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American Film - April 1987

An Affair to Remember

by John Kobal
(submitted by Barry Martin - Thanks Barry!)

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.

In seventy-three 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.

Director Leo McCarey’s farcical masterpiece is based on the premise that “the road to Reno 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 have.

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.

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 stop them.

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 serious reflection.

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 Hollywood 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 Hitchcock. When 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 day.

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.

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 own generation.

It’s 1955, when a theft of $35,000 worth of jewelry was still a shocking amount, and the Mediterranean 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.

CHARADE (1963)
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.

With Henry 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. “What?” Opening those wide eyes wider, she says, “Nothing!” To which we can only add: Amen.

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