Olga Celeste and Her Leopards.

olga-celeste-and-leopard

Of the many striking things about Howard Hawks’ 1938 screwball classic Bringing Up Baby, one is how Katharine Hepburn relates with such comfortable familiarity to a leopard. You scratch your head and wonder how it could be. Many leopard scenes in the film are “cheated” one way or another (the production-savvy eye can detect those scenes when the leopard only seems to be with Hepburn or Cary Grant, through the magic of rear-projection or split-screen), but in some parts of the movie, it’s absolutely clear there really is a leopard walking free around Katharine Hepburn! And she really is making contact with it, and appears utterly relaxed! (There are no such fakery-free scenes involving the leopard and Cary Grant, who obviously had a healthy fear of the beast.)

Just off-camera was Olga Celeste, Swedish-born (1888) leopard trainer who had a career in vaudeville, and then performing daily at the Luna Park Zoo in Los Angeles from 1925-1931. She specialized in leopards, leaving other big cats to others. When the movies needed a leopard, she was the go-to gal. After Bringing Up Baby, she did the chores on Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1946) with Johnny Weissmuller.

Baby actually has two entirely separate leopard “characters” in it, one gentle and one mean. (And of course an attendant mistaken identity in the plot.) I suspect they are the same leopard, with Celeste coaxing cuddliness or ferociousness out of the beast as needed for the part, but I can’t confirm this.

Bringing Up Baby is worth a look on DVD for another reason: the commentary track by Peter Bogdanovich. The younger director was in awe of Hawks, and during the course of the film shares many illuminating conversations he had with him about it, relaying Hawks’ words in an amusing approximation of the master director’s voice. For a good, and pretty thorough, essay on the film, check out this entry at moviediva.com.

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12 Comments on “Olga Celeste and Her Leopards.”

  1. Angie says:

    Ted…Katharine, NOT Katherine!

  2. Ted Naron says:

    Thanks!

  3. A Parks says:

    Thanks for the great information… I just love ‘Bringing Up Baby’ .. but how did they stage the ‘fight’ scene between the leopard and the dog?

  4. Ted Naron says:

    That’s a good question, A Parks. In fact, it’s a question Peter Bogdanovich asks in his DVD commentary–something along the lines of “How in the hell did they get them to do that?” If Bogdanovich, a director himself who has had to solve more than a few filmmaking problems in his day, marvels in wonderment at it, I guess that’s all the rest of us can do, too.

  5. Eva Neroth says:

    Hello Ted!
    Olga Celeste was in fact my great grandmothers youngest sister… she was born in Lund, Sweden 1888 not 1887. A truly remarkable woman!

    Sincerely, E. Neroth

    • Ted Naron says:

      That’s really cool, Eva!

      Thanks for the birthdate correction–I’ve revised the post accordingly.

      Ted

    • candy says:

      Hello, Can I ask what your name is. My mothers father was a Holmstrom from Sweden and was a cousin of Olga. My mother has a leopard hand warmer (hand made from one of Olga’s cat’s after it died) from Olga. My mother’s middle name is Ogla, named after her. Thanks

  6. Lou Jamison says:

    My Grandparents were friends of Miss Celeste and I have a lovely candid photo of her with ‘Olga” her leopard. Also, my grandmother did a portrait of Olga and Olga that is spectacular.

  7. On account of my dad’s friendship with Olga, and working with her on Bringing Up Baby, I was lucky enough to visit her home, once. I have a nice picture of her posing on a post in a leather jacket and trainers’ clothes, and one of her in her home in an evening gown cutting a cake with two other people. There is, of course, a stuffed leopard head behind her. I enjoyed talking with her the day I visited.

  8. […] Cary Grant chase all through in the film was an eight-year-old female named Nissa. The trainer Olga Celeste had perfume rubbed onto Miss Hepburn’s leg that would make Nissa more playful. They also put […]


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