They Say She's a Has-Been: Katharine Hepburn & Bringing Up Baby

Katharine Hepburn Wrangles a Leopard, Locksteps with Cary Grant, Learns the Circus Grip, And Sets Out to Prove She Isn’t a Has-Been. From 1938, it’s Bringing Up Baby.

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In 1932, Katharine Hepburn arrived in Hollywood.  With a starring role in her very first film, Kate’s path in Hollywood was already different.  A Best Actress Oscar for her third film further proved that Kate was one of the screen’s most talented actresses.  Katharine Hepburn it seemed, could do no wrong.

Oh wait.  Yeah, apparently she could.

Box Office Poison

After such a skyrocketing start, Kate found herself labeled “box office poison,” and extremely unpopular with the public.  Hepburn’s disfavor with audiences was unfortunate, even more so because it kept filmgoers from appreciating some of the finest work of her career.  Namely 1938’s Bringing Up Baby.

Though not the gargantuan flop legend now portrays, there’s no doubt that on its initial release, Bringing Up Baby was a gem that slipped by audiences, a masterpiece only discovered by later generations once the film began to appear on television.

And what’s not to like about this rather cult classic?  As Hepburn herself said of Bringing Up Baby [aff. link],

bringing up baby

“This script was a good one.  Cary Grant was really wonderful in it.  And I was good too.  And the leopard was excellent.”

Let’s go through the plot of the film, then I’ll cover Kate’s fascinating arrival in Hollywood, the making of Bringing Up Baby, the curious “box office poison” label that almost ruined Kate’s career, and her game plan to get back on top.

bringing up baby
Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant) works on his Brontosaurus skeleton. Fiancee/assistant Alice (Virginia Walker) looks on.

The Plot

Doctor David Huxley (Cary Grant) is a paleontologist on the verge of finishing the great work of his career: the reconstruction of a Brontosaurus skeleton.  All David needs is the final bone, the “intercostal clavicle.”  

A telegram informs David that the long-awaited bone will be delivered to his home the next day.  Which coincidentally, is the day David’s scheduled to marry his assistant/fiancee, the incredibly stuffy and quite boring Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker).

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David receives a telegram with the news that the intercostal clavicle will arrive tomorrow. !!

But then David meets the zany Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn).

And she ruins everything.

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David meets Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) on the golf course.

Meeting Susan

David and Susan first cross paths on the golf course later that afternoon.  For David, it’s a business game, played as he tries to charm attorney Alexander Peabody (George Irving) into convincing a client to donate $1 million to David’s museum.

But for the devil-may-care Susan, her day at the golf course is just another day of fun.  Susan doesn’t seem to notice when she picks up David’s golf ball and finishes her game with it.  Or when she hijacks David’s car, and drives it home from the golf course after smashing it into surrounding cars. 

And a tree.

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Susan tears David's tails at the restaurant.

More Embarrassment!

Susan’s antics on the golf course, and David’s frantic responses, take David down a few notches in the esteem of Mr. Peabody.  David hopes to redeem himself that evening over dinner with Mr. Peabody at a fancy restaurant.

Buuuuuut then Susan shows up.

If David thought her behavior on the golf course was embarrassing, the havoc Susan causes at the restaurant almost destroys him.  She ruins David’s top hat, splits his tails, and inspires the most embarrassing exit from the restaurant, as David, in a gentlemanly act, attempts to cover Susan’s exposed behind when the back panel of her dress falls off.  They lockstep out of the restaurant, right past Mr. Peabody.  All eyes are glued on this odd duo who seem to literally be joined at the hips. 

David correctly assumes that this latest series of undignified acts has completely blown his chances of getting the $1 million for the museum…

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Bringing Up Baby

Meanwhile, Susan’s obvious infatuation with David has turned to love.  Aware that he’s to be married, Susan begins to think up ways she can thwart David’s upcoming nuptials.

And a perfect excuse to monopolize David’s time comes the next day: as David excitedly receives the intercostal clavicle for his Brontosaurus, Susan receives a pet leopard.

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Surprise! Susan's got a leopard.

Yes, you read that right, a leopard. 

It’s a tame leopard, but as far as Susan is concerned, David doesn’t have to know that detail. 

She calls David to tell him about the unique delivery, and gets him over to her apartment after pretending that the leopard attacked her.  David arrives to find Susan is just fine, and that Baby, as the leopard is called, is curiously soothed whenever he hears the song “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.”

David is mad, but Susan somehow convinces him to help take Baby to her family farm in Connecticut.

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Road trip to Connecticut! With a leopard.

Road Trip to Connecticut

David makes a poor choice, and brings the rare intercostal clavicle on the road trip to Connecticut.  And as luck would have it, Susan’s dog George steels the bone, burying it somewhere on the farm.

Then Susan steels David’s clothes while he’s in the shower so she can have more one-on-one time with him, for obviously, David can’t leave Connecticut without his clothes.

And it’s while David— garbed in a riding habit that’s about two sizes two small—and Susan chase George around the farm looking for the bone that they meet Susan’s Aunt Elizabeth (May Robson). 

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David and Susan follow George (Skippy the Dog) around the farm, hoping he'll lead them to the intercostal clavicle.

Who coincidentally is the client Mr. Peabody was trying to convince to donate $1 million to David’s museum…

Can things get any worse for David?

Actually, they can.

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David and Susan try to find Baby in the wilds of Connecticut.

Susie and Jerry Look for Baby

Baby escapes from the barn Susan locked him in, so David calls the zoo to track him down, and take the leopard off their hands.  But then David discovers that Baby was meant to be a gift from Susan’s brother to Aunt Elizabeth, who apparently has always wanted a leopard.

Now it’s up to David and Susan to find Baby and return him to Aunt Elizabeth before the zoo keepers get him.

While roaming the wilds of Connecticut, looking for Baby and singing “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” David and Susan find themselves in jail.  Their misadventures and unbelievable leopard-hunting story convince Constable Slocum (Walter Catlett) that David and Susan are dangerous, and should stay behind bars.

Susan probably just makes things worse by concocting mobster identities for herself and David—“Swinging Door Susie” and “Jerry the Nipper”—and by weaving tall tales about their daring heists.  But Susan’s tales do get Constable Slocum to let her out of the jail cell, and she escapes to find Baby.

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Susan tries to live up to the mobster nickname she gives herself...

Bringing Up Baby??

Trouble is, the leopard Susan finds, and wrangles back to jail to prove that she and David are innocent, isn’t Baby.

It’s a wild leopard from a traveling circus that escaped after malling a performer…

When the real Baby shows up at the jail, it’s clear that the other leopard, the one with Susan, is dangerous.

After being pushed around all day, David proves himself a real hero, and coaxes the dangerous leopard into a jail cell, and locks the door.

David may have missed his wedding and lost the intercostal clavicle, but at least Baby has been successfully retrieved, and he and Susan are still alive.

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David professes his love to Susan. Life is boring without her.

Life with Susan

David returns to his normal, Susan-free life at the museum.  But as he works on the Brontosaurus, it’s clear that David misses the excitement of being around Susan.  So when she shows up with the intercostal clavicle, and the good news that the museum will get Aunt Elizabeth’s $1 million after all, David realizes that his day with Susan was the best day of his life.  From a scaffold above the dinosaur, David declares his love for her.  Susan excitedly climbs up a ladder to be close to David, but like everywhere else she goes, chaos follows.

The Brontosaurus begins to crumble, and David’s hard work of the last several years falls to the ground.

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David grabs Susan before she goes down with the Brontosaurus.

But before Susan can go down with the dinosaur, David catches her by the wrist, and pulls her safely up onto the scaffold.  As Susan apologizes profusely for ruining his dinosaur, David defeatedly accepts that life with Susan will be messy.

But it most certainly won’t be boring.

And that’s the end of the film.

Katharine Hepburn

"I'm Going to Be a Star"

If you remember from my introduction post on Katharine Hepburn, Kate basically always knew that she wanted to be not just an actress, but a star.

So much so that when asked what she thought about the communally-minded Group Theatre after attending a lecture by the revered Harold Clurman, Kate replied that:

“This maybe all right for you people, if you want it.  But you see, I’m going to be a star.”

The Group Theatre, which required all its members to take an oath promising to put the good of the Group above their own personal success, was definitely not the place for the unashamedly stardom-oriented Katharine Hepburn.

Kate as Antiope in The Warrior's Husband (1932), the Broadway role that proved her segue to Hollywood.

Segue to Hollywood

So when Kate got her big break on Broadway with a showy role in 1932’s The Warrior’s Husband, it was a dream come true.  Suddenly, Katharine Hepburn was a Broadway sensation, and two big Hollywood studios—RKO and Paramount—were courting her. 

Also courting Kate was one of the most talented agents of both the east and west coasts.  Leland Hayward was handsome, smart, motivated, and passionate about ensuring the success of his clients.  And lucky for Kate, after seeing her fascinating performance in The Warrior’s Husband, Leland believed in her star potential with his entire being.

Kate's agent, the dashing Leland Hayward.

Kate signed on with Hayward, but made one thing crystal clear to her new agent: since she was so special, Katharine Hepburn would not go to Hollywood on just any run-of-the-mill, contract player deal.  Kate, aware of her worth, declared she would not settle for anything less than a starring film role, and a contract guaranteeing her $1,500 a week.

In today’s dollars, that’s the equivalent of about $20,500 a week. 

Special indeed.

$1,500 a week was a steep price to pay for an actress who had but one standout Broadway role to her name.  So it’s a testament to Leland Hayward’s negotiating skills that he convinced RKO to meet Kate’s demands.

Especially because Kate’s screen test for the studio didn’t turn out so great…

Katharine Hepburn
Kate in her first film, A Bill of Divorcement (1932).

An Important Ally

Before RKO made their offer, Kate, still in New York, did an obligatory screen test, in which she stubbornly kept her back to the camera most of the time.

It was, well, a pretty dumb move.

But it worked for Katharine Hepburn, and won her an ally at the studio who soon became one of her best friends.

For director George Cukor, Kate’s back-to-the-camera strategy brought emotion and significance to the screen test.  As Cukor remembered of seeing Kate on film for the first time,

Kate with her good friend George Cukor on the set of Sylvia Scarlett (1935). Cukor was her first supporter at RKO.

“She had this very definite knowledge and feeling [of the camera].  She was quite unlike anybody I’d ever seen…I thought, I suppose right away, ‘She’s too odd.  It won’t work.’  But at one moment in a very emotional scene, she picked up a glass.  The camera focused on her back.  There was an enormous feeling, a weight about the manner in which she picked up the glass.”

RKO executive David O. Selznick didn’t share Cukor’s enthusiasm for this Hepburn girl.  So Cukor enlisted the help of his friends on the lot to win Selznick and the other executives over.  As Cukor tried to convince screenwriter Adela Rogers St. Johns:

“She’s too marvelous.  She’ll be greater than Garbo.  Nobody wants her but me so come and help me fight for her.  You don’t need to see the test.  It’s a foul test anyway.  She looks like a boa constrictor on a fast, but she’s great.”

Off to California

Thanks to the combined faith and efforts of Leland Hayward and George Cukor, Kate signed with RKO, and got her $1,500 a week salary.  With a starring role in Cukor’s prestigious next film, A Bill of Divorcement (1932), on July 3, 1932, Katharine Hepburn was on a train bound for Hollywood.  Luddy, ever the supportive husband, saw her off, while Kate’s good friend Laura Harding went along for the Hollywood adventure.

Kate and good friend Laura Harding, who came to Hollywood with her.

A Painful Arrival

Katharine Hepburn’s arrival in California may be one of the least glamorous and physically painful of any star in Hollywood history.

It certainly couldn’t have been what Kate herself had in mind when she selected a very distinguished outfit— specially made for her by Elizabeth Hawes, one of New York’s most sought after designers—to wear as she descended the train in Pasadena.  Kate herself describes the…interesting outfit best [aff. link]:

“It was a sort of Quaker gray-blue silk grosgrain suit.  The skirt was flared and very long.  The coat was rather like a nineteenth-century riding coat with tails.  The blouse was a turtleneck with a ruffle around the top of the turtle.  And that hat.  Oh!  Well, the hat was sort of a gray-blue straw dish upside down on my head.  I had long hair, screwed up tight…The dishpan sat on top of this—a bit formal and more than a little eccentric.  But it had been very expensive, the whole costume, and I had great faith in it.”

Does this outfit sound very cute to you?

The full view of Kate's California arrival outfit...

If it doesn’t, that’s because it wasn’t

And the pancake hat...

Add Injury to Insult

To make the whole getup even worse, while still on the train, just past Albuquerque, Kate sustained an injury.  Kate was out on the observation deck, trying to catch a glimpse of the full moon, when she felt something land in her left eye.  

And it didn’t feel good:

“Oh—something in my eye.  It was indeed something in my eye.  Several things, in fact.  Tiny pieces of steel rail.  Three of them.  They lodged in my left eye in the white part.  Scratching the inside of my upper lid every time I blinked.  They were there and would not move.”

And so Katharine Hepburn arrived in California with red, watery eyes, wearing what appeared to be a pancake on her head and severe outfit that looked uncomfortably hot in Pasadena’s ninety-plus degree July weather.

Katharine Hepburn

According to Kate, when she and Laura got off the train, they were greeted by Leland Hayward and his partner, Myron Selznick.  Selznick had never met Kate before, and didn’t know which of the two women was their new client:

“Which one?” Asked Selznick.

“The one with the funny hat.” Replied Hayward.

“You’re kidding—we got fifteen hundred dollars [a week] for that…?”

“She’s an original”

“Very.  What does she drink?  Get a load of those eyes.”

Kate with John Barrymore in A Bill of Divorcement (1932). Barrymore was the only one who seemed to notice Kate's eyes didn't look healthy that first day...

A Not-So-Promising First Day

The first thing Kate asked her new agents was where she could find a doctor to get the steel filings out of her eye.  But no one seemed to hear her: Kate and Laura were shuttled straight to RKO.  Katharine Hepburn would spend her first day at a Hollywood movie studio with three pieces of steel wedged in her eye.

Doesn’t that sound fun.

In fact, the only person on the RKO lot who seemed to notice Kate’s eyes didn’t look healthy was her soon-to-be costar, John Barrymore (as in Drew’s grandfather).  Barrymore, a notorious drinker, was sympathetic to this newcomer, who, it seemed, enjoyed a drink or two herself.  Barrymore handed Kate a small bottle and said:

“I have that same trouble.  Try this—two drops—each eye.”

Well, at least someone noticed and tried the help.  Unfortunately for Kate, it wasn’t until RKO sent her home in the evening that she and Laura found the eye specialist who successfully dug the filings out.

Meeting the bleary-eyed Kate that day, RKO executive David O. Selznick worried about his investment.  In Selznick’s own words, this “tall, skinny girl entirely covered with freckles and wearing the most appalling and incredible clothes I have ever seen in my life,” certainly wasn’t his idea of the typical movie star.  And she was already so bossy and confident, telling George Cukor that the costume sketches he’d approved for her character were all wrong and not nearly classy enough.

"Alive on the Screen"

But despite this physically painful, exhausting, and perhaps not-so-promising first day, Kate soon proved she was well-worth $1,500 a week: A Bill of Divorcement was a smash hit.  Mostly because audiences couldn’t get enough of Katharine Hepburn.  With her sharp features and intelligent, articulate voice, Kate was something new.  She was different.  As Cukor put it, audiences loved her because she was so full of life and vivacity on screen:

“Kate was quite good at rehearsals, but she didn’t really come alive until the camera closed in on her.  I had a rough idea she was doing well [during filming], but she sprang to life when I saw the rushes.  He odd awkwardness, her odd shifts of emphasis, these were proof of her being alive on the screen.”

With the praise of audiences and critics alike, RKO decided to pick up Kate’s option, keeping her at the studio, and raising that $1,500 weekly salary with each proceeding film she made.

Not bad for a brand new star with one film under her belt.

Though Kate’s next film, Christopher Strong (1933) was a dud, her third film, Morning Glory (1933) won Hepburn her first (of four) Best Actress Oscars.  Her follow-up role, as Jo March in the classic Little Women (1933)—one of Kate’s personal favorite roles, sealed her reputation as not just the screen’s new “It” girl, but as potentially its greatest actress.  Katharine Hepburn it seemed, could do no wrong.

But when you’re at the top, the only place to go is down. 

Kate as the title character in Alice Adams (1935), one of her good films from the period.

A Career Slide

And unfortunately for Kate, seven of the next eleven films she made failed.  Some of them, such as her turn as a Scottish noblewoman who enjoys disguising herself as a gypsy in The Little Minister (1934), or as an uneducated backwoods girl with healing powers in Spitfire (1934), were downright embarrassing.

These seven inferior films regrettably led fickle audiences to either forget about, or stay away from, the four amazing films Kate made between 1934-1938.  Her performances in Alice Adams (1935), Stage Door (1937), Bringing Up Baby (1938), and Holiday (1938) are truly flawless.  And of these four Hepburn films that were so overshadowed by her lackluster work of the period, one was an unsung masterpiece.

The legendary Howard Hawks directed Bringing Up Baby (1938).

Putting Hawks to Work with Bringing Up Baby

By the summer of 1937, director Howard Hawks had collected a $2,500 weekly salary from RKO for nearly a year.  And he’d yet to make a single film for the studio under his two picture contract.  RKO production head Sam Briskin decided it was time to put Hawks to work, and gave him the freedom to choose his next project.  The story Hawks soon decided on was called Bringing Up Baby.

Bringing Up Baby first appeared as a short story written by Hagar Wilde in the April 10, 1937 issue of Colliers.  Hawks, charmed by the short story that “made him laugh out loud,” immediately saw its film potential.

Of course, filming with a live leopard—changed from the panther in Wilde’s original short story—posed problems.  But it was a complication Hawks could accept.

Another complication was Katharine Hepburn.

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Finding the Perfect Cast for Bringing Up Baby

Though Carole Lombard was one of the first actresses considered for the Susan Vance role, Kate quickly became the only candidate.  Under her current contract, the increasingly unpopular Hepburn still had three films to make for RKO.  By keeping the budget for Baby reasonable and the production schedule tight, Sam Briskin hoped the studio would end up with a Katharine Hepburn film that could actually make money. 

While Kate was pretty much a shoe-in for Bringing Up Baby, the role of David Huxley proved more difficult to cast.  Even Skippy the Dog was cast as George before Cary Grant was finally decided on.

Grant, only just emerged a bonafide star with 1937’s The Awful Truth, had come a long way since starring opposite Kate in 1935’s Sylvia Scarlett.  For Sylvia Scarlett, Cary had earned $15,000 to Kate’s $50,000.  But by September of 1937, when production on Bringing Up Baby began, Grant commanded $75,000 for the film, compared to Kate’s $72,500.

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Now that’s some clear evidence of the increasing popularity of Cary Grant, and the decreasing popularity of Katharine Hepburn.

In hindsight, Howard Hawks would say that no one but Cary Grant could play the David Huxley role:

“It’s pretty hard to think of anybody but Cary Grant in that type of stuff.  He was so far the best that there isn’t anybody to be compared to him.”

But when filming on Baby began, Grant was unsure of himself.  He didn’t know if he could play an intellectual convincingly. 

The key, as it turned out, was all in the glasses.

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Bringing Up Baby: Creating David Huxley

Howard Hawks recommended that Cary look to silent film comedian Harold Lloyd—famous for his glasses and daring physical comedy—for inspiration.  It was a genius recommendation that Grant took to heart.  Mimicking Lloyd’s bespectacled look, Cary found a pair of horn-rimmed glasses that became integral to his portrayal of David Huxley.  (Interestingly enough, it was a look that Cary Grant returned to in his later years, using his thick, horn-rimmed glasses to hide the signs of aging around his eyes without resorting to surgery, of which Grant had a phobia.)

According to Harold Lloyd’s granddaughter Susan, Cary even met with her grandfather to develop the David Huxley character:

“Cary went over to talk to Harold about it.  Then Harold worked with him on being the shy, retiring type with the glasses.  Hawks wanted Cary to do his version of Harold’s fumbling and nervous gestures.”

With the inspiration and guidance of Harold Lloyd, Cary Grant was good to go.  

But Katharine Hepburn was another story.

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Kate and Walter Catlett in the jail scene. Catlett taught her how to be funny on screen.

Teaching Kate How to Be Funny

For some reason, when filming of Bringing Up Baby began, Kate’s humor just wasn’t translating onto the screen.  As Howard Hawks put it,

“I tried to explain to her that the great clowns, Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd, simply weren’t out there making funny faces, they were serious, sad, solemn, and the humor sprang from what happened to them…Cary understood this at once.  Katie didn’t.”

When Hawks himself couldn’t get this message across to his leading lady, he brought in veteran Ziegfeld Follies comic Walter Catlett to explain it to her.

Where Hawks failed, Catlett succeeded: the comic reenacted one of Kate’s scenes with Cary Grant from the film, playing it with complete seriousness.  And it was as if a light switch went on in Kate’s head.  From there on out, as Hawks remembered,

“She played perfectly—not trying to be funny, but being very, very natural and herself.”

The loyal Hepburn was so grateful to Walter Catlett for his help, she insisted that Hawks create a role for him in Bringing Up Baby, which Hawks did.  You can catch Walter Catlett, the man who taught Katharine Hepburn how to be funny, as Constable Slocum in the film.

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Hawks and Hepburn behind the scenes of Bringing Up Baby (1938).

Hawks Does Bringing Up Baby His Own Way

As filming progressed, it was clear that Howard Hawks didn’t much care what the brass at RKO said about sticking to a tight budget and production schedule.  Hawks’ number one goal was to make a good movie, a fact observed by Sam Briskin’s assistant, Lou Lusky.  

As Lusky warned his boss in a studio memo:

“I know, because the gentleman has said so in so many words, that he’s only concerned with making a picture that will be a personal credit to Mr. Hawks regardless of its cost…your telling him the other day that it would be suicidal to make a Hepburn picture for seven or eight hundred thousand dollars I know made no impression on him at all…Hawks is determined, in his own quiet, reserved, soft-spoken manner, to have his way about the making of this picture…he doesn’t give a damn about how much the picture will cost to make.”

In Hawks’ defense, the salaries RKO agreed to pay him, Grant, and Hepburn, consumed so much of the film’s budget, it would have been impossible for him to make Bringing Up Baby for less than $767,676.  Which, best case scenario, already put the film in the price range that Briskin feared would mean a zero dollar profit.

It may have been a nightmare for the studio financials, but I can’t help but admire Hawks’ mentality: his primary concern was making Bringing Up Baby a stellar film.  And nothing was going to get in the way of his accomplishing this goal.

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This famous scene was inspired by a real-life experience of Cary Grant.

Improv on Bringing Up Baby

One way Howard Hawks ensured he had a masterpiece in the making was by encouraging his stars to improvise, and contribute their own humorous dialogue and bits to the screenplay.  And Kate and Cary, who had a blast working together on the film, were only too happy to oblige.  As Hepburn put it,

“Cary and I worked out an awful lot of stuff together.  We’d make up things to do on the screen—how to work out those laughs in Bringing Up Baby.”

The famous scene in Baby where the back panel of Kate’s dress falls off, and she and Cary lockstep out of the restaurant as he tries to cover her exposed rear with his front, was inspired by an actual experience Grant had at New York’s Roxy Theater: attending a show one evening, Cary was seated in the balcony with the head of the Metropolitan Museum and his wife.  At one point, Cary stood to let Mrs. Metropolitan Museum pass by on her way to the ladies room.  Noticing his fly was down, Cary zipped it up, only to get Mrs. Met’s gown caught in his zipper.  The lockstep the two had to do in their quest to find a pair of pliers to release her dress from his fly worked as Cary’s inspiration for Bringing Up Baby. 

It’s a funny scene in the film, but I sure wish I could have seen Cary Grant’s real-life-dress-in-the-zipper experience!

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Grant's circus know-how and Kate's coordination made this scene possible without stunt doubles.

Grant Brings the Circus Grip to Bringing Up Baby

Grant’s greatest contribution to the film was probably his past as a circus performer.  Before he became Cary Grant, young Archie Leach honed his natural physical dexterity in the circus.  Which came in handy for the final scene in Bringing Up Baby—when the Brontosaurus crumbles to the ground as Susan dangles from David’s strong grip.  Grant used his circus know-how to train the equally coordinated Kate in one of his old “circus grips.”  So what you see in the film is actually Kate and Cary.  No doubles were needed.  Cary Grant remembered that,

“I trained Kate myself.  She was fearless.  There was no mattress on the floor.  I had her let me grab her, not by the hands because her arms would pop out of their sockets.  I grabbed her by the wrists and we were up there tossing back and forth as the skeleton crashes.  It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done, but Kate said it was wonderful.”

bringing up baby

Bringing Up Baby: Kate's Contributions

One of Kate’s improvised contributions to Bringing Up Baby were the hilariously fitting mobster nicknames Susan gives herself and David in the jail scene: “Swinging Door Susie” and “Jerry the Nipper.”  The fact that Kate came up with he names herself puts Cary’s next line in the film—“she’s making all this up out of motion pictures she’s seen”—into context: “Jerry” is the name of Grant’s character in The Awful Truth, the film released during the making of Bringing Up Baby that made him a star.

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Leopard trainer Olga Celeste with Kate, Cary, and of course, Nissa. You can tell from Cary's body language and expression that he wasn't entirely comfortable with the animal...!

Kate and Nissa the Leopard

Another of Kate’s great contributions to Bringing Up Baby was her admirable ease with the leopard, Nissa, during filming.  Hawks often let Nissa prowl around freely, which completely freaked out Cary Grant.  He shot as few scenes as possible with the animal, and opted for a body double whenever appropriate.  To have a little fun with her understandably jumpy co-star, Kate and Howard Hawks found a stuffed leopard, and dropped it through the roof of Grant’s dressing room.

“Wow!  He was out of there like lightning,”

Kate recalled in her autobiography.

Sounds like an awesome prank.  Unless you’re Cary Grant.

bringing up baby

As for Nissa and herself, Kate said that:

“I didn’t have brains enough to be scared, so I did a lot of scenes with the leopard just roaming around…

The first scene I had [with the leopard] was in a floor-length negligee,…the leopard followed me around pushing at my thigh, which they had covered with perfume.  I would pat its head.  The scene went very satisfactorily.”

Even Nissa’s trainer, Olga Celeste, was impressed by Kate’s ease and control of her nerves around the animal, expressing her opinion that Kate could have a very successful career as an animal trainer ahead of her.

So there you go: animal trainer, a backup career for Katharine Hepburn.

During one scene, however, the swirl of Kate’s dress angered the leopard, and Nissa made a jump for her back.  As Kate remembered,

“Olga brought that whip down right on his head.  That was the end of my freedom with the leopard.”

bringing up baby
Hawks, Grant, and Hepburn behind the scenes of Bringing Up Baby (1938).

Bringing Up Baby: A Slap-Happy Set

There’s no doubt that Howard Hawks’ encouragement of improvisation contributed to Bringing Up Baby’s inflated budget and delayed production schedule.  But it wasn’t the only reason the film got so behind schedule.

The fun Kate and Cary Grant had in bringing their natural humor to the screen often meant that the two stars had a hard time pulling it together when it came time to actually film a scene.  Coupled with the difficulties of getting the the dog and leopard to behave, there were days when Hawks literally shot only 24 seconds of usable footage.  As Hawks good-naturedly shared of these difficulties on Bringing Up Baby:

“Now, if you don’t think that was a hard one to make!  Oh, that g — —  damned leopard—and then, the dog, running around with the bone…Kate and Cary had a scene in which he said, ‘What happened to the bone?’  And she said, ‘It’s in the box,’ or something like that.  Well they started to laugh—it was ten o’clock in the morning—and at four o’clock in the afternoon we were still trying to make this scene and I didn’t think we were ever going to get it.  I tried changing the line.  It didn’t do any good…They were just putting dirty connotations on it and then they’d go off into peals of laughter.”

Sounds like a frustrating, but incredibly fun set.

bringing up baby
Hawks directs his two stars on the golf course.

A Sassy Hepburn Moment

I have to share one story when the culprit to a filming delay was none other than Katharine Hepburn’s sass.

One day, Hawks was trying to get a scene filmed, and Kate was talking so much she didn’t hear her director call for quiet on the set.  His second call for quiet also went unheeded by Hepburn.  So next, as Hawks remembered,

“I just stopped everybody, and all of a sudden, in the middle of talking, she stopped and said, ‘What’s the matter?’  I said, ‘I just wondered how long you were gonna keep up this imitation of a parrot.’  She said, ‘I’d like to talk to you,’ and she led me around to the back.  She said, ‘You mustn’t say things like that to me.  Somebody’ll drop a lamp on you.  These are my friends around here.’  I looked up at the man on the lamps.  When I was a prop man, this fellow had been an electrician—I’d known him for heaven knows how many years.  I said, ‘Pete, if you had your choice of dropping a lamp on Miss Hepburn or me, who would you drop it on?’ He said, ‘Get out of the way, will you, Mr. Hawks?’  And Katie looked up at him and looked at me and said, ‘I guess I was wrong.’…And from that time on, she was just marvelous.”

Katharine Hepburn may not have been wrong very often, but when she was, she was always a good sport.

bringing up baby

A Promising Preview for Bringing Up Baby

By the time filming wrapped on January 6, 1938, Bringing Up Baby was over schedule by a staggering 40 days, while the budget had skyrocketed to just over $1 million, roughly 40% above the initial projected budget.  Ironically, because of the overtime clauses in their respective contracts, when the film didn’t wrap on time, Hawks’ pay more than doubled, from $88,000 to $202,500, while Kate’s $72,500 salary jumped to $122,000, and Cary’s from $75,000 to $123,000.  To turn a profit, Bringing Up Baby would have to be an incredibly successful film.

And at first, things looked good.

On January 17, 1938, preview audiences in Los Angeles loved the film.  And when Baby officially premiered on the West Coast in February, the film’s future continued to look promising.

Then something funny happened: as Baby traveled east, audiences lost interest.

bringing up baby

Bringing Up Baby didn’t do great in the midwest, but it was the film’s New York premiere at Radio City Music Hall on March 3, 1938 that really sealed its fate.

After one week of poor turnout at Radio City, Bringing Up Baby was pulled, earning a measly $70,000 at the theater.

It seemed that filmgoers believed the snide review of New York Times critic Frank S. Nugent, who said of Baby that:

“If you’ve never been to the movies, Bringing Up Baby will be all new to you—a zany-ridden product of the goofy farce school.  But who hasn’t been to the movies?”

bringing up baby

Bringing Up Baby Underperforms

Though Baby grossly underperformed at the box office during its initial release, it’s important to point out, that, similar to It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Bringing Up Baby wasn’t the complete flop that legend now paints.  The film grossed $715,000 domestically, and $400,000 overseas.  If Baby wouldn’t have gone $365,000 over budget, it probably would have come close to breaking even.

But RKO saw Bringing Up Baby as evidence that a surefire way to lose money on a film was to put Katharine Hepburn in it.  As far as the studio was concerned, Kate was responsible for Baby’s disappointing reviews and box office performance.

RKO wanted to get rid of Kate.  And they wanted to get rid of her fast.

bringing up baby

An Ultimatum

So the studio gave Kate an ultimatum: accept a co-starring role in a new film, with the highly promising title of Mother Carey’s Chickens, or buy out the rest of her contract for $220,000.

Well, obviously Katharine Hepburn wasn’t going to appear in a film named Mother Carey’s Chickens

And thanks to the financial know-how of her dad—whom Kate sent her paychecks to each month—she had the $220,000 saved up to buy out her RKO contract.  

And that’s just what she did.

bringing up baby

"Box Office Poison"

Not long after the wide-release of Bringing Up Baby, Kate’s unpopularity with the public became official.

On May 4, 1938, the Independent Theatre Owners of America took out an ad in The Hollywood Reporter.  Titled “Wake Up! Hollywood Producers,” the ad continued to name six actresses and one actor whose box office draw was “nil”:

“Practically all of the major studios are burdened with stars—whose public appeal is negligible—and [are] receiving tremendous salaries necessitated by contractual obligations…Among those players whose dramatical ability is unquestioned, but whose box-office draw is nil, can be numbered Mae West, Edward Arnold, Garbo, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, and many others…[these stars are] poison at the box office.”

Kate’s salaries on Bringing Up Baby, and her following film at Columbia Pictures, Holiday (1938), were $122,000 and $150,000, respectively.  But after the box office poison ad came out, the only film offer Kate received valued her services at $10,000.  Surely nothing to complain about, but obviously an exponential drop from what she’d earned just months before.

bringing up baby

"A Has-Been"

“They say I’m a has been.  If I weren’t laughing so hard, I might cry.” 

Was Hepburn’s public response to the box office poison label.

Privately, however, she was worried.  To Kate, it seemed the stardom she’d fought so hard to achieve was slipping through her fingers.

bringing up baby

Figuring Out Her Game Plan

But Katharine Hepburn was a fighter.  And she knew she could battle this “box office poison” thing and come out on top.

So it was goodbye Hollywood, and back to the people, and the place, Kate knew would buoy her up, and help her figure out a new game plan.

Kate went home.

“It seemed to me that I was in a very odd situation.  Certainly I had done some very boring pictures.  But then, I had done four really good pictures, and they had just not done well.  They had done O.K. but not as well as they deserved.  That’s really why I felt that I should get a breath of fresh air.  A real change of atmosphere.”

Katharine Hepburn would not return to the movies for two years. 

And when she did make her Hollywood comeback, it would be as the toast of Broadway, with ownership of the season’s hottest play, and a guarantee that Kate herself would play the property’s coveted leading role on screen.

They said she was box office poison, a has-been.

But Katharine Hepburn would prove them all wrong.

That's it for Bringing Up Baby!

And that’s it for Bringing Up Baby.  

Join me next time for Kate’s inspiring Hollywood comeback film, with two of Classic Hollywood’s most talented and timeless leading men rounding out an all-star cast.  You don’t want to miss 1940’s The Philadelphia Story.

bringing up baby
bringing up baby

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