AFI 100: Bringing Up Baby & City Lights

It was Ye Olde Tymey Romantick Comedy night in the Baldwin household this evening.

Bringing Up Baby: Knowing nothing about this film beyond the title, I assumed it was just the “oh no, we’re pregnant!” film of its era, a 1938 version of Knocked Up minus the lingering shots of Seth Rogen’s ass. As it turns out, “Baby,” in this case, is a leopard, which the brother of Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) has sent from Brazil to Connecticut as a gift to — ahh, you know what? The leopard doesn’t really matter. It’s really just one of this screwball comedy’s endless MacGuffins designed to throw Vance and Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant) into a succession of zany situations. Lots of funny scenes (this restaurant bit, particularly from 5:37 on, is particularly inspired) and great lines (“Susan, you’ve got to get out of this apartment!” Huxley exclaims when he discovers the leopard in her room. “I can’t,” Vance explains, “I’ve got a lease.”), but very little plot to tie it all together. Hypothetically the narrative is Huxley and Vance falling in love, but as Vance loves Huxley at first sight and Huxley is never given a reason to want to spend another moment, much less the rest of his life, in the company of Vance (aside from the fact that she’s Katharine Freakin’ Hepburn, obviously), this framing device is paper thin. Thus, the film feels less like a long, funny story and more like a standup comedy routine, a series of setup-straightline-punchline scenes just gummed together with a resolution tacked onto the end for the sake of closure. Which is fine, but wears thin at around the 45 minute mark–about half this film’s running time. 6.5/10

City Lights: I was prepared to stoically endure this Charlie Chaplin “comedy” for the sake of checking it off my list, but holy smokes, I can’t remember the last film that made me laugh this hard. Chaplin is so masterful that the gags succeed even when you see them coming a mile away–you know what the joke is going to be, but nothing can prepare you for Chaplin’s sublime execution (e.g., the “Spaghetti Scene”, which starts at 2:10 in this clip). Slapstick usually leaves me cold (I’ve never understood the appeal of the Three Stooges, for instance), but Chaplin imbues each pratfall with so much humanity that you feel like watching a close friend fall through an open manhole–now that’s funny! I could level the same charge against City Lights that I did against Bringing Up Baby–it’s more of a collection of sketches than a cohesive narrative–but the central premise, Chaplin falling for a blind flower girl, is so bittersweet that it pervaded every shot, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Plus, the final scene is amazing. 8/10

The next film in the AFI 100 Project will be … oh, god. Sophie’s Choice. If I’m going to break this resolution, I guess now’s the time to do it.

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25 comments.

  1. I’m so glad you liked City Lights. There really is a reason that Chaplin was hailed as a genius everywhere in the civilized world. His slapstick is so far from the Three Stooges (and I thought only women hated them!) that the same word can barely be used to describe both kinds of comedy. You should check out Modern Times, too. I’m not sure which one I like better.

    Bringing up baby….well, it’s not for everyone. It has moments of genius–my best friend and I are wont to emulate the “GEORGE!” “George!” “GEORGE!” “George!” search for the bone-stealing dog–but you’re right: it’s held together with gossamer thread. But to me that’s OK–in a lot of screwball comedy the plot isn’t really the point. You’re right: there’s no reason Huxley should love Vance, who has utterly upended his life…but I think that’s probably the attraction. His regimented stuffy life has been turned utterly upside down, and he’s really lived for the first time. This wasn’t an uncommon theme in movies of the time.

    Keep watching–and keep reporting!

  2. hey, been following your place for while. do you plan to make oscar form this year?:)

  3. Just recently watched City Lights for the first time and thoroughly enjoyed it. I watched it because I’m doing a similar movie project in order to fill in some of the gaps in my viewing history.

    I’m enjoying following along!

  4. How Bringing Up Baby is held up by anyone as a classic is beyond me. Just because it’s old and has Cary Grant in it does not mean we should give it a free pass.

    Of course, the fact that I think Kate Hepburn is one of the most annoying actresses in screen history doesn’t help.

  5. I really liked City Lights, but I’ve never found another Chaplin film that I could recommend to anyone. I hated Modern Times and I really really hated The Gold Rush.

    I love Bringing Up Baby, but I think it’s a Cary Grant thing.

  6. For me the teaming of Hepburn and Grant worked best in “The Philadelphia Story”, I’ve never understood why “Bringing Up Baby” is given more praise. The character of Susan is SO annoying.

  7. Include me in the baffled group in re: Bringing Up Baby. Never got it. Well, *fully* got it, I mean, yeah, taken in bits and pieces there’s some nice stuff in there.

    But Hepburn’s annoyance = movie’s annoyance for me.

    As for Cary Grant comedies, you owe it to yourself to see The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, with Grant & Myrna Loy. Also Rudy Vallee, Ray Collins, and hot damn, who

  8. Don’t let Sophie’s Choice scare you off, it’s worth it.

    Bringing Up Baby isn’t the best of Grant or Kate Hepburn. For Grant in a comedy, try Father Goose.

    Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer – It’s alright, but I’d recommend a younger Myrna Loy with William Powell in “The Thin Man”. William and Myrna as Nick & Nora Charles, along with James Stewart (before he went by “Jimmy”)… that’s the goods.

  9. Didn’t we already discuss the Thin Man? It’s must see stuff, for sure, if we didn’t.

  10. The best Grant/Hepburn, IMO, is Holiday.

  11. I thought ‘Bringing Up Baby’ was a sweet movie. Unchecked out rumor has it that it was the first movie in which a woman wore pants instead of dresses. I would check it out myself, but why take away your fun?

  12. I thought ‘Bringing Up Baby’ was a sweet movie. Unchecked out rumor has it that it was the first movie in which a woman wore pants instead of dresses. I would check it out myself, but why take away your fun? :)

  13. I have been meaning to do the same type of “check it off my list” AFI routine for quite some time.

    My college roommate was a film major, so I saw most of the list of oldies but goodies 20 years ago.

    BUB is Howard Hawks – His Girl Friday – much much better, and I think its on the list.

    Just finished Catch-22 BTW. (yeah I know) but it was so worth it to re-read this. Thanks!!

  14. I liked Bringing Up Baby for the same reason I love His Girl Friday – the fast paced lines and action. But most of the commenters above are right – it’s annoying. You don’t actually like any charachter in the film so it’s hard to stay interested through the whole thing.

  15. The new Pixar film is based on City Lights.

  16. Gee whiz, what’s with all the haters for Baby? I know it’s not unheard of: Here is a roundup of criticism of the film.

    For me, it’s brilliant. If you hate Hepburn, that can’t be helped, but you’re missing out. The whole cast is great from start to finish: Fritz Feld, Walter Catlett, Barry Fitzgerald, Charlie Ruggles, and so on. Is Susan “annoying”? Well, yeah, but that’s kind of the point. This is the model for dozens of screwball comedies; she exasperates him, but he falls in love anyway.

    It’s worth pointing out that What’s Up, Doc? (1972) is a total remake/rip-off of Baby.

  17. Matthew, have you tried any Buster Keaton films?

  18. Unchecked out rumor has it that it was the first movie in which a woman wore pants instead of dresses

    This doesn’t seem right, unless you’re talking about women in daily life rather than in costumes. BUB is 1938, and Marlene Dietrich wears pants both in Morocco (1930) and Blonde Venus (1932), although in both cases it’s her character who wears them as part of her cabaret act. (In the first is the famous scene where Dietrich, dressed in a tux, snags a smoke from a woman in the audience and then plants a big ol’ smack on her lips–trust me, it’s hot.) But even if you mean women in daily life, I wouldn’t count on it–1938 is pretty late for that…I wouldn’t be surprised if Hepburn did it even earlier. Or Dietrich. Or any of those racy pre-Code girls…

    I agree that The Philadelphia Story is a better pairing of Grant and Hepburn–in fact, a better movie altogether. But for Cary Grant comedy gold I’d be more likely to go for something like Arsenic and Old Lace, or Gunga Din (comedy AND action-adventure!), or His Girl Friday. Or even The Awful Truth or My Favorite Wife.

  19. OMG!

    His Girl Friday >>>>>> Bringing Up Baby

  20. I second Chris for Holiday. This is my favorite Grant/Hepburn coupling. Plus I fell for Lew Ayres in his role as tragic drunken brother. Arsenic and Old Lace is great screwball. For a more dramatic Grant role there is Angels with Broken Wings. Don’t forget Charade with the other Hepburn.

    Also have to agree with Thin Man. The first is the best, but the others continue the chemistry between Powell and Loy. In high school Grant was my favorite leading man. Now I prefer Powell. Must recommend My Man Godfrey.

    I had to force myself to watch Sophie’s Choice. It is good, I appreciated the story, but I didn’t really enjoy it. One viewing is enough.

  21. “I was born on the side of a hill…”

  22. “I was born on the side of a hill…”

  23. Unchecked out rumor has it that it was the first movie in which a woman wore pants instead of dresses

    I’ve had it on good authority that Bringing up Baby contains that first *documented* use of the word “gay” as meaning “homosexual.” It’s when Mr. Grant is running around in the dressing gown, he makes an aside that he’s “gone gay.”

  24. Chaplin was a communist and Cary Grant had a thing for albino hunchbacked midgets from Austria. I read it on Ron Paul’s blog!

  25. OK, so I am little late to all of this, but here goes. Sophies Choice is an incredible movie. But not one to watch when you are feeling the least bit bad, because it will suck you into a pit of despair.

    As for Chaplin, I love City Lights, but for me, “The Kid” will always be my favorite. Even though I have seen it many many times I still get teary.