If all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun—allegedly per Jean-Luc Godard, though I’ve never seen anyone name the source—I think we can safely say that the only necessary ingredients for a comedy are a dude in a dress and a dog. Not that either strategy is surefire, of course. More often than not, you wind up with the comedy “stylings” of Big Momma’s House 2. Place those chestnuts in the hands of an old-school genius like Howard Hawks, however, and they work to perfection—not because he devises some hilariously convoluted scenario involving canines and cross-dressing, but because he’s confident enough in his actors, and relaxed enough in his approach, to casually introduce those elements into an ongoing cacophony. It also helps if the dog is playing second fiddle to a leopard, and the man’s antics seem positively subdued next to the prototypical Manic Pixie Dream Girl who’s trying to win his heart by sheer persistence.
By this point in Bringing Up Baby—the quintessential screwball comedy, made in 1938—Cary Grant’s dithering paleontologist has already been through a lot, all courtesy of Katharine Hepburn’s dizzy heiress. She’s stolen his golf ball and his car. She’s knocked him on his ass by dropping an olive into his path. She’s ripped his tailcoat. She’s scuttled, multiple times, his attempt to meet with the attorney of a wealthy woman who’s considering donating a million dollars to his museum. (Unbeknownst to him as yet, the wealthy woman, who makes her first appearance in this scene, is Hepburn’s aunt.) And she’s introduced him to her brother Mark’s pet leopard, Baby, who just prior to this scene has devoured a truckload of expensive poultry. (“I don’t see how any pair of swans could cost $150,” Grant mutters. “That was a gyp.”) Now covered in bloody feathers, Grant takes a shower at Hepburn’s Connecticut farmhouse, which gives scheming Hepburn an ideal opportunity to ensure that he can’t run off.
Notice that when Hepburn scoops up Grant’s clothes, she places his hat on her head. In theory, that’s for convenience, but in fact, she almost immediately removes it and carries it in hand along with everything else; its real purpose is to (further) code her as masculine, just as Grant is about to be (further) coded as feminine. One of the glories of the screwball era is the merry way it subverted established gender roles, allowing the women to be sexual aggressors and the men to be largely passive objects of desire. (We hear endless talk about “the male gaze,” and not without reason, but check out the lingering close-up of Hepburn right after Grant yells “No, I don’t want to wear this thing, I just want to get married!” Talk about undressing with your eyes.) And while I can’t be sure, I suspect that the seemingly pointless shot of Hepburn running from the kitchen back to the bedroom serves the same function—it was “unladylike” to run at that time, I believe, which is why she slams on the brakes as soon as she reaches the door.
So she steals his clothes and sends them into town, leaving him potentially naked for hours, and he’s forced to put on the only garment available to him, which happens to be the frilliest negligee this side of a drag show. Which, you know, is funny. But it’s funny here, I submit, in large part because of how nonchalantly it’s executed. Think about how that moment would play in one of today’s studio comedies. Either the guy would make a huge sputtering fuss before emerging from the bathroom (cueing the audience to an impending Big Reveal), or there would be a sudden cut to him in his new outfit, possibly involving a slow pan up from his feet to his pained expression. Or both, even. Hawks and Grant, by contrast, underplay like crazy: The door swings open just wide enough so that we can see Grant’s shadow as he struggles into the negligee (which in itself is more visually interesting than almost any contemporary comedy not made by Wes Anderson), and then he just charges right out and the movie barrels on at full speed. We’re asked to process this ludicrous sight with no pause for breath, which is as it should be.
What shortly follows is among the most famous instants in film history: Grant’s excitable leap into the air halfway through the line “Because I just went gay all of a sudden!” As far as anybody knows, this was the first time the word “gay” was used onscreen in its homosexual sense—it was fairly new slang at the time, all but unknown by the straight world. Grant was very likely bisexual—he allegedly had a lengthy relationship with Randolph Scott—and he reportedly improvised the line himself, which seems plausible enough. If he did improvise it, though, it was definitely before this particular take, because the pan that follows him up and down is as beautifully synchronized as any camera movement I’ve ever seen. Bracing though it still is to hear something so unexpectedly blunt in the context of a 1930s comedy, it’s that perfect vertical explosion, offset by the horizontal sweep of Grant’s arms, that makes the bit truly indelible. It’s almost as if the frame couldn’t contain such an outrageous suggestion.
Immediately thereafter, Grant sits down on the stairs, where he spends the next couple of minutes doing little more than abandoning sentences halfway through with a futile shake of his head. (He does finally get fed up and assert his manhood as the scene ends.) Hepburn shows up to feed her aunt a line of bullshit about who Grant is and why he’s dressed like that. Everybody talks at once, as per usual in a Hawks picture. And over it all, George the dog (played by Hollywood’s most famous pre-Lassie pooch, Skippy, who also steals scenes in The Thin Man and The Awful Truth) barks and barks and barks and barks, occasionally provoking a retaliatory hiss from Grant. George does have an important plot function—in a few minutes, he’ll bury the “intercostal clavicle” we see Hepburn ask about, which again prevents Grant from escaping back to sanity—but here, he’s just one additional voice in the chorus, a means of emphasizing that everything in Grant’s life has gone out of control. He gets no funny inserts, no special emphasis (apart from following Grant as he leaves the room). He just barks.
For all the frenetic activity, there’s also a casualness to Bringing Up Baby, and other great comedies of that era, that seems lost to us now. Way back in 1972, Peter Bogdanovich attempted to recapture the magic with What’s Up, Doc?; it has some uproarious moments of its own, but feels comparatively strained, forever huffing and puffing. Most neo-screwball films since have been justly ignored. I’d always assumed that had something to do with how acting has changed over the years—that screwball depended on performers who were, paradoxically, fully at ease behaving in a wholly unnatural way. Re-watching this scene, however, and seeing how Hawks resists turning it into what we’d today call a setpiece, convinced me that what we truly need are comedy directors who understand the value of throwing things away—who recognize that the more outrageous the situation, the less it needs goosing or underlining. They could take a page from Grant threatening to charge Hepburn in the shower, then instantly retreating: “Oh yes I would! Well, maybe I wouldn’t…”