal logic that requires the main characters to be disconnected from reality at a Bugs Bunny level. It's the engine that drives the story, every time. You buy it or you hate the story because it "makes no sense", the kiss of death for satire and screwball.

11:44 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

Guess I'm a throwback to "less enlightened" times, but I adore BRINGING UP BABY. To me, it is, along with MY MAN GODFREY, the absolute peak of screwball comedy.

I first saw it at a rep house in the '70s where I and a full house roared with laughter from beginning to end. I've seen it at least 20 times by now and still laugh.

I am a Kate Hepburn fan, full-fledged. She is my favorite film actress ever. Would I want to deal with her BABY character in real life? No, I would not. But this is not real life, it's a movie, and I enjoy watching her. And I figure Cary Grant can handle things.

Frankly, I probably wouldn't want to try to deal with Kate Hepburn herself in real life. But I didn't have to. That's what movies are for.

12:31 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

I pretty much love BRINGING UP BABY and Cary Grant's performance. As for Kate's character, she is obviously nuts--but rich people nuts. And yes, the dog is great.

11:43 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

I like Hepburn a lot, but in revisiting her early work over the last few years, the "box office poison" thing makes more and more sense. A lot of her work at RKO (particularly Little Women and -- especially -- Morning Glory) is excruciating.

That said, I do enjoy BUB, and on the occasions I've seen it with an audience, it's played very well. (It has been a while, though.) I'd still much rather see it than anything with Jean Arthur, though.

4:25 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

I first saw BUB projected from 16mm, as one of a series of movies screened during a college course - a 'spare credit' - called "Genre In American Cinema" (I think that was what it was called, it was back in the mid 1980s). The group I saw it with was not large, maybe 50 people (course attendees were encouraged to bring a friend to the screenings, one such happening every week).
This was the first time I had ever seen a Katherine Hepburn movie, and certainly the first time I had ever seen a Cary Grant movie on a large screen.
I remember being shocked to see Hepburn as an attractive - even sexy - young lady rather than the old crone I had seen on TV talk shows from time to time. At that time I knew nothing and cared even less about her or her career.
Getting back to the movie itself, I remember the audience liking it; but I also remember the instructor from time to time that semester chiding the entire class for being overly serious and academic in its approach to the films being shown - perhaps we were being just a little too "respectful" to really enjoy the comedy, both in BUB and the other 'screwball' comedies we were shown.

I rewatched BUB yesterday on DVD, and I remembered quite quickly what I had not liked about the film the first time I had seen it - there is an ellipse in the action between Grant riding on his running board as Hepburn drives his car out of the golf course parking lot, and his next appearing in tux and tails at the high-end restaurant where he seeks to apologize to the golf partner he had abandoned. It was like a hole in the film, I thought.
It still is; but the rest of the movie is just about good enough to get me to forgive the film makers for it.

6:12 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer ponders BRINGING UP BABY and WHAT"S UP DOC:

No, I can't agree that Katherine Hepburn was merely "wearying" in "Bringing Up Baby." If I was the David Huxley character, I would have quickly been driven crazy by her. Five minutes into the picture, I would have done homicide. If it was still a comedy after that, it would have to be something like "The Trouble with Harry."

But as to "What's Up, Doc?", I would rate that the better, funnier picture. Peter Bogdanovich was like Arthur Lubin touching up the chandalier sequence in "The Phantom of the Opera." I saw it first at a downtown Philadelphia theater on a Saturday afternoon. No crowd, no laffs. A year or so later, I saw it again at Lenoir-Rhyne College in the company of my then-inamorta, who shrieked with laughter at the end as Bogdanovich piled on one purloined gag after another. When that plate glass window was finally dispatched, she was almost in convulsions. And she was not alone in hilarity. I'm sure "Bringing Up Baby" never got that reaction, even for those who could get past the first five minutes.

7:07 PM  

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