by Jay Seaver
When somebody uses the phrase "screwball comedy", what does it mean? Everybody who has written a book on film probably has a different definition, and every one of those writers probably cringed over trying to define something so raucous and free-spirited with precise rules. But let's be honest - what they REALLY mean is "like 'Bringing Up Baby', and hopefully half as funny." It works, because a movie can be half as amusing as this and still be pretty good.We start with Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant), who has spent the last five years excavating and reconstructing a two-story brontosaurus skeleton, which is nearly complete on the eve of his wedding to his assistant. Still, the department needs funding, so he's spending the afternoon playing a round of golf with the representative of a widow considering donating a million dollars. Things go awry, though, as he runs into Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), an incredibly flighty young woman who wrecks his afternoon and evening before calling him up the next morning for help with the leopard that her brother in South America has just sent her.
"A superbly silly screwball symphony."
This, of course, is only the start of things; the script by Hagar Wilde and Dudley Nichols is one nutty thing after another, and remarkably clear of purpose: Things happen and people do things because the filmmakers think that they would be funny, and they would probably be funniest happening in this order. Large chunks of what Susan does would probably get her set up as the man-stealing rival in a modern romantic comedy, but because those actions without fail lead to a funny bit, they come across as impish as opposed to mean. It really is a wonder of comedic construction: It's not that every joke is good, but even the two or three that don't work lead directly to something that does.
Getting the gags lined up is director Howard Hawks's job, and he's the talented conductor of a comedy orchestra here. There really is a rhythm to this sort of thing, like how a dinner scene has two distinct themes going on, which Hawks brings forward and back for maximum effect. Fast-paced banter will suddenly give way to a sudden slapstick crash. Characters will reappear just as the audience has forgotten about them, and every member of the broad, goofy-in-their-own-way supporting cast gets a chance to shine (even Virginia Walker, who as Huxley's fiancée has perhaps the most thankless role of all time). He also manages to integrate a fair amount of special effects almost seamlessly, as shooting around the leopard required a lot of trickery.
And, of course, there's Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, who are doing a fairly brilliant job playing against type. Hepburn, after all, was making her name as a dramatic actress, and even in her comedies, she usually tends to be whip-smart with a sharp tongue; here, Susan is scatterbrained and almost ditzy, thoroughly guileless in a way one does not expect from this actress. She had to learn comedy on the job, but she masters it. Grant, meanwhile, upends the cool, debonair image we have of him (at least in hindsight) for an awkward, nerdy scientist who is just no match for Susan's manic self-assurance. He winds up being so good at playing awkward that the audience may not realize just how perfect his timing is.As hilarious as this movie is, it's not totally surprising that it flopped in 1938; it's so committed to being funny that the expected narrative beats of characters baring their hearts feel a bit off - even back then, audiences expected romantic comedies to fit a certain pattern. Fortunately, we've got hindsight, home video, and archive prints, so we can enjoy this near-perfect example of screwball comedy any time we want.
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originally posted: 10/19/11 19:58:55