Hollywood is all about creating legends, and few of them live up to the legend of Cary Grant. Born Archibald Leach in Bristol, UK just past the turn of the century, he survived childhood poverty by clinging to the dreams of show business first planted in his mind during his trips to the city’s Hippodrome. At 16, he was an acrobat with the Pender Troupe, whose tour of the United States resulted in him deciding to stay and spend the roaring Twenties doing vaudeville before moving to Hollywood to get in front of cameras.
Where else did he belong, really? He was no musclebound hero, but his long and lanky physique created the perfect silhouette for films of the Thirties, as it meant looking good in a tuxedo (which Grant managed to do for the rest of his life), which the popular society comedies of the time required. There was something else that made him look dazzling in front of the camera, though: despite that posh, mid-Atlantic accent (that comes from nowhere on this Earth) and his ridiculous good looks, Grant always seemed relatable. Something about his humour seemed self-effacing enough to pierce the perfect beauty of his image (not to mention the expert goofy tumbles he could take thanks to his years as a physical performer). Plus, there was always a tension there that made him slightly dangerous. His constant fear of someone lifting the thin, painted veil and revealing the poor, low-class Archibald Leach under the icon of high-class Cary Grant that he had worked so hard to invent. In such contradictions, a star was born. A high class icon with spots of low-brow charm, he won audiences over and they never let him go. It was against popular consensus that he decided to retire in his early sixties when he himself was no longer interested in film acting.
Over the years, a great deal has been written and said about Grant. There has been plenty of speculation about his private life (five wives, among them Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton and a suspicious roommate situation with fellow hunk Randolph Scott) that is mainly the result of his own generally mum status on revealing secrets–and the fact that, quite frankly, we all want to be him and be with him at the same time. In his later films, when aging male movie stars were being paired up with actresses young enough to be their daughters (in the case of him, Fred Astaire, and Gary Cooper, all with Audrey Hepburn), Grant was the only one who was still credible as a lover (cause he still looked so damn good in a suit.)
Criterion’s summation of Cary Grant’s career focuses on comedy as a way to celebrate the quality least appreciated in his own time. His only Oscar nominations (two of them) were for melodramas and his biggest star vehicles were the Hitchcock films, but the collection is as faulty as their Joan Crawford retrospective was robust: including the dark mystery of Notorious and North By Northwest would help put Grant’s comedic genius in context (he does both comedy and thriller in Charade), but even without that side of his oeuvre, it seems ridiculous to do a retrospective of his career and not include Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, My Favourite Wife, The Philadelphia Story, The Talk of the Town, Arsenic and Old Lace, and The Bishop’s Wife. These omissions are likely the victims of licensing issues, but it’s a shame considering that very few films in this list feel particularly essential. Fans of Cary Grant, however, will still find plenty to enjoy.
THE CARY GRANT MUST-SEES
The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey, 1937)
Leo McCarey’s delightfully cynical take on happy matrimony is the film that made Cary Grant a star and established his image as the dapper, worldly wit. Grant and Irene Dunne make sparks fly as a divorcing couple who can’t get away from each other despite her romancing the dull but steady Ralph Bellamy and he taking up with a tacky chorus girl. Every image shimmers like the sequins in Dunne’s dresses and the performances, particularly her Oscar-worthy turn, are divine.
Holiday (George Cukor, 1938)
Movies questioning the morality of wealth were common in the Thirties. They ere a great way to soothe the woes of Depression-era audiences, but few of them do it with the anti-capitalist anger that simmers quite vibrantly beneath the glamorous veneer of this lively comedy of manners. Grant is a finance whiz who plans to make a pot of money and quit work to wander the earth and find out who he is. He doesn’t know that his fiancée Doris Nolan is the daughter of a billionaire industrialist until after they are engaged, but he is certain that she’ll be happy to go along with his plan. It soon becomes clear that it’s her black-sheep, free-spirited sister (Katharine Hepburn )who really gets him. George Cukor allows the brainy theatrical source material to shine through the film adaptation, refusing to lighten it up for the sake of lowest-common-denominator viewers, coaxing actual idealism out of Grant instead of the usual energetic exuberance, and a sorrowful disappointment out of Hepburn that elicits more than just the empty mannerisms that had done her so much good up until this point.
Father Goose (Ralph Nelson, 1964)
A deserved Best Screenplay Oscar was awarded to Charade scribe Peter Stone this film that is brimming with laughs while still taking the stakes of the setting seriously. Cary Grant is a gruff loner traveling the south seas on his boat and is coerced by the British army into doing surveillance work on a remote island. It’s a grueling assignment for a born wanderer, made worse when a French diplomat’s daughter (Leslie Caron) shows up with seven little schoolgirls who were stranded while being flown to safety in Australia. No one with a brain can be surprised that her beauty and the girls’ charms melt our dapper hero (who is still the hottest thing on two legs despite being perpetually unshaven and all of sixty years old), and while the development of his chemistry with his co-star isn’t wholly credible, the beautiful scenery and a bouncy sense of adventure make this one of the most enjoyable films the star ever made.
I’m No Angel (Wesley Ruggles, 1933)
Mae West always claimed she discovered Cary Grant, pairing up with him in She Done Him Wrong and then bringing him in as her love interest in the film that established her as a powerhouse wit and sex symbol. He doesn’t show up until 49 minutes into this film, the last in a string of gents that West, playing a lion-tamer, twists around her bejewelled finger until finding the man who provides her the one luxury she can’t do without: true love. Grant is irresistibly gorgeous and still has the slightly awkward gait that made him so endearing before he established his own on-screen prowess after The Awful Truth. This one features many of La West’s signature lines, “Peel me a grape,” “It’s not the men in your life, it’s the men in your life,” and, of course, that enticing invitation to “come up and see her sometime.” Delightful.
She Done Him Wrong (Lowell Sherman, 1933)
While it’s not hard to disprove West’s claim that she discovered Grant, it’s also likely that she pulled him towards his image as a sex symbol and away from the stiff Dapper Dans he was playing up until that point. Based on her play Diamond Lil, she’s the saloon gal with the heart of gold who has to thwart an ex-con ex-boyfriend, save a girl from sex slavery, and elude being implicated in a diamond-forgery scheme, all while trying to romance Salvation Army goody-two-shoes Grant and fend off every other gent in New York City. It’s only 65 minutes but it’s jam-packed with witty quips, musical numbers (including West’s classic “A Guy What Takes His Time”) and a fun and twisty plot. As always, West astounds.
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (H.C. Potter, 1948)
The myth of the post-war white flight tells us that Americans headed to the suburbs because they needed more space, as we see at the beginning of this film in which Cary Grant wakes up in a Manhattan apartment and can barely turn around his bedroom or bathroom without knocking something over. Rather than pay for an expensive renovation, he decides to buy a property in Connecticut. Then, when the house turns out to be barely able to stand, he tears it down and builds anew. Rarely heeding the warnings of his more practically-minded friend (Melvyn Douglas, in a gem of a performance), Grant’s project puts strain on his finances, his career as a Mad Man, and his marriage to luminous Myrna Loy, whom he starts to suspect is carrying on with Douglas. A rare film that exposes the financial strain underlying the American dream, this very funny and very intelligent film is proof of Grant’s stardom. In a story that today would be rightly criticized for its white privilege excesses, he is so capable of making the character’s plight sympathetic that you could add serial killing to his activities and it wouldn’t lose audience support.
Operation Petticoat (Blake Edwards, 1959)
The most financially successful film in Cary Grant’s career was made at the height of the popularity of World War II comedy films (which would soon be followed by the popularity of WWII comedy shows like Hogan’s Heroes). He plays the captain of a rickety submarine that he will not allow to be decommissioned despite its barely being held together by rubber bands, sailing it across the south Pacific with rascally Tony Curtis on board to procure supplies by any naughty means possible. They find genuine trouble on their way to Cebu when they rescue a group of army nurses who have been stranded on an island; defeating Japan is one thing, but getting the girls out of the shower is quite another! Episodic in form and lighthearted in tone, this one has as little substance as any of the Stanley Shapiro scripts of the era (he lost the screenplay Oscar for this film to himself that year, for Pillow Talk), particularly as it lacks the clever manipulations of his best work, but it’s loaded with plenty of good-natured laughs.
That Touch of Mink (Delbert Mann, 1962)
Another Shapiro-scripted classic, one of the many Doris Day comedies accusing Americans of trying so hard to not have sex that it’s all they think about. Grant subs in quite perfectly for Rock Hudson as a business tycoon who falls in love with office temp Day after splashing her with his car. He treats her to lavish dinners and a trip to the Caribbean. She blanches at the thought of what she might have to do to pay him back. The sexual politics are, of course, appalling by today’s standards, but that’s because we can no longer recall a time when talking about sex was even an option. That this film does so in such unapologetic and hilarious bold strokes almost makes it revolutionary, cleverly disguising its filthiness behind the pristine beauty of ornate production design and elegant costuming typical of the era’s rom-coms. It’s no Pillow Talk, but it has its moments.
ONLY IF YOU’RE GAGA FOR GRANT
The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (Irving Reis, 1947)
Before he was the purveyor of bestselling beach reads, Sidney Sheldon was a screenwriter who won an Oscar for this zippy comedy whose witty and weird plot would raise alarm bells today. It beautifully shows off Grant’s skill for classy comedy, playing a painter who becomes the lovelorn obsession of goofy teenager Shirley Temple who gets him into trouble when her much older sister Myrna Loy, who is also a judge, mistakes him for a statutory seducer. Clearing up that he hasn’t done anything but still needs to shake the young lady off, Loy orders Grant to escort her little sibling around town for a while to make her get sick of him, while falling in love with him herself. The manic energy with which the ruse is performed moves the story so quickly that you don’t have time to notice that it’s preposterous,. And, with Grant looking that good in a series of exquisite suits, at least all the madness pointed in his direction makes perfect sense.
Indiscreet (Stanley Donen, 1958)
Criterion is delusional if they think that including Cary Grant’s second pairing with Ingrid Bergman can compensate for not having the first (even if Notorious isn’t a comedy), but don’t be surprised if you find yourself willing to forgive this film’s insubstantial fluffiness. If nothing else, it’s a tribute to the power of movie stars. You can’t help but be charmed by watching Grant (still stunning in a tux) romance Bergman (who looks gorgeous in Christian Dior gowns) despite the fact that he is separated but not divorced from his wife. They fall helplessly in love and enjoy each other’s company while maintaining a socially acceptable façade. She then discovers that his wife is a fiction that he invents to avoid commitment and decides to go in for revenge. On the stage, Norman Krasna’s “Kind Sir” was a flop but the film adaptation was in the year’s top ten at the box office thanks to its good-natured sense of charm and assault of stunning glamour.
The Grass Is Greener (Stanley Donen, 1960)
It’s proof of how dapper Grant was that he could still be such a knockout in a green cardigan. This polite sex comedy is set among the faded aristocrats of England (and Grant’s mid-Atlantic accent is just at home across the pond as it is in America), with him and Deborah Kerr as the lord and lady of a stately home whose grounds have mostly been turned over to the National Trust as a museum. Tourist Robert Mitchum accidentally wanders into their private quarters and romances Kerr, whisks her away for an affair in London while Jean Simmons comes to keep Grant company and tempts both into a different life than the one they have. The film is gorgeous to look at but hopelessly tame. This one sees all the stars phoning in their familiar personas with the exception of Simmons, who has a great time playing against her usually more subdued type as an exuberant Princess Margaret knockoff.