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Films Comment - February 1984

Charms and the Man

by David Thomson
(submitted by Barry Martin - Thanks Barry!)

"You may remember that during the first part [of North by Northwest] all sorts of things happen to the hero with such bewildering rapidity that he doesn't know what it's all about.  Anyway, Cary Grant came up to me and said, 'It's a terrible script.  We've already done a third of the picture and I still can't make head or tail of it.' ... without realizing it he was using a line of his own dialogue."
  -- Alfred Hitchcock in Hitchcock, by François Truffaut

It doesn't get us far wrestling with the solemn question, How good an actor was Cary Grant?  To appreciate this auteur, it is better to practice standing still, listening, and watching.  He was as poised and attentive as the medium.  Whenever he tried hard - in None But the Lonely Heart, Arsenic and Old Lace, The Howards of Virginia -- he seemed noisy and embarrassed, like someone explaining a joke to a deaf aunt.  Perhaps he was an unconvinced liar, as well as a guarded soul.  He does handle lies gingerly, and he lets us feel that the soul is private, inestimable, and vulnerable.  There is no sanctimony in this, just respect for the free, lonely course of intelligence.  Other people talk and posture; Grant simply listens until their foolishness sinks in on them.  His reticence fosters cool wisdom in a picture and under-playing among alert actors.

  None But the Lonely Heart was a novel he liked enough to buy.  It had a role from roots similar to his own; it reminded Archie Leach of losing his mother to an institution when he was a boy and meeting her again twenty years later.  (Is it coincidence that this actor whose boyishness is so hopeful and sometimes so chronic seems never to have been a child?)  If sense-memory and shared experience of character are relevant to acting, then Lonely Heart was his most personal picture.  But he was such a skeptic about emotional disclosure.  He was shy, but it is his taste that feels the indecency of showing-off when the medium is already a huge display.  Whoever it is in there, he has preferred to tease the idea of "Cary Grant" (co-starring with Tony Curtis soon after Some Like It Hot) instead of becoming other characters.  He is something more and less than an actor, like E.T., a presence in whom sincerity and intelligence are parallel modes, not a specious braid of life.

  Few people now remember Grant from the stage; when he was a Broadway actor, in the late Twenties and early Thirties, he kept to musical comedy and light romance.  Invariably, he has been too serious to invite momentous or classical roles; he is uncomfortable out of a lounge suit.  In Only Angels Have Wings one can suppose him wondering if the banana republic setting explains the swag of his trousers.  We can imagine the whatever next? grin, the fastidious discretion in turning away to smile, the cock of the head between perplexity and disdain, if anyone ever suggested that he might try Hamlet, Malvolio, Astrov, Solness, James Tyrone, Shylock, the real Cole Porter (as opposed to Warners'), or Archie Rice -- no matter that Grant had grown up in Archie's world of Empires, while Olivier had to be taken to the last active music halls to get a look at stand-up comedy.

  You can hear his self-effacement: Oh golly, Susan (Grant could feast on a woman's name, in a way lechers need a CinemaScope of thighs), he's and actor and I'm just a ... His awe for the real thing was plain to see, in 1979, when Grant came forward to present the Academy's life achievement Oscar to Olivier.  Grant was spiffed up with pleasure: no one else on screen has ever made that spirit more touching or philosophical.  Never a Flynn or a Power (he was humiliated and grim in The Pride and the Passion), he conveys a disposition for scrutiny that is the most intriguing moral stance in American film, distinct but elusive -- we have to work to comprehend it.  He gives fun its proper, high status; and in its pure form, fun is so rare.  Which other movie actor makes well-being so subtle or attractive, or so rarely succumbs to self-pity?

With Olivier's Oscar in his happy grasp, Grant seemed diffident about his own vigor standing beside Olivier's guttering organism.  He was too trusting or too amiable to wonder whether malady has been Olivier's richest role for the last decade.  Ye the screen's Grant is the quickest detector of indulgence in others, and so suspicious of it in himself that he seems instinctively averse to the close-up and its luster of self-hood.  Grant wills the group shot in his films just as C.K. Dexter Haven wants us all to behave: Naturally.  Honoring the frail lord of living theater, Grant fell into the wide-eyed wonder that often spells trap in his pictures.  He was like an Englishman's version of a delighted American tourist, let in at the stage door of the National Theatre.  Gee, Sir Laurence, I just wanted to say ... I know, dear boy, I know.

  But Olivier didn't notice, and perhaps it has been a mystery that old Cary Grant chose  not to get into.  Still, on that Oscar night we were being asked to assent to a myth: that it is noble to pretend to be others, but silly to pretend to be yourself.  As if Grant's screen work was not ridiculously superior to Olivier's.  Olivier's vibrant ghost brought a shiver to every spine; when he felt the tingle in his body perhaps he believed he could expire from the exaltation of being admired.  Grant is suspicious of affection or praise; his ego is too dark, his doubts too great.

  He has the grin of someone who learned to trust no one, but who managed it politely and without ever giving up on people.  He is as narrow and deep as any lonely person.  In trying to say why he is the most fascinating male personality in pictures, we have to recognize him thinking ahead of his films, never turning a blind eye to where he is, making an unspoken aside to the audience: But this is a movie, didn't you know?  No, don't drift off.  You can't sleep here; Jimmy the Nipper'll get you if you do.

  In movies, acting yields to fascination.  The medium winces at bold, dramatic declaration; it wants to creep up on beautiful people.  Whereas Olivier elected to make himself a Moor, with a new voice and a fresh face, Grant preferred as little alteration as possible.  He guesses that the movie audience will imagine more adventurously if his face is enigmatic, better half-closed than overfull.  That leaves room for the spectator.  Always thinking, he seldom sends up thought balloons.  We know him for a mind, and so we don't need signals.  We should not ask, can he act, but can he be watched?  How was he watched for thirty-five years and seventy-odd films without him or us becoming bored?

  Cary Grant has never settled for being a glossy, romantic star, a ghost in our dreams.  He has instead lent himself to the kind of dismantling that culminates in North by Northwest where he plays the epitome of "Cary Grant," a dry-gin figment of Madison Avenue put through an insane obstacle course to regain his humanity.  But that aim had always been part of Grant's approach; his faith in fun is based in moral propriety; it is never facetious and never content with surface allure.  Grant takes a film deeper into itself, adroitly slipping away from all the easy lies of screen authority -- that the camera is not there, that the situation on the screen is real, and the feelings heartfelt.

  Pauline Kael once joined with Mae West in saying that Grant "could be had."  I think not.  He never gives himself up, he stands for the principle that group shots are composed of separate people joined in lines of observation and judgment.  That web appeals to his curiosity; he is cuff off from life in close-ups.  He is always fretting at, muttering against, or edging away from the solitude that stars generally inhaled with the light.  He does not quite talk to the audience or look at the camera, but he communes with the film.  Grant constitutes an edge of heckling scrutiny around his best films, like the real space that makes a stage audience into jurors, not voyeurs.  It encourages distance, argument, and respect to think we are watching not life, but a game.

  His best films are by good or better directors.  But his achievement is so discerning of the medium, and of the change from acting to being there (but hidden) on the screen, that it transcends and educates his directors.  Perhaps he responded most to comrades, or people he enjoyed.  There is a remarkable feeling for friendship when he looks at others on the screen.  In Holiday, it is his love for Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon that helps us see the importance of his friendship with Katharine Hepburn, the woman he loves.  This affinity is more critical than his quizzical view of love or sex.  He is so much more in harmony with values that can work against each other -- discrimination and loyalty.

  Nothing is as heady for him as fun, or as much fun as the head.  Because he is often a surrogate director, he teaches us how the people in a picture indicate a director's attitude.  Some stars slow or lull their pictures, dragging them toward narcissism.  But Grant stimulates his colleagues.  In saying keep your wits about you, he raises the possibility of wit.  As he glances and notices, so we pick up the pace and shift of his attention -- and give credit to lucky directors.

  His persistent note of questioning leads us into the issues of his films, as when early in Penny Serenade he and Irene Dunne have this brief exchange:
  "When you're with me you're safe," he tells her.
  "I don't know if it's safe."
  "I'm darned if I do, either."


  The best Grant films have to acknowledge that having him around has diverted their subject matter.  His mild but subversive presence has urged a new reflexiveness on filmmaking.  He is too sensible to suppose that good audiences (and he does require the best in us) could believe in the illusion.  He thinks we're worthy of seeing the story and its intricate process of being told.  Just as in a good joke, we observe the pleasure of the person telling the story.  It would take a frame analysis to show how dexterously Grant nurses teeming full shots with his casualness; he can knit up disorder and deliver a joke with one double take that flicks across the nerves of a scene.  He is looking and reacting within a scene the way some directors hope to impose meaning with a variety of points of view and cutting.  It appears that he must always play the cleverest person in a film.  The wonder is that sometimes he was a very learned idiot (Bringing Up Baby), still guiding our eyes with the frowns and frosts of injured innocence.

It's as if an astute referee was teaching pugs how to box, or a ghost (Topper)   advising mortals where to step and how to speak, and watch out for the joke.  He was so well balanced -- and his physical aplomb so gentlemanly -- that he could look like a layman who'd wandered in unawares on some tumblers, and yet somehow, without plan or knowledge and looking off in the wrong direction, caught the girl flying through the air: Oh, hallo, her pretty bundle landing in his available arms: Well, hallo!  He contrives to let us feel we have seen a rehearsal that turned out so well that there is no need to do a real take.  Cary Grant's taunting charm springs from his passionate reluctance to quite do it, properly.  

  There is little in print on how Grant behaved and worked on set, but in her 1975 New Yorker article Pauline Kael said, "Although Grant is a perfectionist on the set, some of his directors say that he wrecks certain scenes because he won't do fully articulated passages of dialogue.  He wants always to be searching for how he feels; he wants to waffle charmingly."  How else do we gain the piercing sense that Grant is thinking before he speaks, and discarding some thoughts as unworthy or unnecessary?

  It is his policy in films, and the thrust of his casting, to skirt our foolish, ond expectations for him by the simple ploy of having us reflect on them.  There is immediate humor in the possibility that Grant might have spent a part of his life clambering over roofs, crawling into windows .  Thus the appeal of the preposterous casting of To Catch a Thief.  And when John Robey actually takes to the Riviera rooftops, we think of a witty set of sharp angles with an Astaire dandy anxious not to step on the lines.  On the few occasions when Grant is required to hurry in a film, even as the skeleton collapses around him, we are reminded that he was once an acrobat. 

  John Robey's head for heights is better employed deciding just how a casino chip can slip down between the breasts of a lady sitting beneath and in front of him.  And that, of course, is a "bet" designed to be seen -- by Jessie Royce Landis (one of his most appreciative screen friends), as well as by the camera.  It is a superb unobtrusiveness in Grant that flashes through his eyes, Oh, did you see that from there?  This is rococo shyness.  No other actor admits the gratification in having himself be seen, or so kids the pretense that no one is watching.  The most famous line in To Catch a Thief -- reason enough for making it -- has Grant and Grace Kelly stopping for a picnic.  He is between her and the camera, nicely played in the kind of triangular discourse common in Grant films (action-Grant-audience), when she opens the hamper of cold chicken and asks him whether he'll have a leg or a breast.

Grant doesn't eye the camera with a How-d'ya-like-that?  (He did that once in movies, at the end of The Philadelphia Story, when the ensemble turns to the "wings" and the cheeky appearance of Sidney Kidd, Spy himself, with camera.)  With Grace, Grant never moves or flickers: it is his acme to sit quiet and still, trusting we are there, falling about, knowing the humor is more acute because this is happening to "Cary Grant."  He tells Kelly, "You decide," always deferring.  Stanley Cavell has noticed, in Pursuits of Happiness, how in Philadelphia Story, Dexter deflects leading questions with an "Am I?" or "Is it?" -- "as if always aware that a liberating interpretaion must be arrived at for oneself."

  The picnic with Kelly follows a pattern set up a little earlier when Grant's alleged Oregon timber-man walks her to her room, and in the open doorway, she pauses and rises to kiss his passive consort figure, like ablue chiffon trout taking a fly, the rod, the angler, and Izaak Walton, too.  There is a beatific smile on his face when he turns, but he isn't just impressed by the lady or the kiss.  His smile is asking, How would you like to be in a movie?  Think how many times we had to take that.

  This is late Grant, escorting the cinema closer to a realization that its nature is camp.  But his testy reluctance to be in, or immersed in his own films, to do them properly or take them seriously, had been there from the beginning.  The wonder in his films with Mae West is not that she had found a cute partner, so tht the audience went wild imagining those two getting it on, but that someone had stepped up on her stage (so hard to inhabit if you weren't a sofa) and whispered in her silk purse, You are an old fraud, aren't you?  But keep it up ... nudge me in the loin and I'll blush.  Not once was Grant sexual on screen.  Instead, he knew that watching was erotic, that the glow of imagery was suggestive, but no one was actually going to do it.

  The finest romantic implication of any film is that, up there, or after the "cut," or tonight, or sometime, there's going to be an orgy -- isn't that the sex of bodies so large? -- but as for here and now .... Susan, that's out of the question.  They're watching.  His allure, his seductiveness, rests on his clear preference for some future loving condition of intimacy and invisibility.  Oh, you can't wait, eh?  Well, you'll just have to.  We're having fun now.

  It's surely no accident that for his two most prolonged kissing sequences, Hitchcock waited for Cary Grant.  They occur with Ingrid Bergman in Notorious and with Evan Marie Saint in North by Northwest, and in both cases the lavish embrace is hiding trap or dishonesty.  No Borzage, Hitchcock wants to warn us about mistake, misunderstanding, or theft in a kiss.  As he admitted, he embarrassed the players with the length and engineering of the kisses.  But he is goading the audience, too, making them an offer that can never pay off.  This explicit nagging at Grant's restraint is as calculated as having the back of his head be our first look at him in Notorious, surveying Alicia Huberman and Ingrid Berman, spinning a scheme around them.  Hitchcock felt the cold, disapproving edge in Grant's urge for withdrawal, just as Hawks and others read into it the warmth that likes to keep love out of camera range.

  Still, I doubt if the Notorious kiss would have been set up if Hitchcock hadn't first learned from films by Hawks, Cukor, and McCarey.  In Hitchcock's gradual discovery of the links between universal voyeurism and film-making, Notorious brings a new confusion of arousal and discomfort in the audience.  As he told Truffaut about the kiss, "I felt is was indispensable that they should not separate, and I also felt that the public, represented by the camera, was the third party to this embrace.  The public was being given the great privilege of embracing Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman together.  It was a kind of temporary ménage à trois."

  No grant admirer should turn away from his brusqueness in Notorious.  There is a risk of being cutting in all game-playing.  Hawks had already used it in Only Angels Have Wings and His Girl Friday, the latter the fiercest proof that if the fun or the game ever stops then we'll die like rats in poisonous boredom.  But Notorious is just about the only major Grant film without a laugh or a smile, the work in which his relaxed dynamo is most subjugated by a film's oppressiveness.  It's as if Grant had fallen quiet and morose, not quite sure that he wouldn't prefer the Claude Rains part.  He seems bitter, which suits his blaming security agent: If you ask me Rains has got the plum.  You know, I like Claude.  Look at him do that bit there -- effortless.

  Hitchcock had already helped Grant appreciate the ambiguity in a husband's attentiveness.  Suspicion is unthinkable without Grant's bravura insouciance; surely Hitch was on more fruitful ground in letting Cary go sunny and brisk if he wanted him to be disturbing.  It is also the perfect means for Hitchcock of having murder seem resourceful, understandable, and playful to make Grant embody the good-humored sportiveness of the classic reader of an old English thriller: Did he do it or not?  I can't tell.  Nor was Hitch sure that he could get away with this blithe killer.  To the very end he didn't know if censorship would permit Grant's cheery malice, or whether the Francis Iles original would have to be stood on its head with a happy ending.  Not to worry, I'll play it in the middle - "Hallo dear, how are you, had your milk yet?" -- and you'll be able to use it however the thing ends.

  In the film, Grant turns out not a murderer, or not for the moment; he is just the spirit of irresponsibility, someone who enjoys murder mysteries more than hard work.  Hitch wanted an ending in which Grant does poison Joan Fontaine, but not before she has reported everything in a letter that he conscientiously posts in the last shot.  RKO settled for the "happy" ending: Joan living on with unreliability. To that end, in the director's absence, they looked at the picture with eyes of righteous woe and planned to take out all the scenes in which Grant looked like murderer.  That brought a 99-minute movie down to 55 minutes.  Well, of course I look like a murderer.  You listen to anyone on screen long enough, and you look as if you want to go to bed with them, or kill them ... or both.  The movies are always about sex and violence, even if people are standing still and regarding one another.


  I hope I'm making a fair attempt at talking in Grant's voice.  I'm trying it because so often Grant speaks out of a film, as well as within it.  He's like an uncle in a children's game, who knows the kids are hiding and listening, and who throws them lines occasionally or -- as with the leg and the breast -- aware that they are growing up fast, allows them just a beat, and then carries on, talking to cover their laughter in the dark.  It's a modest trick, maybe, to be a dummy on the knee of the film, but Grant is an Archie who can nudge the ventriloquist, scold him a little, and then make fun of his pursed lips.  Magic

Grant's films picked up on this possibility very early, in a way that occurred with no other great star.  Everyone played fair by the rules of a Joan Crawford vehicle, or a Gary Cooper picture.  The filmmakers knew the routines by heart; they ignored the joke in the special lines, situations, and camera angles that displayed the stars.  Kidding was very rare: Cagney might pick up the odd grapefruit after Public Enemy and smile demurely at the continuity girl; The Big Sleep is beguiling because the Burbank house-party ignores the rigged-up nonsense of its story.

But that is Hawks again, perfecting a disregard for all but fun that Grant helped crystallize in the screwball comedies.  I've seen you, you're doing my thing, aren't you?  Got Bogart to look happy at last.  Mae West gave it license, and Cukor seems to have understood the liberation of Sylvia Scarlett in which Grant could play an English con artist.  The slyness there is all the sharper because it confronts the fatuous grandeur of Brian Aherne.  And thank God for Ralph Bellamy, the essential stooge in two movies about the special but not quite kind fun a married couple have in pretending they are going to be divorced: The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday.  

Pauline Kael noticed that both The Awful Truth and Bringing Up Baby there are references to Grant as Jerry the Nipper.  In Gunga Din, he makes his character's name, "Archi-bald?" feel like a yawn that impedes full waking.  In Holiday, in the first sequence, when Grant calls his fellows -- Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon -- to tell them he's in love, he leaves with a cartwheel to the door.  This isn't out of place; it fits the pilgrim-like quest for well-being in Johnny Case that he might have studied acrobatics in the evenings.  But one feels that the film has gauged the pent-up physicality in Grant's borrowed-tie courtliness and whispered to him about a somersault.  What, do it here?  In a picture?  You're kidding.  How easily the most elegant teases put themselves in the position of being sent up.  But it happens; the story and the illusion halt and Grant at last goes end over end.  But this is allowed because he has managed to let us hear this thoughts, Look, suppose we do this .... I'll show you .... There, you like it?  Yes, I like it, too.  So, let's do it .... What?  You mean you did it?  You are a fox.  I haven't seen anything as sharp as you since the knife old Archie Leach used to cut his throat.

Which brings us to the haunting moment in His Girl Friday, a tremor in the great satin shroud of Hollywood illusion, when a razor slashes the cloth and a picture breathes, for an instant, with an idea ahead of its time -- that nothing is so intriguing about Hollywood as the pious gravity with which everyone is lying and dry-cleaning the lies.  The authorities are threatening Grant's editor with jail -- as if the picture is not a series of cages -- and the actor looks away from his accusers, into the dark, and says, "The last man to say that to me was Archie Leach, just a week before he cut his throat."

Every time I see the film, I want to hear more about Archie.  The aside says Boo! to the dream that a film is for everyone.  Movies are made for any idiot with 50 cents for a seat in the dark, while picture people stay up there, inanely wealthy but making Holiday, wondering if the suckers will fall for this or that, having fun making fools of themselves.  The aside nods back at the very dark this star escaped; it hints at what had to die before he could look so good for the world; and it intersects with His Girl Friday's gallows humor.  If it is a throw-away, it is also the moment the film screams silently, as if to admit that American pictures are commercial lies made by a few to please the masses.  

Despite those cartwheels, Grant was no revolutionary.  Sadness, optimism, and the disconcerting poker-faced smile are all he shows to his or the world's disasters.  "Me, the life I want, the house I want, the fun I want" -- Johnny's creed from Holiday, so lucid but so mistaken as to what he thinks the first sister loves in him -- tempts a Hemingway rejoinder, from The Sun Also Rises, "Wouldn't it be pretty to think so?"  The Archie Leach line is lost in the express action of His Girl Friday.   You can't get at it, take it apart, and ask what it means.  The tantalizing giveaway epitomizes Grant's art.  It is there if you're not stupid, quick enough to pick it up, and sensitive enough to work it out for yourself.  No one laid down such drastic standards of intelligence on the screen, or was more scathing of sentimentality.  Who's Archie?  Any of you fellows ever heard of Archie?  No, I think you've come to the wrong place.

Only for a few years did American pictures keep that streamlined grace; film noir is the first great slowing in Hollywood, and that is what makes the genre the treat of depressives.  By 1952, and Monkey Business, the older and wiser Howard Hawks is on to Grant's mystery, but he tries to spell it out.  At the beginning of the film, an off-screen voice speaks to Grant, and calls him "Cary," coaxing the actor into the action but rebuking his absent-minded prematureness.  It's a generous tribute, and another funny film, but just as Monkey Business is coarser than Bringing Up Baby, so Hawks doesn't realize that Grant needs no voice on the soundtrack.  He was always going in and out of his pictures -- crossing the line, hobnobbing with the camera. 

It is only natural that his very best works -- his most complex, amusing, but unsettling pictures -- are both studies in Hollywood fun, and in the particular delight there is (or was) in making films.  Isn't screwball usually a metaphor for Hollywood?  Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday are checkmates of nonsense and intelligence:  You've go to be very smart and a little crazy to run a screwball.

The two pictures cherish intelligence, but they wonder if it is not a handicap in the wild world.  The farther it ventures, the more its advantage looks ridiculous.  David Huxley is tops on old bones; and he is doing the infinite academic work that keeps so many wise men out of action -- putting together an old skeleton.  Walter Johnson is putting out a daily newspaper.  He is more worldly than Huxley, as cunning as repressed disenchantment.  But what he produces clogs the gutter a few hours after its sensational release.  The paper challenges ignorance and darkness just as Huxley's hope to name and label parts confronts the animal savagery that prevails in the jungles of Connecticut.

The comedy is rife with desperation.  These are portraits of madness and humiliation, corruption and callousness, offset by heroic idealism, a trust in fun, and a whimsical nostalgia for orderliness.  A kind of demented originality is all that makes life supportable.  As if the last razor-stroke could be averted, or as if marriage might still be admired, His Girl Friday seizes on a last chance in divorce -- the ex-husband's fresh opportunity to woo back his wife.  He succeeds, but because he out-talks her, out-plays her, directs her into something like submission.  Romance must arrange itself so wooing never stops.  Hildy might as well acknowledge that she will be too busy on the paper to get married, that Walter and Grant, eschewing decent plot, will stand up at the altar and then trip her up on her way back to mother.  Broken your clavicle?  I suppose I'll have to look after you now.  Crisis must continue if this love is to be secure.  If Hildy wants Walter -- and he does put the onus on her -- then she will have to find new Bellamies (cousins to Bunbury) to provoke the ingenuity that is as near as he can come to admitting love.  So Grant can honor a woman best of all by thinking fast for her.

Bringing Up Baby is the same legend, a similar chase, even if it is run out-of-doors.  No one could hope for a settled marriage between David and Susan; this doctor will be taken over by his wild child.  The "fun" he ends up appreciating requires that the night of chasing leopards go on forever.  It is not so much Connecticut as a desert island (where Fridays live), a pitch, a court, or a board game where you can keep passing "Go."  "Because Cary is such a great receiver.  He was so marvelous.  We finally go so that I'd say, 'Cary, this is a good chance to do Number Seven.'  Number Seven was trying to talk to a woman who was doing a lot of talking.  We'd just do Number Seven.  And he'd have to find  variations on that.  He and Hepburn were just great together."

That's for real; it's Hawks in an interview.  But the sublime calling of winning plays is like playing screwball while Munich hangs in the balance.  That is not meant to be censorious.  Still, screwball coincided with terrifying times, and its stories shout and hurry to shut out the dread.  Screwball is a lyric delirium away from responsibility; its fun is made more heartbreaking because the dark eyes of Cary Grant guess how close the brink is.  It's hard to believe in a fuller paradise than making Bringing Up Baby; the picture and the process could go on forever, the longing in all Hawks movies.  That lets us see how far the director is the metaphor for life's most accommodating gentleman, a tactful manipulator whose cut and thrust are made gracious by the revels he designs.  

Although his posture in the two pictures appears so different -- the whip-cracking center of His Girl Friday, the bewildered, tottering follower of the trail in Bringing Up Baby -- still Grant stands for the director.  Susan is in a whirl of her own, as pretty and disruptive as a leopard.  David is the white hunter, still aware of how this all looks and sounds, still trying to recover the situation and his dignity, and drawn to Susan as a lepidopterist might see a butterfly, its colors and frills all jazzy with madness.  My word, Howard, look at that one.  What a beauty!  Look, I'll keep up with her, and if you can keep up with me .... Just follow-- but, walk, don't run.  Got it?  Walk quickly, of course .... Oh, she's off?  Susan, Susan!  I'm coming!

A director shows us where to look, how to see, when to hurry, when to stop and think.  Grant's perplexed intelligence is always doing that on the screen: he counts the beat in a double take, he gallantly shields Susan's silk drawers, he comments on the action -- "It never will be clear as long as she's explaining it."  He is on the screen, in skirts and tatters, or in a hat and in charge.  No matter which, he is also, always, a man in a chair watching the film, chatting to it, sharpening its edge: There, now if I trim a bit off that, and then if she looks in the other direction, and I'll say .... Oh, yes, I like that.

Having fun, perched somewhere between skill and exhilaration, Grant is both the deft director of the circus and a kid in love with the show.  Only such intense pleasure can rise above guilt or doubt; on the brink, a game may be the best way of forgetting and being oneself: Susan, this is a travesty.  Now, please, I'll put my hands over my eyes, and then you go away.  A pause, and there are Grant's hounded eyes again, wondering if we saw it all right and asking us if we really intend to take such a far-ffetched bliss seriously.   Only Fred Astaire matches him in the way he grins at us appologetically, aware that these lumbering, expensive, years-in-the-making things called movies are really so silly -- they are like a 1000-franc chip, cold and lost, between the confectioner's custard bosoms of a lady who doesn't know the language.  I asked her what interest she proposed to pay me, but she didn't seem to hear me.  I believe she thought I was going to retrieve it ... I ask you.  I'd never do that.  I've made it a policy: I never do that.

To watch a grant movie is to be infected with this quick talk.  Or, as the Katharine Hepburn character rejoices in Holiday, we clap hands because "Life walked into this house this morning."  One day, Hollywood will be remembered for a perilous line of smart sentiment, and Cary Grant will be known as its exemplar, just as Magritte's bowler-hatted straight man presides over dreams.


A first draft of this article was sent to Mr. Grant.  He was anxious lest some readers think he had actually said the things I invent for him.  Those lines are in italic.  Anything in quotes was truly said in a film, or by a director or a critic.  I hope there is no misunderstanding.  Cary Grant is 80 this January.  Happy birthday, sir, and please know that some of us would not think as highly of movies if it was not for you.

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