Bringing Up Equality
Gender in Howard Hawks’ Screwball Comedy Bringing Up Baby
The arts, especially films, have always functioned as mirrors of current conditions in society. Gerald Mast states that the reflection of social reality is the primary intention of commercial motion pictures (203). Film comedies, in particular, are able to deal with these conditions in an iconoclastic manner and can question or even expose “the shams of society,” because they use “the entertaining comic form” (21). After the imposition of the Production Code on American film productions in 1934, it appears the conservative values of gender, love and family become more consolidated in films. According to Jane Greene, the outcome of this suppression of, for example, explicit sexuality led to an all new genre - the “screwball comedy” (45). The iconoclastic quality of comedies during that time, hence, relied on a “unique aesthetic for destroying Hollywood assumptions while appearing to subscribe to them” (Mast 250). In particular, the screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938) breaks the classical gender roles and undermines male supremacy in the Hollywood conventions long before the second wave feminist movement of the 1960s. In particular, the female lead’s “screwball” actions can be read as a performance in sharp contrast to the Victorian role model of women. In the following analysis of specific scenes, the film’s use of the cinematic techniques of mise-en-scene, cinematography, and its opposing main characters in order to construct an equal gender image will be examined, drawing mainly on readings by scholars such as Gerald Mast, S.I. Salamensky, and Stanley Cavell.
Bringing Up Baby was released in 1938 during the time of the Great Depression. The term “screwball comedy” for its genre derives from a pitched baseball, which “defies normal expectations” and, therefore, behaves unpredictably (Salamensky 265).
Critics and scholars applied this term retrospectively to films of the 1930s that characterized madcap characters and fast-paced talking (265). It emerged as a sub-genre from the “sophisticated” comedies (King 56), in which the comic tone relies to a large extent on dialogue (Mast 249). In this era especially, the exaggerated style of screwball comedies served as a “comic relief” in the form of an “escapist” entertainment for the audiences (Salamensky 263). This supports the general theory of comedy as a pain-blocker or opium for the masses (cf. Tomasulo Condensed Theories) in order to suppress the fears caused by tough socio-economical conditions, at least during the screening time of the film. Despite their light-heartedness, these comedies were often seen as an “ironic social commentary” (Salamensky 265).
In the case of Bringing Up Baby, the lead female character Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) deviates greatly from the classic Victorian role model of the dependent and submissive woman, a stereotype that inhabited not only most Hollywood films but also society at that time. Salamensky supports that these screwball leads represent “early feminist trends” (264). Bringing Up Baby, in particular, inverts the gender roles between its main characters David Huxley (Cary Grant) and Susan Vance (Salamensky 271). This can especially be seen in the scene at the golf course. The scene introduces Susan’s character while it serves as the plot’s point of attack. At this point, the conflict is established with the opposing characters and the genders, meeting for the first time. The golf course serves as a stereotypical location of masculinity where David Huxley and Alexander Peabody talk and do business while practicing a patriarchal sport. Their male caddies accompany the two men and the costumes of all four almost perfectly blend with the environment. Thus, it appears that they perfectly fit in this masculine location. The first shot of Susan is a long shot that places her in the distance, but also in the center of the frame. Her bright white costume contrasts against the entire setting. She is an intruder and even takes over “the game” of Peabody and Huxley when she hijacks David’s ball. This portrays her strong femininity. Although she is the only woman in the scene, she is not intimidated and neither men could and would stop her in her steely determination to play with the balls she wants. She has no respect for the men’s game that is being played, hence, undermining the male privilege. The following shots keep her centered in the frame, suggesting she is the center of all the action with David and their caddies positioned on the edge of the frame as spectators. This is furthered when Susan leads all three men to the green in a left to right tracking shot. The camera movement appears to follow only her movement as it stops and goes with her walk. The men almost struggle to keep up with her pace, a sign that she is “ahead” of them, not only spatially but also intellectually. It is almost as if Huxley is degraded to the position of her caddy. The woman sets the tone and the men follow – a subversion of male supremacy.