Bringing Up Baby, a Sexual Dinosaur
“Is there anything in the world that doesn’t belong to you?” Katharine Hepburn’s outspoken Susan asks George (Cary Grant) less than ten minutes into Bringing Up Baby, Howard Hawks’ 1938 screwball classic. The question is a nonchalant one, in reference to an automotive mix-up, but there’s no mistaking its intent. It is a challenge. George is a man, grandfathered in to a lifetime of proprietary and sexual agency, and Susan will have none of it. It’s a bold stance for a comedy to take, and Bringing Up Baby flaunts its boldness from Hepburn’s first appearance. Susan is brash and sexually aggressive. George is bespectacled and meek. On the surface, the two seem to represent a biting deconstruction of the fossilized patriarchy of yore, paving way for a new model of the American couple, free from the restraints of engrained gender roles, but this is not the case. Though Bringing Up Baby embraces this blueprint from a comedic standpoint, the film rejects it ideologically, shunning Susan’s feminist tendencies and position of sexual dominance, ultimately ushering the couple’s romantic misadventures back toward the traditional, masculine form from which it appears to depart.
The affair between George and Susan is an adulterous one. George is engaged to Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker) a no-nonsense shrew of a fiancé who has cuckolded George into a sexless future of paleontological museum work. George’s current obsession is a massive brontosaurus skeleton, from which he’s missing one, crucial bone. That George receives his bone in the mail directly after meeting the vivacious Susan is a sexual metaphor that needs no unearthing, and one that drives the rest of the picture. Aroused by Susan’s forward behavior, George follows her to her aunt’s house, where the shenanigans kick into full gear. Oh, and she has a leopard.
If the rare dinosaur bone is crudely indicative of George’s libido, than the leopard (the titular Baby) represents Susan’s sexuality, alluring but unpredictable, a beast George continually attempts to tame, while simultaneously becoming attached to it. The leopard also informs what *isn’t* there, an actual baby, the product of sexual reproduction and the cornerstone of an ideal American family. Baby’s place in the couples’ life eschews the nuclear paradigm in favor of a healthy sexual appetite, and female sexual empowerment.
Then the beast escapes and George loses his bone, an episode that’s marked by George cross-dressing out of necessity (Susan has sent his clothes into town), and exasperatingly suggesting that he’s “gone gay”. Susan’s machinations prove too much for George, and despite her sexual adventurousness, she turns out to be exactly the sort of domineering force Alice was. So, the two set off to recover George’s lost bone and capture the wild cat, as the film plays all its cards, the pressing question turning from “will they/won’t they” to “will George finally become a man’s man” and “tame” Susan?
He does, of course, but only after Susan nearly bests his urges in a swamp with a Capra-esque “almost kiss,” while a second leopard is introduced into the narrative. This leopard, a vicious beast from a local zoo, which escapes before it can be put down, is a literal man-eater and a stark juxtaposition against the more docile allure of Baby. After all, Baby implies infancy, a child that must be watched over by a practical, controlling hand, and George finds on his search with Susan, that she, a stumblebum of all stripes, needs his constant supervision and care. His role as patriarch is thus justified by the film’s narrative, and Susan’s unpredictable allure is shrugged off as a childishness that must be rooted out. Meanwhile, the other, vicious leopard lashes out at each man that attempts to cull it, its danger a shadow over the couple’s future.
Both leopards are eventually captured (the man-eater by Susan, who is tellingly unable to differentiate the two), and Alice gives George his “dear John,” opening the finale up for a more traditional first coupling of George and Susan, who have somehow managed to keep their horny paws off each other for the entire plot. In Baby’s final scene, Susan recovers George’s lost bone, and makes one last, epic pratfall from which she must be saved, toppling George’s brontosaurs in the process. George, atop a scaffold, asserts his position of power, bringing up “baby” into the adult world of submissive womanhood while resigning himself to her scatterbrained nature. The dinosaur has fallen, seeming to imply a turning point, a new sexual order, but the movie still ends in a museum, among the relics of an earlier time, the leopard nowhere in sight.