Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Howard Hawks

Of Babies, Bones and Butterflies

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977. This essay on Bringing Up Baby is a chapter of the author’s University of Washington doctoral dissertation Howard Hawks: An American Auteur in the Hemingway Tradition.]

Bringing Up Baby‘s narrative and thematic directions have much in common with those of Shakespearean comedy. Positing the green world of the forest against the restrictive refuges of civilization, Hawks moves from a rigid and sterile old order into an arboreal milieu of enchantment and mistaken identity, and thence to a new order which synthesizes the best of both worlds. David Huxley is caught up in a midsummer night’s dream (or nightmare) in which identity, time, direction, and traditional modes of communication are lost or changed utterly. Hawks, like some cinematic Prospero, invokes the power of music and nature to effect the existential regeneration of comic hero and heroine.


David Huxley (Cary Grant) is introduced in the pose of Rodin’s “Thinker,” perched on a scaffold overlooking a brontosaurus skeleton that requires just one crucial bone to be complete. As a paleontologist, his “business” is a variation on taxidermy, the construction of bones into the shape of an extinct animal. He works in a museum where legacies of the past—nature’s and civilization’s—are displayed. As Hemingway said, “Chasing yesterdays is a bum show”: David is physically and intellectually immobilized by the weight of time into a sterile imitation of life. Momentarily stirred to joy by the promised arrival of the last brontosaurus bone, an intercostal clavicle, he spontaneously attempts to embrace his primly-coiffed and -suited fiancée, Miss Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker). Repressed and repressing, she rebuffs him with “There’s a time and a place for everything.” Not only does she see “time and place” as inviolably absolute categories; it is also clear that those categories will always preclude sexual spontaneity. David’s work will leave “no time for a honeymoon” and Alice proudly gestures toward the brontosaurus skeleton, announcing “This will be our child!” Sexuality and procreation, ordinarily signs of life in motion in the here and now, are frozen into images of “no time” and an unfleshed casualty of past time.

David Huxley's baby

Rather than resenting and attempting’ to defy temporal realities, as do most Hawks and Hemingway code heroes, David Huxley is forced to worship time’s power to deaden and terminate life. Miss Swallow, a walking stopwatch, reminds David that “it’s time to play golf with Mr. Peabody,” whom he is to persuade to donate a million dollars to the museum. Almost in unconscious rebellion against her maternal discipline, he boyishly exclaims “I’ll show him! I’ll wow him! I’ll knock him for a loop!” His fiancée predictably objects to the slang—language in playful motion—and cautions, “Remember who and what you are. And let Mr. Peabody win!” Who and what you are, for Miss Swallow, are further static classifications in contrast to the potential for professional and personal development, particularly in competitive play, that is always present in Hawks’ dramatic films, For David’s fiancée, nothing must be left to chance. As David departs, he absentmindedly confuses Alice with an elderly, male colleague, almost giving him a parting kiss; for as a result of her killing categorizing, Alice has managed to confound David’s ability to recognize or respond to her as a woman. He is as unmanned in his existential refrigerator as are Francis Macomber and Robert Cohn, Hemingway men trained and enervated by women.

Instead of the claustrophobic artificiality of the museum where work reigns as supreme value, Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) is first seen at play in the outdoors, on the expansive green of a golf course. David drives his ball into her territory and Susan, androgynously graceful in loose clothing and flyaway hair1, casually appropriates it. David follows awkwardly along as she continues to play, being drawn further and further away from his dutiful and noncompetitive play with Mr. Peabody (George Irving) and encountering a total refusal on Susan’s part to respond in kind or even to properly hear his claims of ownership. When he explains that she’s placed him in “an embarrassing position,” that he’s supposed to be “over there” with Mr. Peabody, she replies with perfect insouciance, “Well then, it’s silly for you to be over here on the eighteenth green.” Despite his increasingly desperate attempts to explain how important it is that he recover his ball, Susan simply shrugs and comments, “What does it matter? It’s only a game anyway.”2 Susan then proceeds to get into his car, smashing a few fenders as she tries to back it out of the parking lot: “I’ve got to get into position.” Equally impervious to and exasperated by his reiterated claims on the automobile, she finally explodes: “Your car? Your ball? Your runningboard? Is there anything in the world that isn’t yours?” and he replies, erroneously in the long run, “Yes, thank heavens—you!”

Susan simply refuses to give credence to any of the categorizations that David has been taught are inviolable. The authority of possession, the logic of time and position, language as a rational tool of communication are irrelevant to Susan’s “crazy way of looking at things.” The quote is from Only Angels Have Wings, and indeed, Susan’s craziness is located on the comic end of the spectrum that also includes the Barrancan fliers’ therapeutic insanity. Her behavior is both frustrating and exhilarating. The conditioned adult in us—Miss Swallow as superego—wants her to behave herself like a properly rational being, to respect all the neat frames of reference with which we make sense of the world. But that part of us that resents and distrusts such rigidly constructed classifications is firmly on the side of Susan’s anarchy. The ritual conventions of a Hawksian community are also created to clarify chaos, but they are flexible, meant to change to suit man as measurer of reality. Making experience stand still and fossilize into monuments to time and reason, David’s initial modus vivendi, is challenged by Susan’s attitude that life is to be played on the run, as a dangerous but rewarding game. Seen in a position of near-paralysis in the first shot of Bringing Up Baby, David is literally swept off his feet and into motion by Susan when she drives off with him standing on the runningboard of his car, still dutifully assuring Mr. Peabody that he’ll be with him “in a minute.” That momentum, with its abundance of “embarrassing” positions, will carry David out of an infantile preoccupation with order into the dangerous fun of childhood and even animality—a process in which he loses track of what time it is, who and where he is.

When David next encounters Susan she has brought her play indoors, into the heart of civilized life. In a decorous upper-class restaurant where David is to meet Peabody, Susan, engrossed in learning a new game from the bartender, drops an olive at the precise moment David enters the frame. Naturally he slips on it and falls—the first of many pratfalls for which Susan is responsible. Hawks’ comic tyro recognizes her dangerousness which, like Bonnie Lee’s in Only Angels Have Wings, may cause a man to lose his equilibrium and break his neck:
David: I might have known you were here…. I felt it as I hit the floor.
Susan: That was your hat.
David: First you drop an olive and then I sit on my hat. It all fits perfectly.
Susan’s presence signals physical as well as intellectual loss of control, whereas Miss Swallow battens down the hatches on any form of impulsiveness. David’s hilarious and futile attempts to retain his museum manner, absolute dignity and rationality in the face of illogic and chance represent a comically unredeemed version of the code hero’s grace under pressure, the earned stylistic armor of cognoscenti in Hawks and Hemingway. David, initially seen as a statue, is the comic equivalent of Red River‘s aberrant code hero Dunson, who became like “something that wouldn’t move.” Both Dunson and David Huxley turn excessively rigid in their fear of falling and their obsession with the past.

As Susan watches David walk away from his first pratfall, a tutorial gleam comes into her eyes. Hawks’ comic heroine is liberated enough to know that life can only be played instinctively, but her anarchic gaming also functions as a means of sublimating her sexual energy which lacks focus and opportunity for creative expression. As she follows David, she appropriately consults a dining psychiatrist not on her own problem but on David’s apparently aberrant behavior: “He just follows me around and fights with me.” Like all those who stand for traditional or institutionalized knowledge in Bringing Up Baby, the psychiatrist, Dr. Lehmann (Fritz Feld), attempts to categorize and thus contain the irrational, even as his own uncontrollable facial tics signal his impotence to do so. Lehmann explains that David probably “has a fixation” and that “the love impulse in man frequently reveals itself in terms of conflict.” His clinical pronouncement is the fossilized equivalent of the approach-avoidance dynamics—”mating duels,” as James Agee calls them—that characterize falling into love or friendship in Hawksian terms.

But Susan translates Dr. Lehmann’s psychoanalytic argot into her own crazy linguistic logic when· she tells David: “You know why you’re following me? You’re a fixation.” Though it is David who “has inspired Susan’s instantaneous cathexis, he will in fact eventually follow her lead into the dangerous flux and flow of experience, thus escaping his own existentially fixated position. When Susan accidentally rips off the tails of David’s tuxedo, she exclaims,’ “You certainly don’t think I did that intentionally” and he answers, “If I could think, I would have run when I first saw you.” When David is in Susan’s proximity his position of “thinker” is undermined, literally toppled, so that he falls into inadvertent action—often painful, but also “fun,” a comic variation on the dramatic code hero’s escape from the immobilization of too much thought by means of hazardous play. Susan’s Jesuitical disclaimer of responsibility for his torn tails—”I didn’t do it! I did it, but I didn’t mean to do it!”—attests to the power of the unconscious to motivate behavior despite avowed intentions. Not wishing to lose David, she instinctively holds on to his tails (and tears them) in order to hold him. At the end of the film she explains that “I did anything that came into my head to keep you near me.” Keeping him near her involves appropriating his golfball and depriving him of tuxedo tails—barely disguised comic terms for stripping David of his fossilized sexuality so that he and Susan may discover more viable, respectively less conscious and unconscious, sexual identities.

In the ensuing argument over his ruined tuxedo Susan decides to give up the chase; but as she haughtily departs, David accidentally stands on her hem, causing the rear panel of her gown to tear away. Coming at this crucial juncture, the duplication of accident is curious, recalling similar (redemptive) patterns in Hawks’ early dramatic films and suggesting that David, despite his rational stance, may have inadvertently taken a physical position that would prevent Susan’s going. Whether a matter of chance or subliminal arrangement, David finds himself following Susan very closely, realizing her earlier, seemingly backwards reading of his emotional itinerary.

Duty and work, the proprieties of time and space, eternally prevent sexual contact between Miss Swallow and David Huxley. But David and his new teacher, both stripped of civilization’s second skin and intimately conjoined—David glued to Susan’s rear to protect her modesty—goosestep in matched rhythm through a crowded restaurant, clearly neither the proper time nor place for such behavior, especially since Mr. Peabody is one of the outraged witnesses to their bizarre departure. David’s thinking-man’s love for Miss Swallow precludes physicality, but he touches Susan long before he becomes conscious of having fallen in love with her, and he falls physically many times before he recognizes his fall into love. The couple’s hilarious collaboration in this scene is a comic version of the mutual compensation methods Hawks’ dramatic personae utilize to cover their respective weaknesses or losses.

David makes a final attempt to assert who and what he is against Susan’s outrages. She sits inside her car (a vehicle of motion) as he, standing beside it (from Susan’s point of view, enclosed by the frame of the window), announces that there are “limits to what a man can bear” and that he is going to get married—verbally associating the idea of set limits with Miss Swallow, and utilizing the institution of marriage as a talisman against Susan’s attractive anarchy. Her amused whinny in response to his announcement is a nonverbal holding action; but it also, under the circumstances, suggests her current doubts about his existential and sexual authority. Though David is beginning to talk like Susan, telling the truth even as the logic of his language seems to deny it—”In moments of quiet I’m strangely drawn to you, but there haven’t been any quiet moments”—he still clings to his former self-concept. Wishing desperately to prove he is not an impotent pawn of circumstance, he tries to achieve a comically heroic stance: Miss Swallow and his friends are ill “convinced that I am a man of some dignity, and privately I’m convinced I have some dignity.” As Susan laughs again, David, exiting with dignity, trips and literally falls out of the frame. Every time he violates the Hawks and Hemingway caveat against the overt verbalization of who and what you are, he loses control of himself, is subject to pratfalls which are the comic equivalents of plane crashes and battlefield injuries. As Molly Haskell points out, “Hawksian man lives on an existential precipice, where saving one’s dignity is as important as saving one’s life, and from which a fatal fall and a pratfall make a remarkably similar sound.”3

Even when Hemingway treats women who do not identify with their lovers, women who mock or castrate their men, he stops short of situations in which they simply do not take their men seriously or laugh (healthily) straight into the teeth of some heroic posture. In life, as in art, he found this attitude intolerable. In our interview, Hawks suggested that Martha Gelhorn was the only one of Hemingway’s wives who asserted her own identity (and career), while “if [Mary Hemingway] were a man you’d call her a ‘yes-man’.” Martha Gelhorn, on at least one occasion, acted very much as Susan Vance does in response to David’s spurious claim to dignity. Hemingway, after roistering at a party in World War II London, had suffered a concussion in a car accident. Martha, arriving after a genuinely dangerous transatlantic crossing, found her husband in a hospital bed “with his hands clasped behind his broken head. His beard covered half his chest, and the bandage, like a turban, swathed his forehead…. Martha burst out laughing…. When she deplored the partying … and began to deprecate his reputation as a great fighting man, he could only, and rather lamely, repeat the already hoary joke that he had never had a WAC shot out from under him.”4

His very choice of jokes betrays Hemingway’s wounded masculine pride, and Martha’s competitive frontline journalism helped matters not at all. The sense of humor that restores psychic equilibrium in Hawks’ dramas and comedies (as well as the director’s penchant for aggressive women) seems to have been almost entirely lacking in Hemingway’s character. His disproportionate rage at Scott Fitzgerald when the latter failed to call time on a boxing bout in which Morley Callaghan floored Hemingway prompted Norman Mailer to speculate: “To be knocked down by a smaller man could only imprison him further into the dread he was forever trying to avoid. Each time his physical vanity suffered a defeat, he would be forced to embark on a new existential gamble with his life.”5 In Bringing Up Baby, the process is therapeutically reversed: David Huxley is forced to recognize life as an existential gamble (rather than as Miss Swallow’s sure thing) by means of repeated defeats of his physical vanity or dignity.

Immediately after David’s precious intercostal clavicle is finally delivered, Susan phones to report that she too has had a delivery and requires assistance with it—a leopard her brother has sent her from South America. “It’s lucky that I met you,” she goes on, “because you’re the only zoologist I know…. Of course I know what a zoologist is!” Susan turns a paleontologist, one who studies fossils and extinct species, into a zoologist, one who classifies the biology of living animal species. Her “Baby” is a beautiful feline that is very much alive and in motion, while Miss Swallow’s “child” is a brontosaurus skeleton. The leopard emblemizes instinctive, dangerous existence, passionate energy as opposed to static abstractions of life. Hawks’ leopard differs from the “dried and frozen carcass” of the leopard in Hemingway’s “Snows of Kilimanjaro,” for it operates as David’s totem animal as he descends from heights of abstraction—”the thinker” perched on the scaffold above an ossified carcass—into the chaotic regions of actual experience. David is just being born into what Hemingway’s writer yearns to die out of; the latter sees the cold purity of the mountain as refuge, while David must desert his refuge of frozen truths, the museum and all it stands for, in order to find himself.

David is initially terrified of the leopard, which Hawks identifies with Susan behaviorally and in dialogue. Baby represents his spontaneous animal and sexual nature, which he has been trained to suppress and deny. Such suppression results in the abrogation of his masculinity as he takes refuge atop a table in the traditional pose of a lady besieged by a mouse. Susan calms the leopard’s amorous advances upon David with a recording of its favorite tune, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby.” The leopard is thus associated with libido-liberating song, and the frequent necessity for vocalizing in its presence unites David and Susan in typically Hawksian community, as well as communication. Once in the country, the two sing conversations at each other (to the melody of Baby’s song) as they coax the leopard into a stall. A love song becomes the means of imparting mundane information like “Open the door” while still soothing Baby’s savage breast. The couple continue to sing at each other past the point of necessity, and a sense of gratuitous fun develops, like that which informs the chants of children and primitives, or even the insane. Talking in song is another sign of the breakdown of civilized modes of communication that will characterize David’s excursion into Susan’s “jungle,” where distant circus music contributes to the ambience of enchantment that marks the couple’s inadvertent running-away-from-home, and from civilized controls.

As they drive into Connecticut, with Baby ensconced in the backseat, David explains to Susan that he’s never met anyone like her before: “You look at everything upside down” (another version of Only Angels “crazy way of looking at things”). This “quiet moment” is almost immediately disrupted when Susan, whose attention has been focused on David and his mood of surrender to chaos (“I don’t care anymore”), runs into a truck full of chickens, ducks, and swans. Afterwards, she explains that “I never hit anything that’s in the right place,” and anyway, “if you’d run we shouldn’t have had to pay.” David, now a soggy and feathered biped, snaps, “When a man is wrestling a leopard in the middle of a pond, he’s in no position to run.” In a Hawksian world like that of Only Angels Have Wings hardly anything is in the “right place” to ensure safety: Joe Souther would have landed successfully if a tree hadn’t “stuck up too high,” and Kid notes that he and Bat would have made it through the pass “if it hadn’t been for those birds.” Susan’s epistemological lapse and her notion of not having to pay reveal that, though she will act as David’s guide in his subsequent rites of passage in the green world, she will simultaneously learn that games can have serious consequences that can’t always be run away from. As in the dramas, in Hawksian comedy man and woman will bring each other up in a mutual exchange of values and knowledge.

Delivering Baby

In his progress from town into country, from control into chaos, David is stripped of his professional, sexual, and even human identity, as well as his authority as a rational, well-balanced human being. Although his predicament is comic, he enters the same existential terrain occupied by the aviators in The Dawn Patrol. There, men are bereft of every traditional means of defending identity against nada and, except for the Hawksian code, would simply be animals doomed for the slaughterhouse. David’s inadvertent plunge into the pond with a leopard (not seen onscreen) is as decisive as Frederic Henry’s dive into the Tagliamento. The latter subsequently clings to Catherine as his existential anchor until she becomes a casualty. Susan contrives to deprive David of every civilized anchor he has ever depended upon in the process of their crazy odyssey into enlightenment, and he will ultimately save her from a fatal fall. Like Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Susan kills time for her lover—not so that he may die well, but rather so that he may be reborn and live well.

While David attempts to purge himself of his first plunge into nature by means of a civilized shower, Susan steals his clothing, the last vestige of his civilized armor. Forced to don a feathery peignoir (previously his suit was covered with feathers), he faces a stuffily proper matron, Susan’s aunt (May Robson), who sputters, “Who are you?” over and over. Unable to make her understand how he came to be so bizarrely dressed—it doesn’t even make sense to him—he finally explodes in exasperation: “I’m not myself today…. I just went gay all of a sudden!” David progresses from the mutilation of a masculine uniform, his tuxedo, to the loss of any habilirnents, to transvestism; from the mannish Miss Swallow’s rejection of his sexuality, to girlish fear over a leopard, to the appearance of homosexuality. Hawks challenges the latent fear that underlies what Molly Haskell has called the “virility cult” in literature and film, and in so doing, exorcises his own ambivalence toward women. In dramas like Only Angels Have Wings, women are initially seen as potentially unmanning, both by the fact of their attractiveness and by their tendency to uncontrolled emotionalism. The tension is essentialized in Nick Adams’ choices in “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife”: to return to the dark, warm, faintly erotic bedroom where castration may be imminent, or to run away into the bracing outdoors to hunt for masculine values that might withstand the Oedipal lure. In Bringing Up Baby (and in most of his comedies), Hawks confronts the problem directly by placing David, still an emotional child, at the mercy of a crazy mother who lovingly divests him of all the ostensible signs of his false manhood, even metamorphosing him into an apparent homosexual. If women are dangerous, Hawks seems to say here, let’s give full rein to their dangerousness and discover how durable a creature man really is. This ability to face openly what is relentlessly resisted in Hemingway’s fiction results in Hawks’ women, especially in the later dramas and comedies, far surpassing in complexity and humanity the majority of those appearing in Hemingway’s work. For as he and his comic hero face and accept the frightening Other, her mask of mythic creator-destroyer falls away, and an individual as vulnerable to the shapes of nada as any man emerges.

David’s next loss is the intercostal clavicle. When he discovers that George, a fox terrier, has disappeared with the bone, he cries in dismay, “It’s precious! It’s rare!” So is existential and sexual authority; and in this context, the loss of the phallic bone and the extended search for it represent David’s initial impotence as well as the rites of passage through which he transcends that impotence. At the beginning of Bringing Up Baby David is professionally and personally associated with an unfleshed skeleton (later he will actually, if inadvertently, take the name “Mr. Bone”). As the film progresses, he is bereft of the bone which he mistakenly believes will complete his “life’s work.” While searching for the bone, he is also in pursuit of a living leopard (Baby having managed to escape—and George and Baby becoming fast playmates). That which symbolizes the ossification of his instinctive life—what D.H. Lawrence would have called the ability to “think in the blood”—is the bone. And the bone is guarded by two representatives of the animal world who in themselves stand for a more instinctive apprehension of reality. In the process of his search for his lost manhood, David becomes dog, leopard, “wolf” and even butterfly, passing through stages of animal life in order to achieve full-fledged humanity.

Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea reverses this process. An occasionally brilliant novel, the author’s last completed work is almost too perfectly conceived, like an artificial and selfconscious myth lacking in genuine narrative tension, but replete with overtly significant character and event.6 Thematically and stylistically, The Old Man and the Sea expresses Hemingway’s growing (and perhaps warranted) fear of literary and sexual impotence.7 Santiago’s “fishing further out than he had ever gone before” suggests the author’s brave excursion into new literary waters, with the destructive sharks as everpresent carping critics ready to take destructive bites out of his work. But if Hemingway’s writing and his sexuality were as one in his mind, as I believe they were, then his fictional surrogate also embarks on a phallic quest in order to restore sexual, as well as professional, potency to the maimed Fisher-King, Santiago or Hemingway. The sharks (vagina dentata?) strip the great fish of flesh and Hemingway–Santiago is left with a “long white spine”—a shattering image of impotence. In the twilight of his manhood, Santiago’s journey takes him from rampant, living flesh to naked bone, and he ends as he began, dreaming “not of storms, nor of women, nor of great occurrences, nor of great fish, nor fights, nor contests of strength, nor of his wife,” but of playful young lions. David emerges from a premature version of that twilight into illumination, and achieves existential maturity and potency by moving from skeleton to living beasts, a playful leopard as well as an unpredictably vicious cat. The two cats represent the duality of nature, like Ariel and Caliban, for Hawks does not divest the instinctive life of its dangerous aspect, thereby retaining the tension between necessary and excessive loss of control.

Dangerous Game8

In search of the bone in which he has symbolically invested his professional and personal worth, David is further divested of human identity. Rigged out in a hunt costume that is too small for him, he is dead serious in his pursuit of the bone-stealing terrier, crawling about on all fours and talking to the dog as they progress from one hole to another. Characteristically, Susan remarks, “Isn’t this fun? Just like a game”—a game in which man becomes dog and dog becomes man (“Isn’t he a little man?” she queries proudly as George digs up another boot). When her aunt, an unappreciative audience to the masquerade, again demands to know who or what David is, Susan instinctively improvises an identity and profession for him out of immediate epistemological cues: “Mr. Bone, a big-game hunter.” Miss Swallow’s “Remember who and what you are” gains its authority from fossilized categories established in the past. Susan invents roles and identities pragmatically, to suit current necessity, compelling David into the “pursuit of happiness”9 by means of dangerous games.

Earlier, when Susan first called David about Baby, she spoke of leopard and man simultaneously, confusing their identities—the first of many associations of man and beast. In a telephoned report to Miss Swallow on his nonprogress with Mr. Peabody, David revealed that he no longer found language adequate to contain the ambiguous quality of his experiences: “I saw him—but I didn’t see him. I spoke to him—but I didn’t talk to him.” Susan is adept at confusing the issue, her unique brand of play, even in terms of fairly straightforward conversation by phone—always a challengingly deceptive mode of secondhand communication in Hawks. When David phones Miss Swallow to explain his failure to show up at their wedding, she typically demands, “Do you know what time it is?” David takes her rhetorical rebuke literally, as does Susan who immediately seizes on Alice’s obsession as a means of disrupting the couple’s line of communication. Eavesdropping on an extension, she begins to intone in the maddening, robotlike voice of a recording, “When you hear the tone the time will be 7:40,” utilizing a spoon and a glass to create the proper sound effect. Susan, like Oscar Jaffe and Lily Garland [in Twentieth Century], is an instinctive actress, able to create instantaneous plot and action with the most minimal of stage props. Never paralyzed into an immutable version of who and what she is, she is able to adapt to whatever challenge her environment presents. Neither does she respect time as an absolute. What time it really is is secondary to the success of her timely ploy.

Susan’s performance is interrupted by the appearance of a dapper, almost effeminate little man, Major Applegate (Charles Ruggles), a friend of her aunt. As he stands outside a Dutch door, the top of which is open, Major Applegate allies himself with Miss Swallow’s literalminded notion of time, and in the process loses control of who and where he is:
Applegate: My watch shows 8:10.
Susan: Who are you?
Applegate: Who am I? I’m 8:10—uh—Major Applegate.
Susan announces that Miss Swallow’s “hung up” and the utterly confused interloper, who has begun to climb over the gate of the door, notes “Well so am I!” (Both he and Miss Swallow are also psychically “hung up’.”) Susan, with her penchant for “looking at things upside down,” particularly spatial realities, inquires, “Are you coming in or going out?” The newcomer, introduced as a genuine big-game hunter, is, like Dr. Lehmann, identified as an authority in his field. But his façade of professional knowledge and control, like David’s, is almost completely spurious.

Later, Applegate attempts to draw his fellow professional out on their mutual area of interest—to no avail. (David doesn’t yet know in what role Susan has cast him.) The Major launches into a story about his heroic tracking down of a man-eating tiger while David stares balefully at the bone-stealing fox terrier, apparently refusing to be impressed with Applegate’s masculine prowess and causing the latter’s voice finally to break into a very unmasculine register in his frustration. George chooses this moment to leave the diningroorn and David exits in pursuit. “Well, at least that got a rise out of him,” chortles the Major. Distinctly foppish in appearance, Major Applegate is vocally unsexed by signs of indifference to his advertised masculinity and uses a sexually suggestive metaphor to describe David’s supposed response to that advertisement. (Later he inadvertently trades mating calls with Baby, a male leopard.) After David has returned, Applegate proudly announces that, when hunting, “I personally use a bolt-action Mauser with a very large bore.” In Hawks’ topsy-turvy variation on “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” the virile white hunter Wilson becomes the sexually (and professionally) suspect Major Applegate—hardly a proper tutor for David as a genuinely incompetent version of Hemingway’s Macomber. Further, Hawks metamorphoses the castrating Margot Macomber into a comic code heroine who is instrumental in salvaging David’s lost manhood.


When David and Susan plunge into the darkness of the Connecticut forest in pursuit of Baby and George, they leave far behind them all of the civilized versions of clean, well-lighted places. As much a tyro in experience as was Nick Adams in the woodlands of “The Battler,” David is initiated into life’s dangerous ability to wound by means of accelerated pratfalls and humiliations. All sense of time and direction is lost as the film turns increasingly dark (Bringing Up Baby is one of the most darkly lit of all comedies).10 David and Susan are armed in their big-game hunt with ludicrously inadequate and inappropriate weapons, a croquet mallet and a butterfly net—emblematic props which suggest certain social and cultural attitudes toward hunts and games.


In the forest Susan ceases to be exempt from the painful accidents that her very presence has subjected David to. As he forges ahead through the heavy underbrush, she, following, is swatted in the face by the branches he has pushed aside, and finally drops to all fours to avoid their blows. When he tardily notices this, David snaps unsympathetically, “Susan, this is no time to play squat-tag!” This action and interaction achieves an interesting reversal of the earlier scene with the fox terrier in which David, desperately trying to find his bone, was reduced to crawling about on all fours. Susan then saw his ludicrous predicament as “fun,” a delightful game. Now David, too well instructed in her upsidedown point of view, interprets her response to a genuinely painful dilemma as just another form of game. Her serious “I’m not playing” indexes Susan’s growing vulnerability to the forces she herself has loosed. When David accidentally loses his footing and slides ignominiously down a miniature cliff, Susan, still safely at the top, bursts into laughter. But her amusement results in her own loss of equilibrium so that she recapitulates his abrasive fall, binding with her butterfly net firmly enclosing David’s head. Earlier, in the hole-digging scene with George, David had made as if to strike his tormentor; now, as he sits helplessly ensnared by a female predator, he barely stops short of strangling her. (As he lunges toward her, Baby, his animal alter ego, roars in the distance.)11 In Bringing Up Baby latent masculine misogyny and distrust is therapeutically acted out, rather than sublimated, allowing for a viable rapprochement between the sexes.

As we have established, seeing well and accurately is a matter of survival in the Hawksian dramas; in Bringing Up Baby David’s initiation into the true nature of experience is accompanied by loss of visual acuity. Having broken his glasses in the fall down the cliffside, David must rely on Susan to see for him, though he rightly notes that “the things I’ve been doing today I could have done just as well with my eyes shut.” She assures him that an intervening stream is quite shallow enough to be waded, and they are immediately up to their necks in deep water (which represents David’s second symbolic immersion in the dangerous element where he risks death in order to be reborn); in their attempts to avoid drowning, they end up on the bank they started from. Susan’s uninhibiting lack of concern with spatial or geographical realities, her epistemological rashness, now implicates them both in potentially dangerous situations they can’t run away from. If in the dramas the heroine’s emotionality must be tempered while the hero’s stoic restraint is concomitantly softened, Susan’s undermining of David’s rigidified position, initially a positive force, becomes in its excesses potentially destructive unless eventually balanced by David’s enlightenment or “raised” consciousness. In other words, she has got him into motion, but that momentum may prove fatal without the application of some type of governor. This duality becomes concretized in the second leopard loosed in the forest, identical in appearance with Baby but in reality a killer—animal nature out of control.

Thoroughly exasperated with Susan, David suggests that she “go home.” (Even in the comedies, the hero reveals his growing attraction to the heroine by attempting to send her home.) Susan, whose increasing emotional vulnerability has been indexed in typical Hawksian fashion by her consistent loss of physical grace and control, defensively retorts, “I can take care of myself’!” as she starts to walk away, only to trip and fall out of frame like David after his earlier protestation concerning his illusory dignity. Heretofore Susan has masked her very real need for David with the insouciance of a professional gambler. Her bursting into tears, undisguised emotionality, betrays to what extent she has placed herself in a position to lose (to paraphrase the major in “In Another Country”). David embraces her and they nearly, but do not quite, kiss; for their “upbringing” requires further rites of passage before they can be fully united as existential equals.

Home As Found

Bringing Up Baby begins in sterile order and progresses through therapeutic chaos. In its penultimate moments, the bastions of civilized verities are invaded and exposed as fraudulent with increased violence. The terrific momentum of David’s long journey into night is arrested and its accrued tensions finally released in positive and effective action. The old order succumbs and falls to the energy of the new, and David and Susan successfully rescue each other from their respective imbalances.


Susan and David, discovered singing along with a caterwauling Baby and a howling dog, are jailed by the local constable (Walter Catlett) with the assistance of Dr. Lehmann, who is convinced the two are quite mad. (The psychiatrist is, of course, unable to perceive the significance of a symbolic musical mating of ego and id.) The hunters, trying to recover an escaped animal, are themselves caged, while Baby and his murderous doppelganger roam free. Eventually, in a complete reversal of the normal positions of animals and humans, all of the film’s dramatis personae take refuge in jail cells while a vicious leopard menaces them from without.

Constable Slocum and Dr. Lehmann, advocates of social and psychological law and order, go far beyond the bounds of sanity in their fanatic devotion to facts they glean from a series of phonecalls which, because of the limited knowledge of their interlocutors, utterly confuse identities and distort reality.12 Irrational in a socially acceptable manner (as was Miss Swallow in adopting a brontosaurus skeleton as her child), the constable and the psychiatrist easily fall for Susan’s inspired craziness as she pragmatically improvises a fantastic scenario “out of motion pictures she’s seen” and the various experiences she and David have undergone during Bringing Up Baby. Talking rapidly out of the side of her mouth and swaggering like a female Scarface, she instantly metamorphoses herself, into a gangster’s moll and creates a verbal and behavioral smokescreen behind which she escapes.13

But Susan has lost control of the animal energy she has creatively loosed. Her identification with Baby has been positive in nature, but she returns to the jail dragging the vicious leopard—a sign of instinct turned destructive, suggestive of her own predicament as a sexually unfulfilled woman. In taking up arms against the killer leopard, David recognizes Susan’s real danger, her emotional vulnerability. His action is as much a turning point in his odyssey from existential cowardice to courage as is Francis Macomber’s confrontation of the wounded buffalo at the end of “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” Like Macomber, David has had to abandon civilization in order to find himself, but his achieved manhood elicits Susan’s first direct avowal of love rather than a bullet from a Mannlicher (both gun and woman). Margot Macomber’s closest equivalent in Bringing Up Baby, Miss Swallow, rejects David with “You’re just a butterfly” (recalling his capture in Susan’s net), a creature too much in natural motion to fit into her frame of reference—the brontosaurus skeleton to which she had dedicated not only David’s manhood but also her own sexuality.

Back where it all began

Bringing Up Baby ends where it began. When Susan invades his museum, David heads for the safety of his initial perch on the scaffolding overlooking the brontosaurus. Even as he tells her to go away, Susan climbs a ladder propped against the bony structure. “Why did you run up here when I came in?” she asks, and David replies with the kind of directness a Hawksian dramatic hero would have disguised in verbal or behavioral metaphor: ”I’m afraid of you.” But suddenly and explosively David sloughs his old existential skin as he has outgrown so many civilized costumes and identities throughout the film: rather than being sorry for their adventures, he realizes “I had a good time! It was the best day of my life!” In her joy Susan begins to rock the ladder back and forth; and David, to keep her in view, rocks in sympathy, until the motion gets out of control and she is in danger of falling to the floor many feet below. She crawls onto the dinosaur itself, which begins to lurch and then massively collapses. Susan is barely caught by David’s extended hand as his “life’s work,” a monument to death and the old order, falls into ruin.

Susan’s kinetic energy and instinctive grasp of reality has much in common with Scarface’s survival mechanisms but, like him, Susan risks becoming a victim of her own momentum. It is David, a reformed, less literal student of time and its power, who must anchor her in reality and sexuality, save her from the fatal fall that her existential rashness (a milder form of Camonte’s hubris) might eventually cause. By means of Hawks’ comic pattern of paralysis, relaxation, and reconciliation, David marries Apollonian control to Dionysian experience so that he and his anarchic Eve may escape Tony Camonte’s position of arrested evolution and achieve the Hawksian version of a “brave new world.”14



1 Hawks characteristically costumes his professional or soon-to-be-professional women in casual, loose clothing that does not call attention to their anatomy so much as it emphasizes their grace and freedom of movement. In Only Angels Have Wings Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) progresses from a plain, tailored little suit to blouse and slacks as she is initiated into Hawksian professionalism, while Judith (Rita Hayworth) consistently appears in form-fitting, low-cut dresses, as well as a revealing negligee during her purgation scene. In Bringing Up Baby Miss Swallow armors herself in black, almost nunlike suits and wears her hair tightly bound in a bun.

2 Within the scope of Hawks’ career this echoes the squadron commander’s “What does it matter? It will break her heart anyway” in The Dawn Patrol, when his adjutant asks how to spell a word in his letter to the mother of a newly slain pilot.

3 Molly Haskell, “Frames: The Cinema of Howard Hawks,” Intellectual Digest (April 1972), p. 57.

4 Carlos Baker, Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969), p. 391.

5 Norman Mailer, Cannibals and Christians (New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1970), p.158.

6 “In a figurative sense, The Old Man and the Sea may have been Hemingway’s own ‘Big Two-Hearted River,’ and instead of carefully laying out his camping gear as Nick does in the story, Hemingway appears to be carefully mapping out a cosmos, with each element, heavenly body, and animal species in its place, precisely balanced, counterbalanced, and diagramed in regard to its influence on the human archetype that stands at the center.” Jackson J. Benson, Hemingway … The Writer’s Art of Self-Defense (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969), p. 171.

7 There is abundant evidence that for Hemingway the pen and the phallus, writing and sexual potency, seem to have been figuratively linked: he once wrote to Charles Scribner that “he always had to ease off on making love when he was working hard because the two things were run by the same motor.” Baker, p. 465. Hemingway’s son Gregory reports that, toward the end, the author phoned him to announce that he had “a rare disease that makes you blind and permanently impotent.” Gregory Hemingway, M.D., Papa: A Personal Memoir (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976), p. 13. Though the disease was probably spurious, it is interesting that in our interview with Howard Hawks the director stressed that he believed Hemingway had committed suicide because he was impotent and “immediately everything he ever thought about being masculine went out the window.”

8 I have chosen to duplicate several of the headings under which Carlos Baker discusses Hemingway’s Green’ Hills of Africa in Hemingway: The Writer as Artist (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972), pp. 162-196, because I feel that of all Hemingway’s work the African “documentary” has most in common with the narrative directions of Hawksian comedy.

9 A reference to the title of the climactic section of Green Hills of Africa: “Pursuit as Happiness.”

10 At one point David and Susan encounter a pair of circus employees who have lost their way in the forest. When the men ask for directions David indexes the total loss of orientation in this enchanted milieu:
Man: Do you know the way to Bridgeport?
David: But I’m not going to Bridgeport.
Man: Is it that way?
David: Yes.
Second man: I think it’s that way. [Pointing in opposite direction]
David: Well … yes.
Subsequently, Susan is about to vault over a low stone wall behind which one of the leopards is hiding, but David insists that the betraying growl came from “over there”: “I’m absolutely sure.”

11 In her discussion of American film comedy as a frequent reflection of “the flight from women and the fight against them in their roles as entrappers and civilizers [that] is one of the major underlying themes of American cinema,” Molly Haskell quotes a similar scene in Buster Keaton’s The General and suggests that such moments emphasize male ambivalence toward the mixture of incompetence and alarming self-sufficiency demonstrated by many of these comic heroines. From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (New York, Chicago, San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973), p. 61.

12 First, the constable phones Aunt Elizabeth—Mrs. Carlton-Random—who absolutely assures him that since her niece is home in bed she cannot be the woman he has arrested. When Major Applegate and Mrs. Carlton-Random arrive at the jail, having discovered Susan’s absence, Slocum uses the evidence of the previous phone conversation to deny their identities. He phones the Carlton-Random house again and the cook, unaware of her employer’s departure, testifies that Mrs. Carlton-Random is home and in bed….

13 Susan and David become “Minnie the Mouse” and “Donald the Duck,” then “Swingin’ Door Susie” (she is swinging on the jail cell door) and “Jerry the Nipper” in rapid metamorphoses from human to animal identity. She describes David as “a wolf, a regular Don Swan” (he recently failed to prevent Baby from ingesting two valuable swans during the road accident), and identifies her aunt and Major Applegate as lesser members of “the Leopard Gang.” Of Pirandellian interest is Susan’s reference to “Jerry the Nipper,” for Cary Grant had appeared in another classic comedy, Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth, just the year before Bringing Up Baby. In that film Grant’s fictitious sister—actually his about-to-be-ex-wife trying to win him back—humiliates him in front of his high-society fiancée and her family by implying that he has a drinking problem: “Jerry the Nipper we used to call him.” The Awful Truth also featured the same canine “star,” Asta, who plays George as the couple’s pet Mr. Smith; his custody is contested in the divorce proceedings as if he were their child, and at one point he and Grant engage in a musical duet, Grant playing the piano and the dog “singing.” Hawks would mine The Awful Truth further for material in His Girl Friday (1940). Indeed, Susan’s gun-moll act is a genial ripoff from Jean Arthur’s performance in John Ford’s The Whole Town’s Talking (1935)—another film wherein a meek male (Edward G. Robinson) is confronted with his more animal side, as figured in an infamous gangster (also Edward G. Robinson).

14 David Huxley’s name recalls both Thomas Henry Huxley, biologist and advocate of Darwinism, and Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World.

Direction: Howard Hawks. Screenplay: Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde. Cinematography: Russell Metty. Production design: Van Nest Polglase. An RKO Radio Picture.
The players: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Mae Robson, Charles Ruggles, George Irving, Virginia Walker, Walter Catlett, Fritz Feld, Tala Birell, Barry Fitzgerald, John Kelly, Ward Bond.

© 1977 Kathleen Murphy

A pdf of the original issue can be found here