This Is a Blog: Kris and Adam Discuss AFI’s Top 100: Bringing Up Baby

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Kris and Adam Discuss AFI’s Top 100: Bringing Up Baby

Kris Jenson, with whom I've had the best discussions of my life, is an old friend of mine from Boston. We had been talking about the American Film Institute's Top 100 when he got a job at Dig Boston, writing about just that. Instead of letting the conversation end just because he's a big, fancy writer now, I'm going to write responses to his articles. I can't keep up with his movie watching, so I'm only responding to the ones I've seen.

"Bringing Up Baby"

Before I started watching old movies, I saw AFI's second list, which layed out 25 actors and 25 actresses they considered to be the best of the best. Cary Grant was #3 actor and Katherine Hepburn was #1 actress. I went into a lot of my movie viewing with this in mind. I crossed off these screen legends from my list just as I crossed off the 100 movies. Being the constant skeptic I am, I found myself questioning why these two deserved such high places on the list. It wasn't until I saw "Bringing Up Baby" that I understood.

Following Kris's lead, let's talk about this movie in modern terms. A few years ago, the team of Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, director Mike Nichols, and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin got together to make "Charlie Wilson's War." This was considered the Dream Team of movie-making teams: the world's two biggest stars, a director known for his prowess with actors, and a now Oscar winning screenwriter. This should have been the best movie ever. It wasn't.

In 1939, Howard Hawks, who had directed the original "Scarface" and would go on to direct "His Girl Friday," "The Big Sleep," "To Have and Have Not," "Red River," "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," "Rio Bravo," and many other classics, managed to snag the Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts of his time for what was basically a film about rich people and a panther. Why does this work and Nichols's film about a hilariously bumbling Senator not? It's because Grant and Hepburn are absolutely deserving of their places as top screen actors of all time.

Separately, they've headlined the biggest movies of all time, but together, these actors spark. Their on-screen rapport is so effortless, they sweep the viewer along. Even when they're mired in screwball tropes, their pitch-perfect timing raises the schtick to a level above any Preston Sturges film, which are amazing in their own right. People tend to raise "The Philadelphia Story" as the best Hepburn/Grant film, and maybe it is a better, deeper film. I'll talk about that one when Kris gets to it, but suffice to say "Bringing Up Baby" blows that other thing out of the water in terms of comedic genius.

There's a great scene early on where Hepburn tears off the back of her dress. The tension as Grant tries to tell her her bloomers are showing builds and crescendos with him following her out of the party to cover the hole, following her step by step. It's a great piece of physical comedy with the dialogue allowing the actors to dance just as much as the slapstick blocking. It's a taste of what's to come once they add a panther into this mix.

In a documentary about Hawks's work, I learned the two actors did a lot of improvisation that ended up in the film. Their craft is so superb, they can take a gorgeously written script and improvise interplay that's just as good. Maybe this is what Jessica Alba meant when she said good actors never use the script. The problem, though, is I can't think of a single actor nowadays that could improvise something this good.

When this movie got made, I'm sure no one was thinking "classic." It's about a clueless rich girl, an easily confused scientist, and a panther. If this movie were made today, it would star Jessica Alba and Dane Cook, and Steve Zahn would probably be in there somewhere. The panther would be CGI, and there'd be fart jokes. "Bringing Up Baby" is proof that great craftsmen can turn any script into a work of art. As long as producers and studios and inflated budgets dictate how movies get made, nothing like this will ever get churned out again.

Also, fuck you, Kris. "Noises Off" is one of my favorite movies of all time. The first act is so funny, you enter the rest of the movie wondering how the hell they're ever going to top it. You and your opinions can suck it. (I'm sticking my tongue out at you, even now as you're reading this)

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