The classic 1938 madcap comedy Bringing Up Baby featured Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn on the big screen as David and Susan, a zoology professor and a flighty heiress thrown together in a series of crazy mishaps involving her pet leopard Baby.
I’m a Katharine Hepburn fan and enjoy all of her movies, but this is one of my favorites because of Susan’s charming country house in Westlake, Connecticut. I remember watching it as a girl and deciding I would move to Connecticut and get a house just like it when I grew up. (Any day now…)
Susan’s terrier George barks and barks and barks his way right through the movie, adding to the sense of comic mayhem:
Director Howard Hawks liked his comedies to move fast. His characters talk fast, walk fast, and take pratfalls fast. He never paused for laughs in his movies, saying, “If they miss it, they can watch it again.”
Howard Hawks and Dudley Nichols were inspired to create this movie by Katharine Hepburn’s real relationship with the director John Ford during the making of Mary of Scotland. She was the only person who was ever able to tease him on the set and get away with it, Peter Bogdanovich says in the DVD commentary. Grant even wore similar round glasses to Ford’s in this movie.
The gossip was that Hepburn and Ford had an affair, but there has never been any real evidence that it was anything more than friendship.
I found it interesting to learn that Howard Hawks was born in Goshen, Indiana in 1896, a town that had been founded by his family about 60 years before his birth. We have family living in that area and visit it often.
This was the first movie Grant made with Hawks, but it wasn’t the last. They went on to make four more, including my personal favorites, I Was a Male War Bride and His Girl Friday.
The Bar Behind the Stairs:
Grant did all of his own stunts in the film, including the part at the end when he pulls Susan up onto the scaffolding with him with one arm. (A stunt double was used for Hepburn in that scene, however.)
The Hall Leading to the Two Bedrooms:
Hepburn was reportedly happy to work with the young leopard ‘Nissa (II)’ who played Baby, but Grant preferred to use a double for his scenes with her. Did you know Baby was originally written as a panther? I guess a trained leopard was easier for the filmmakers to find.
You can learn more about Nissa the leopard, who retired after making this movie, on All Creatures Great & Small.
Hawks said he made the mistake of making everyone in this movie “screwball characters,” and that it was an error he never repeated. He believed it would have done better at the box office if there had been at least one “normal” person in the movie.
The Second Bedroom:
When Susan’s aunt asks David why he’s wearing a woman’s dressing gown, Grant ad libbed the now-famous line, “I just went gay all of a sudden!” Movie historians believe that was the first time the word “gay” was used in a film in a way that didn’t mean strictly “happy and carefree.”
This is a strange picture, but it was only when the gardener runs up behind the cook and surprises her, making her drop everything, that we get a quick glimpse at the entire stone wall in the kitchen with the range:
I love that there is a back staircase off the kitchen, and that it appears to be a spiral one:
The Dining Room:
Cary Grant never said, “Judy, Judy, Judy,” in a movie, but he did say, “Susan, Susan, Susan,” in this one.
Howard Hawks’ wife Nancy (a model known as “Slim”) liked this house so much that when they built a place in New England, plans were based on the “Bringing Up Baby” sets. UPDATE: A reader tells me that Nancy’s autobiography says their house was actually built in Bel Air, not New England. Thanks, Mary!
This is the best shot we get of the exterior of the house. Oddly enough, it looks like a one-story house here, even though there are two sets of stairs leading somewhere inside (we never do see the second story, though):
Bringing Up Baby was only a modest success in its day, and around that time Katharine Hepburn was famously labeled “box-office poison.” After this movie, she made another comedy with Grant called Holiday. It didn’t do well, either, but both films are now considered among her best.
Some sources claim that the same sets were reused for the Barbara Stanwyck romantic comedy Christmas in Connecticut in 1945. While they do have similarities–lots of stone walls, Dutch doors, a Connecticut farm setting–they look substantially different to me. Check out the photos and decide for yourself!
Any other Katharine Hepburn fans out there?