Bringing Up Bride: Gender, Class, and Marriage in Screwball Comedy

In the 1930s, a new film genre emerged in Hollywood: the screwball comedy. It quickly became one of the most successful film genres of the decade and has continued to be successful over the years, so it has had a lasting impact on the American film industry. Screwball comedies first emerged as a result of the Production Code of the early 1930s, which imposed restrictions on the content of Hollywood films, specifically regarding the issue of sex. Studios began making screwball comedies to “hit back at the conventions and sexual restraints of the polite new comedies and portrayed individuals – usually women – challenging and rising above those conventions, sometimes by being tougher and more efficient than their male counterparts” (Everson, 16). In these screwball comedies, “exaggerated comic violence” took the place of sex (Everson, 17). The deliberate defiance of these films quickly made it very popular among American film audiences. Its popularity can be attributed to a variety of other circumstances as well. The bleakness of life during the Great Depression gave Americans a need for escape, and these comical films provided them with this escape (Sikov, 16). The screwball genre confronted life’s problems with comedy. It addressed issues such as marriage and divorce, class divisions, and gender relations in a humorous and approachable manner. The issue of marriage and divorce was particularly significant in the 1930s due to steadily increasing divorce rates. The screwball comedies restored the confidence of American audiences by reaffirming the possibility of romance and marriage “in the face of the fact of its failure” (Shumway, 397). During the 1930s, women were gaining more independence, in the home and in the workplace, and screwball comedies dealt with this perceived threat as well (Sikov, 34). Screwball comedies showed audiences that traditional boundaries could be challenged but would ultimately be reinforced so as not to threaten the prevailing ideology of the time. This notion is essentially “what makes screwball comedy so liberating – the sense that rules of behavior can be shattered” but not irreparably (Sikov, 106).

The term screwball originated from the game of baseball – it is “an erratic pitch that is produced in an exact and deliberate way” (Sikov, 19). In the 1930s, screwball became a slang word meaning “insane or eccentric” (Sikov, 19). It is fitting that the film genre depicting eccentric characters engaged in erratic but deliberate behavior would be coined screwball comedy. The screwball comedy genre is first and foremost “an eccentrically comic battle of the sexes” (Gehring, 3). Screwball comedies are best known for the witty, fast-paced verbal exchanges between the leading male and female which “function mainly to create a sense of attraction” (Shumway, 404). Its other conventions include farcical situations (such as mistaken identity), physical humor, gender role reversal, and the comedy of remarriage Screwball comedy almost always depicts the idle rich, with one or both protagonists belonging to that class. This screwball convention is significant, because the world of the idle rich “is a metaphor for the reward that romance promises of love” (Shumway, 400). The genre is essentially a satire of the traditional love story, with “the more eccentric partner, invariably the woman, usually [managing] a victory over the less assertive, easily frustrated male” (Gehring, 4-6). The leading women of screwball comedy are highly independent and strong-willed, and they reject the dominant behavioral and ideological codes of society. They often assume the traditional role of the male in their relationships. It is thus the responsibility of the leading male to attempt to reassert his authority and bring the woman back into the dominant patriarchal code, and he is usually successful, although never completely. The screwball comedy films are “in essence voyages of self-discovery” (Sikov, 13), because the leading male and female learn something about themselves as a result of their relationship which helps them to resolve the conflicts of the film.

Two classic examples of the screwball comedy genre are Bringing Up Baby (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940). Both films star two of Hollywood’s leading screwball comedians of the time, Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. The films share many similar characteristics in their classic screwball structure and in the conventions that they employ, but they received different degrees of success and popularity among 1930s and 1940s American film audiences. The Philadelphia Storywas very well-received among critics and audiences alike and even received several Academy Award nominations in 1940 (Sennett, 111). Bringing Up Baby, however, was not well-received. It was a “critical failure, box-office bust, and Academy Award snubbee” (Dean). However, film critics today view it as one of the most significant films of the genre, and it has since been coined the quintessential screwball comedy film (Sennett, 115). Critics and film analysts stress the importance of both films in illustrating similar and unique aspects of the screwball genre.

In both Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story, Katharine Hepburn plays the stereotypical screwball lead, coined the “Madcap Heiress” (Reed, 194), who is eccentrically strong-willed and independent. Both films depict her struggle to resist the ideological codes of society, specifically regarding gender and class. While Hepburn is consistently portrayed as highly independent, she has clear moments of vulnerability throughout both films, which progressively suture her into the dominant code of love and marriage. The principal ideological struggle of the two films is this rejection of and attempted assimilation back into the dominant codes of a monogamous romantic relationship. In Bringing Up Baby, Hepburn plays Susan Vance, who is a wealthy, independent, free-spirited woman. Under a series of comical circumstances, she meets and develops a relationship with Grant’s character, David Huxley, who is an uptight, straight-laced paleontologist/professor who has three goals: to find the intercostal clavicle bone to complete his brontosaurus skeleton, to receive a large donation for his museum, and to get married to the dull, prudish Alice Swallow. However, after Susan and David’s first encounter, she is determined to divert him from these goals so that she can spend as much time with him as possible, and chaos inevitably ensues as she executes every harebrained scheme that comes into her head. David eventually learns to lighten up and give in to Susan’s erratic nature. Although David becomes very reliant on Susan, who clearly has the upper-hand, she does eventually have to compromise some of her independence to have a relationship with him. In The Philadelphia Story, Hepburn plays the strong-minded, self-righteous socialite Tracy Lord. Having divorced Cary Grant’s equally affluent and strong-minded character, C.K. Dexter Haven, she is about to remarry the highly principled social climber George Kittredge. On the eve of their wedding, Dexter returns, bringing with him two tabloid reporters, Mike Connor and Elizabeth Imbrie, who want to write a story about the wedding. Dexter is still in love with Tracy, and the reporters are a ploy of Dexter’s designed to manipulate her into calling off the wedding. A romantic triangle, or quadrangle, results as Tracy develops a relationship with the poor journalist Mike who helps her find her humanity and discover whom she truly loves, who turns out to be Dexter. In the process, Tracy is forced to relinquish some of her independent strong will.

Both Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story reinforce the traditional institution of “marriage, or the promise of marriage” (Gehring, 155), while also examining divorce, broken engagements, and other practices and behavior that were deemed outside the realm of societal codes in the 1930s and 1940s. The two films also reinforce class divisions and the class-based ideology of the time (Beach, 123). However, the two films reinforce these ideologies in opposing ways. While The Philadelphia Story strongly reinforces traditional gender roles and class divisions, Bringing Up Baby seemingly celebrates gender role reversal and the crossing of class boundaries, which explains why the latter did not have the box-office success of the former. The success and lack of success of these two films illustrates that while the American film audience of the 1930s and 1940s valued strong, free-spirited women and the possibility of crossing gender and class boundaries, the existing patriarchal and capitalist ideological codes prevented their complete acceptance.

In both Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story, Hepburn’s character rebels against the traditional codes of gender. Her character in Bringing Up Baby, Susan, does not even seem aware of these codes. She is unladylike in her klutzy manner and erratic conduct and in the way she talks to people, especially men, and she does not seem to understand when people question this behavior. Her character is contrasted with Grant’s character, David, who is uptight and passive and often assumes a more feminine role. Susan is obviously the dominant character in their relationship, reversing the traditional gender roles normally employed in Hollywood films. She interrupts David when he tries to talk, she repeatedly puts him in embarrassing and uncomfortable situations, and she manipulates him into spending time with her. She pursues David and he resists, or tries to resist. Susan has clear moments of masculinity throughout the film, while David has clear moments of femininity. When David first encounters the leopard Baby in Susan’s apartment, he screams and jumps on the furniture. Susan, on the other hand, is not afraid of the leopard at all, and she even laughs at David for his silly behavior. This scene takes the stereotypical reactions of males and females in a seemingly threatening situation and reverses them in order to blur traditional gender roles. In one of the most humorous moments of the film, David is forced to wear one of Susan’s frilly robes, blurring gender lines ever more. When Susan’s aunt questions his attire, he sarcastically exclaims, “I just went gay all of a sudden!” Despite David’s unconventional and feminine behavior, he struggles to assert his masculinity throughout the film. He tries to be a gentleman by following Susan after she has ripped the back of her dress in an attempt to prevent her from exposing herself in front of a restaurant of people. Susan helps him to assert his masculinity or helps him to think he is asserting his masculinity. She “plays upon the stereotype of male as decisive protector when she fakes being attacked by a leopard while on the phone to [David]; he drops everything to come to her rescue” (Gehring, 164). However, he is not much help, since he is deathly afraid of the leopard. He gradually becomes more assertive in his masculinity, though. At the end of the film, when Susan is out trying to catch a vicious runaway leopard that she mistakes for Baby, David exclaims, “Oh poor darling Susan! She’s in trouble and she’s helpless without me!” He then proceeds to jump in between her and the leopard in an attempt to protect her, even though she appears in command of the situation. Susan tells him, “You’re a hero! You saved my life!” Although Susan rebels against patriarchal codes and behaves in a more masculine manner, she does somewhat understand and value traditional gender roles. Despite her confidant independence and assertiveness, she has clear moments of vulnerability in the film. When David angrily tells her to leave him alone and go home, she begins to cry and begs him to let her stay. She laments that “Everything I do with the best intentions seems to turn out badly.” She wants his love and acceptance above all else, even if it compromises her independence. However, Susan still retains the upper hand in the end, because David submits to her. He admits firstly that he is afraid of her, but then he admits, “I just discovered that this was the best day of my whole life . . . I love you, I think.” In the final scene of the film, Susan causes David’s brontosaurus skeleton to collapse, and instead of being angry or upset, he merely shrugs as they embrace. This scene is symbolic of Susan’s ultimate triumph and David’s ultimate submission. While the two characters struggle to either reaffirm or resist their traditional gender roles, the film ends unconventionally with Susan in the dominant position. However, their union “is the ultimate and closing compromise in a genre based in compromise” (Gehring, 156).

Hepburn’s character Tracy in The Philadelphia Story also rebels against traditional gender codes. She is highly opinionated and independent, and tries to assert power over the men in her life. Instead of assuming the role of the stereotypical submissive female, she “is accused by each of the significant men in the film [Dexter, George, Mike, and her father] as being unapproachable – a virgin, a goddess, one who belongs in an ivory tower – but what they are really charging is that she behaves like a man,” which is unacceptable in their society (Shumway, 406). This aspect of her personality is what causes her and Dexter to get a divorce. However, while Hepburn’s character maintains the upper hand over Grant’s character in Bringing Up Baby, they are on more of the same playing field in The Philadelphia Story. This seemingly equal relationship is established in the opening scene which depicts Tracy and Dexter’s divorce. She throws his belongings out the door and breaks his golf club over her knee, and he responds by shoving her to the ground. Neither one of them are reluctant to assert authority over the other. Unlike Bringing Up Baby, Hepburn and Grant’s characters are both strong-willed. Furthermore, while Susan pursues David in Bringing Up Baby, Dexter pursues Tracy in The Philadelphia Story, so their roles in the two films are reversed. Dexter has most of the control in The Philadelphia Story, and he manipulates situations in order to win her back, such as showing up the day before she is to remarry with two tabloid reporters and trying to cause a scandal. In this aspect, the film takes the more traditional gender structure. Tracy tries to maintain her haughty independence, but it no longer holds any sway over Dexter. He tells her, “I used to be afraid of that look – the withering glance of the goddess.” Tracy is gradually taken off her pedestal as the film progresses. She develops a relationship with the journalist Mike, who convinces her that she is a human being rather than a goddess. While it is Mike who helps her realize this, she would never have met Mike if it were not for Dexter’s manipulation, so it is ultimately Dexter who removes her from her pedestal. Although Tracy tries maintain her independence, she experiences moments of vulnerability in the film, similar to Susan in Bringing Up Baby. When Dexter returns and harshly criticizes her holier-than-thou attitude, she is clearly shaken and even cries. She then proceeds to tell her fiancé George, “I don’t want to be worshipped. I want to be loved.” This moment of desperation is one of the most poignant moments of the film. She is willing to sacrifice her dominant status for true love, which George obviously cannot offer her. The event that finally brings Tracy down from her pedestal is when she gets drunk with Mike and kisses him. While she is no longer the “unapproachable goddess,” she still does not act in the manner expected of her by society. When George finds out about her drunken fling with Mike, he writes her a letter stating, “You conduct last night was so shocking to my ideals of womanhood that my attitude towards you and the prospect of a happy and useful life has been changed materially.” She is not “tame” enough for him, because he “expects his wife to behave, naturally,” so he breaks off their engagement. He is too weak to control her, unlike Dexter. By the end of the film, Tracy is very reliant on Dexter. He takes care of her when she is hung-over and reassures her that her behavior was not deplorable. In Tracy’s final attempt to assert independence, she begins to explain to the wedding guests that the wedding has been cancelled. However, she is unable to do it on her own. She asks Dexter for help, and he proceeds to dictate her speech to the wedding guests word-for-word, which ends up being an announcement of his and Tracy’s remarriage, to which she happily complies. While Tracy will retain some of her independence, she is forced to sacrifice most of it. Dexter successfully assimilates her into the patriarchal code of society. Unlike Bringing Up Baby, this film does not “celebrate Hepburn’s individualism. Instead, it undercuts it” (Gehring, 140). Rather than have Grant submit to Hepburn, she must submit to him, which reinforces traditional gender codes and illustrates the ideology that the women of screwball comedy “are allowed and even expected to be a little footloose as long as they learned to behave in the last reel” (Sikov, 28).

In addition to rebelling against traditional gender roles, Hepburn’s character in Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story also rebels against traditional class divisions. In both films, Hepburn plays a wealthy socialite, which is significant to the screwball comedy plot. In both films, “wealth gives the characters both the arena and the means to act out as broadly as they please” (Sikov, 45). Furthermore, in the screwball comedy universe, “women are on equal footing with men. Often, it’s money and class that place them there” (Sikov, 12). In Bringing Up Baby, Susan is truly a “madcap heiress” – her wealth and social status allow her to act in a crazy manner without any serious repercussions. Susan is a member of the idle rich and is in line to inherit one million dollars from her aunt. She does not appear to have a job, which allows her to do whatever and go wherever she desires. Because of her vast disposable wealth, Susan has no regard for other people’s personal possessions. She constantly takes things that do not belong to her, no matter the value. When her leopard Baby climbs from her car into another car, Susan does not hesitate to take the other car and drive it to Connecticut. She does not even seem phased when David tells her she has committed a felony. She simply replies, “I’ll give it back.” Susan always must have her way, and other people’s belongings will not stop her. At the beginning of the film, after Susan and David have met at the golf range, Susan gets in his car to move it out of her car’s way. In the process, she dents his bumper. David understandably becomes upset, but Susan calmly tells him, “Oh it’s alright, I’m insured.” David, on the other hand, is not wealthy at all. He is a professor and paleontologist whose primary goal in the film is to acquire a one million dollar grant for his museum, ironically from Susan’s aunt. His pursuit of this money is the principle factor in his cavorting with Susan. In fact, “the unlikely relationship between [them] would make little since if the issue of money didn’t lurk underneath almost every scene” (Sikov, 100). While Susan’s domineering personality contrasted with David’s passivity allows her to have the upper hand in their relationship, her superior economic status allows her to do so even more, because “David’s economic status . . . has rendered him helpless” (Sikov, 103). When David fails to receive the museum grant from Susan’s aunt, Susan offers him the money instead. David is therefore economically reliant on Susan, which contributes to the film’s unconventional gender role reversal. Furthermore, the union of Susan and David breaches class divisions and violates the dominant class-based ideology of the time. However, by maintaining Susan as the more powerful one in the relationship, the ideology that the upper class holds sway over the lower classes is strongly reinforced in the film.

In The Philadelphia Story, Tracy is also a member of the idle rich. Her old-money status, which is shared by Dexter, is juxtaposed with both George, who is a member of the nouveau-riche, and Mike, who is a member of the working class. At the beginning of the film, Tracy has rejected her economic equivalent Dexter in favor of George, who has worked his way up to his present status. She claims that she admires this self-made aspect of George’s character. In doing so, she resists the traditional class boundaries that separate the old money from the nouveau riche. Dexter does not approve of this class infringement, telling Tracy, “it offends my vanity to have anyone who was even remotely my wife remarry so obviously beneath her.” George clearly does not fit into their world; he has trouble riding a horse and he loves the publicity that his wedding receives. Tracy further rebels against class divisions when she has a fling with Mike, who is merely a poor tabloid reporter. However, in her first encounter with Mike, she is very condescending towards him. He even accuses her of being patronizing when she offers to let him stay at one of her family’s many homes. Once she has a real conversation with him, though, she realizes he is just as charming as the other men in her life, and she begins to develop a relationship with him. Ultimately, “Tracy must choose between three men from very different social positions, and she ultimately chooses the one whose upper-class position . . . most clearly resembles her own,” i.e. Dexter (Beach, 123). Despite her initial admiration for George and Mike, she rejects them both as possible spouses and chooses to go back to Dexter. George and Mike both attempt to penetrate the upper class by proposing marriage to Tracy, but they are ultimately unsuccessful. Tracy’s remarriage to Dexter “reinforces established class divisions and reinstates the class-based ideology that both George and Mike are attempting in their own ways to challenge” (Beach, 123). This film suggests that intermarriage between the classes is not plausible nor is it acceptable according to the bourgeois ideology.

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