Screwball comedies are known for their quick dialogue, but the use of verbal comedy in Bringing Up Baby stands out even amongst the other screwball classics. Language and all of its confusions are at the forefront of this farcical comedy that turns 80 today on the anniversary of its release in 1938. To appreciate its lasting effect on comedy in film, let’s look at how it uses language to create laughs and the historical context behind its dialogue.
Both of the stars of Bringing Up Baby play vastly different characters than their usual roles. Cary Grant, suave and charming, is the dopy paleontologist David. Katherine Hepburn, serious and commanding, is the flighty and airheaded heiress Susan. The two meet on a golf course when Susan mistakes David’s golf ball for hers, and from there the two spiral through one confusion after another, each getting more ridiculous than the event that came before. One million dollars and a leopard are at stake as these two characters fall in love in the process, despite being at odds the entire movie.
The film succeeds in transforming two stars into two dumbfounded idiots partly thanks to genius Howard Hawks as director. He was able, with a lot of work, to get Katherine Hepburn out of her shell to play a comedic role, unlike anything she had done before. Hawks left Grant to improvise some of the dialogue, which resulted in much of the most memorable moments in the movie. None of this would have been possible without a memorable story to build off of and screenwriters Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde are to thank for the comedic genius of so many of the jokes in the film.
One quality of a screwball comedy is miscommunication used to complicate the plot. It is a trick that seems to be as silly as the characters in the film, but it is rather genius when you consider the thought behind it. In order to achieve miscommunication or confusion in the characters in a comedic way, there have to be two options for the character to think. The writers have to choose words or actions that have a double meaning to make this work, utilizing the loopholes in the English language for jokes. Double entendre is at play for many of the jokes in Bringing Up Baby, using the multiple meanings of words as the source of comedy. One of the most famous examples of this is thanks to improv from Cary Grant.
In this clip, David (Grant) wears Susan’s robe when her aunt comes in the front door. She asks why he is wearing it and David replies: “I just went gay all of the sudden!” Not only does this play on the two meanings of the word gay, it is the first time in a movie that gay was ever used to refer to being homosexual, even if it was disguised by the other meaning for the word. Even in moments of improvisation, language is the foundation for jokes.
There are so many other instances using the literal and figurative meanings for words as jokes throughout the movie. Another funny moment that comes quickly is during the dinner between David, Mr. Applegate, Susan, and Mrs. Random. Mr. Applegate is trying to get David to open up about himself, but he doesn’t budge. Finally, he gets up and leaves to look for George, the dog. Mr. Applegate says: “At least I got a rise out of him.” Mr. Applegate was trying to get a rise out of David, using the figurative meaning, but David rose out of his seat and left, using the literal meaning. This kind of play on words comes in the dialogue so fast you may miss it if you don’t pay attention, but appreciate so much if you do.
While this kind of comedy has been around as long as Shakespeare was writing, this use of punny dialogue came out of the limitations put on screenwriters in the 1930s with The Motion Picture Production Code, which limited reference to anything sexual, either visually or audibly in dialogue. All of the talented writers that flocked to Hollywood to write for the pictures had to innovate with their dialogue to include sexual references disguised in the loopholes of our language. Thus, the screwball comedy, also known as “sex comedy without sex,” was born, full of innuendos and double entendres to go around the code limitations and please the audience.
In the first scene of Bringing Up Baby, the characters engage in a conversation that literately is very safe within context. When you consider the innuendo it also plays off of, it becomes a hilarious subtextual joke characteristic of the genre of screwball comedy.
David Huxley: Alice I think this one must belong in the tail.
[referring to a bone he is holding]
Alice Swallow: Nonsense. You tried it in the tail yesterday, and it didn’t fit.
David Huxley: Yes, that’s right. I did, didn’t I?
This conversation is riddled with sexual undertones made possible with the twisting of language the writers used to bypass the censorship of the code. Thanks to those limitations, screenwriters became even more clever with their dialogue, which is on display in Bringing Up Baby. The quick and subtextual dialogue that is at play within a plot full of romance and miscommunication set the standard for a genre of comedy that followed the screwball comedy–the romantic comedy.
If you watch Bringing Up Baby now and think that you can hardly keep up with the jokes, it could be because the elements at play in the story are present in romantic comedies of today, but at a much slower pace. Jokes like those in Bringing Up Baby don’t happen as often in romantic comedies either, coming more sparingly and in moments they are impossible to miss. The pace and depth of comedy in this screwball comedy is unlike anything that came before it, and likely anything that will come after it (other than its remake What’s Up, Doc?). There is so much at play in Bringing Up Baby that makes it a classic comedy, but the language is one thing that puts it above most comedies of today.