There’s a moment quite early on in Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby (1938) when David (Cary Grant) drops his top hat. Immediately, Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939) came to mind: Jefferson Smith (James Stuart) repeatedly fumbles with his hat when speaking to Susan Paine (Astrid Allwyn). These instances make me wonder if the hat – though not necessarily the top hat – is a recurring motif in Hollywood during the 30s and 40s? Off the top of my head, it could stand as an emblem of social convention (a hat should be doffed) and, at the same time, indicate the constraints and pressures of such demands (we hope it doesn’t fall off uninvited). I think more time and more viewings will tell.
If the hat is a frequently used symbol shared between many Hollywood films then it likely functions as an external image system. The term is borrowed from Story, Robert McKee’s practical screenwriting guide. He suggests such a system ‘takes a category that outside the film already has symbolic meaning and brings it in to mean the same thing in the film that it means outside.’ A national flag or a crucifix are other examples. I think, though, in Bringing Up Baby, Hawks also makes effective use of an internal image system to strengthen the sexual double entendre that begins in the dialogue. McKee defines an internal image system as a design that ‘takes a category that outside the film may or may not have a symbolic meaning attached to it but brings it into the film to give it an entirely new meaning appropriate to this film and this film alone.’ I believe the system centres around the titular baby: the notion of a leopard and its spots.
When Susan (Katherine Hepburn) asks David over the phone “Do you want a leopard?”, she is wearing a striking dress dotted with spots. When David arrives at the apartment, we notice that she has changed into a dress with stripes. On the one hand, Susan’s wardrobe binds her to Baby the leopard and his (or her?) animalism which is, in essence, both playful, forceful and sexual. On the other, we see quickly that this leopard is special: Susan can change her spots. Though, like Baby, she may balance sexuality and playfulness, she can also go beyond such drives, demonstrating an ability to control a situation: we notice that she lures David to the apartment through intelligent trickery rather than animal magnetism.
A network of related images extends from the central notion of a leopard and all the facets of its behaviour as an animal. When Susan comments “Don’t be silly David you can’t make a leopard stand still”, the incessant energy of the woman herself – revealed in her speech and her movements – comes to mind just as readily as the literal lost leopard. There is a sly nod to David’s sexual desires when he, rather than Susan, is linked to the beast. He warns Susan “never hang onto a leopard’s tail.” We remember the earlier scene in which Susan accidentally rips David’s suit: she backs away nervously (as David presses forward almost menacingly), explaining “I didn’t mean to. I’ve just been hanging on your coattails.” There’s a wonderful moment when David, seated on some stairs and dressed in a borrowed negligee, among much commotion caused by (almost) shouting women and a barking dog, quietly but explicitly demonstrates his animalism. He has tried and failed to interrupt the speech with human means – with language – so he sits, slumped, and simply hisses at the yapping dog. He hisses. In other words, he behaves like he suggests cats (of various sizes) will behave towards dogs when provoked.
There’s much more to say on this film. But here’s something to start.