'Bringing up Baby' (1938) is a Revolutionary Queer Protest

Queer themes often promote themselves through a rebellion from the norm. When we consider queer themes in film history, many pieces that are celebrated for their queerness seem, to today’s standards, not queer at all. There may not be any overt queerness, as the subtext comes instead from the refusal to fit the norms of that day and age. The character who never married, the outspoken untamed woman, the man who takes on a submissive role. All these qualities today are perfectly typical but during the time, was a revolutionary protest.  

To these perhaps chaste standards, the 1938 screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby is queer. 

Bringing up Baby stars Cary Grant as the awkward intellectual, Dr. David Huxley, and Katharine Hepburn as the wild and mischievous, Susan Vance. David is a museum paleontologist and he and his fiance, Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker) are excited to be receiving an intercostal clavicle bone, which would finish off the brontosaurus skeleton they’ve been working on. They learn of a generous benefactor who may be interested in donating to the museum and so they postpone their wedding so that David can meet with the benefactor’s lawyer, Mr Peabody (George Erving) over a game of golf. During golf, David meets Susan when she mistakenly steals his ball as well as his car. The two continue to bump into each other, with Susan constantly interrupting David’s meeting with Mr Peabody. It’s revealed that Susan knows Mr Peabody and, having fallen for the mild and exasperated David, is now intent on helping David (to his dismay). Somewhere along the string of classic goofball jaunts, a leopard is introduced into the mix. Turns out Susan’s brother is on safari and he sent one back as a pet. The leopard, Baby, joins David and Susan on their hunt for Mr Peabody, which culminates at Susan’s Aunt Elizabeth’s (May Robson) house along with the aunt’s friend, Major Applegate (Charles Ruggles) and a dog, George, who steals David’s bone. During the second act, Baby escapes her cage and, while out hunting for her, the duo accidentally let loose a different, far more fierce leopard from the circus. What follows is some classic mistaken-identity hijinks mixed in with some bumbling cops and a drunken Irishman. The film of course concludes with our two leads declaring their love for one another and, in their usual wildly destructive manner, Susan accidentally collapses the entire brontosaurus skeleton. Nothing natural is safe around these two.

The popular interpretation for the themes of Bringing up Baby is that of embracing animalistic sexuality. The leopard represents the wild sexual emotions let loose within a chaste and proper society and it’s Susan who brings out these feelings in the repressed and sensible David. However, another interpretation could be the exploration of queerness in the deviation from society’s norm. The film is filled with sexual innuendos – David suggesting to his fiance they try putting his bone in the tail – and even the objects both characters hunt have a sexual subtext to them with perhaps a queer twist – David looking for a bone (dick), Susan chasing round a leopard (pussy). 

The film Bringing Up Baby was inspired by a short story written by Hagar Wilde (who then went on to co-write the film with Dudley Nichols) and when considering this short, there are a few queer themes that can be extracted. The short story, originally published in Collier’s Weekly Magazine, had quite a few differences from the film. In the short story, Susan’s Aunt Elizabeth doesn’t live alone but instead with her “close friend”, Drusilla Maretti. Their relationship is a tumultuous one, with the two often bickering as they try to outdo one another. Aunt Elizabeth writes to Susan, “Drusilla and I, at the moment, are not speaking. It makes things very difficult, living in the same house.” In a BFI Film Classics book analysing this film, writer Peter Swaab says, “The fringes of Wilde’s story, then, are queerly Bohemian and upper class beyond gender norms.” 

The film may not keep the potential lesbian couple but they do keep the lesbian subtext in a different character. Alice, David’s fiancee, is uptight, sensible, and cares more about her work than love (which in those days were the stereotypical signs of being a lesbian). Though if you ignore these dated stereotypes, there are other clues to Alice’s lack of attraction to David. In the first five minutes of the film, Alice describes their relationship as one of business, saying “I see our marriage purely as a dedication to your work”. She is all too enthusiastic to give up their honeymoon in the interests of getting back to work, even rejecting him on camera for a celebratory kiss with claims that there is a “time and a place”. During this interaction, Alice entirely swats away any potential for a “traditional” family. “Our marriage must entail no domestic entanglements of any kind”, when David prompts her to clarify if that would mean they wouldn’t have any children, she confirms that and instead gestures to the skeleton behind them saying that “this will be our child”. This diversion from traditional family norms in a way infers an unusual type of “found family”, which is a prominent theme in queer subtext.

Alice is not the only character to not fit a heteronormative stereotype. In fact, no one does. Susan is a confident, suave and argumentative woman who pursues and woos David despite his lack of initial interest; her clothes a subtle hint at this reversal of roles. Although Susan dons an array of elegantly flamboyant outfits in the first act, the second and third act is spent in trousers and more muted colours with an almost masculine style. Around the same time as this change, while staying at Aunt Elizabeth’s house, Susan steals David’s clothes which leads him to appear in a pink frilly dressing gown. It is while wearing this particular outfit that Cary Grant ad-libbed the now infamous line “I just went GAY all of a sudden!” 

Outwith the main characters, we also have Aunt Elizabeth and Applegate – both of who continue to reverse gender norms. The aunt is brisk and no-nonsense, with a sensible blazer-like attire and short hair. Applegate is more feminine, with a voice that breaks into high-pitched squeaks and who often mistakenly falls into some Freudian slips by introducing himself as the niece or aunt. The original script even had a far more suggestive line for Applegate, which was cut likely to appease the Hays Code regulations (a code that prohibited any sex “perversion”, which in that time of course meant anything remotely gay). In this exchange, Susan admires David’s shoulders in front of Applegate, to which he adds “And what legs! He’d make a splendid messenger boy.”

There’s no point trying to apply modern labels to an old film – these were different times after all. However, that doesn’t mean there was absolutely no chance of any intention in the subtext. During this period in Hollywood, there was – as previously mentioned – the Hays Code that prohibited the inclusion of any “sex perversion”. But subtext is a hard thing to regulate, especially when the old straight men judging it are absolutely clueless. The making of Bringing up Baby was a collaborative effort, with Katharine recalling in her memoir how “Everyone contributed anything and everything they could think of to that script.” With so many differing creative perspectives, it’s very hard to believe not a single voice was from someone in the LGBT+ community, even if closeted. 

Bringing up Baby demonstrates the playful chaos that can ripple out to society when “wildness” is let loose. Although Baby is completely harmless, people’s reaction to seeing her is always one of fear. They don’t understand the innocence of this timid creature and instead project their own predetermined fears onto her. The wild nature of David and Susan’s relationship also demonstrates a crumbling of tradition. In the closing scene set in the museum, Susan is precariously balanced on top of a tall ladder in efforts to speak to David, who was hiding from her behind the brontosaurus skeleton. David finally succumbs and declares his love to her; her happiness upon hearing this sends her swinging out of control. She grabs out at the only thing she can – the brontosaurus. Her pressure upon the skeleton’s spine snaps the structure and sends the skeleton tumbling down to the ground. Their modern and wild nature has destroyed the rigid and “natural” historical structure and thus the equally rigid standards of society fall with it. Bringing up Baby rejects the norm, it teases the norm, it subverts the norm, and then it sends that norm crumbling to the ground, making way for new, modern love.