ON OUR TEAM SINCE
MY FAVORITE SCREWBALL COMEDY
"BRINGING UP BABY"
Baby, the leopard, gave Katharine Hepburn
plenty of affection when Cary Grant
A chat with Cary Grant
about this famous film
By JIM BAWDEN
It was the summer of 1980 and Cary Grant was in Toronto, toiling for his company Faberge as a good will ambassador. Grant obliged with a press conference for the Toronto media but pointedly asked his representatives : Where the heck is The Hamilton Spectator.
Thats where I came in. I was TV critic for The Spec in those days and took a frantic phone call from Faberge at my desk. Can you come tomorrow afternoon for High Tea with Cary Grant? asked the v.p. of Canadian Faberge. He told me the site which was in the Toronto suburb of North York, about two hours from Hamilton.
Would I come? You couldnt have stopped me. All that evening I boned up on Cary Grant trivia. Turns out Grant had performed in Hamilton every year during the 1920s when he was in vaudeville and still called himself Archie Leach. It was always on the Keith-Orpheum circuit and always at the Lyric theatre. He jumped when I told him the theatre still existed although it was renamed the Century when talkies came in.
I especially wanted to grill Grant about "Bringing Up Baby," my favorite screwball comedy. Id first seen it on Buffalo station WKBWs Early Morning Movie. The timeslot was 90 minutes and the station had to pack in a movie and commercials. So the title cards were never shown. "Baby" ran 102 minutes, so my first viewing of it was missing a lot of scenes. Now, of course, I have a full-length copy in mint condition.
In the classic 1939 comedy, Katharine Hepburn plays a madcap heiress who has a leopard named "Baby" as a pet. Grant plays a stuffy zoologist who assembles dinosaur skeletons for a museum. Somehow their paths cross and they fall in love after a whole lot of very funny antics involving the leopard.
I remember my first sight of Cary Grant the following day. When I arrived, he was jumping off a toy train that ran in and out of the huge warehouse. Grant looked in tremendous shape at 76 and was accompanied by a slim secretary named Barbara, who later married him. There was enough cake and scones in the luxurious board room to feed an army. I noticed Grant nibbled a bit but drank only ice water.
I surprised him off the top by saying "Bringing Up Baby" (1939) was my favorite-ever comedy.
He stopped munching and looked askance. How very strange, he quipped. Others have said the same thing. But you must remember it was a flop at the time. Critics thought it silly. It lost money because Kate Hepburn was very much box office poison. I should know. I also made 'Holiday' that same year and it flopped, too.
Grant said hed taken "Bringing Up Baby" because he had an RKO contract.
Nonexclusive. I thought the story amusing. Id already done 'Sylvia Scarlett' with Kate. It seemed like a lark so I went for it. Howard Hawks was the director, new to me, but he had a high reputation. RKO promised that the next year I could do 'Gunga Din,' also with Howard. But he kept making 'Baby' so long it became an expensive film, so they finally fired Howard and brought in George Stevens who took even longer to make 'Gunga Din.'
Grant later made "Only Angels Have Wings" (1939), "His Girl Friday" (1940), "I Was A Male War Bride" (1949) and "Monkey Business" (1952) with Hawks.
He really made the Cary Grant image with some help from Leo McCarey, Hitch and George Stevens. Did you know he wanted me to do Mans Favorite Sport (1964) but I told him we both were too old.
I told Grant Id been watching a lot of early Cary Grant movies and he often looked disconcerted, even embarrassed in many of them. Also, he didnt look like Cary Grant at all: he was pasty faced and completely uptight.
Right! I didnt know who I was so I pretended to be Noel Coward.
In 1935, dissatisfied with his parts at Paramount, Grant had turned down a $1 million contract and left to freelance.
At first it was tough going. In 'Suzy' (1936) I had third billing and a terrible part as a Frenchman. Then I made 'Topper' (1937) and 'The Awful Truth' (1937) and I became Cary Grant. Irene Dunne said Will you please relax? So I did. There was no completed script on 'The Awful Truth,' (which was made at Columbia), so we all had to improvise,which was not permitted at Paramount. I discovered I could be funny.
Irene said to say lines very slowly and react. I think Im mugging too much when I look at 'The Awful Truth' these days. And I also started the movie with a sun tan and I just kept it . Even in that submarine movie (Delmer Daves' 1943 "Destination Tokyo") I had a tan, well, a little bit of one.
Grant laughed when I said one story had newcomer Bill Holden coming up and asking for advice. And all Grant allegedly said was, Get a tan.
Its true," said Grant. "I hope Bill listened to me.
Grant took out a notepad and started writing furiously when I told him: You always ask why impersonators use the line Judy, Judy, Judy. You never had a leading lady named Judy. What you really said was Julie, Julie, Julie and this was to Carole Lombard in "In Name Only.
Grant said he was preparing a stage show called "An Evening With Cary Grant" and needed help answering questions he might be asked. And he called several times over the next few months (always collect!) for more answers, which Id research for him.
About "Bringing Up Baby." I asked Grant how the shoot went.
He told me, Howard was very much into physical gags and Kate was the gamest actress Id ever worked with. Theres the scene at dinner with the psychiatrist where I accidentally step on her dress and it comes off at the back. It took several takes and several dresses, it all had to be done with great precision. With the leopard, the first one was very friendly, you can hear her purring away.
In the jailhouse a nastier one had to be substituted and it was skittish. We couldnt get near it, so finally Howard had that leopard printed in. Look very closely and one can see the leash is really two leashes. And theyre not joined together.
Cary Grant, wearing
glasses and acting
very fussy, was not
exactly macho in
"Bringing Up Baby,"
so Katharine Hepburn
takes charge here.
One scene finds Grant donning womens dress when his own clothes are sent out to be cleaned. Then he adlibs Ive suddenly gone way! Yes, I think that was my quip. Howard kept it in but said the censors would catch it and they didnt. So it was kept in and it always causes a laugh.
And what about the finale with Kate swaying on a ladder while Grant is perched precariously on the dinosaur skeleton? Kate would not have an extra substituted so we worked and worked on this. Im an acrobat and I knew if I grabbed her by her hands her arms might pop out of the sockets. So, it was like a trapeze act and I grabbed her by the wrists and she was game and it worked precisely as the dinosaur comes crashing down. And Howard said that was a take because there were no back up dinosaurs around.
In some scenes Grant is reduced to shouting oh, my! as he runs about. Because thats exactly the way I was feeling, she had this tremendous energy, you see. I think Howard was even frightened of her. I know I still am.
In 1980 Grant said he still saw Irene Dunne at the horse races and she still smells so sweet but thats not Faberge, I fear. If he did see Hepburn she might kick me in the shins. Anything to start something.
Grant noted he was saved from the Box Office poison stigma because of two 1939 releases: Hawks "Only Angels Have Wings" and Stevens "Gunga Din." ("In Name Only" was a flop).
In 1940 I made 'The Philadelphia Story' with Kate, our last together and I was very naughty. I demanded and got first billing. I dont think she ever forgave me. But it was Jimmy Stewart who won the Oscar although he was third billed. How often has that happened?
We talked about many things over nearly two hours. I saved my notes because I was told a tape recorder might irritate him. Grant explained how he might beat new shirts against a wall so they wouldnt look stiffit was something the Duke of Windsor taught him.
His relationship with Hitchcock was complicated. Grant said Hitch once left him dangling on the Mount Rushmore set while calling for a tea break. It was inside a studio with Eva Marie Saint right there and we might have broken our necks. He liked these little jokes at ones expense, you see.
Our two hours were up and Grant moved on to another Faberge presentation. We were still arguing whether "Bringing Up Baby" was funnier than "The Awful Truth" when he shook hands and re-boarded his miniature train.
Cary Grant died in Davenport, Iowa, Nov. 29, 1986, hours before a scheduled stage appearance in "An Evening With Cary Grant." He was 82.
I still think Im right: "Bringing Up Baby" remains funnier, fresher than "The Awful Truth" 70 years after it was made.
©2008 by Jim Bawden. The photos are courtesy of Turner Classic Movies. This column first posted Nov. 24, 2008.
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