Cary Grant, whose
only outward nod to changes in styles and times was to allow his
immaculately combed hair to go from black to silver, evolved from
star to institution to legend, and finally, with nonchalant charm,
accepted his elevation to national treasure.
His retirement in 1966 after thirty-four years did nothing
to diminish his popularity; his renown increased even though he
remained off the screen for the remaining twenty years of his life
as resolutely as Greta Garbo, if not as reclusively.
Critics started to write about him in a way that, until
then, they had reserved for directors, stringing his films across
his chest like medals of honor.
Back in 1933, Mae West took one look at this new conscript to the
Paramount roster of leading men, and, preening like a peacock in
heat, invited the “tall, dark, and handsome”
twenty-nine-ear-old Brit to “C’mon up ‘n’ see me some
time.” After closer
inspection, she observed: “You can be had.”
Perhaps in the
two films for which he was cast as her leading man, She
Done Him Wrong (1933) and I’m
No Angel (1933), she was right, but in the wider sense her
assessment was way off the mark.
He couldn’t be had, but he was clever enough to create an
ideal that, forever after, let audiences think that he might be.
Once he hit his stride after success as the amoral Cockney
opposite Katharine Helpburn in Sylvia Scarlett (1935), moviegoers delighted in watching some of Hollywood’s most beautiful women try to ruffle his unflappable charm
before they succumbed to him.
In his most memorable films – especially in the three he
made with George Cukor, the five with Howard Hawks, the four with
Alfred Hitchcock, the four with Stanley Donen, the three with Leo
McCarey, and the three with George Stevens (a list every bit as
formidable as that of his leading ladies) – he rarely went after
the women. Three was
no need. They always
went after him.
There is a case
to be made that a part of Cary Grant’s astonishing attraction
for Americans lay in his embodiment of George Bernard Shaw’s
modern, civilized – and civilizing – male, a man whose
superior intellect and great common sense accepts that the most
sensible way to win the battle against an unreasoning but
overwhelming natural force – such as a woman’s drive to find a
mate – is to enlist her on his side.
Cary Grant’s man gives one the feeling that he offers a
woman the satisfaction of her senses and affections in return for
his peace. In American
movies, now as much as then (even if not in life), that is usually
all women want, and are more than happy to receive.
Like the perfect British gentleman that this once
poverty-stricken young British boy modeled his persona on, one
does not feel that love will interest Grant permanently, only that
he will give it a good try, and if that fails, he’ll do his best
not to let on. Curiously,
that was part of his charm.
films, without seeming to change, Cary Grant continually
re-thought and distilled his screen self until, at last, he was as
polished and flawless as a diamond, and possessed of all its
glittering facets. Grant
died late last year, aged eighty-two.
By then he had become the image of the man he had created.
AWFUL TRUTH (1937)
Director Leo McCarey’s farcical
masterpiece is based on the premise that “the road to
is paved with suspicion.” Jerry
(Cary Grant) returns home early from a trip to surprise his wife
(Irene Dunne), only to find that she isn’t there, and assumes,
when she finally arrives with an escort and wearing an evening
dress, that, like himself, she had been where she shouldn’t
This is the film
where a divorce is granted and the ninety days before the decree
becomes final are used to show how and why these two people fell
in love in the first place, and why there were meant for each
other. It’s wildly
sophisticated, madly romantic, and exquisitely funny.
UP BABY (1938)
Why is this the film everybody
loves? Because it has
such a great cast, Charles Ruggles, May Robson, Fritz Feld, as
well as the two stars, Grant and Katharine Hepburn; because it has
such a great director, Howard Hawks; and because it is the perfect
silly movie, with a plot predicated on a dog (another priceless
performance by Asta) burying zoology professor Grant’s dinosaur
bone. With Grant
stepping on screwball Hepburn’s dress in the country club, with
Cary in Kate’s peignoir, with both of them trying to lure the
escaped leopard back by singing “I Can’t Give You Anything But
Love, Baby” on a rooftop to the wrong leopard, its screwball
antics haven’t dated any. (Not
yet available on tape.)
Somewhere along the Indian frontier,
the Thugs, “the most fiendish band of killers that ever
existed,” have come back after fifty years, let by their
fanatical guru to “Kill lest they be killed; Kill for the love
of killing! Kill for
the love of Kali! Kill,
kill, kill!” and only the three musketeers of the British army,
sergeants Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., can
It’s a film
that ultimately raises an issue that it hadn’t even considered
for the preceding ninety minutes of action-packed derring-do –
namely, that the villains of the piece are “men who will die for
their faith and their country as readily as you” and the
“heroes” are their imperialist rulers.
Until then, the action, with Grant, the nimblest of the
three, leaping, rolling, bouncing, clubbing, fencing, shooting,
and punching, is inventive enough to stop audiences from more
This is the second of four
recognizable versions of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The
Front Page, and the one in which director Howard Hawks changes ace
reporter Hildy Johnson into a woman.
By inserting the war between the sexes into the already
turbulent relationship between editor Walter Burns and Johnson,
Hawks adds another twist to a film that has been acclaimed as the
fastest to come out of
sine the Keystone Kops. The
speed with which this brilliant script is delivered knocks the
hats off the players, with Grant and Rosalind Russell creating a
delightfully surprising variation of Laurel and Hardy.
Grant, facetiously twiddling his tie and fingers, is
ruthless and relentless as he bamboozles a deeply suspicious
Russell into yet “another fine mess.”
It’s the best newspaper film of all time, bar none.
Trying to take notes during a screening is like trying to
keep dry in a hailstorm.
Co-starring Joan Fontaine, who won
an Oscar for believing the ending, the film, set in Hollywood’s idea of English country homes, was directed by Alfred
we aren’t being scared for Miss Fontaine, who becomes
progressively more certain her charming, unemployed husband is out
to murder her, we’re admiring the forties charm and style we
attribute to that “Masterpiece Theatre” world.
Yet in this film,
made when Grant was riding the crest of popularity, he uses his
tennis-playing playboy charm to prey on a sedate young woman,
marry her for her money, and then cold-bloodedly murder her –
without even a plea of insanity.
Of course, there was no way that such an ending, with all
its risks to star image, could stand; an implausibly happy
one-minute “I must have dreamed it all” sequence was tacked
on, and Grant’s persona remained intact, to charm again another
Along with Casablanca and Gilda, this film keeps the eighties nostalgic about the
forties. It’s Miami, April 24, 1946; Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is giving a
party. Her father’s
just been condemned in the court as a Nazi war criminal.
The last guest to leave is an uninvited stranger.
Even in her cups she notes, “You’re quite a boy.”
The boy is Devlin (Grant), a government agent sent to
recruit her into using her father’s connections to infiltrate a
nest of Nazi agents in Rio. In Alfred
Hitchcock’s world, lovers meet by trying to use each other.
It’s one of Hitch’s best and Ted Tetzlaff’s
black-and-white photography has a shellacked brilliance that makes
it impossible to imagine this brooding masterpiece of love and
pain, and the pain of love, any other way.
BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE (1948)
A middle-class couple (Grant and
Myrna Loy) looking to exchange over-crowded Manhattan’s crush
for the idyllic” suburban life buy the “perfect” house, only
to find three million things wrong with it.
This is 1948, when on $15,000 per year, a man could afford
to maintain a wife, two children, a maid, and a four-room
apartment in New York, and when a Connecticut “dream house,”
with thirty-five acres, a trout stream, and a fifty-eight minute
commute from New York, was overpriced at $11,500.
The film is perfect for a time capsule.
Grant as Jim Blandings, “one of those bright young
fellows you see around town, college graduate, advertising
business,” was now forty-four, but he still looks impeccably
preserved, and certainly younger than the leading ladies of his
A THIEF (1955)
It’s 1955, when a theft of $35,000
worth of jewelry was still a shocking amount, and the
was still clean. Grant
is John Robie: “I was a member of an American trapeze act with a
circus traveling in Europe. It folded, I was
stranded, and put my agility to more rewarding purposes.”
These made him famed as “the Cat,” a Riviera jewel thief. Now,
honored for his work in the Resistance, he has been retired from
thievery since the end of the war and – a man of obvious good
taste – lives with discreetly elegant style in a lovely house
with a good cook.
More than likely,
much of John Robie’s life-style was drawn from Hitchcock’s own
fantasy, with rant as the alter ego making everything possible.
That includes irresistible women finding him even more
irresistible, unable to keep themselves from doing things to Grant
that they would have to be drunk to do to any other man.
Grace Kelly’s seduction of Grant to an accompanying
fireworks display has lost nothing to the passage of time.
Surely one of the rewards of long,
successful careers, like those of Hitchcock and Grant, is that you
not only get to remake some of your favorite old films with
whatever new technological fillips the medium has to offer, but,
better still you can reuse the bits you always loved in films that
failed. North by
Northwest (with Grant as a businessman mistaken for a spy and
spending the rest of the film running from enemy agents trying to
kill him) is full of perfect bits, and a great cast – James
Mason and Eva Marie Saint in their only Hitchcock outing –
provides Grant with matchless support.
This is wonderful
fun. It wasn’t
surprising, merely delightful, that Grant and Mason and Jessie
Royce Landis were flawless, like three perfect martinis, but
Saint’s transformation under Hitchcock’s direction from drab
duckling to sexy swan made her irresistible to me forever.
A man’s corpse is thrown out of a
train speeding across France; his death leaves would-be divorcée (Audrey Hepburn) a widow
with little time to be merry, since three ruthless men believe she
knows where he’d hidden a stolen fortune.
Cary Grant celebrated his fifty-ninth year with a film tat
is a virtual anthology of his work, playing a man with four
aliases: One finds him in some screwball party game involving
apple-passing without the use of hands; another takes a shower
with his suit on; a third engages in some nifty acrobatics and
hair-raising roof-ledge wrestling with an iron-claw-handed
villain, and so on. All
of them are of course charming, suave, amusing mysterious, and
also in pursuit of the money.
Mancini’s music, the Seine, and the stars, this enjoyable
charade uncorks some vintage romance, and Audrey’s passion is
match for Cary’s lifetime of experience. “Do
you know what’s wrong with you?” she asks him after some
nerve-racking escape or another.
those wide eyes wider, she says, “Nothing!” To which we can
only add: Amen.