Very, Very Natural and Herself: Katharine Hepburn in “Bringing Up Baby”

”Bringing Up Baby”, 1938. RKO Radio Pictures

 
Is Katharine Hepburn playing herself in Bringing Up Baby? And if so, why not? Katharine Hepburn turned Hollywood on its head. She fearlessly and uncompromisingly set out to become a star in an industry that wanted greatness on its own terms, an industry that often tried to destroy the original few. She wanted greatness on her own unconventional terms, and she became the reluctant and the most natural movie star. So why wouldn’t she play some version of herself in at least some of her movies?

In his screenplay of Son, John Cassavetes had a line saying you gotta have “a few more people like Katharine Hepburn. You know? Charlie Chaplins. People that are higher class, you can’t have all low class, so that everybody’s low. Put more high class in there, you know, with graceful people like Garbo, so that people can look up a little instead of looking down all the time.”

So why wouldn’t Katharine Hepburn play some version of herself in at least some of her movies?

The role of Susan in Bringing Up Baby was indeed tailored to her. However, Katharine hadn’t done screwball comedy before and she wasn’t getting the hang of it when the filming started. In his book, Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, Todd McCarthy recounts: “Hawks had figured she would have no problem as the role was so close to her own background as a clever, imaginative, outspoken New England heiress, but she was trying too hard, desperately trying to ‘act’ funny, and constantly cracking up at her own antics and those of her costar. “I tried to explain to her that the greatest clowns, Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd, simply weren’t out there making funny faces, they were serious, sad, solemn, and the humour sprang from what happened around them… Cary understood this at once. Katie didn’t.”

Only after Hawks turned to veteran comic Walter Catlett, asking him to play a scene of Katharine’s with Cary, and Catlett played it “with every mannerism of hers, very serious, she was entranced. After that, she played perfectly – not trying to be funny, but being very, very natural and herself.”

Hepburn also credited Cary Grant with guiding her through. “Cary told me that the more depressed I looked when I went into a pratfall, the more the audience would laugh.” Cary knew how to be funny and the only direction he took from Hawks was to keep “the bumbling, bespectacled, always-anxious screen character created by Harold Lloyd”. “Cary was so funny on this picture”, Katharine wrote in her book, Me: Stories of My Life. “He was fatter, and at this point his boiling energy was at its peak. We would laugh from morning to night. Hawks was fun too. He usually got to work late. Cary and I were always early there. Everyone contributed anything and everything they could think of to that script.”

Hepburn and Grant liked to hang out together off the set, too, and brought all that energy and thrill on the set. And it shows on the screen. The laughs in Bringing Up Baby are real, not for one minute letting the gender, sex, and marriage connotations, or the exploration of middle-class repressions and upper-class eccentricities that subtly permeate the film turn it into being too serious. It remains funny and breakneck-paced until the very end. Another scene recalled by Hawks in McCarthy’s book involves Cary asking Katharine at one point in the story “What happened to the bone?”. Hawks continues: “And Katharine said something like “It’s in the box.” They started to laugh – it was ten o’clock in the morning – and at four o’clock in the afternoon we were still trying to make this scene and I didn’t think we were ever going to get it. I tried changing the line. It didn’t do any good. They were just putting dirty connotations on it and then they’d go off on peaks of laughter.”
 

”Bringing Up Baby”, 1938. RKO Radio Pictures

 
Howard Hawks preferred making comedies to dramas, according to Todd McCarthy, but he wasn’t interested in joke-derived humour. “For him, humour had to flow out of the characters and their attitude to what was going on around them.” He also liked spirited, good-humored give-and-take between men and women and he also liked to play up his female characters’ allure, especially in comedies, like in the case of Bringing Up Baby, where Cary Grant’s shy, naïve and awkward paleontologist, David Huxley, becomes entangled with Katharine’s outworldly, outspoken and willful heiress Susan Vance.

Katharine was born in a liberal family and had an extraordinary relationship with her parents. They were her greatest role models. “Mother and Dad were perfect parents. They brought us up with a feeling of freedom. There were NO RULES. There were simply certain things which we did – and certain things which we didn’t because they would hurt others. […] And I think, how I miss you two. I was so used to turning to you. It was heaven. Always to have you two to turn to in despair, in joy. There you were: strong – funny. What you did for me – wow! What luck to be born out of love and to live in an atmosphere of warmth and interest.” Such was the confidence and love that they instilled in her that Hepburn’s liberal point of view, her strong sense of right and wrong, her courage and determination, her bluntness and pragmatism, her bullheadedness, and, yes, her bigger than life persona, often came off on screen. So of course it makes sense that Hawks wanted nobody else in the role of Susan.

“I must say that I didn’t have brains enough to be scared, so I did a lot of scenes with the leopard just roaming around,” Katharine further wrote in her autobiography. “Olga Celeste, the trainer, had a big whip. We were inside a cage – Olga and I and the leopard – no one else. The cage was for us alone. The camera and sound were picked up through holes in the fencing. The first scene I had was in a floor-length negligee, walking around. I was talking madly on the telephone with a long cord. The leopard followed me around pushing at my thigh, which they had covered with perfume. I would pat its head. The scene went very satisfactorily. Then I changed into a knee-length dress with tabs on the bottom of the skirt covering metal pieces to make the skirt swing prettily. But – a large but – one large swirl and that leopard made a spring for my back and Olga brought that whip down right on his head. That was the end of my freedom with the leopard.”
 

”Bringing Up Baby”, 1938. RKO Radio Pictures

 
Katharine also had natural, unaffected looks and a slim figure that were very much in the Hawksian mood. It would be another two years until Hepburn’s favourite costume designer, Adrian (part of whose incredible talent was that he let an actor’s true personality and natural beauty shine through even behind the most extravagant gowns, and I am especially referring to Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo), would dress her in The Philadelphia Story, but Howard Greer did a pretty good job in Hawks’ film, too. Greer (who, after he served in France during World War I, remained in Paris and worked for Lucille, Paul Poiret and Molyneux and designed clothes for the theater in Paris and London for three years before returning to America and starting to work in film costume design) dressed Hepburn in a couple of glamorous gowns and several dresses in the film, unlike the masculine style she appropriated in real life, but the way she wears them is singlehanded and evokes such an ease in movements, the kind that had been perfected in years growing up as a trouser-wearing and sports-loving tomboy. But I like her in dresses. She’s a sight to be seen in that kind of dress, statuesque yet natural, transcending the magnetism of her personality, highlighting her beauty and femininity, yet revealing an unexpected side, too.

When David first meets Susan on the golf course, she sports a white under-the-knee skirt and white blouse. But the bias cut of the skirt allows freedom of movement, and the collar of the blouse is appropriately a Peter Pan collar, so the clothes certainly carried some of the independent spirit of the film character, and of Katharine’s too. Even the most extravagant costume in Susan’s wardrobe, the gold lamé evening dress with the veil encircling her head, is more than the Old Hollywood glamour that one would expect. First of all, despite its extravagance, it’s still Katharine you notice, not the dress, and I can’t think of any other I could say the same thing about. Secondly, the dress is meant to be costumey (many Golden Age of Hollywood movie costumes were), but the scene is so particularly funny – David accidentally steps on her dress and tears off its rear revealing her lingeried back, which he then tries to cover up with his top hat – that one can not help interpreting both the scene and the dress as a pratfall. Especially that the sequence was inspired by something similar which had happened to Cary in real life and Hawks had to put it in the film because it was his kind of situation-derived humour.

In another scene, Katharine accidentally broke a heel off her shoe. Cary immediately whispered a line into her ear, “I was born on the side of a hill”, whereupon she reprised the ad-lip on the spot as she continued to limp along. Grant’s dazzling quickness made perfect team with Hepburn’s wit and adventurous side.

Katharine does wear a pair of trousers in one scene, paired with a baggy shirt, and there are many pictures of her dressed in slacks (as she liked to call them) on the set, a clear sign that she was bringing part of her own style on screen – her costar, too, would perfect the art of the man dressing the character throughout his career. But my favourite look in the film is the light-coloured, floor-length gown that Susan wears at night when she and David are looking for the escaped leopard. It has a black bow around the neck, another black bow around the waist and ruffles around the shoulders. But the silhouette is flowy and playful and the way I would describe it is high society meets classic elegance meets tomboy attitude. And Susan certainly defies its purely fashion statement when she throws a black, thick-knitted cardigan over it when she goes to get David out of jail. It’s like she’s saying she’s trying Hollywood out, but definitely setting out to play Katharine Hepburn. She had fun doing it.
 

Katharine Hepburn and Howard Hawks on the set of ”Bringing Up Baby”, 1938. RKO Radio Pictures

 
 

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