Saturday, January 9, 2010

Nissa aka Baby


Nissa is the most famous leopard in film history, playing Baby and the escaped leopard she is mistaken for in the 1938 film Bringing Up Baby.





Nissa's home was Los Angeles' non-profit-making Zoopark, owned by the California Zoological Society, whose famous residents also included Jackie, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's trademark lion; Anna May, veteran jungle-film elephant; Lady, the whooping crane which danced with Shirley Temple in Captain January.

Baby was trained by Madame Olga Celeste who was always off camera with a whip in case of problems.

Katharine Hepburn was generally fearless around Nissa and even enjoyed petting Nissa. Nissa's trainer praised Katharine Hepburn, stating that Kate was fearless and could become an animal trainer if she so desired.




Nissa got on splendidly with Katharine Hepburn, but less well with other cast members. Kate Hepburn wore a perfume Nissa found attractive.




Katharine Hepburn had one very close call with Nissa. She was wearing a skirt that was lined with little metal pieces to make the skirt swing prettily. When Hepburn turned around abruptly, Nissa made a lunge for her back. Only the intervention of the trainer's whip saved Hepburn. Nissa was not allowed to roam around freely after that, and Hepburn was more careful around her from then on.





Cary Grant, on the other hand, was afraid of Nissa and a double was used in the scenes where his character and the leopard had to make contact.




Cary Grant was not fond of the leopard that was used in the film. Once, to torture him, Katharine Hepburn put a stuffed leopard through a vent in the top of his dressing room. "He was out of there like lightning," wrote Hepburn in her autobiography Me: Stories of My Life.





Blending shots of Nissa with those of the other cast members, who were filmed separately, called for trick photography that was groundbreaking in the 1930s. Bringing Up Baby employed a great deal of split screen and optical tricks, such as rear screen projection, so that having the big cat in close proximity to the actors could be kept to a minimum. Most of the split screens had a lot of movement in them, which meant the dividing line had to be moved around as well. Even the scenes of Susan (Katharine Hepburn) dragging the mean Leopard on a leash are split screened. A puppet Leopard was also used in some shots.

The puppet is most clearly seen in the shot after Susan gets the Leopard dragged into the jail. The reaction shot immediately afterwards, shows David (Cary Grant) and Aunt Elizabeth (May Robson) with "Baby" the Leopard on the table. The Leopard is a puppet.

The sound engineers also had their work cut out for them because Nissa's purr was far too loud for the microphones. They amplified the voice of the studio cat fourteen times, and used that as the tiger's pur instead.




After her one and only film, Nissa retired and kept a low profile after her film debut.

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