The Manliness of Screwball Comedy

There’s something about Cary Grant that will always evoke charm, elegance, and intensity. Yet it’s also because of his humor that Grant solidified a persona. He was a man of many contradictions, always trying to reconcile one aspect of himself with another. “I have spent the greater part of my life,” he said in 1963, “fluctuating between Archie Leach and Cary Grant; unsure of either, suspecting each.” Grant’s life wasn’t easy, yet it is precisely this contradiction that subtly comes out in his acting, especially in his famous screwball comedies. 

Being flustered, while trying to reconcile in his mind someone else’s moral transgressions, Grant exuded a special kind of masculinity that was firmly planted in humor. His beautiful looks and a propensity to poke fun at himself continuously revealed Grant’s eroticism. Much like the David of Michelangelo’s sculpture and God’s creation, Grant’s roles in screwball comedies were playful but never deceitful or inauthentic. His power in them comes out in the unexpected—rather like a boy with a slingshot, you might say. In fact, it is the authenticity of his eros permeating through Cary Grant’s being, always seeking the experience of joy, that draws us in. 

The director Howard Hawks knew how to deploy this type of manliness in film because he knew how essential a good story is for movie making. He didn’t prize artistry much, and instead, made films in a linear fashion. It may appear out of character that this man who was trained as an engineer and an architect would become one of the best Hollywood film directors but then again, this technical linearity contributed greatly to Hawks’ unique way of telling a story and making us care for the characters.

Hawks also had a talent for teasing out the best aspects of the actors’ talents, and several collaborations attest to that. One of those collaborations was with Cary Grant, especially in his famous screwball comedies. Hawks’ 1938 film, “Bringing Up Baby” is one of those films, and to call it a “screwball comedy” would be an understatement. In the annals of testaments to the number of things that can go wrong (but for the better) in the course of a few short days, “Bringing Up Baby” certainly wins the first prize.

Cary Grant plays David Huxley, a paleontologist, who is above all things concerned with his work and research. His life is seemingly steady: he’s working hard on completing a brontosaurus, securing funding for further research, and he’s a man who is about to be happily married. Or so he thinks. 

David’s life turns upside down when he meets a high spirited, uninhibited, and scatterbrained heiress, Susan Vance (Katherine Hepburn). Attempting to secure a meeting with one Mr. Peabody, who is a lawyer for a potential donor to the museum, Elizabeth Random, David quite literally runs into Susan on the golf course. What ensues are a series of misadventures for poor David, who is only trying to get back to New York. After all, he is set to be married to Miss Swallow, a rather prim and joyless young woman who, like David, is concerned above all things with David’s paleontology work. 

No matter how hard David tries to escape, Susan appears to have become attached to him at the hip. In one case, literally, when she tears her dress along a rather revealing seam. In order to save her from embarrassment, David covers her back, and the two walk in unison as if they are in a vaudeville show. (Grant’s early experience in a vaudeville troupe proves to be quite useful in this film.) 

As if things couldn’t get any worse, Susan somehow manages to rope David into helping her care for “Baby,” a leopard Susan’s brother procured in Brazil for Susan’s aunt, Elizabeth Random, who happens to be the same Mrs. Random David is trying to court to fund the museum., Apparently Mrs. Random  always wanted to have a leopard because . . . well, why not? Who doesn’t want a supposedly tame leopard that gets positively warm and cuddly after hearing a recording of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby”? 

In the meantime, David is stuck with Susan on her aunt’s Connecticut estate, looking for the escaped leopard who is in the mood for feline love, while in the meantime the family’s terrier, George, decides David’s brontosaurus bone, an intercoastal clavicle, would make a tasty treat and buries it in the ground somewhere. 

But there’s more! David is not only stuck with Susan (something he actually doesn’t mind) but he has no clothes. After crashing into a truck full of live chickens, David had to get cleaned up, and Susan, being a devilishly clever young woman with absolutely no ulterior motives, has David’s clothes sent out to be pressed. 

This precipitates one of the funniest scenes in the film. Having no clothes, David is forced to put on Susan’s overly frilly and feminine robe, and prancing around the house, he opens the door to Susan’s aunt. Less concerned about the fact that David is a stranger, Elizabeth demands to know why David is wearing women’s clothes. Grant leaps up in the air, and yells, “Because I just went gay all of a sudden!”

Much has been said about this line. Naturally, many have wondered whether this is a reference to “happiness” or “homosexuality.” The word “gay” did indeed indicate homosexuality, even as early as 1938 (when the film was released) but it was not in mainstream usage. As such debates are generally directed toward questioning Cary Grant’s sexuality and sexual orientation, they are not helpful in trying to understand the movie itself. 

One could interpret the entire scene much differently. Grant’s David is at the end of his rope. He is hopeless and doesn’t even want to attempt an explanation of the whole absurd situation. David’s line therefore is also tinged with a bit of sarcasm and irony, as if to argue against any suggestion that he is suddenly “gay” because of wearing a woman’s robe. Of course, the fact that Grant is wearing the robe is and is meant to be a source of comedy, not some affirmation or acceptance of homosexuality, at least, ideologically speaking. 

Still, one cannot deny that Grant’s funny form of masculinity frequently and especially present in the screwball comedies is a fascinating subject. Here he is, emasculated by Susan, who is the pursuer and quite literally outfitted as a woman, yet his body language indicates that he exists outside of those classifications. In other words, it is the comedic Cary Grant that shines in “Bringing Up Baby.” Inspired by the silent movie actor, Harold Lloyd, Grant adopted several of Lloyd’s mannerisms and even his signature glasses. In addition, Grant’s David also embodies a role of an absent minded professor before it became an archetype in Hollywood. 

This is not to say that David is not interested in sex. We know that he is at least more interested in the prospect than his fiance, Miss Swallow (a rather unfortunate name), who insists nothing can take precedence over David’s paleontology research, not even the consummation of their marriage. David is visibly disappointed at this suggestion. Susan, on the other hand, is only interested in “loving.” Her zaniness somehow balances David’s obliviousness about human nature. 

Even so, he is not as oblivious as it seems. What is very masculine about Grant’s David is his continued frustration and exasperation with Susan as they encounter one mishap after another. He may be flustered and it seems he is even aware of his schemes at some point along the way, but he never really submits to Susan. He may be vulnerable but he’s determined to do the honorable thing. 

Grant is in full control of his comedy and body language, and even in his hilarious portrayal of a man who is a lost cause, Grant’s David is firmly grounded. Even as Susan’s last great mishap, one that involves a certain brontosaurus, would seem to break the back of any relationship, David and Susan affirm that they are stuck to each other. For better or worse, there’s a nut for every nut.

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About Emina Melonic

Emina Melonic is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness. Originally from Bosnia, a survivor of the Bosnian war and its aftermath of refugee camps, she immigrated to the United States in 1996 and became an American citizen in 2003. She has a Ph.D. in comparative literature. Her writings have appeared in National Review, The Imaginative Conservative, New English Review, The New Criterion, Law and Liberty, The University Bookman, Claremont Review of Books, The American Mind, and Splice Today. She lives near Buffalo, N.Y.

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