Written by: Rosalie Kicks
My weekends and summers during my formative years were spent slinging produce on the flea market circuit. This lifestyle, unfortunately, didn’t lend much time for movie watching. However, I managed to discover some flicks, thanks to my rather eccentric Uncle Weazel. He is the one who introduced me to Nikki Finn.
Madonna plays the free spirited main character, Nikki Finn in James Foley’s Who’s That Girl. My 1989 viewing of this movie led to my obsession with not only animal co-stars, but stories featuring zany characters played by women. In Who’s That Girl, straight-laced attorney, Loudon Trott (Griffin Dunne) agrees to transport the freshly-released from prison Nikki Finn to a bus station. The story follows the duo as they gallivant through New York City with a jungle cat named Murray in tow. Of course, chaos and mayhem ensues.
My VHS copy of Who’s That Girl was on heavy rotation. Due to my hectic work schedule as a kid, it was hard to find time for movies. On the occasion I could watch a flick, I turned to ones I was familiar with as they provided comfort. It felt like hanging out with a dear friend.
It wasn’t until college that I had downtime and was able to explore the magical world of cinema. I found the classics and accumulated a rather exorbitant amount of dead guy crushes. I discovered there was more than one comedy about a quirky lady with a jungle cat. In Howard Hawks’ 1938 Bringing Up Baby, Cary Grant plays David, a paleontologist who has a run-in with a well-off screwball named Susan (Katharine Hepburn) and her pet leopard, Baby.
I immediately noticed the similarities to Who’s That Girl: outlandish characters, crazy costumes, and free-wheeling cats from the tropics. There may be slight differences in the plots, but one thing is clear: the stories are dominated by a strong female presence.
Nikki Finn is the reason you watch Who’s That Girl. When the flick opens, we are shown an animated back-story of Madonna’s character to prepare us for what lies ahead; a cartoon-like portrayal, much like the performance Katharine Hepburn delivers as Susan in Bringing Up Baby. The two ladies come across as animated, madcap characters, a cross between Lucille Ball and Betty Boop.
Attire is used to signify who these women are. The costumes are part of their personality. In Who’s That Girl, Nikki’s ensemble portrays her loud and tough-as-nails attitude. According to IMDB, Madonna felt Nikki was reminiscent of the characters portrayed by screwball comedy actresses of the past, such as Carole Lombard and Judy Holliday. Therefore, much of the inspiration for Nikki’s off-the-wall personality and flashy wardrobe, consisting of poofy tulle skirts, pays homage to those classic starlets. Similarly, when looking at Bringing Up Baby, Susan’s kooky outfits add to her bold persona.The use of color does not play a role in Bringing Up Baby, which is shot in black and white. However, I imagine Susan would be sporting the same fire engine red lipstick as Nikki if Bringing Up Baby had been shot in color since it suits their brash dispositions.
Nikki and Susan not only push the story forward, but they are the story. The dudes are merely in the background to the Nikki and Susan show. Unsurprisingly, both narratives contain the Hollywood love story formula. Girl meets guy and ta-da, they fall in love despite their differences. The only downside in Who’s That Girl is the love story. I don’t buy Nikki sticking with Loudon. Now, David and Susan, I totally get. For one, David is played by Cary Grant. Second, he is a nerdy scientist who researches dinosaurs (!!!). Loudon, on the other hand, is a tax attorney who belongs to a country club…excuse me while I take a very long nap. There is very rarely a time that I don’t want to see Katharine Hepburn end up with Cary Grant. Their chemistry together is such a thrill to watch, while the Madonna and Griffin duo is more like a hero and sidekick relationship.
If love stories are not your thing, no need to fret. This part of the plot plays second fiddle to the rest of the narrative. You’ll find these two ladies aren’t just a couple of pretty faces, they have brains too and are determined to get what they want. Along with all of this, you have the other stars of the films: the furry felines. If you listen to the podcast, Pet Cinematary you’ll learn that animals in a movie increase the likeability ten-fold.
I recommend watching both movies as a double feature. The experience of watching Bringing Up Baby first helps you appreciate Who’s That Girl even more. I’d like to believe director James Foley was influenced by Hawks’ work. For those that haven’t dabbled in classic film watching, Bringing Up Baby is a great one to start with.