HBO’s temporary ban of Gone With the Wind throws up some problems when we consider the back-catalogue of cinematic riches; racism has always been part of America, a devilish deal that renders a great many films made between 1920 and 1960’s racist in outlook, because that inherent societal racism is not questioned within the film. HBO Max have responded by saying that they’ll provide context for Gone With The Wind, but shouldn’t most films deserve more context than the poster art and brief synopsis that most streaming services provide?
Fortunately, the choppy waters don’t inhibit the enjoyment of a venerable movie like Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby, a flop back in 1938, rendered a classic through rediscovery on television. We’re taking white-people’s problems, sure, but they’re presented with such snap and incisiveness; there’s a critique going on that’s worth catching. Stuffy dinosaur-bone loving David Huxley (Cary Grant) is due to get married; rebellious man-eater Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) deliberately gets in the way of his nuptials. Specifically, her pet leopard baby causes havoc when let loose in a country house, particularly when Huxley liberates a real, deadly leopard that he finds in a passing zoo-truck. Of course, there’s a way to tell them apart; singing’ I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby’ calms the savage beast, but you’d better get the right leopard as your audience, because serenading the wrong cat will tear you apart.
Grant is terrific as the square Huxley, setting a benchmark for screwball delivery alongside Hepburn’s quick-fire patter. Times and standards may have changed, but there’s still plenty of guilt-free laughs here, notably in an inspired moment in which a cheerful dog steals Huxley’s artefact. Of course, any scene which features Grant in a woman’s dressing gown, promising to show Hepburn his prehistoric bone has a sexual subtext, but Bringing Up Baby keeps the innuendo firmly in the minds of the audience without recourse to crudity.
The takeaway is; great movies are always great, even when society changes. Hawks’ film may seem quaint and harmless, and that’s because it is exactly that. Cinema can hold a mirror up to society, but it can also coast along on audience assumptions, and Bringing Up Baby deserves its reputation as a classic rom-com. ‘I’m gay!’ announces Grant at one point; gayness, happiness and general anarchy are the stock-in-trade of madcap movies like this.