What’s in a RomCom?

by Jorge Sanchez

Bringing Up Baby - Wikipedia

Howard Hawk’s classic Bringing Up Baby is a prime example of the screwball comedy at the height of its popularity in the 1930s. It has quick dialogue, zany characters and an ultimately light hearted story filled with comedic moments. The story does however deal with the romance, albeit maybe one sided, between its two protagonists Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant. With elements of both comedy and romance, the next logical question would be to ask if Bringing Up Baby could be labeled as a RomCom? I’ll use this blog post to go over the narrative of the film, then using definitions of the narrative structure of RomComs  by Geoff King and Tamar Jeffers McDonald, try to identify the elements in Bringing Up Baby that mirror tropes of the modern RomCom. In doing so, I hope to paint Bringing Up Baby, not as a definitive RomCom, but as a precursor to what would become the modern version of the genre.

The story follows David Huxley (Grant), a mild mannered paleontologist looking to secure a million dollar donation for his museum from a woman who is giving away money. When going to play a golf game with the woman’s attorney, he runs into Susan Vance, a free spirited upper class woman who quickly falls in love with David. Unbeknownst to him, however, Susan is the niece of the older woman. She introduces to a leopard, drags him across state lines and the two get entangled in hijinks through a number of comedic situations. Throughout the movie, Susan tries to get her and David together, but he constantly tries to get rid of her and denies her advances. Eventually however, David tells Susan that he has enjoyed spending all that time with her and the film ends on a happy note.

Does it RomCom?

The film has elements of comedy, along with at least one character with a romantic motivations toward another character, so is that enough to call it a RomCom by today’s standards?  To answer this question, we will use the work of authors Geoff King and Tamar Jeffers McDonald to learn about the defining features of the narrative structure of the RomCom and how we can trace them to what we see in Bringing Up Baby. 

First we start with King, who in his book Film Comedy, mentions that the first element of the RomCom is that “romance is the main and foregrounded element of the narrative, rather than occupying a secondary position” and the romance portrayed in the film is “treated lightly, as a matter of comedy rather than of more ‘seriously’ dramatic or melodramatic relationships” (King, 51). Finally, he mentions that what separates the RomCom from other films involving romance, such as the melodrama, is that the film concludes with a happy ending. 

Next we turn to McDonald, author of the book Romantic Comedy, in which she offers a master definition of the RomCom genre. “The romantic comedy”, she says “is a film which has as its central narrative motor a quest for love, which portrays this quest in a lighthearted way”, and similar to what we have already seen, “…almost always to a successful conclusion” (MacDonald, 9). 

The RomCom Checklist

Taking both of these definitions into account, it seems clear that the narrative structure Bringing Up Baby follows these definitions. But can we do better? Is there a more comprehensive way that we can classify what we see in  Bringing Up Baby to what we would see in the modern RomCom? Well for that, we can return to McDonald, who has at the end of her book an appendix which includes common tropes found in romantic comedies. Out of the 10 tropes most commonly found in romantic comedies, we can identify 3 which are in Bringing Up Baby: Falling Over/Slapstick, The Adversarial relationship turning to love and the Meet Cute. Let’s take a look at how we see this developed within the narrative of the film.

McDonald defines the Meet Cute as the meeting where “… the lovers-to-be first encounter each other in a way which forecasts their eventual union” (MacDonald, 8). In Bringing Up Baby, Susan and David meet when they bump into each other while playing golf, and Susan ends up distracting David from his meeting with the attorney.

This plays into our next identified trope, which is the adversarial relationship turned to love. King states “The protagonists of romantic comedies are often established at the start as adversaries – either directly in conflict or as embodiments of different qualities, or both – whose differences are eventually reconciled”(King, 53). As we have noted, Susan and David continuously butt heads throughout the film, owing to their contrasting attitudes and the fact that they are carried by different motivations. 

Bring Up Baby, 1938 - Album on Imgur

Finally looking at the slapstick comedy trope, gags such as characters falling over, misdirections through a mixup of identities and exaggerations in dialogue are all used to get laughs out of the audience. This also serves to reinforce that the romance is presented in a light hearted manner, differentiating it from how romance is presented in melodramas.

After reviewing the materials, checking in with two separate definitions for the narrative structure of the RomCom genre, and trying to match common tropes with elements found in the film, can we definitively call Bringing Up Baby a RomCom? I think the answer is not as straightforward. While the narrative structure as described by King and McDonald for RomComs fits Bringing Up Baby, more than half the tropes usually found in romantic comedies are absent from Howard Hawks’s film. I think the film is better thought of as a precursor to the genre, a step in the right direction towards the development of the tropes associated with the modern RomCom.

Why 'Bringing Up Baby,' a secretly dirty movie about crazy people, is a  work of genius

Works Cited:

King, Geoff. Film Comedy. London: Wallflower Press, 2002. http://pi.lib.uchicago.edu/1001/cat/bib/8356632.

McDonald, Tamar Jeffers. Romantic Comedy: Boy Meets Girl Meets Genre. Vol. 34. Short Cuts. London: Wallflower, 2007. http://pi.lib.uchicago.edu/1001/cat/bib/6418002.

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