Welcome to Cinephile Summer Camp, a new column dedicated to introducing children to classic movies as well as learning about film history and other subjects through cinema. This entry spotlights a common trope found in the film Bringing Up Baby as a way to make kids better appreciate film stories.
When I set out to teach my kids about classic movies, one that popped out as something seemingly accessible is Bringing Up Baby. After all, the main character (played by Cary Grant) is a paleontologist. And his romantic foil (Katherine Hepburn) has a pet cheetah. But the film’s length and its focus on a love story, even one with screwball antics and some slapstick, wouldn’t easily pass muster for a five- and a seven-year-old.
Just as I have in past film history and appreciation lessons, I figured one way to warm them up for Bringing Up Baby would be to show them other more kid-friendly and easily digestible films with a similar premise. At the time, I had forgotten just how much plot there is in Bringing Up Baby and was only recalling a splinter of its story, the one where a wild animal —another cheetah — escapes from being shipped to a circus and causes problems.
That late development in the plot of Bringing Up Baby probably resonated so much because it’s such a common idea, especially for the time and particularly with cartoons. I wound up finding so many examples that I may have overwhelmed my son and daughter. But this also turned out to be a good lesson in tropes and the familiarity or recycling of material in storytelling. The truth of nothing being original, everything being a remake or remix.
Here is the order of our deep dive into the ol’ wild animal on the loose trope:
The Gorilla Mystery (1930)
The earliest example of the trope I could find is in this crude black and white Mickey Mouse cartoon. Disney’s twenty-second animated short starring the iconic character is actually a send-up of a popular 1925 play called The Gorilla, which itself was a parody of contemporary stage mysteries. So we’re already dealing with a remix of a remix, but the first two film adaptations of The Gorilla, a silent feature in 1927 and a sound feature in 1930, are lost, so we couldn’t look at those.
The short begins with a report in a newspaper (this will be important) that a “mankiller” gorilla has escaped from the zoo. Mickey is worried about Minnie Mouse, and rightly so since the gorilla does wind up at her home, where he ties her up in rope. Mickey rushes to her rescue and we see one of those common cartoon gags set in a long hallway where characters keep missing each other, entering doors and exiting others. Together, the couple snares the gorilla, and they do a little dance.
Note: if you want to take an immediate detour with the kids, the same gorilla, later named Beppo, also shows up in the 1933 Mickey Mouse shorts Mickey’s Mechanical Man and The Pet Store.
Donald Duck and the Gorilla (1944)
Sticking with Disney, this color animated short arrived fourteen years after The Gorilla Mystery with a similar premise: a gorilla escapes from the zoo. The difference is that this film involves Donald Duck and his nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, and the announcement of the news comes over the radio. Also, this is one of the variations involving cases of mistaken identity, as it better adheres to the plot of The Gorilla by involving a gorilla costume.
Donald, the jerk that he is, uses the report as an opportunity to scare the already-concerned boys by putting on a gorilla suit. But then they play the same trick on their uncle. Only for the actual gorilla to show up and at first not frighten Donald because he thinks it’s his nephews again. But that stuff only takes up about a third of the film, after which the ducks are dealing with the real menace. Albeit hilariously with a series of outstanding cartoon gags. The kids definitely enjoyed this one more than the first.
The Chimp (1932)
My children weren’t happy about it, but next, we went back to black and white and switched to live-action for their first Laurel and Hardy film. It didn’t help that this one is also much longer than the other shorts on our viewing list at twenty-five minutes. But it’s also just not a very good film. There were some easy laughs, but the gags are really poorly directed. And I’d think the script was thrown together on the day of shooting if there wasn’t so much involved that must have required some sort of planning.
Stan and Ollie play circus workers who are compensated with a gorilla performer (nope, not even a chimp) when the company goes bankrupt. That leads to some simple slapstick, and my daughter did like the gorilla wearing a tutu. That’d be enough, but then there’s the addition of a lion that’s escaped from the circus, and the convoluted story doesn’t go anywhere interesting. Finally, there’s also a mistaken identity bit with the gorilla’s name. Then the film just ends at a peak moment of nonsense.
Hop, Look and Listen (1948)
We went back to color cartoons, to the children’s delight, but this Robert McKimson-helmed Looney Tunes short isn’t that much better than The Chimp. It marks the first appearance of the escaped baby kangaroo character Hippety Hopper, whom Sylvester the Cat always mistakes for a large mouse. A pretty stupid idea the first time, in my opinion, but they recycled the shtick for a handful of other shorts making for a tired concept. Of course, the kids didn’t think it was bad. They thought Hippety was funny.
Don’t Lie (1942)
And… we’re back to black and white and live-action. This one should have been shown after The Chimp since it’s yet another film involving an escaped ape — the last one of them — but the kids really wanted a cartoon between the two non-animated selections. Fortunately, despite their protests, they actually liked this one a lot. It’s not that surprising given that Don’t Lie is an Our Gangshort and so follows children rather than adults. Obviously, that makes it more relatable to young viewers.
Outside of the general problems with the Our Gang shorts and their stereotypes of the time — and this one has plenty given that Buckwheat is a central character — Don’t Lie is well-done as far as the core comedy is concerned with more mistaken identity involving a real gorilla that’s escaped from the circus and the kids wearing a gorilla costume (gorilla costumes were just everywhere back then). Admittedly, though, for me, all I can remember is Froggy’s voice. I’m forever fascinated by it.
Mickey and the Seal (1948)
One of my favorites from childhood, and I’m glad to say that it did not disappoint my kids. Mickey returns — and in color this time — in this Oscar-nominated animated short (now streaming on Disney+) in which a seal escapes the zoo by hiding in the iconic mouse’s picnic basket. Then things get really kooky when the pinniped shares a bath with Mickey without him knowing (warning: you might get some innocent comments about Mikey being naked — or questions about why he’s still wearing his gloves…),
You can’t go wrong with a short in which Pluto is aware of something that Mickey is not, but because Pluto is a rare animal in the world of Disney who can’t talk, he’s unable to communicate properly and just winds up in a different sort of hot water. But this short works because it’s not just funny, it’s really cute. And its ending scene has given us one of the best looping cartoon GIFs of all time. Hopefully one day my kids will also get to appreciate this film as part of the DTV music video for “Splish Splash,” as well.
Little Runaway (1952)
You’d think that after Disney delivered such a masterpiece with Mickey and the Seal that no other animation studio would bother with this same scenario again, let alone with a seal — and with much uglier character design for a seal at that (it looks like Casper the Friendly Ghost dipped in ink). But four years later, MGM and directors William Hanna and Joseph Barbera gave us this Tom and Jerry cartoon that goes there, and not that well.
They made changes, of course. Their seal escapes from the circus, not the zoo. And the main plot, which eventually kicks in about halfway through, entails an attempt to earn a reward announced over the radio for the seal’s capture. Tom ultimately puts on a seal costume (created from a rubber tire) in order to trick and lure the real seal, but he is mistaken for the real thing himself. It all falls flat, though, because the short only goes the basic gag ideas with no additional spark of its own.
Jerry and the Lion (1950)
Two years before Tom and Jerry met the escaped circus seal, though, they’d already dealt with an escaped circus lion. At the start of this short, we get the usual radio interruption warning of the wild animal on the loose. However, when we meet the lion, by way of Jerry meeting him, he’s not a ferocious beast at all. He just hates working at the circus and wants to return to Africa. How do we know? Well, oddly enough, he can talk, despite Tom and Jerry being silent characters in typically silent shorts.
Tree for Two (1952)
Even though we’ve already seen Sylvester the Cat involved in the escaped animal trope, four years later, Warner Bros. put him in the situation again. Fortunately, this Merrie Melodies film (available to stream on HBO MAX) is one of the best executions of the idea. It helps that Sylvester isn’t the main duped character this time around. Instead, his ignorance is used for comedy in a different way, as part of the downfall of Spike the Bulldog (in his first film if we ignore the similar bulldog in Hop, Look and Listen).
The short begins with a newspaper reporting that a black panther escaped from the zoo. Not that any of the film’s characters seem to see the warning. So when Spike means to rough up Sylvester, in part to impress his sidekick, Chester the Terrier, he mistakes the panther’s tail for the cat’s and winds up losing his battle. Only for Chester to face the real Sylvester and succeed. It’s all very basic comedy but the genius Fritz Freleng directs it all so perfectly to get the most bang for the buck.
Ducking the Devil (1957)
We followed up Tree for Two with another Merrie Melodies cartoon (also available on HBO MAX) to finish out our pre-show shorts. The Robert McKimson-helmed Ducking the Devil is also the last-released film of the whole program and, as it should, perfects some of the things we’ve seen so far. The most notable improvement on another short is the idea of a ransom for the escaped animal. Daffy Duck is famously greedy, so his scheming makes more canonical sense than Tom’s in Little Runaway.
One difference between this and the past efforts is that the escaped creature is an established cartoon character: the Tasmanian Devil. He flees the zoo in his iconic whirlwind way, then Daffy learns about the escape from a newspaper and later learns about the reward and how to soothe the beast from a radio announcement. Turns out, Taz just needs some music to lull him to sleep. I don’t know why Daffy and Taz didn’t do more films together. They’re differently manic and sort of compliment each other.
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
After all those shorts, through which the kids were hammered with the same setup over and over, we were finally onto the feature presentation. Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (streaming on HBO MAX) is considered not just one of the landmarks of the screwball comedy genre and one of the most popular films of the 1930s, but it’s often championed as one of the greatest comedies of all time. It’s not one of my favorites, but I’m an outlier, so I still figured my kids could appreciate it.
The thing is, there’s not a whole lot of business involving Cary Grant being a paleontologist save for his primary goal of securing a grant for his work, and that part of the job isn’t as interesting to a seven-year-old as the dinosaur digs. There’s also not really a lot of the cheetah pet nor the escaped cheetah, which shows up very late in the movie. And Katherine Hepburn’s character, whom I find downright unlikable in every way, didn’t cater much to my daughter’s preferences for female characters.
But the movie is never dull, so while the kids weren’t paying attention to everything always, they didn’t get so bored that they wanted to leave the room. The one thing that held their interest the most was George the dog (played by the famous pooch performer Skippy) and his interactions with Grant over the disappearance of a dinosaur bone. It seems like a lot to have a scene-stealing dog in a movie with a cheetah as a pet, but Bringing Up Baby is a lot of movie in many ways.
What young viewers can hopefully take away from a viewing of Bringing Up Baby most is how that overload of plot elements aligns it with cartoons to a degree. Screwball comedies may not seem like kiddie fare because they’re focused on romance and tend to involve a bunch of sexual politics and innuendo. But they’re also filled with a variety of cartoonish shenanigans, that mix of fast-paced farce, slapstick physicality, and mistaken identity and other misunderstandings.
I don’t suppose Bringing Up Baby will easily lead to other films of its kind — although they might want to see Skippy’s work in The Awful Truth and the Thin Man series. Maybe Arsenic and Old Lace would entertain, that is if the death stuff doesn’t bother them. Perhaps they’ll be able to enjoy What’s Up, Doc?, which I prefer to Bringing Up Baby, in a few years. Otherwise, the next time the kids watch the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, they’ll see some of Grant’s influence on Reeve as Clark Kent.
What this lesson should do for young children, though, subconsciously, is to make them aware of similarities and variations between films. It’s one thing for them to see old films that pay off when new movies and shows pay them homage, but it’s another thing for them to accept that there are tropes and genre conventions and cycles of maybe only a handful of stories as well as a small number of dramatic and comedic situations. It’ll help them to like more movies and television in the long run.