The right combination of actor and director can make movie magic, and Cinemaven is hosting the Classic Symbiotic Collaborations Blogathon to explore these relationships.Howard Hawks, well known as a versatile director, teamed up with Hollywood legend Cary Grant five times, beginning with Bringing Up Baby (1938), followed by Only Angels Have Wings (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), I Was a Male War Bride (1949), and Monkey Business (1952). Only one of these pictures was a drama, but Hawks’ mark is visible on each one. To explore the Hawks/ Grant dynamic, I looked at their first two collaborations. I haven’t included much plot information as I don’t want to risk any spoilers for those who might not have seen either picture, and for those who have, I didn’t want to retread familiar ground.
Bringing Up Baby, Hawks’s first comedy, is considered the “quintessential screwball comedy and one of the funniest movies ever made” (Capital New York). Hawks made good use of Grant’s background as an acrobat for the abundant physical comedy in the film. Hawks’ mark is more evident when Bringing Up Baby is compared to Grant’s previous screwball comedy The Awful Truth, directed by Leo McCarey. While McCarey made limited use of Grant’s genius for physical comedy, Hawks fine tuned it in Bringing up Baby. Gone is the dapper womanizer from The Awful Truth. Hawks highlights Grant’s genius for physical comedy. Grant jumps, falls, and stalks the dog George in this movie to great comic intent.
Costuming was very significant in Hawks’s work with Grant. Hawks juxtaposed Grant’s natural good looks with a pair of nerdy glasses and lab coat for David Huxley’s character. Costuming is, indeed, important throughout the movie. Even when Grant is in a traditional suit, it is not worn with elan and charisma. In the dining room scene, Grant’s best-dressed scene in top hat and tails, Grant ends up trying to cover Katharine Hepburn’s torn skirt with his top hat, then walking awkwardly after her to save her embarrassment. What is highlighted here is not Grant’s suave good looks, but his clumsy movements in this glamorous setting.
The most memorable of Grant’s costumes in Bringing Up Baby is Hepburn’s character’s feather-trimmed negligee. This also gives way to one of the film’s most risque moments when David explains wearing women’s clothing saying, “I just went gay all of a sudden.” Turner Classic Movies remarks, “This marks the only use of ‘gay’ to mean ‘homosexual’ in a Hollywood film of that era,” further noting that this line was improvised by Grant. Following this, Grant’s David is outfitted in a poorly fitting riding outfit and sandals. When David’s regular clothing is finally returned, he is in such ridiculous situations that the audience is not seeing the debonair Cary Grant, only the unlucky paleontologist Dr. David Huxley.
Likewise in Only Angels Have Wings, Hawks utilizes costuming to bring out aspects of Grant’s character for the film. When the audience is first introduced to Papa, he is highlighted in the doorway, smoking a cigarette, in a wide Panama hat and white adventurer’s garb, complete with a gun belt. Throughout the film, Grant dons an aviator’s uniform, and even a simple towel to underline some aspect of his character. As Papa becomes more humanized, his clothing becomes less stylized. Both Bringing Up Baby and Only Angels Have Wings failed to win overwhelming critical praise the time of their release. The 1939 New York Times review of Only Angel Have Wings was uncomplimentary, “It’s a fairly good melodrama, nothing more.” Hawks pulls off more than melodrama in this film, though, as Papa’s character grows throughout the film.
Even though Angels is a straight drama, Hawks still taps into Grants comic side. In the scene with Bonnie playing the piano, Geoff joins in the singing, with gusto. In the madcap comedy of Baby, Hawks manages to convey the gentlemanly side of Huxley as he seeks to protect Susan from the second, killer, leopard. As a side note, Cary Grant was so afraid of the leopard Nissa that a double was used in scenes where his character had to make contact with her, while Katerine Hepburn enjoyed petting her (classichollywood). Hawks’s work with Grant managed to bring out a fully rounded performance in both pictures.
Costuming aside, Both Only Angels Have Wings and Bringing Up Baby make use of one Hawks trademarks that works very well with Cary Grant: “the aggressive female who destroys a man’s composure” (TCM.com). In both pictures, Grant’s character starts off with a firm goal in mind, only to have his ordered world turned upside down by the appearance of a woman. Baby‘s Professor David Huxley seeks a million dollar donation for his museum, and Angels‘ Geoff Carter is fighting to run an airline in South America, flying dangerous routes over the Andes to keep the mail delivered on time. The introduction of a woman into the mix complicates the men’s lives. In Baby, the complications are intentional and comic; in Angels, the complications have the potential to be deadly and bring about the growth of Grant’s character. When Jean Arthur’s character Bonnie shows up, at first she has no intention of pursuing Geoff; however, as she sees him perform his job with honor, she falls for him and eventually breaks through Geoff’s hardened facade. When they all face tragedy together, Geoff finally accepts Bonnie’s place in his life, and the audience knows that he has grown.
Katharine Hepburn’s Susan Vance creates intentional chaos, desperate to prevent his marriage to Miss Alice Swallow. Almost from the moment she sees David, she begins to manipulate him. Grant holds tightly to his perceived dignity until near the end, when he realizes that Susan has been in control for quite some time. Resignedly, David tells Susan, “Well, if you’d planned it, you couldn’t have ruined my chances more completely. You told your Aunt I was crazy, didn’t you?…You told her my name was Bone and you didn’t tell me. You told her I was a big-game hunter and you didn’t tell me. You tell anybody anything that comes into your head and you don’t tell me.” At this point, the audience can see that David is giving in to Susan’s pursuit.
Howard Hawks knew how to capitalize on his actors’ strong points, whether it was to subvert expectations by presenting the suave Cary Grant as a dorky scientist or taking advantage of his acrobatic training for physical comedy in Bringing Up Baby. In Only Angels Have Wings, Hawks’s same ability to build on Grant’s strengths is obvious: This time, he leveraged Grant’s leading man cachet to lend gravity to his adventure tale.