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- This article first appeared in the September 2021 issue of Sight and Sound.
David Huxley, palaeontologist, is poised high up on the scaffolding that supports his precious brontosaurus. The socially awkward scientist is played of course by a bespectacled Cary Grant in Howard Hawks’s Bringing up Baby (1938). The hippy dippy heiress Susan (Katharine Hepburn) rushes headlong into the cavernous space with some good news for her beloved. As she climbs up the ladder, David is stricken with dread and fear, especially when she reassures him, “Everything’s going to be all right.” “Every time you say that, something happens,” he whimpers. Which it then does. She has no sooner told him that her aunt’s money for his museum will be forthcoming than her ladder begins to teeter, then sway wildly.
When I first came to Hawks, the common view was his comedies were brilliant but weak on endings. Certainly there were no passionate clinches, no promises of a happily ever after, no resolution. Instead there was more likely to be a great exhalation, a moment of exhaustion and resignation, before resumption of the battle of the sexes by means fair and foul. Sexual antagonism was as much the food of love as attraction; in fact, in Hawks telling, the screwball couple was never more in love than when hating each other with unbridled passion. Even in his terror, Grant has an epiphany about the chaotic 24 hours that have brought him to this impasse.
“I just discovered that was the best day I ever had in my whole life.” No sooner said, than things go further awry: the ladder goes one way, Susan another, even as she is pledging her love, asking for his. He grabs her arms, holds her poised over space as the brontosaurus implodes. “Ohh-h-h,” he moans, watching his life work disintegrate. “I love you… I guess.”
Now those up-in-the-air truces, hanging over the crumbling carcass of the Hollywood happy ending, seem fresher and more modern than all the blissful unions of traditional love stories. The irresolution speaks to a different view of love and marriage: longer lifespans, shifting identities, temporary rather than ‘eternal’ commitments, a less restricted view of women’s roles. The energy unleashed in the Hawksian perpetual motion machine has much to do with gender twists.
Conditions favourable to the Hawks dynamic were created when, after 1934, any direct expression of sexuality was prohibited, thanks to stricter policing of morals by Hays Office. Hence the sublimation of desire into dialogue and physical sparring, activities in which women could excel no less than men. For Hawks’s tomboyish women, the notion of domesticity and children is nowhere on the horizon. In the resistance to conventional femininity there are echoes of Restoration and Shakespearean comedy.
Essentially, one or both members of the couple must be shaken out of some misguided or conventional notion of their lives and introduced to a freer more uncertain, existential sense of identity.
In Ball of Fire (1941), Gary Cooper’s stuffy professor and Barbara Stanwyck’s gangster’s moll learn each other’s language. Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940) thinks she wants to be a little wifey, living in Buffalo, married to a conventional husband who will treat her like a lady. (“What do I treat you as,” asks Cary Grant’s editor, “a water buffalo?”) Actually he treats her worse than a water buffalo, but she holds her own against his ruthlessness (and provides a dimension of human decency), and we know from the body language of those fast and furious early scenes of sparring, that they clearly belong together. When Hildy breaks down and cries toward the end, it’s not a sign of “feminine weakness”. The poor woman has been pulled this way and that, has rescued a man from hanging, written the story, and then after thinking Walter was doing everything he could to keep her at the paper he now wants her to go to Albany with Bruce. When she realises he’s up to yet another trick to keep her, she collapses with exhaustion and relief. Their remarriage will be one long honeymoon interruptus, but they’ll never get bored. After all, any old woman can be a wife, but few can be the “best newspaperman” at the Morning Post. In Twentieth Century (1934), John Barrymore’s Svengali and Carole Lombard’s lingerie model turned actress go mostly toe to toe (sometimes literally) for seven or eight rounds until a stalemate finds them both doing what they are designed to do, even when pretending otherwise: acting and fighting.
As with Susan and David, fighting is not only a substitute for a declaration of marital love, it’s a promise for the future: perpetual motion rather than stasis, anything can happen. Instead of the blissful denouement of most film romances, a lifetime (if they’re lucky) of ongoing digs and insults and one-upmanship. Readiness is all. For the Hawksian couple, avoidance of boredom is not a negative virtue but a consummation devoutly to be wished. And fought for and fought for…