Hepburn’s Learning Curve in Bringing Up Baby

I like the following anecdote. It has shown up in multiple entertainment biographies I have read, so it appears to have validity. Besides, whatever. It’s an anecdote. Take it or leave it!! Katherine Hepburn used to tell the story herself.

This is in regards to the Great Kate (and Cary Grant, by proxy) in Bringing Up Baby.

By the time she took the part of heiress Susan Vance in Bringing Up Baby, Hepburn had made 13 movies, won an Oscar for Morning Glory and had become a huge star. She was a bit controversial (the whole wearing-pants thing, the whole not-giving-interviews thing, the whole “What is her relationship with Laura Harding anyway?” thing) – and although she had gained enormous success in a very short time – there were some “limits” to what she could play.

She talked about this herself, later on.

Most of her parts through the 30s had certain similarities: there was an earnestness there, and also a haughtiness. A certain know-it-all quality. She played by nobody else’s rules, she did things her own way. And while it was this very different quality that helped make her a star, it also tended to … remove her a bit from her audiences. It wasn’t until later, when she started being able to put more warmth into her roles, that audiences truly fell in love with her.

That was one of the reasons Philip Barry wrote Philadelphia Story for her. In that character, Tracy Lords, Barry wrote out the problem Hepburn had being Hepburn, and how people responded to her … Barry gave Hepburn a vehicle to express herself in three-dimensional fullness.

People thought of her as a goddess, removed from everyday dirt and drudgery, somehow black-and-white in her certainties, and … a little bit serious.

I’m just giving all of this as background – because now it is difficult to even THINK of Hepburn as having ANY limits as an actress. And all I can remember is the overwhelming warmth and humor and love she was able to portray in … oh, On Golden Pond, or Lion in Winter … But that was later.

As a younger actress, oftentimes she had so much ambition for success that she was unable to let any softness or vulnerability show in the characters she played.

Then along comes Bringing Up Baby.

By this point, Hepburn’s star had already begun to set. Despite her Oscars, she had appeared in a couple of box-office flops … Whatever it was she was doing was no longer working. Audiences weren’t liking her anymore, audiences weren’t finding her different-ness appealing anymore – They found it alienating, haughty.

She and Cary Grant first teamed up to do Sylvia Scarlett. This was Grant’s big break. She was already an established star, and so her name came first in the credits.

Hepburn has talked about how bad she was in that film. I happen to disagree with her – she’s not “bad” – but it is definitely an overly stylized piece of acting, kind of overwrought, melodramatic, a bit more obvious than her later roles – Cary Grant pretty much steals the movie from everyone else, veteran actors, without even appearing to break a sweat.

With each box-office failure, Hepburn lost confidence (of course. You’re only as good as your last picture. Who the hell cares about the 2 Oscars you won back to back 4 eternal years ago???)

So. There she is. Coming off of a string of bad movies, to do Bringing Up Baby, directed by the great Howard Hawks, and co-starring her old friend, Cary Grant. Who by this point had blossomed into a star of his own.

Bringing Up Baby, of course, is a classic screwball comedy.

Cary Grant, while not a veteran yet of these types of films, had more of that screwball sensibility in his DNA than Katherine Hepburn did – Hepburn was more of a “serious actress”. She had played Mary Queen of Scotland, and Jo March! She had won Oscars! She cried beautifully, she suffered beautifully … she was an ACTRESS!! Cary Grant was different. One of Cary Grant’s first jobs in America was stilt-walking on the Coney Island boardwalk, handing out fliers. Katherine Hepburn went pretty much straight to Broadway after college. Cary Grant was a tumbler, an acrobat, a stilt-walker … the people he admired were the stand-up comedians who did the circuit, he learned much from watching them.

Readings and rehearsals began for Bringing Up Baby.

Cary Grant immediately clicked into Dr. David Huxley. Cary Grant did not need to be told, “Okay. So here is what is needed in this film. It will be funny if…”

But it wasn’t as easy for Hepburn.

As she described it, and as Grant and a couple others described it later – she started out trying to be funny. What she was doing was – adjusting her style of acting to fit the style of the movie. This is a very delicate issue – and hard to explain.

Here’s how it is:

What’s FUNNY when you watch comedies, is that everyone IN them is taking the situation deadly seriously. If you get the sense that the actors somehow are telegraphing to you the audience, “I’m in a comedy right now. None of this is all that important” – you won’t laugh.

What is funny is to see people in these comedic situations, and to THEM – it IS life or death. Absolutely Life. Or. Death.

In that respect, there is no difference between The Producers and Hamlet.

In The Producers: If putting on a flop-show was not a life-or-death matter to those two guys it wouldn’t be funny. They are as desperate and as serious about those circumstances as Othello or Willy Loman are about theirs.

And so at first – Hepburn was condescending to the material of Bringing Up Baby. Her character’s desires and dreams were not AS important, because she was in a comedy. Hepburn went through the first couple of readings, acting as though everything that happened in the plot was a “lark” (Grant’s word), hilarious … no big deal … after all, she was in a comedy, and in comedies, nothing is a big deal!

(Am I making this clear? I feel like I’m not. Please ask if you don’t get what I’m saying.)

Grant and Hawks tried to tell her that her approach was the exact opposite of what was needed.

For example, all of Grant’s pratfalls – which still make me laugh no matter how many times I have seen them: Apparently, in the beginning stages of shooting, when Grant would do a pratfall, Hepburn would react in a certain way, she would over-play her response of laughter, or whatever. She didn’t trust herself yet in that kind of comedic material. So Grant would fall flat on his ass, and she would stagger about laughing, pointing, etc.

Grant instinctively knew that by doing this, Hepburn was going to kill any potential laughs.

They were good friends by this point, so he felt comfortable enough to say to her, “Look, dear – We’re going to get the laughs here from the expression on my face. Every time I fall, I am going to look more and more depressed. That’s all we need to do.”

Basically, he was saying to her – You don’t need to “do” so much. Just relax. Just be yourself, don’t “act” a response to the pratfalls. Just let Cary fall, and the moment will be hysterical.

And it’s wonderful, because when you see the movie – every time he falls, what is so FUNNY is, indeed, that kind of silently mortified and depressed look on his face. He is doing all the work for us in those moments. Just by looking depressed and beleaguered. And once Katherine Hepburn relaxed into the material – you can so see the result on the screen. She is really laughing at him at certain points. She’s not just acting like she’s laughing.

Wild – cause Bringing Up Baby was another huge box-office flop, so much so that Hepburn went back to Broadway. But I think, having seen her earlier films, that this is the film where she really grounded her position as a great and important star. I mean, there’s a reason why this movie is still so beloved.

She is still haughty, a bit, yes – because the character is an heiress – but Hepburn shows that she is not afraid to look foolish, to look weak, to fall down cliffs, get wet … to get a little bit dirty, for God’s sake. And also – she is very very funny.

Last anecdote and then I’ll shut up:

During these awkward beginning-stages of meetings and rehearsals – Hawks set Hepburn up with an actor named Walter Catlett. Howard Hawks thought that Catlett, a real old-timer, could give Hepburn a good sense of the pace, and the style needed.

After Hepburn’s first conversation with Catlett, Hepburn went to Hawks and said, “We need to keep him around during the shoot. I totally understand what he is getting at – when I hear how he says the lines – I can do it, I know I can – but only if he’s around.”

Howard Hawks ended up casting Walter Catlett in the film as the absent-minded Constable Slocum. The performance is a masterpiece of comedic style.

Anyone remember him? Full of bluster, and forgetfulness, and sudden bursts of raving inappropriate anger …

A real pro that one. Hepburn recognized it.

I guess you could say I admire Katherine Hepburn. For being a big enough artist to admit: Okay, I’m in over my head. I need HELP!!!

I admire everyone in that anecdote, actually.

Howard Hawks … who saw the potential in the duo of Hepburn and Grant … and who wanted to make Hepburn the dominant one in the relationship, yes, but (and this is key to its appeal) – to add a layer of absolute and utter thoughtlessness on top of the dominance – which is why it is so FUNNY, and different from the more haughty dominant types she had played.

And in terms of Cary Grant, Howard Hawks said about him, years and years later, “What a great receiver. The best.”

Hawks knew that all he had to do was put that character through a bunch of different catastrophes … and Grant, being the “great receiver”, would respond to them all – openly, unpredictably, comedically. He never missed a beat.

“You told them my name was Bone … and you didn’t tell me…” — said with a deep and weary sadness. It makes me laugh every time.

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7 Responses to Hepburn’s Learning Curve in Bringing Up Baby

  1. Dave J says:

    “In that respect, there is no difference between The Producers and Hamlet.”

    This is one of the reasons I’m so fond of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: because it’s conscious of this, it can manage to make a (wonderfully weird) comedy out of THE tragedy. Conversely, of course, this is made easier by the fact that, while a serious introspective tragedy, Hamlet is itself full of dark humor.

  2. Sigh

    Cary Grant. Katherine Hepburn. Thanks, Sheila! As usual, that was exactly what I needed to get my mind off things….

  3. Linus says:

    “Maidens aspiring to godhead … and vice versa.”

    Sorry, one of my favorite Rosencrantz & Guildenstern lines. Couldn’t resist.

    This was an amazing post; a wealth of information.

  4. red says:

    I remember when I saw Noises Off on Broadway (the most recent one, with Patti Lupone) – and laughed so hard my stomach hurt for 2 days afterwards. That play is like a French farce, there is NOTHING serious in it … and yet what was so freakin’ funny was how life-or-death it seemed to all the characters embroiled in the backstage-drama.

    I could not, for the life of me, stop laughing.

    It reminded me of all the comedies of errors I had been in myself, during various shows – and how DIRE it seems at the time (like: I’m late for my entrance, because my wig has to be pinned on!!!!) – and then all you can do later is just laugh your ASS off about it.


  5. red says:

    Oh and Linus, not sure if you’re a new reader or not … your email is new to me – but you will find that posts like this are how I relax. I’m kind of a stress-ball, and so I enjoy immersing myself (quite an understatement) in various obsessions.

    I have created categories for my obsessions (this also makes me feel relaxed) – and put them over in the right-nav under STARK RAVING MAD OBSESSIONS.

    If you liked this one … there is wayyyyyyy more where that came from.


  6. Linus says:

    Mostly a new reader. I had dabbled in the past once or twice and was instructed by a friend to start paying attention. I’ll look forward to more, then. Quite a pleasure.

    Noises Off is special to everyone who has cherished theatre and been thwacked by it now and then; I’ve done my share and still do now and then. I don’t think I ever saw the show, though I read the script back when it was first going around, give or take.

  7. Janelle says:

    Well, Miss Ruby Red, you sure know how to sooth this ole’ gal. Nah, 50 is a good age and my four chilren have all grown up…why? That saying about the “Empty Nest” has been a rough one since I was a young, very young Mom of 16..

    You took me back to the era of Cary Grant and the one and only darling, absolutely such a womans woman to me. She brought out the young innocence right through those eyes.

    I am here a day late due to a rough spell. I really appreciate your love for those two fine actor’s.

    Well Miss Scarlett,”Perhaps Another Day” soon, I will arrive on time to listen to your story and how your style and flair’ brings your writting to life. You capture those great days of the past and I thank you.

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