Pet Sounds

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Katharine Hepburn | Art by Dani Manning
illustration by Dani Manning

Susan and David are in harmony for once. “I can’t give you anything but love, baby. That’s the only thing I’ve plenty of, baby.” They’re singing to a leopard they’ve named Baby. This is Baby’s favorite song. David stays on the low note, while Susan crests high.

Susan and David have been running around the forest for what feels like hours. They’ve been following the leopard’s call. Their dialogue, previously buzzing at a breakneck speed, now softens in the hug of a song. They’ve just found Baby on someone’s roof and are trying to lure her back with music.

Bringing Up Baby (1938) might be directed by Howard Hawks, but it’s Katharine Hepburn leading the fugue. Cary Grant plays David Huxley, a paleontologist set on completing a brontosaurus skeleton with a newly arrived intercostal clavicle bone, and marrying his fellow paleontologist, Miss Swallow. But David has the bad fortune of playing golf near Susan Vance, an heiress played by Hepburn. Once Susan sees David, she pursues him and he sings harmony. She drives his car from the golf course with him trapped on the runner; he holds on for dear life. She gets a pet leopard and calls him to say it’s attacking her; he comes over to save her. She drives him into a truck of chickens; he takes a shower at her house.

David would be able to raise money for his museum, complete his brontosaurus skeleton, and make his impending wedding date to Miss Swallow if not for Susan and her animals. While David showers, Susan takes his clothes and sends them to the cleaners. She opens the package with the bone. Her dog takes it and buries it somewhere in the backyard. When David emerges from the shower, he finds his clothes and his purpose missing. He puts on Susan’s dressing gown and runs around looking for them. Susan, meanwhile, is unperturbed. “I just went gay all of a sudden!” David yells with his hands in the air, the frothy fur-lined sleeves rolling down to his elbows.

In most screwball comedies, two lovers from different social classes, usually one high and one low, come together in an unlikely heterosexual union. Usually, the woman in the couple is strong-willed, and the struggle of the plot often involves the man resisting submission to her as he submits. The romantic leads, who often started as exes or nemeses, one-upped each other in a kind of anti-mating ritual. The digs bore a concern that, with repetition, evinced a begrudging eros, the romance demonstrated more in an effort to stay embroiled than to abandon oneself in freedom.

David’s bone was an allegory for his penis, or so some have suggested since the film’s release. Burying it in the ground, then, either emasculated him, or heterosexualized him. So what exactly is the leopard? Susan is not the same thing as her leopard, but they do follow the same instinct: going wherever they goddamn please, doing whatever they goddamn want. The bone, though, is more pointedly inert, prone to being taken. Seeing how a man responds to a woman harboring the masculine attributes expected of him is a hallmark of screwball’s comedy, and early 20th-century anxieties about gender and sexuality. It’s a strange parable of heterosexuality, David’s penis buried in Susan’s yard and Susan’s animal body loose in the forest, tying two characters in an unexpected bond, ridiculing the perceived interdependency between men and women. Their pursuit of such lost causes makes them both look like fools but, as they go deeper into the forest, as David scrapes at the dirt, as Susan calls for Baby through the trees, it begins to make more sense.


When Susan and David hit the wilderness, they can leave some high society propriety behind. They roll down a hill, sink into a lake, lose a sock, break a shoe, shatter David’s glasses. They’re rumpled and hobbling when they see Baby on the roof, while ambling back towards civilization. Though undone by their environment, their dialogue remains at the same fever pitch. When they spot Baby, she sits on the roof, the animal the humans set out to capture, more well-contained than its owners.

“I can’t give you anything but love, baby.”

Behind the wall of sound, we don’t really see why Susan pursues David. He’s cute, but so is everyone in Hollywood. He’s polite, but so is everyone in high society. What we do see are the cages that might entrap Susan without David as a foil. Characters of order (a constable, a psychologist, a zoologist) litter their adventures, enforcing some idea of order at the seams. The constable tells Susan she’s parked her car in the wrong place and will need to move. The psychologist notices her at a restaurant, popping olives in her mouth with the back of her hand, and lectures her on desire. The zoologist sees David fumble about for his bone and assumes he’s insane. Though we’re in a world where Susan and David’s dash can run rampant, their looseness discomfits other people. Maybe it’d be bearable if it were in one body, the strange melody of wilderness, but in two, and so evenly and oppositely strung, so evenly matched, it’s untenable.

Baby doesn’t care. She roars, or yawns. Susan and David near the end of their song and she’s still on the roof. The window opens: the psychologist from earlier. David runs away at this point, screaming a useless “Oh, baby!” Baby’s hiding on the roof, outside the psychologist’s gaze. Susan, left alone on the ground, is the only one left.

“There’s a leopard on your roof.”

“There’s nothing on my roof.”

“There is a leopard on your roof and it’s my leopard,” Susan says, “I have to get it and to get it, I have to sing.”

Maybe there’s a really good reason to sing to a leopard. Maybe opening your mouth creates a rift in expectation. Calling a leopard Baby may make no sense without David there to corroborate it. Saying there’s a leopard on the roof makes no sense without Baby there to prove it. But maybe singing carves some modicum of safety around an animal, pours some divine protection around the body the world’s used to seeing in a cage.

The psychologist leaves the windowsill. The downstairs light turns on. It’s the first time we’re afraid, really afraid for Susan, in the whole film. “It’s alright,” the psychologist tells her. He walks out and grabs her body, pulling her inside. He thinks she’s crazy. Without David’s harmony, there’s no one to speak back. While David bumbles off somewhere in the wilderness and Baby stalks the periphery, the psychologist calls the constable. This time there will be a cage, a literal one. Susan is going to jail.


In the early 1920s, a wave of scandals hit the film industry. The actor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was accused of raping and murdering the actress Virginia Rappe after a night of partying. Olive Thomas, another actress, died from an accidental overdose of the mercury pills her husband took to treat his syphilis. And then there was the murder of William Desmond Taylor, a successful director of the silent era. Taylor had affairs with men and women, but when he was found dead in his apartment with a gunshot wound to his back, Paramount executives fed newspapers reports of closets of lingerie and pictures of women. They never definitively found Taylor’s killer. His death could have had nothing to do with the scent of homosexuality the studio wanted to dispel, but by attempting to heterosexualize Taylor, they hyperbolized the scandal surrounding his death.

Films worried lawmakers. An art form that so closely mirrored life may give people the idea that another life was indeed possible. Film’s power was in its wash, how widely it could carry and how deeply it could infect you. By living through other people’s bodies, audiences might imagine different realities. Some members of Congress used the scandals to suggest the industry could not regulate itself. Production companies lost shareholders and the industry scrambled to find a way to maintain creative and commercial ownership over their products. They had to meet a set of opposed needs—to feed the interests of a public obsessed with transgression, and to meet the standards of a conservative government intent on social control.

With oversight from a Catholic priest, a subcommittee of Congress approved The Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code, in 1930. Sex, murder, drug use, basically any act not ordained by Christianity, were to be off limits in motion pictures. The code justified its oversight over films based on its suspicion that their power was both undetectable and amorphous. Films were art in that they “[entered] intimately into the lives of human beings,” “[reproduced] the morality” of their creators and “[affected] the moral standards” of their audiences. Yet they are also entertainment. They could deliver from the ambiguity of art a message that will “improve the race, or, at least, to recreate and rebuild human beings exhausted with the realities of life.” The code was in effect, ceding to the power of films, demanding they use that power for good and not evil. This is what studio executives promised to uphold in 1934 when the code went into effect: to be good.

Baby was good. Susan and David precisely couldn’t give love, touch love, or receive love on screen. They traded instead in assumed protections, swapping clothes, gender roles, species even, to meet the changing demands of the forest they ran through. The sexuality, never shown in bodies touching or revealing themselves to each other, was through the throat, a middle register of music, swelling in volume as it communicates across a specious impasse.

 “I can’t give you anything but love, baby.”


At the end of the film, Miss Swallow dumps David. Susan shows up at David’s job at the museum with his bone in her arm. She’s just secured a one million dollar donation for the museum. Even though she has what he wants, David is still afraid of her. He scurries up on the scaffolding while Susan follows him up a ladder opposite him.

“You see, all that happened, happened because I was trying to keep you near me,” she explains to him. He nods, considering what her proximity means to him. “Well, I ought to thank you,” he says.

“Thank me?” Susan’s smiling, shocked and delighted.


“Well, why?”

“I’ve just discovered that was the best day I ever had in my whole life.”

As their dialogue buzzes on, he joins her in a parody of the sway, bending his knees and shifting his body from side to side to match her gait. “I love you, I think!”

And then she starts to fall. The ladder has fallen too far, the ground is coming closer to her. Susan climbs onto the brontosaurus replica, shoving her lithe body onto its spine. Its bones start to creak. Just as soon as David saves Susan, lifting her arm and dangling her in the air, it falls. David and Susan lie collapsed on the scaffold, breathing. The brontosaurus, four years of his work, is ruined. “David, can you ever forgive me?” she asks. “You can,” she answers her own question, “and you still love me.”

Susan can give David a bone, a donation, and an interesting day. David can give Susan someone who won’t interrupt so forcefully on her narrative. Susan and David, together, can’t give you anything but love, baby. But is it love? Screwball was, in essence, asking, Do you love me for me? Or for what I can give you? By the film’s end, we assume, they’ve left the animal behind, they’ve brought up Baby. Susan gives the leopard back to her aunt. David returns to his career studying extinct species.

Hawks allegedly cut the scene where Susan and David fall in love. The edit injects more chaos into an already inane plot. A neat, five-minute romantic arrangement is supposed to resolve an hour and a half of chaos. It’s complicated, seeing Susan and David come together, my delight so clouded with confusion as to what’s motivating them. Singing to a leopard together is better than singing to a leopard alone, yes, I’m on board, but their almost forced unison suggests that a discordant music can’t last, that in the end harmony must relent to melody.


Looking for the suggestion at the edges of Code-era films is like practicing a second form of sight. That gesture there, that elongated look—it’s like pulling your ears away from the music to catch the slightest tear, a grace note just as it warbles over the surface of where it was supposed to go. Whether Hepburn and Grant were factually queer is something potentially lost to time. Rumors abound—a documentary about a guy who secured same-sex hook-ups for Hepburn, the fact that Grant lived for twelve years with his male “best friend”—but neither definitively went on the record about it before their deaths.

Hepburn was a character actor who, from campy musicals to her late-career Shakespeare gigs, always played herself. “I think I’m always the same,” she’s said, “I had a very definite personality and I liked material that showed that personality.” Grant, meanwhile, cut his teeth in traveling vaudeville acts, putting on twelve shows a week with different companies on different circuits, doing comic sketches, juggling, and for a spell, riding a unicycle. He had a much looser relationship to identity than Hepburn: “I guess to a certain extent I did eventually become the characters I was playing. I played at being someone I wanted to be until I became that person, or he became me.” 

Each actor’s method might have been successful in part due to the demands of the code. Hepburn’s insistence on Grant’s submission was part of a masculine ideal, one that threatened traditional norms of masculinity, but nonetheless was either to be respected or subdued. Grant’s falls and fumbles were harder to align with forms of masculine control. Being a queer-coded man broke down the demands of heterosexual domination, that once men earned masculinity they’d earned the right to control women. David’s ambivalence towards Susan may have spoken to the importance of performance—Grant once explained to a close friend that not exploring one’s sexuality was like only playing one character for life—in covering and creating the potential for queerness. Under the code, once you were already spoken for, you didn’t have to reconcile a public persona with a private one as actively.

Plays like Twelfth Night reveled in the idea of carnival, a time when authority fell and assumed roles reversed. Under carnival, humans obeyed subverted formats and chaos ensued. Boys played girls and girls played boys, all in the pursuit of a heterosexual marriage that tied up the loose ends of the plot. The middle ground, the escalating chaos, then, was a chase less towards what you want than a path away from what you’re expected to be. The audience laughs at the vague discomfort of the world-as-we-know it tumbling down, while knowing it must, at some point, return.

In Baby, the carnival is predicated on the cruelty of this return. After the forest, the jail. After Susan’s relentless freedom and David’s passive resistance, marriage. The pitch of chaos frustrates me just as much as the sharp ending of its closure, Susan and David’s bodies resist the prevailing order so automatically just to have the plot reverse it. The turn makes me question the basis of my laughter. Am I laughing because Susan and David are acting in ways I don’t understand? Or am I laughing because I deeply understand that I crave one last more moment of chaos before life proceeds at its usual pace? It’s both sad and relieving, seeing their wilderness conform to the indoors. Their embrace at the end is less believable for love than it is for survival, how in the absence of desire, two people can hold each when the world around them shatters and falls.


Susan and David’s voices are evenly matched. They keep time. Susan brings her ear closer to David’s cheek. He lurches forward. She jumps to meet him. Sonically, I mean. They never touch. They’re dancing, quickly, frantically, at the edge of a madness they can never hold onto. It all melds in the dark. The overtones, the desires that won’t come out, slipping out like air from between the taut words. The psychologist’s about to come out of his house. The leopard is about to run away. Before the animals get back to their cages, before the marriage bells ring, Susan and David just miss the animal across from them. They’re singing together.