Bringing Up Baby
Screwball sparks fly when Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn let loose in one of the fastest and funniest films ever made—a high-wire act of invention that took American screen comedy to new heights of absurdity. Hoping to procure a million-dollar endowment from a wealthy society matron for his museum, a hapless paleontologist (Grant) finds himself entangled with a dizzy heiress (Hepburn) as the manic misadventures pile up—a missing dinosaur bone, a leopard on the loose, and plenty of gender-bending mayhem among them. Bringing Up Baby’s sophisticated dialogue, spontaneous performances, and giddy innuendo come together in a whirlwind of comic chaos captured with lightning-in-a-bottle brio by director Howard Hawks.
The Criterion Collection brings Howard Hawks’ screwball classic Bringing Up Baby to Blu-ray, presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on a dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition encode is sourced from a new 4K restoration performed by Criterion.
Warner’s original DVD edition, while decent for what it was, showed a film that had seen better days. The general consensus at the time seemed to be that suitable elements for the film were few and far between (if they even existed at all), so I wasn’t sure what to expect from Criterion’s all-new restoration. According to the notes Criterion provides with this release they worked with Warner Bros. to track down the best possible elements for the film, and their search managed to yield a couple of decent finds: a 35mm nitrate duplicate negative (from the British Film Institute) and then a 35mm safety fine-grain positive. The latter was later generation and not optimal, while the former was still littered with mold. The notes say scanning the negative through a wet-gate scanner eliminated most of the mold, and the film could then be rescanned at 4K.
The lengthy search and efforts have paid off miraculously as the presentation does go well and beyond what I could have probably hoped for. There are still some source issues present, but they’re really of minimal concern in the end. Grain is fairly heavy, getting a bit thicker at times (maybe they had to alternate between the other source, but the notes don’t state whether that ended up being the case), but it’s rendered nicely here, retaining a natural look. This leads to some sharp looking details, the spots on the leopard looking pretty distinct, and the various outfits (including that nightgown work by Grant briefly) showing the finer details rather effortlessly.
The black and white image looks nice with excellent contrast and clean grayscale. Blacks look good and lead to nice looking shadow details, while whites can still look pretty sharp without blooming. Marks and such still remain, including some minor scratches, and there are a few dupier looking shots, but the damage is rarely intrusive. On the whole, the restoration work has managed to pull off a bit of a miracle; the film looks surprisingly clean, all things considered, and it’s delivered cleanly on this disc.
The lossless PCM 1.0 monaural soundtrack is a product of its time but it still manages to sound better than I was expecting. Dialogue is clean and sharp, managing to have some decent fidelity behind it. Range isn’t too bad, though the higher ends border on coming off edgy. But there is no severe damage to speak of, no drops, pops, or cracks.
Criterion packs on a decent amount of material, starting things off with director Peter Bogdanovich’s audio commentary, which was recorded for Warner’s DVD back in 2005. Bogdanovich’s What’s Up Doc?—an ode to the screwball comedies of Hollywood’s Golden Age—takes a lot from Hawks’ film so I guess he’s a natural go-to to talk about the film and its frantic humour. He studied the gags for his own film (he points out ones he lifted) and talks a bit about their construction, and comments on elements that he feels were probably ahead of their time (Grant’s “I just went gay all of a sudden” line). He also interviewed Hawks about the film, and he recounts those discussion here, though does so with his own impersonation of Hawks.
Bogdanovich’s impersonation isn’t terrible—and a bit funny, I guess—but it can be a little much; I would almost prefer it if he just simply told what Hawks had told him. Thankfully, Criterion does include 15-minutes’ worth of audio excerpts from that 1972 interview between Bogdanovich and Hawks referenced in the commentary, where Hawks talks about the film’s production and its eventual lackluster reception, which Bogdanovich also goes into on the commentary; Hawks felt if there were "a few sane" characters in the film it would have done better at the box office, feeling all of the characters were nuts. It's an interesting discussion with some funny moments, like when Hawks shoots down Bogdanovich’s reading of the film’s ending.
Outside of the original trailer nothing else from Warner’s DVD gets ported over, the rest of the material appearing to be exclusive to this release. Criterion first includes a new video essay by author Scott Eyman, who uses his 18-minutes to explore the development of Cary Grant’s onscreen persona, starting with his apparently disastrous turn in the short Singapore Sue (and I’ll take Eyman’s word on that as I haven’t seen it) through his more modest, mostly straight dramatic work for Paramount, until finally hitting where he started to hone his comedic side. That showed through in Sylvia Scarlett (where he stole the film from star Katharine Hepburn) and then seeming to hit that sweet spot with the streak of films consisting of The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, and Holiday, Eyman ultimately attributing Grant’s success to the freedom that directors like McCarey, Hawks, and Cukor allowed him.
It's an okay essay, doing a good job of charting through Grant’s early work and examining how his performances and on-screen character(s) morphed, but it’s not terribly eye-opening. Still, I enjoyed it more than a select-scene commentary by costume historian Shelly Foote, who talks over 22-minutes’ worth of footage from the film, covering the work of costume designer Howard Greer. She goes over details of the various costumes found in the film (like Grant’s nightgown) but it is more of look at Greer’s career as a whole. It’s ultimately fine for what it is but a visual essay format may have worked a bit better.
To accompany all of that Criterion then includes two new interviews focusing around the film’s “look” and effects. Cinematographer John Bailey first pops in for 11-minutes to discuss Russell Metty’s work on the film. It ends up being a bit odd to look at Metty’s photography for this film since it doesn’t stand out as much as what he did for, say, some of Douglas Sirk’s films, but Bailey still uses the opportunity to examine how the comedic moments are filmed and edited. In the end, it primarily comes down to long, static takes. A bit better is Craig Barron’s 12-minute contribution around the film’s effects, most of which revolved around the leopard and separating it from its stars… where needed. I always like Barron’s contributions to Criterion’s releases as he clearly explains—with the help of visual aids—how the effects in the film were pulled off, even going as far as pointing out the mistakes. It’s my favourite addition of Criterion’s newly produced material.
The remaining two supplements are of the archival kind, starting with the 1977 documentary Howard Hawks: A Hell of a Good Life, running 56-minutes. The German produced film features lengthy interviews with Hawks—a month before his death—going over his work and his thoughts behind filmmaking, describing himself as simply being a “storyteller,” not considering himself an artist. He also shares some great stories around some of his films, including his “talk” with Carole Lombard on Twentieth Century after a disastrous first day of filming.
It's a great addition to the release unto itself, Hawks being very forthcoming, but the audio recording of a Q&A featuring Cary Grant ends up being just a delight. Recorded in 1969 after a screening of Bringing Up Baby, Grant takes questions from the audience and manages to use them to work his way through his career and his work, sharing stories around the directors he has worked with and recounting his work with Hepburn through the years, the actress he has most enjoyed working with. It’s a fun recording and maybe my favourite feature on here.
The 40-page booklet also packs in some other good material. Sheila O'Malley provides an essay around the film, placing it in the context of the time period in guessing why it didn't do well (was probably just way too chaotic) and goes over the career of the film's stars up to that point. The booklet also feature Hagar Wilde's short story the film is loosely based on. The notes for it also warn of "anti-asian stereotypes" and yep, right there even before the end of the first paragraph.
Criterion doesn't carry over a couple of things from the DVD: missing are the short film Campus Cinderella and the Looney Tunes short A Star is Hatched, along with documentaries around Hawks and Grant. Not huge losses, though, the two shorts having nothing to do with the film and the two documentaries being fairly generic, their respective gaps filled in (adequately enough at least) by other material on here.
Overall, this edition manages to offer a solid upgrade over Warner's previous DVD edition.
Criterion's new edition improves upon Warner's old DVD in every way, providing a better selection of supplements and a significantly better visual presentation. Certainly worth the upgrade.