Monday, January 9, 2012

The Curious Case of Bringing Up Baby

written by guest blogger Sterling Hedgpeth, a.k.a.The Filmatelist:

As both a film lover and a stamp collector, I was thrilled when the US Postal Service announced that they’d be honoring four directors from the Golden Age of Hollywood in 2012. And when I heard who they were going to be—Ford, Capra, Wilder, Huston—my first reaction was a simple one:

“Where the hell is Howard Hawks?!?”

Because for me, Hawks embodies a seamless, no frills style of classic American filmmaking, while at the same time transcending that deceptive simplicity. Suspended between the sentimentality of Ford and Capra and the cynicism of Wilder and Huston, Hawks mastered a variety of genres with a clarity of vision and perspective that makes his films feel, 70+ years later, still quite contemporary. And fortunately for us, the Pacific Film Archive on the U.C. Berkeley campus will be holding a months-long retrospective of his work, starting on Friday, January 13.

Much has been written about the masculine ethos of Hawks’s world—a world with men of will and stoic action, motley crews united by an unspoken moral compass, women who give as good as they get, and conflicts that require solidarity and resourcefulness. It’s a recurring motif in all his films, to the point that critic David Thomson wrote “Like Monet forever painting lilies or Bon-nard always re-creating his wife in her bath, Hawks made only one artwork. It is the principle of that movie that men are more expressive rolling a cigarette than saving the world.”

But of his most revered films, one stands apart from the rest. For Bringing Up Baby (1938), while perfectly Hawksian in its wit, sexual sophistication, and breezy tone, is unusual for a couple of interesting reasons.

The first is that while most of his films either take place in the urban jungle (His Girl Friday, The Big Sleep) are on outposts far from civilization (Red River, Only Angels Have Wings), Baby bridges the two, for in the telling of David Huxley (Cary Grant) and his search for his intercostal clavicle, we move from the city and its social trappings to the Connecticut backwoods and then back again. This is done not only to point out the humorous incongruities of a leopard being walked down a busy thoroughfare, but to have the unpredictability of the outdoors be the vehicle by which the stifled David can discover himself.

Hawks’s cowboys and adventurers find a natural affinity with their surroundings, but for David, nature is something new and uncomfortable. Still, it’s the perfect place where a butterfly (as his even more uptight fiancée describes him) can take wing—and quite literally get caught in the net of Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn). Hawks rarely indulged in flights-of-fancy, keeping the tone of his films very grounded, but there’s something almost mystical about the moonlit excursion of David and Susan in search of her leopard. You almost expect Mickey Rooney’s Puck to pop his head out—a Midsummer Night’s Fever Dream. And what better place to abandon pretenses and your own senses?

Hawks’s classic women (Slim in To Have and Have Not, Feathers in Rio Bravo) can hold their own amidst the insular brotherhoods of his films, but Susan is unique by being the most masculine presence in Baby. For who else is there? The effete Charlie Ruggles with his animal calls? The plastered Barry Fitzgerald or clueless Fritz Feld? Nature abhors a vacuum, and Susan fills the testosterone void, be it sinking that impressive putt on the golf course, or pretending to be the quick-talking toughie and gang member. Hawks usually has his men shepherd each other through this rite of redemption, but lacking any other male role model, David steps up to the plate with Susan as his guide. It’s the Rising of Mr. Bone (which David is also called in the film).

But the film is still fundamentally a romance, and the film revolves around how the unlikely pairing of the mismatched duo is still a perfect fit. This is not a new conceit to the genre, but Hawks gets plenty of mileage out of finding simple ways of demonstrating this. When Hepburn rips the back of her party dress, the two walk in perfect lockstep, him behind her, as if they were a single unit. When singing “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby”, their serenade consists of deft, spontaneous two-part vocals. Harmony. Synchronization. Balance.

Well, given that last remarkable stunt back in the museum—maybe there’s room for improvement on keeping balance. But that’s the moment when David realizes he loves Susan. So equilibrium between city/country, male/female, order/chaos are all on display in a way that we rarely see in Hawks. Hawks has been criticized for indulging in his Boys Club too often, a bromance ethos that has its own internal rules and memes. But Baby shows he can be just as brilliant at undermining those tropes while still having it feel perfectly at home in his body of work.

Sadly, Man’s Favorite Sport? (1964) is not part of the PFA series, because 25 years later, he updates this sensibility without ever losing his sense of humor or irony. Essentially a loose remake of Baby, it has cityboy Rock Hudson also return to nature, a faux fisherman and himself a fish out of water, with Paula Prentiss the most irresistible steamroller you might find. Like Baby, it has its flights of fancy, with slapstick sequences which emulate Looney Toons cartoons perfectly (a high comedic compliment indeed)—very atypical for Hawks, yet still fitting right in.

And with the exception of Sirk and Frankenheimer, nobody ever used Hudson quite so knowingly. For in his Doris Day vehicles, Rock played the rabid lothario who felt obliged to fake a sensitive side to get to first base with his object of pursuit. But in Sport, his entire existence consists of pretending to be someone he’s not, putting on a false image for the world, his fear of being outed a constant one. The premise (as well as Rock’s ritual humiliation throughout the film) is a cutting metaphor for Hudson’s career. All that’s missing is him putting on a female bathrobe (as Cary does in Baby)…”because I just went gay all of a sudden!”

Between them, Ford, Capra, Huston & Wilder earned over a dozen competitive Oscars. Hawks had to settle for a single nod (for Sergeant York) and a Lifetime Achievement kudo from the Academy decades later. The USPS will probably be the same way; Hawks will get his stamp eventually. But even for this Hawks veteran, the PFA offers some golden opportunities for films rarely screened. It’s a chance not to be missed. Hope to see you there.

For more discussion on Baby and postage stamps, come visit my blog here.

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