Ep 3: Bringing Up Baby

Posted by on Jun 12, 2010 in Comedy, Podcast, Romance | 21 comments

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Story Analysis & Ratings:

Lucy says: 4 Pops ~ I have always loved this movie, and I always will. But I could not wrench it into the box of true romantic comedy, because really… not romantic. Funny as hell, yeah. Great chemistry, absolutely. Charm your socks off, you bet. But romantic? Not so much.

And it’s that argument which we circle… and circle… and circle… for an hour. Apologies, Poppers. That’s what happens when you love something dearly, but can’t make it fit. You obsess. Lucy’s rating breakdown: Romance: 1, Comedy: 5, Structure: 5

Jenny says: 4 Pops ~ This is beautifully structured, beautifully paced farce. Truly a great movie. Not a great romantic comedy because they failed to build the romance. Yes, farce is not an easy place to make a romance work, but they didn’t even try. Great comedy. Lousy rom com. Jenny’s rating breakdown: Romance: 1, Comedy: 5, Structure: 5

Blog Poll Rating: 3.5 Pops

Movie Info:

Story: Paleontologist David wants a brontosaurus bone. Socialite Susan wants David. There’s a leopard. Trouble ensues. Release Date: February 18, 1938 Director: Howard Hawks Writer: Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde. More info at IMDb.

21 Comments

  1. If the idea of farce is that entire setup, characters, interactions, events are entirely improbable (although vastly entertaining), then why is the romance within it a failure when it happens in an unbelievable way? Is it because we identify with falling in love, but we can separate ourselves from the crazy situations we’re witnessing?

  2. Also, I don’t think you’ve failed us by selecting this movie as a romantic comedy only to discover that, under analysis, it fails the romance test.

    It works brilliantly as a movie and certainly as a comedy. Because the core of the movie is Susan’s pursuit of David, it’s clear that the movie thinks it’s a romantic comedy, and that without analyzing it, it seems like it *has* to be a romantic comedy. It’s only when you compare what this movie does (or doesn’t do) to build the romance with what a romance *should* do that it becomes obvious (and disappointing) that this movie isn’t actually a romantic comedy. I’m still glad I saw it again last night. It has to have been 25 years or so since I last saw it.

    I learned at least as much (often more) from analyzing the plots of books that didn’t work as I did from analyzing the books that did work.

    Perhaps the only way farce and romance can work together is if the movie is primarily structured around the romance with set pieces of farce. So romance with farcical elements rather than farcical romance. We’ll see. I’m looking forward to seeing What’s Up Doc? again.

  3. Excellent comments Rox. I agree. I haven’t yet listened to the podcast, so I’ll probably rehash some of the points Jenny and Lani have gone over, but what if, since it’s absurd anyway, the romance is absurd? Maybe the point, is, that it can hit you like a ton of dinosaur bones?

    However, I’m only making that comment after reading Rox’s question. Honestly, last night my rating was 2 kernals for the romance. So I’m still mulling and will listen to the debate. But, there’s not much growth or development. It’s very much Hepburn clunking Grant on the head and dragging him away by the hair. And, standing it up next to It Happened One Night, I missed the kindness a bit.

    I ended up giving it more than one kernal, because I did see some minor movement in the arc. She knows from the beginning it’s meant to be. He doesn’t, and plans to marry someone who doesn’t really even plan to sleep with him. It takes Hepburn to blast him out of his rut. I guess an argument could be made that by the time they’re singing to the leopard on the roof, they’re working as a team. She drags him into the romance/relationship is an rather scary way, much as she drags the wrong leopard back to the police station.

    I think Hollywood did think it was a RomCom — they escape to Connecticut which is a frequent plot point of the time, along with the private/public tension and class tensions.

    Also, I wonder if now Jenny would say My Man Godfrey is not a RomCom either. It’s really similar in the female pursues male way. I know Godfrey’s not on the list, but I thought I’d ask anyway, since I bought it and ended up watching it before we started this.

  4. Thanks for thoughts on the podcast, that helped with some of the issues I had with the movie falling under the category of romance.

    Seriously though, I didn’t even like the humor, to me it wasn’t funny but annoying. As characters, Hepburn was a manipulator and Grant was weak. Yuck! The story, or the plot, if you took out all of the contrived scenes, well you wouldn’t have a story but I suppose the contrived scenes create the farce.
    The only thing I would give it four stars for were the dialogue and delivery, the actors timing was excellent and I think that’s the only place were it came across as comedic to me. Maybe I’m being too harsh, but I just didn’t get it. I thought it deserved two kernals, and I was being very generous in giving those away. : )
    I really enjoyed your insight into the film from the romance writer’s perspective. Thanks.

  5. So here’s another question: would a Mystery or Horror or Sci Fi farce fail, too? That is, can farce only be farce, with the subgenre aspect not able to truly work? That is, if you sit down and write a list of things a mystery has to have or be, would a farce that appears to be a mystery actually fail as a mystery within the construct of the mystery genre?

    You touched on this a bit in the podcast when you talked about the nature of farce relying on pacing, so I wonder if the way particular genre stories are built precludes marrying them with farce so that the story works fully as a farce and as the other genre.

    Another thing I’ve been thinking on in terms of the romantic elements in BUB, and whether they actually exist or not. I don’t think it’s true that Susan only works against David and that they never work as a team. They shared that moment of humiliation when his coat was ripped as was her dress. They actually spent some time together talking and bonding while she sewed up his jacket. There were times, like at dinner with her aunt and the hunter guy where Susan protected David with her lies, rather than manipulating him with her lies. It’s never clear whether she misunderstands him (at the golf course, for example) because she’s a crazy ditz, or if she *deliberately* misunderstands him in order to keep him close to her. She thinks and acts quickly, so whenever there’s the potential to mislead someone else on David’s behalf, she steps up to protect him.

    I think David does change because of Susan, but only when he’s with her. When he’s back with his dead dinosaur bones at the end, like he was at the beginning, sans Alice, he does appear to be the same guy he was at the beginning, but then Susan walks through that door and again brings excitement back into his life. Lani talked about looking for symbolism in the glasses (and not necessarily finding consistency with it), but I would argue that when he spends his time putting together dead things (not just dead, but fossilized), his life is dead. It’s the pursuit of what’s missing (that single bone/someone to love) that brings him to life, and when she shows up at the end with that bone, he has the missing piece (love) for good.

  6. I’ve been thinking about it since the podcast–we’ll do better in the future, I swear–and I think romance can exist within a farce because it’s really more about the way you develop the concept than in how much time you spend developing it. That is, if I had seen the relationship arc, if I had seen them change from antagonists to people who work together, if I had seen any amount of happiness in him as the movie progresses, if there had been anything besides the move at the end that showed that she was freeing him, I’d have bought the romance, farce and all. I don’t need to deeply feel the romance, but I need to see it somewhere. I was trying to think, if the genders had been reversed and this was about a woman trying hard to make her way in the world and the guy who was following her around sabotaging her because he wanted her, if even the comedy would work. I think it fails at the psychological level: I don’t believe this is love not because it’s improbable that love would happen this way but because there’s no evidence of love on the screen.

    So I think you can do romantic farce, but I think you have show that relationship arc on the screen. You don’t need to slow the movie down for it, but you have to show that they’re on the same page at some point (not just both looking for a leopard) that they’re willing to sacrifice for each other (she does give him the million in the end) and that there’s enjoyment and value for them in each other. I think the Cleese/Curtis relationship in A Fish Called Wanda does that (although it’s been a long time since I’ve seen it) because his miserable situation is set up so well and because the way he treats her makes her re-evaluate her choices. It’s not a deep movie by any means, but the romance subplot is absolutely good romance.

    SF Farce: Spaceballs, Galaxy Quest
    Horror Farce: Young Frankenstein, the Scream movies
    Mystery Farce: Clue, A Fish Called Wanda

  7. What’s the difference between farce and parody? I think of the Scream movies as parodies, for example. I love Young Frankenstein, but if it’s a horror farce, how does it satisfy the basic requirements of horror, such as being, you know, scary? I think of many of those movies as making fun of their genres (which is why I’m thinking they fit more in the parody category, but I could easily be wrong), rather than being at the extreme comic end of their genre. I mean, there actually is a Romantic Comedy genre, so we want to slot BUB into it because on the surface it seems like it should fit into it. As far as I know there isn’t a Sci Fi Comedy genre that Galaxy Quest takes to the extreme by hitting that over-the-top farce bar, which is why I think of it as more of a parody, but maybe I’m just not clear about the distinctions of each type of comedy.

  8. Wait a minute… there’s a romance in Clue? Did I miss a memo? I love the movie, but I wouldn’t call it a romance.
    Then again, I wouldn’t call My Man Godfrey a romance either, and I loved it too. (I’m loving, but critical. Getting more like my mother every day.) MMG was, methinks, mostly about The Forgotten Man, i.e. the Depression and its victims. What Godfrey shares with the Carole Lombard character is more like a casual friendship.

  9. Merry, she’s saying Clue is a Mystery Farce. I was asking if farces in other genres (like Mystery, Sci Fi, and Horror) can succeed as true examples of their genres while also being a successful farce.

  10. Most parodies are farces.
    Three kinds of classic fictional/theatrical narrative:

    Tragedy (those who are above us fall)
    Comedy (those who are like us succeed)
    Farce (those who are below us flail about and eventually succeed)

    Within those genres you can have homage and parody and satire and meta and any number of other variations, but those are the classic three. With the rise of the individual, tragedy becomes much less about those who are in a class above us and more about people who reach too far, but the three genres are still a good rough set of categories.

    So, for example, you can have an homage to The Turn of the Screw that’s comedy, and a homage to Pride and Prejudice that’s farce because it has zombies (haven’t read that, I’m assuming it’s farce). Parody is almost always farce (and I’m putting almost in there because as soon as I say always, somebody will come up with one that isn’t) because it’s based in poking fun at something else. Parody isn’t a genre, I think, as much as it is a variation on farce. But I could be wrong. Often am.

    I did watch the Bogdanovitch commentary last night. I liked his comment on comedy and superiority: “Because we know more than they do, we feel superior.” I’d argue we also feel superior because they’re acting like idiots, but it goes back to farce again. We know more than they do in It Happened One Night, but we don’t feel superior to them because we sympathize and connect to them: they’re good people, they’re like US. It may be that any time you feel superior to characters instead of connecting with them, you’ve descended to farce, assuming the movie is good.

    As far as the examples I gave not being the extreme comic end of their genres, I don’t think those genres have extreme comic ends without parody; aren’t Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland at least homages to classic zombie movies? I think a genre thats strength comes from evoking pity, dread, and horror probably doesn’t have a comic end; the parody or homage takes its comedy from subverting the genre. Although as soon as I say that, there’s The Mummy, which has great comic relief, so much so that it almost becomes a comedy. Can you think of comedies in those genres that aren’t parodies/homages?

    At this point, after thinking about this for awhile, I do believe you can do romantic farce. It won’t have the emotional impact that romantic comedy has just by definition, but you can arc a romance within a farce.

  11. I love the movie, but I think it fails as a romance because I can’t see them together long term. David will end up either killing her or jumping in front of a bus. You just know she won’t change and eventually it won’t be charming anymore.

    But at least she foils the first wedding.

  12. Was listening to the podcast and your comments about discussing farce in the future – What’s up Doc? and Better off Dead and seeing if the romance works better there.

    And while I can’t discuss What’s Up Doc? I do have fond memories of Better Off Dead and I am convinced that the reason it works as a farce is because John Cusack’s character and the lovely actress who plays opposite him end up together because they are the only sane ones in the movie. And they connect because of that. I always thought that the farce part was to show how weird the world can look as a teenager. At least, when I was a teenager that’s how I related to it. I could be wrong. And I won’t know for a few months.

  13. Thanks, Jenny. It helps to hash all this out to get it straight in my mind.

    I still have to wonder, though, if a parody, while paying homage to a genre, can successfully meet the criteria of the genre itself, or if being a parody precludes it.

    It seems that farce would be easier to pull off when it’s a parody. Do you think it’s inherently more difficult to create a farce within a genre (without it being a parody of the genre) and have it succeed in both farce and the genre?

    I can see why BUB doesn’t work as a true romance. Really, they could have had a couple of quick little moments here and there that made it work better given how Bogdanovich pointed out how Hawkes used a single closeup to convey a boatload of information).

  14. I agree Rox. In the jail would be a perfect time. If there was a shot of him, paying attention to Hepburn, watching her break out. Instead. He’s got his back to her, shoulders hunched, chin on his fist. I think, if he watched, and maybe even played along, as they did in IHON, it would have been a turning point in the romance progress.

  15. Parody says, “I’m making fun of something.” So it has to pay homage to the genre while mocking it; I think it needs to follow the criteria of the genre or the parody fails; that is, it needs to mock the framework and the conventions, too. But I think really good parody has a sense of affection for the genre it mocks. I think that’s why Galaxy Quest is so brilliant; it really loves the movies and the subculture it’s making fun of, to the point where the geeks save the day. So I think really successful parody has a warmth to it, while parody that’s just mocking is cold and sometimes mean. That may be just my preference, though.

    Farce just has to be over-the-top, improbable, action-driven, anything for a laugh comedy. It’s going to lose some power because it’s plot driven, but it doesn’t have to lose all its power. As Julie pointed out, they had a perfect opportunity in the jail for the Grant and Hepburn to do an It Happened One Night improv, and she goes it alone while he sits there moping. If after they’d fallen down the hill and she was laughing at him with the net over his head, if he’d cracked up the way Grant almost really cracked up there, then I might believe it was the best day of his life. If they’d arced from fighting to working together, if he’d stopped meeping and moping, if he’d shown he had any regard for her at all . . . all of that could have been done within the confines of farce. I don’t need to care about them the way I cared about Ellie and Peter, but I need to see a love story. And they didn’t show me one.

    Katrina, I’m still not sure Better Off Dead is a romance. It has a wonderful romance in it, but I’m going to have to watch it again to see if the romance isn’t just part of his journey.

  16. It’s Cary Grant.
    Agree, the movie did not deliver on the romance, the clothes were fabulous, the torn dress and lock step walk out of the restaurant is a great hook into the farce. Still, it is Cary Grant. This was their second movie together. The first one was a year earlier, Sylvia Scarlett, in which she is in drag for the majority of the movie. Looking forward to His Girl Friday.

  17. I was going to start by saying that farce ain’t my thing, and then Jenny gave the genre examples above – and I love ALL of those movies, so it must just be BUB. I gave it 3 pops on the poll because I can see where it succeeds technically, but it failed to flip up my skirt on any kind of entertainment level.

    Galaxy Quest is a perfect example: you *care* about those characters and you root for them to defeat Sarris and weep at the loss of Quellek (who has maybe 5 minutes of screentime) and yet it’s just about the silliest damn movie on the planet (sorry, GQ is my go-to when I don’t know what I’m in the mood to watch 🙂 ). I cared not one whit for any of the characters in BUB and actually wanted to cause most of them harm.

  18. 1) Baby owns this movie (-:.

    2) The romance in this movie was a freebie — something to hang the hook on, so to speak. I don’t know quite how to put it, but you are supposed to just believe it’s a romance so the writers can have fun in other areas. Suspension of romantic disbelief?

    3) I think this is more a guy’s movie than a chick flick, if that makes sense. That era, guys were afraid of women (Thurber, et. al) and their power, and felt they were always being pushed around by circumstances and strong women. Could it be that men really don’t have a clue why they fall in love, and it was a romantic comedy as far as the men were concerned? “I hate all the things she’s making me do, but man, I love that gal of mine! (and I think I might actually get to sleep with her!)”

    4) isn’t farcical romance a genre by itself, maybe? Unreal, surprising things happening, etc.? (-: And doesn’t it sometimes resemble real life at times — even more than “real” romance stories? I know there were many farcical moments in our courtship . . . . Like most of P.G. Wodehouse, for example. It works . . . but it works by its own rules.

    5) I didn’t really like Cary Grant in this. His timing was off several times, I felt. Gorgeous eye candy (ummm, shower!), but . . . not an attractive character. He’s so easily distracted. (OK, second thoughts — when he was good, he was very very good. But he also dropped the ball a few times in the movie. Wish I could remember exactly where.)

    6) Glasses — interesting! I read Uglow on Eliot, and she also talks about how near-sighted characters (like Dorothea Causobon in Middlemarch) don’t really see the world as it is.

    7) Missed connections: yes, both are avoiding being told what to do; Susan is much better at it than David is. (Golf ball dialog works, and David barely gets his ball back — and she still tells him to return it!). David is foiled so easily, which is why he winds up getting engaged (-:. Probably both times!

    8) “She loves him because she thinks he loves her.” (-: Happens. Doesn’t always last.

    9) I think in farce, the situation must in many ways be very straight, very traditional story-telling — almost stereotypical. That makes the weird stuff that happens even more weird. So, they rely on stereotypical stuff like “love at first sight.” I think it might be possible to do a very romantic farce. But maybe the romance will be a very stale kind of romance? Not sure. Princess Bride is kind of like that, isn’t it?

    I’m really glad you had it on the list. I’d never seen it before, and I wound up laughing out loud a lot.

  19. I had never seen this movie before, and it was genuinely funny. But like Julie, I missed the kindness, and I also have no sense of David and Susan as a couple – although as a stand-up act, reacting off of each other, they do work. The setup was good, I loved Baby, and all the polka dots. I wished that they had magnified each other as a couple – in the beginning, she’s manic and he’s withdrawn, but at the end you don’t get a sense that she’s going to be calmer and he’s going to be more engaged in the world outside his head, which could have improved the plausibility that here was a romance there for me. The romances that work best for me are the ones where the couple each becomes a stronger and more authentic version of themselves in the course of the relationship, because of each other. I can’t think of a movie offhand that does this really well, but The Fortune Quilt did – at first, Carly keeps herself apart as much as she can, and Will has quit believing in his paintings, and by meeting and falling in love, they manage to overcome these things, to be better together than either was alone without becoming “couple mush” – where two people try to exist as if they were suddenly one person.
    And the obsessing? Not problematic for me. You do make very good points about what happens when you set up someone’s expectations for something and don’t fulfill it, and why it doesn’t work, and how it could work.
    (And I must say, OT, that I love that the Comment is ‘required’)

  20. I’m glad it was on the list too, even if now I wouldn’t classify it as a rom-com. It’s a really good lesson in craft. I just was floored watching it this time, looking for the romance. When I’d seen it before, I really just went along for the ride. This was eye-opnening. I’ll watch it again, my daughter and friend who’d never seen it before really enjoyed it. It’s not bad, but it’s not really what I’d remembered.

  21. It’s one of the big problems of being a writer: It takes a really great book or screenplay to pull you in enough that you stop analyzing.

    I do think the movies that don’t work the way we expected are good for us, too. I have to admit, this was a surprise because I remembered it as being a good romance, but I wasn’t a writer the last time I watched it. I think maybe because the actors/characters are so charming, we tend to fill in the blanks. For example, at the end of It Happened One Night when the blanket hit the floor, I could have sworn you saw her feet step over it, but it’s not there at all. I must have added it.

    Shari, we don’t get the “comment is required” either; it’s part of the original template.

    And now Ninotchka, about which I have very few, very hazy memories.

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