The Lady Behind The Leopard: Bringing Up Baby’s Unseen Star

Olga Celeste on set with Neissa. Photo courtesy of Click magazine, 1938.
Olga Celeste on set with Neissa. Photo courtesy of Click magazine, 1938.

Seventy-eight Februarys ago (that’s 1938, if you struggle with math!) Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant were lighting up the silver screen with funny situations in their second movie together, Bringing Up Baby.

bringing up baby movie poster

They shared the comedic spotlight in this movie with two more co-stars – non-traditional sidekicks that were a bit out of the ordinary even for Hollywood standards…

Olga Celeste and her leopard Neissa. Photo courtesy of Click Magazine, February 1938.
Olga Celeste and her leopard Neissa. Photo courtesy of Click Magazine, February 1938.

Meet Olga Celeste, an early Hollywood animal trainer and her favorite Indian leopard Neissa.  Olga was born in Sweden in the late 1880s and began working with animals at the age of 11. By 1938, she had taken her talent all the way to Burbank, California where she held court as the only female leopard trainer in the world.

Ms. Jeannie loves this photo below – you can see Olga’s excitement in working with her students.

Olga at work. Photo curtesy of Click Magazine 1938
Olga at work. Photo curtesy of Click Magazine 1938

Part of the Vaudeville circuit, she was also an actress and stunt double but her true passion lied in leopards. Using the art of conversation, rather than physical brut power, Olga trained her leopards by talking to them, using the power of her confident personality to gain control of the cats instead of using fear tactics and force.

The 1920's Luna Park Zoo brochure which features Olga on the very far right. Brochure photograph courtesy of lincolnheightsla.com
The 1920’s Luna Park Zoo brochure which features Olga on the very far right. Brochure photograph courtesy of lincolnheightsla.com

Employed by the Luna Park Zoo in Los Angeles, Olga worked with and trained a handful of leopards but her favorite was Neissa, whom she considered nothing more than a large house cat. Because Neissa was such a joy to have around, Olga often took her home with her after a long day on the set. Like any person passionate about their profession, Olga’s home reflected her life with leopards in both the decor and the wall art, which was made up of signed photographs of all the actors she had worked with in Hollywood.

At home with Neissa.
At home with Neissa. Photo courtesy of Click Magazine, February 1938.

Sweet and docile for the most part Neissa did have a precocious side. As a lover of perfume (like all pretty ladies!) Neissa was soothed, comforted and drawn to anything that smelled fragrant, so Olga used perfume as her main training technique.

In Bringing Up Baby, the very first scene shot for the movie featured Katharine Hepburn walking around her bedroom and talking on the phone wearing a gorgeous floating dressing gown.

True professionals...Neissa and Katharine in action.
True professionals…Neissa and Katharine in action.

Perfume was sprinkled on the cloth near Katharine’s knee so that Neissa in the scene would rub up against Katharine’s leg in affectionate greeting.

“I must add that I didn’t have enough brains to be scared, so I did a lot of scenes with the leopard just roaming around.” – Katharine Hepburn, on interacting with her feline co-star

Neissa’s character, Baby, was portrayed as a sweet and affectionate cat with a touch of wild precociousness. Like her real-life self, Neissa was also sweet and affectionate and wildly precocious.

Promotional still for Bringing Up Baby featuring Katharine and Neissa.
Promotional still for Bringing Up Baby featuring Katharine and Neissa.

Katharine worked with Neissa at ease up until the point the innocent clinking of wardrobe weights on one particular skirt irritated Neissa so much so that she spontaneously lunged for Katharine’s hemline. Luckily Olga stepped in at just the right moment before anything unfortunate happened but it did cause fearless Kate to readjust her casual relationship with Neissa.

Olga, always quick on her feet had the strength and ability to lift up to 200 pounds, so she was capable of protecting all actors on-set should something go awry but Cary Grant wasn’t reassured by Olga’s presence just off-camera. He was so terrified of Neissa that the director Howard Hawkes had to come up with creative shots so that Cary and Neissa never actually acted together in any one scene.

This was one of the scenes that had to be patched together so that Neissa and Cary Grant didn't have to act together.
This was one of the scenes that had to be patched together so that Neissa and Cary Grant didn’t have to be in the car at the same time together.

Olga understood that leopards weren’t for everyone but hoped through training demonstrations and film performances that people would come to understand how truly intelligent and extraordinary these exotic creatures were. Working well into her 60’s, Olga’s last film with her leopards was the 1950’s blockbuster The Ten Commandments, but a lover never truly stops loving, so she continued to stay engaged,  interested and informed with all matters animal throughout her retirement.   After more than seven decades in the film and animal training industries, Olga passed away at the age of 81 in Burbank.

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Olga and Neissa, pals for life. Photo courtesy of Click Magazine. February 1938.

Olga is a fantastic role model for the month of February… this follow-your-heart time of year that is synonymous with love, passion, romance and taking chances.  Olga made a lifetime career out of pursuing her interests, living fearlessly and having fun in the process. She fell in love with leopards at a young age and managed to stretch that interest across two continents, eight decades, one wild kingdom and millions of people.

Although initially under-appreciated, Bringing Up Baby is now regarded as one of the best comedic movies of all-time and consistently lands on the ten best list of Katharine Hepburn’s greatest performances. If there was never an Olga, there would never have been a Neissa. And if there was never a Neissa there might never have been a comfortable Kate and if there was never a comfortable Kate there would never have been a successfully comedic Baby. And if there was never a Baby there would be a few less laughs in the world. And the thought of that dear readers is an absolute tragedy.

Cheers to Olga and to living life with a heart full of love!

clickmagazine

{A little side note: Photographs for this blog post came from a feature article in the debut issue of Click Magazine published in February 1938, which was recently for sale in Ms. Jeannie’s shop. As so happens sometimes with almost antique paper, this vintage magazine is starting to show signs of wear and tear so in order to preserve its contents Ms. Jeannie will be framing it behind glass and featuring it in an upcoming blog post on decorating. Stay tuned!}

6 thoughts on “The Lady Behind The Leopard: Bringing Up Baby’s Unseen Star

  1. Thank you for a very informative article. Watching the movie on TCM and got to wondering this is before CGI, so is that real leopard. Wow! sure enough it is and a great story behind the leopard as well. Thank you.

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    1. Thank you so much for stopping by the blog! So glad you liked the post. Yes, isn’t it amazing that all this work was done with Katharine and Cary and Neissa the leopard n real life (aka non-CGI land)?! I think everyone, cat and humans, were very brave:) And thankfully, Olga was a tremendous talent as a trainer. Cheers to that!

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  2. I cannot believe nobody has commented on the inappropriateness (if not even cruelty) of using wild animals this way, like in a circus. I thought wild animals have been banned in circuses of most developed countries, unlike in, say, Russia, where poor circus animals are kept in cages and are made to do stuff they are not meant to be doing! Wild animals belong in the wild and should not be subjected to this ‘training’ for the entertainment of people. Let Cary Grant and Hepburn can do that, for money and rewards. Also, I cannot believe that Olga (the trainer) did not use force training Neissa. Most trainers do and it’s simply awful. On the photo in the article where Olga is shown at work, can you see the rod, WITH AN ELECTRIC CORD (see attached at the end of the rod), she is holding?! Is this not force? Or is this meant for Olga herself? Looks like poor Neissa is well familiar with what the rod does. This is horrible!!! I have heard that, even when they used horses in old movies, they used some cruel trick to make them do stuff. Cannot remember what it was, but it sounded cruel. I am totally against using wild animals for circus-like performances. Again, they belong in the wild, not in people’s homes or cars, with trainers (with whips and rods) on stand by. I can understand all sorts of sanctuaries for injured animals, but not these taming with rods and whips for our entertainment. I could not watch this movie without feeling sorry, even outraged, by the treatment of the poor leopard. Leopards are majestic animals in the wild. In this film, it is made to look like a pitiful cat dragged on the rope, sniffing perfume on Katharine’s skirt (let Grant do that, if necessary) and being teased to make her growl etc. Ok, in the 30ies, it was sort of accepted, but I cannot believe there isn’t a single comment to this article now criticising the use of wild animals in such a way. Julia, Australia

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    1. Hello Julia! Thank you so much for stopping by to share your comments. Understandably so, no one wants to learn about (or watch) animals being mistreated. And you are absolutely right, exotic creatures have had a rough history in many circumstances in the past. But I can assure you, after doing weeks of research on Olga, she was one of the good ones. As an advocate for the humane treatment of all animals, she stood apart from the male-dominated industry of her day by choosing non-aggressive and non-cruel forms of training. Many other trainers thought she was crazy and that her approach was sure to be her death sentence, but Olga had a deep, inherent understanding of the behavior of large cats as well as a natural rapport and respect for them. She often rescued leopards from other trainers who were mistreating them and then re-trained them using only her voice and the natural affinities that leopards respond to – like the perfume. Because of their role in the film, both Olga and Neissa raised a lot of awareness about leopards in general during a time when the majority of the viewing audience would never have had the chance to see a live leopard in any other way. Olga did a lot of press surrounding the movie with her big cat,s including lectures and speaking engagements, to help promote awareness about what magnificent creatures they were. It was reported over and again how comfortable the leopards were with Olga, and as you know from the post, how they often lounged around her home like docile house cats on their days off. The Humane Association of the Treatment of Animals Protected Rights division wouldn’t become a mandatory sector of the film industry until 1939 – a year after Bringing Up Baby came out. Until then it was left up to the animal trainers to determine what was physically and ethically okay treatment for animals involved in the making of films, which was dicey depending on the mentality and the motivation of each animal trainer. But Olga loved her cats and was on the forefront of treating animals with kindness and dignity way before there was a special mandatory division established. Hope this helps shed a little more light on Olga and her leopards.

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