Bringing Up Baby (1938): ‘The Quintessential Screwball Comedy’ – A Film Review



Bringing Up Baby has been noted as ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’ by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, but why? The Howard Hawks film came at a time when Katharine Hepburn’s stardom was beginning to wane. It was in fact after this film that she gained the reputation of ‘Box Office Poison’, a label indicating that studios should beware of casting her – despite being an Oscar winning actress. Cary Grant, on the other hand, was on the up, coming on the back of The Awful Truth, perhaps his breakthrough film – though he considered Sylvia Scarlett his breakthrough, which also starred Katharine Hepburn. Howard Hawks was, by this point, a respected film director, having released films like Scarface (1932); but he wasn’t known for Screwball Comedies like Bringing Up Baby. Screwball Comedies, as a quick overview, are characterised by the romances of getting together or established couples/marriages rekindling the flame, with both partners being witty, fast and strong as they struggle with each other. Despite the success of many other Screwball Comedies like My Man Godfrey or It Happened One Night, the genre was perhaps in a similar position to Super Hero films today. In fact, Bringing Up Baby, at the time, was seen as being clichéd and derivative, a re-hash of other films, so what’s changed?


What’s to Enjoy?

The film holds up really well and despite some larger than life airs to some of the characters and situations, these are ultimately left comedic. The comedy can be absurd and grandiose at times but for the most part it is rooted in the performances of the cast – though not confined to the stars. Susan Vance (Hepburn) is both strong and playful, a bit careless but this creates a charming character to be able to stand up to the prudishness of Dr. David Huxley (Grant)’s seriousness. Dr. Huxley’s responsibility helps keep Susan Vance rooted as she drives the plot like a storm. In Screwball comedy fashion, they chase each other, she goes headstrong into things, whilst his responsibility for her (or their circumstances) means that he fusses the situation. For example, she goes after him and accidentally tears his coat; whilst she storms off with her dress caught on/under him, he feels responsible for her dignity and hits her on her behind with his hat. Supporting cast manage very well in being both memorable and comical. They’re able to achieve running gags like Major Applegate (Charles Ruggles)’s fumbling of words and phrases, police chief Slocum (Walter Catlett)’s naïve distractions, Mr. Gogarty (Barry Fitzgerald)’s Dutch courage amongst them.


The Time

Despite the black and white 4.3 film, being both crackly and with scratches, Bringing Up Baby manages to be an engaging watch. The fast-paced performances by the charming cast are able to delight even today. The only real benefit of being able to see the film on the silver screen is the audience participation. As audiences laugh it is easier to get swept up into their world. However, there isn’t a particularly different or epic atmosphere that the film strives for that can be enhanced by the bigger screen and surround sound. The film instead focuses on a delightful story with some wonderfully performed characters.



Bringing Up Baby might be a film that, at the time, came across as a cliché product of many of the other screwball comedies of the time, but now it comes across as the classic example of all the best of that genre. It works as a breakthrough film into Screwball Comedies. The entire cast are on great form with Katharine Hepburn putting in a wonderful performance and really carrying the film, that proves to be ahead of its time. Modern day audiences will love it as that summary of what Screwball Comedies are, doing everything that others do but better. The label of Box Office Poison, was perhaps harsh and had more to do with Katharine Hepburn’s public persona at the time, and maybe the rather stale taste left by the numerous Screwball Comedies coming at the time. Katharine Hepburn went against social conventions and wore trousers before it was fashionable for women to do so, whilst also considering herself to be rather private and gave very few interviews in a time where Hollywood wanted to sell the star personas. Perhaps the very reasons that audiences sometimes grumbled with Bringing Up Baby, finding it very typical of the time, may also be why it’s deemed culturally significant today. It is a great example of a Screwball Comedy and a Katharine Hepburn film, with an ahead of the time look to Romance films.



Dr David Huxley (Cary Grant) is getting married and working on a Brontosaurus skeleton, when his attempting to secure funding for his museum lands him into a chance encounter with Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn). After mishap and mishap together, Susan Vance receives a Leopard called Baby and, thinking Dr Huxley could help her, requests his help. Both, entangled in the various mishaps they soon develop feelings of frustration or attraction for each other.




starfish starfish starfish starfish starfish


starfish starfish starfish starfish starfish


starfish starfish starfish starfish starfish


starfish starfish starfish starfish starfish


A Note on My Reviews

Please read ‘On Reviews‘ for a guide to how I write film reviews. Any spoilers are appropriately marked and, though I personally prefer to know little about a film before seeing it, there is a synopsis below the review for any who wish to see one.


Films Mentioned

Bringing Up Baby (d. Howard Hawks USA 1938)

My Man Godfrey (d. Gregory La Cava USA 1936)

It Happened One Night (d. Frank Capra USA 1934)

Scarface (d. Howard Hawks, Richard Rosson USA 1932)

Sylvia Scarlett (d. George Cukor USA 1935)

The Awful Truth (d. Leo McCarey USA 1937)


Further Reading

Bringing Up Baby TCM

Bringing Up Baby Filmsite

Howard Hawk’s Bringing Up Baby

Riddle Dialogue and Innuendo Comedy

Bringing Up Baby and Screwball Comedies

Katharine Hepburn’s Learning Curve in Bringing Up Baby

Katharine Hepburn TCM

Absolute Definition: Katharine Hepburn

Born For the Part

Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Katharine Hepburn’s Trousers

The Rise and Fall of Katharine Hepburn’s Fake Accent

10 Life Lessons We Learnt From Katharine Hepburn

Hepburn, Katharine. Me Stories of My Life. Ballantine Books, 1996.

Katharine Hepburn’s Obituary


If you liked this

Katharine Hepburn: The Philadelphia Story (1940) – A Film Review

Katharine Hepburn: Holiday (1938) – A Film Review

シン・ゴジラ or Godzilla Resurgence (2016): ‘The Political and Cultural Icon’ – A Film Review

Blade Runner (1982/2007) – A Film Review

The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988) – A Film Review


This was an analytical review of….


Bringing Up Baby (d. Howard Hawks USA 1938)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.