In 1932, Katharine Hepburn arrived in Hollywood.
With a starring role in her 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.
But that quickly changed.
Box Office Poison
After such a skyrocketing start, Kate found herself labeled “box office poison.” Suddenly, Katharine Hepburn was extremely unpopular with the public and critics alike. Hepburn’s unfortunate disfavor kept filmgoers from appreciating some of the finest work of her career. Namely 1938’s Bringing Up Baby.
Though not the gargantuan flop it’s often labeled, Bringing Up Baby was a gem that slipped by audiences on its initial release; a masterpiece only discovered by later generations once the film began appearing on television.
This cult classic is near perfect. As Katharine Hepburn herself said of 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.”
We’ll go through the plot of Bringing Up Baby, then behind the scenes to Kate’s fascinating arrival in Hollywood, the making of the film, the curious “box office poison” label that almost ruined Kate’s career, and finally, her game plan to get back on top.
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/fiancée, the incredibly stuffy and quite boring Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker).
But then David meets the zany Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn).
And she ruins everything.
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.
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.
But then Susan shows up.
David thought her behavior on the golf course was embarrassing. But 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.
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.
It’s a tame leopard, but as far as Susan is concerned, David doesn’t have to know that detail.
Susan calls David to tell him about the unique delivery. She 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.
Road Trip to Connecticut
David makes a poor choice, and brings the rare intercostal clavicle on the road trip to Connecticut. As luck would have it, Susan’s dog George steels the bone, and buries it somewhere on the farm not long after their arrival.
Then Susan steels David’s clothes while he’s in the shower so she can have more one-on-one time with him, for, as Susan figures, 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).
Who coincidentally is the client Mr. Peabody was trying to convince to donate $1 million to David’s museum…
It seems things can’t get any worse for David.
But actually, they can.
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 just makes things worse when she concocts mobster identities for herself and David—“Swinging Door Susie” and “Jerry the Nipper”—and weaves tall tales about their daring heists. But Susan’s tales do get Constable Slocum to let her out of the jail cell. She takes the opportunity to escape, and find Baby.
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. He 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.
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.
When Susan shows up at the museum 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. David’s hard work of the last several years falls to the ground.
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.
"I'm Going to Be a Star"
Katharine Hepburn always knew she wanted to be not just an actress, but a star.
After graduating from Bryn Mawr, Kate’s interest in a stage career was driven more by this desire for fame than a love of acting. Indeed, after attending a lecture by the revered stage actor, Harold Clurman, Kate was asked what she thought about Clurman’s communally-minded Group Theatre.
The Group, which required all of its members to take an oath promising to put the good of the company above their own personal success, didn’t make individual stardom a priority. Katharine Hepburn let it be known that she wasn’t interested in joining:
“This maybe all right for you people, if you want it. But you see, I’m going to be a star.”
Segue to Hollywood
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. Two Hollywood studios—RKO and Paramount—were now interested in courting her for film stardom.
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. Lucky for Kate, after seeing her fascinating performance in The Warrior’s Husband, Leland believed in her star potential with his entire being.
Kate signed on with Hayward, but made one thing clear to her new agent: she wouldn’t go to Hollywood on a typical contract player deal. Kate knew she was special, and told Hayward that she’d settle for nothing 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.
$1,500 a week was a steep price to pay for an actress who had but one standout Broadway role to her name. 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.
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 a pretty dumb move.
Or would have been for most aspiring film stars. But it worked for Katharine Hepburn. The unique screen test won Kate 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:
“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 Hepburn. 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.
On July 3, 1932, Katharine Hepburn set out for Hollywood. She’d play a starring role in Cukor’s prestigious next film, A Bill of Divorcement (1932). Luddy, ever the supportive husband, saw Kate off at the train station, while her good friend Laura Harding went along for the Hollywood adventure.
A Painful Arrival
Katharine Hepburn’s arrival in California may the least glamorous and physically painful of any star in Hollywood history.
It certainly wasn’t the arrival Kate envisioned when, before leaving New York, she selected a very distinguished outfit— specially made for her by designer Elizabeth Hawes—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.”
If Kate’s description of the outfit doesn’t sound very cute, that’s because it wasn’t.
Take a look above and below.
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 a severe outfit that looked uncomfortably hot in Pasadena’s ninety-plus degree July weather.
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.”
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.
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.”
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"
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 success of A Bill of Divorcement, RKO decided to pick up Kate’s option. They further agreed to raise 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.
A Career Slide
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 incredible films Kate made between 1934-1938. Her performances in Alice Adams (1935), Stage Door (1937), Bringing Up Baby (1938), and Holiday (1938) are superb.
Of these four Hepburn films that were overshadowed by her lackluster work of the period, one was an unsung masterpiece.
Putting Hawks to Work with Bringing Up Baby
By the summer of 1937, director Howard Hawks had been collecting 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—presented problems. But it was a complication Hawks could accept.
Another complication was Katharine Hepburn.
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. Grant’s astonishing pay jump was clear evidence of his increasing popularity, while Kate’s more modest increase, and the fact that she would earn less on Baby than Grant, was indicative of her decreasing popularity.
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.
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.
Teaching Kate How to Be Funny
When filming of Bringing Up Baby began, Howard Hawks quickly realized that Kate’s humor wasn’t translating onto the screen. As 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. 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, she insisted that Hawks create a role for him in Bringing Up Baby. You can spot Walter Catlett, the man who taught Katharine Hepburn how to be funny, as Constable Slocum in the film.
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.”
What Lusky and Briskin failed to consider as they worried about Hawks’ spending was how little of the film’s budget they’d given him to work with. Indeed, the salaries RKO agreed to pay Hawks, Grant, and Hepburn consumed so much of the budget, it would have been impossible for Hawks to make Bringing Up Baby for less than $767,676. Which, as the best case scenario, still put the film in the price range that Briskin feared would mean a zero dollar profit.
It was a nightmare for the studio financials, but Howard Hawks’ mentality was admirable: his primary concern was making Bringing Up Baby a stellar film. Nothing was going to keep him from accomplishing this goal.
Improv on Bringing Up Baby
One way Howard Hawks ensured that he had a masterpiece in the making was by encouraging his actors to improvise. Hawks asked his stars to contribute their own humorous dialogue and bits to the screenplay, and Kate and Cary were 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 was Cary’s inspiration for Bringing Up Baby.
Grant Brings the Circus Grip to Bringing Up Baby
Grant’s greatest contribution to the film was 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.” What we 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: Kate's Contributions
One of Kate’s improvised contributions to Bringing Up Baby were the 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.
Kate and Nissa the Leopard
Another of Kate’s 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. Cary 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.
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. Olga expressed her opinion that Kate could have a very successful future as an animal trainer.
Katharine Hepburn officially had a backup career.
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: A Slap-Happy Set
The downside of Howard Hawks’ improvisation encouragement was that it contributed to Baby‘s inflated budget and delayed production 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. Combined 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.”
A Sassy Hepburn Moment
One day, the culprit of a filming delay was Katharine Hepburn’s sass.
As Hawks prepared to roll the cameras this day, Kate was talking so much she didn’t hear Hawks call for quiet on the set. His second call for quiet also went unheeded by Hepburn. So, 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.”
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. When Baby officially premiered on the West Coast in February, the film’s future continued to look promising.
But as Bringing Up Baby traveled east, audiences lost interest.
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 enough filmgoers believed, or agreed, with snide reviews of the film, such as that of New York Times critic Frank S. Nugent:
“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 Underperforms
Though Baby grossly underperformed at the box office during its initial release, it’s important to note that, similar to It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Bringing Up Baby wasn’t the complete flop it’s often labeled. 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.
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.
Katharine Hepburn surely wasn’t going to appear in a film named Mother Carey’s Chickens. As far as Kate was concerned, there was only one option.
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.
"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, an exponential drop from what she’d earned just months before.
“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.
Figuring Out Her Game Plan
But Katharine Hepburn was a fighter. She knew she could battle this “box office poison” label 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.
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
That’s it for Bringing Up Baby.
Join me next for Kate’s inspiring Hollywood comeback in 1940’s The Philadelphia Story.