Psychoanalysis in Bringing up Baby and Vertigo

Returning to Freud

by Ben Dooley Volume 9, Issue 7 / July 2005 14 minutes (3457 words)

Sigmund Freud writes of three stages of psycho-sexual development, the first two being the oral and anal stages, while the third, related to the genitals, happens between the ages of four and six or seven and is called the phallic or Oedipal period. Freud argues that at this stage a fundamental difference between the formation of the unconscious mind of men and women comes about as a result of the physical existence of the penis. In the unconscious mind language and conscious thought are unknown. Sexual instincts in the unconscious need to find expression in the pre-conscious mind if they are to be realised, however, and one of the means by which the unconscious achieves this is through the borrowing of symbols from the pre-conscious mind that resemble simple, primitive notions. For Freud, as Christopher Badcock summarises, the unconscious mind represents, “the whole complex issue of male sexuality with one straightforward term: the physical reality of the penis” (Badcock, p. 95). As women do not have a penis the female unconscious mind is said to feel a sense of lack and jealousy of the male, this jealousy Freud calls ‘penis envy.’ Freud’s differentiation here of an innate difference between men and women is not to be taken as a model of the way the world should be, but is nevertheless intended literally, not metaphorically, as a reflection of the formation of the unconscious mind in the Oedipal period. Both Howard Hawks’ Bringing up Baby (1938) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) are films that agree with this still-controversial theory. In Bringing up Baby the professor David (Cary Grant) spends the majority of the film searching for a bone, an obviously phallic symbol. Susan (Katharine Hepburn), on the other hand is closely identified with her aunt’s leopard, Baby, that eats everything it sees – car seats, chickens and Steak. The threat that Baby could eat George, who is the only possibility of David’s finding his bone, clearly makes Baby on one level representative of the fear David has of Susan, the fear of what Freud calls the ‘vagina dentata.’ The ‘vagina dentata,’ meaning ‘vagina with teeth’ is the threat of castration that women are seen to pose men, as a result of the woman’s ‘penis envy.’ In Vertigo the tower from which Madeleine/Judy falls to her death is clearly a phallic symbol – Scottie then counters his feelings of castration, as he has found out that Madeleine was being controlled by Gavin, by strongly physically asserting phallic dominance, pulling Judy up the tower. While these films both agree with the notion that men identify with the phallus (Vertigo more than Bringing up Baby) neither of them takes this as any kind of ‘proof’ that men have an innate right to power in society. On the contrary both films use this need for identification with the phallus to undercut various preconceived notions about gender relations.

In Bringing up Baby Aunt Elizabeth’s house suggests a possible matriarchal order that could oppose the patriarchal order found in the museum. This is made immediately apparent as the first item of clothing David is able to find after his shower is Susan’s dressing gown, suggesting that in this house David will be forced to recognise those elements of his character that might be called ‘female’ rather than ‘male.’ David will also be forced to recognise that his masculine ‘rational’ pursuit of truth is limited. This can be seen as David searches for his bone, performing the role of the archaeologist. In doing this David must recognise that the bones that he as a zoologist analyses and categorises existed before scientists defined them – they were in the ground before they were in his museum. The image of David posed in the position of Rodin’s Thinker at the start of the film is then being challenged by a critique of the impossibility of a metaphysics of reason. While the binary opposition of men as ‘rational’ and women as ‘irrational’ might be seen as to some degree upheld in Bringing up Baby it is then also being contested. Forced to search the ground for his bone David, for example, is made to see that the ‘real’ world cannot be fully understood, just as the events that happen to him seem to make no sense. With the bone as a phallic symbol, David’s identification with the ‘rational’ role of the professor is gradually relativised, as is any sense that the phallic symbol could represent the importance of upholding the patriarchal order.

In fact the sexual innuendo of the bone as a phallic symbol is so obvious that it seems also to be being used as an at least half-ironic mocking of Freud’s insistence on a literal male identification with the penis, which by 1938 had suffered much criticism. Indeed Bringing up Baby makes various jokes aimed at undermining the status of psychoanalysis in society, such as the inclusion of a psychiatrist whose twitching eye makes him appear strange. Likewise when Susan is given an instant diagnosis of David as having a “fixation” on her, she remembers this incorrectly, telling David that “you’re a fixation.” This is clearly making a mockery of the ways in which Freud’s theories are often used incorrectly in popular culture (not least in the cinema, on which Freud has commented.) This scene also shows us the way that people often use psychoanalysis merely as a way of making their own biased opinions appear to be based on scientific ‘proof,’ seen as Susan gives the psychiatrist evidence that would obviously lead him to suspect that David is in love with her. Hawks’ mocking of the psychiatrist, whose car is stolen twice, clearly also suggests a certain amount of distrust in any intellectual institution that might be considered to understand all of society. This can also be seen as David utilises the pre-Freudian notion that mental illness was something that was only possible in women. This notion, that Freud repudiated, labelled mental illness Hysteria, meaning an illness of the womb. David is seen to have picked up on this notion and assumes it to be correct, telling Susan as they realise Baby has escaped, “Now don’t get hysterical.” David can be seen as unnecessarily suppressing Susan, believing that she is incapable of looking after herself as a result of her being a woman and as such we see that the authority conferred on male professionals has direct effects on the real world. As such we can see that one element of the patriarchal order that does not escape Hawks’ critique is the field of psychoanalytic thought.

Susan at least metaphorically castrates David as she forces him to wear women’s clothes, yet the second item of clothing that he wears in Aunt Elizabeth’s house will not suit him either, despite its conforming to a ‘male identity.’ Susan’s brother’s hunting uniform conforms to a different ‘male identity’ to that of the professor, as rather than opposing male as ‘rational’ and female as ‘irrational’ it creates the opposition of male as ‘active’ and female as ‘passive.’ None of the other on-screen male characters in Bringing up Baby, however, is actually able to convincingly perform this ‘active’ male role. Major Applegate the explorer, for example, claims to have hunted leopards but cannot tell the difference between the cry of a leopard and that of a loon. The very fact that Susan’s brother remains off-screen allows us to see that even if there is a true ‘male identity’ it is in its nature elusive and has very little worth in the real world, just as the brother has very little effect on the narrative. This ‘active’ male identity also collides with David’s ‘rational’ male identity, as we have seen that it is through the role of ‘hunting’ for the bone that David’s notion of himself as entirely ‘rational’ is broken apart.

Another binary opposition of men and women is that of men representing the ‘law,’ while women represent ‘nature.’ As Constable Slocum wrongly arrests David he puts David in the supposedly ‘female’ position as an element of ‘nature’ that must be tamed. This scene could be related to an earlier scene, where David sees Baby for the first time, in Susan’s bathroom, and slams the door on him. David does this because he sees Baby, for him an extension of Susan, threatening his own castration. In the jail, however, David is put into the position of being the supposed threat of castration to Slocum’s ‘law,’ but knows that he is not, and so is shown that the threat of castration is only an illusion in men’s minds. Indeed Hawks has constructed the jail cells so that they surround Constable Slocum, making these “dangerous criminal[s]” seem to be for him a representation of his own brain and his repressed desires to transgress the patriarchal law. Susan labels herself as ‘Swinging Door Susan’ tricking her way out of the jail cell, and so suggests the possibility of human nature being allowed freedom from this social repression. Even as David does to some extent ‘tame nature’ by forcing the dangerous leopard into a cell we are made aware that this is only a performance of ‘male identity’: holding a chair up to the leopard he appears more like a lion-tamer in a circus than a ‘big game hunter.’ In Bringing up Baby multiple elements of what would be supposed to be a fixed ‘male identity’ – as rational, active, and lawfully taming nature – are brought into conflict with one another, each one relativising the other’s supposedly innate ‘maleness.’ While Susan gives David his bone at the end of the film this can hardly be seen as an assertion of the importance of the dominance of men in society. Freud argues that in the Oedipal period men are threatened by their father with castration to ensure that they do not enact the incestuous desires they have on their mother. As a result of this men are said to identify with their fathers, imagining that their father’s penis is their own. This suggests that male identification with the penis is also an identification with the past, the order of society that was ruled by their ‘forefathers.’ In Bringing up Baby the history museum can be considered for David to be an identification with the father and the skeleton of the dinosaur represents the past that must be changed in some way for the sake of a new future that would include women into this order. Mrs Swallow shows us the danger involved in not recognising this at the start of the film as she tells David that “This will be our child.” Indeed Mrs Swallow’s name “suggests – the devouring of another human being, just as Jonah was swallowed by that huge fish” (Mast, Howard Hawks, Storyteller, p. 140.) Susan on the other hand hardly settles the whole situation as she clambers over the dinosaur making it fall to the ground, which suggests that she may destroy all sense of order. Nevertheless as David and Susan are settled on the scaffolding at the end, the film is clearly intended to offer the possibility of a new way of seeing the world. They are perhaps like Adam and Eve in a bower and Eve in the figure of Susan is the one in control this time, telling David, who cannot get a word in edgeways that, “You do love me! Oh, David!”

The ending of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is far darker than that of Bringing up Baby because Hitchcock wants his audience to leave the cinema aware that there are real problems in gender relations that cannot be settled with a ‘happy ending.’ In the credit sequence of Vertigo there is a direct reference to a scene in Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou where a woman’s eye is sliced. This effect in Hitchcock’s film is created by the word ‘??Vertigo??’ and then by the credit ‘Directed by Alfred Hitchcock,’ both of which come out of a woman’s eye. This image offers multiple possible interpretations. Firstly, as in Buñuel’s film, the image suggests two forms of sadism that will be operated by the director, one of ‘cutting’ the gaze of his supposedly ‘bourgeois’ audience, and another of the male ‘cutting’ the female gaze, as it is a woman’s eye that is cut. The horizontal line created by these words is also suggestive of the equilibrium offered by ‘bourgeois’ classical Hollywood cinema where equilibrium at the start of a film becomes disrupted, yet by the end of the film a second equilibrium, that would put the audience at ease again, is formed. The feeling of equilibrium offered in Hollywood cinema can have the effect of upholding claims to an ‘objective’ worldview offered by the dominant order because if the cinema audience is told that society is unchanging then they may be tempted to accept whatever society tells them to accept. We see this image of equilibrium again as the first shot after the credit sequence is a horizontal image of the rung of a ladder. The scene progresses to show that the diagonal lines of the rooftops offer the threat of a vertical drop, which the scene closes on as a policeman falls to his death. This first scene is a microcosm of the whole film, in which the angles of all the roads suggest this threat of falling and the death of Judy challenges the false image of equilibrium in Hollywood cinema as no reflection of life, which instead entails in its nature the threat of a vertical drop.

The threat of falling at the start of the film leading to Scottie’s ‘acrophobia’ can be seen as metaphorical for male ‘castration anxiety’. We can see that Scottie is suffering from castration anxiety as he recognises that he has been made effeminate by the fall, asking Midge, “Do you suppose many men wear corsets?” Scottie does not, however, recognise that he is suffering from castration anxiety and believes that his illness can be cured. As the film progresses he attempts to counter the downward threat of ‘falling’ specifically through upward motion, seen for example as he stands on top of a chair. This belief that upward motion will counter the downward ‘falling’ and create equilibrium becomes the flawed and we could say ‘phallic’ logic of the entire film. The emphasis on ‘phallic’ dominance is most evident in the scene where Scottie and Madeleine see the sequoia sempervirens – Madeleine is right to distrust these phallic symbols, indeed her death becomes the result of the thought processes of a man who identifies with the phallus. The generally considered ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’ notion of maintaining equilibrium is shown up to be within a patriarchal society complicit with sadism against women. While throughout the film Hitchcock (through Gavin Elster) directs Scottie to fetishise the image of Madeleine, he shows us that this is a false image and so breaks the sense of equilibrium. This is achieved halfway through the film as we find out that Scottie is being set up and at the end, in Judy’s death.

Gavin Elster, as a surrogate for the director, tricks Scottie, just as Hitchcock tricks the audience, through appealing to his identification with the phallus. In directing Madeleine to fall into San Francisco Bay, Elster re-enacts for Scottie the equation of the downward fall with castration that he felt as he nearly fell from a rooftop at the start of the film. The upward motion that Scottie must take to lift Madeleine out of the Bay appeals to his (and a male audience member’s) identification with the phallus. The narrative Gavin Elster constructs for Scottie while they are in his office seems at first to be undercut by the fact that he is surrounded by images of boats and water. Freud suggests that libidinal feelings exist from birth and may even exist before birth. Badcock states that Freud sees that the “‘oceanic feelings’ of mystical unity with nature” (Badcock, p. 70) reported by many writers suggest this, as these feelings may be memories of actual sensations felt by the human foetus suspended in water, while inside the womb. Hitchcock extends this notion to link woman to Lacan’s notion of the Real, that would go beyond the Symbolic order. The pictures in Gavin Elster’s office could be seen then as showing us that the male identification with the phallus is a construct – the images of water remind us that the Gavin’s business is in reality owned by his wife and her family. Robert Samuels argues that Hitchcock is more complex than this, however and is rather criticising Lacan’s equation of the “female form with the Real that cannot be symbolised” (Samuels, p. 287). The person we believe to be Elster’s wife turns out to have been only part of a narrative intended to trick Scottie (and the audience.) While images of water run throughout the film and seem to relate Madeleine to some eternal meaning – she jumps into San Francisco Bay and she and Scottie kiss while a wave crashes behind them – they turn out to be part of a narrative that has been constructed by Elster.

As in Bringing up Baby there is a certain amount of ambivalence in Vertigo about the power of psychoanalysis itself as an institution seen to be capable of understanding the human mind. Freud’s theory of the unconscious had been a means of freeing people from the categorisation of being innately ‘mad,’ as we are seen to all have unsavoury desires in unconscious mind and that madness may be cured. It could, however, be argued that as Freud’s notions became popularised any kind of irrational or unexplainable behaviour in a person became open to being rationalised by assuming it to be a result of unconscious desires. We can see that this is being criticised in Vertigo as the Livery Stable in which Madeleine claims to have played in as a child is a means by which Elster knows that he can trick Scottie. In his office Elster likewise stands in front of an open doorway that leads to a second room and at Ernie’s the partition between where Scottie is sitting and where Elster and Madeleine are sitting makes two rooms appear to be one. In both examples we, like Scottie, are made to imagine that there is an easy sliding between the conscious and unconscious mind. In both of these examples Hitchcock undercuts his own narrative, however, allowing his viewer the possibility of discovering cracks in the text. In the office as Elster stands in front of the doorway, we could discover that the unconscious Scottie will be exploring is in reality that of Elster’s rather than Madeleine’s. In the restaurant there is a third room through a doorway in which we can see very little, suggesting that the unconscious is far more hidden away than Scottie would like to believe. While Scottie may partly believe Madeleine to be possessed, rather than mentally ill, he attempts to rescue her through a psychoanalytic process. He says, for example, that taking her to the church at San Juan Baptista will “make your dream go away,” as it would make her confront the unconscious thoughts he believes she has repressed. As such when Scottie replies to Madeleine’s, “If I was mad that would explain it” that “You’re not mad – Nobody possesses you,” he shows his rationalist desire to control any possibility of ‘irrationality’ or ‘madness’ by curing it. While Scottie believes that a psychoanalytic process will allow him to stop Madeleine from being possessed, he does not realise that in the process it is he who possesses her. As in Bringing up Baby then we are shown that the desire for a sense of equilibrium can be dangerous for women in a male-dominated society and that psychoanalysis itself threatens the possibility of becoming tied into this.


Allen, Richard and S. Ishii-Gonzalès (Ed.) Alfred Hitchcock Centenary Essays, BFI: London, 1999.

Badcock, Christopher. Essential Freud, Basil Blackwell: Oxford, 1988.

Corber, Robert J. In the Name of National Security, Duke University Press: London, 1993.

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams, Wordsworth Classics: Hertfordshire, 1997.

Hillier, Jim and Peter Wollen, (Eds.), Howard Hawks, American Artist, London: BFI Publishing, 1996.

Kaplan, E. Ann (Ed.) Feminism and Film, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2000.

Mast, Gerald (Ed.) Bringing up Baby, Rutgers: USA, 1994.

Mast, Gerald. Howard Hawks, Storyteller, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1982.

Modleski, Tania. The Women Who Knew Too Much, Routledge: New York, 1989.

Willis, Donald C. The Films of Howard Hawks, Scarecrow Press: New Jersey, 1975.

Ben Dooley has a First Class Degree in Film and Literature from the University of Essex and is currently taking a Masters in Film and Visual Media at Birkbeck, University of London. His undergraduate dissertation was on Jim Jarmusch. He also has specific interest in the auteurs of ‘Golden Age’ Hollywood: John Ford, Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk, Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock, as well as the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Volume 9, Issue 7 / July 2005 Essays   alfred hitchcock   bringing up baby   film theory   film_theory   freud   freudian   howard hawks   psychoanalysis   vertigo