Olga Celeste and Her Leopards.Posted: April 20, 2009
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.