The Man Every Other Man Wanted to Be

19th July 2019

To mark BFI Southbank’s two-month Cary Grant season, Jack Watkins looks back at the career of one of Hollywood’s most glamorous and enigmatic stars …

Hunting for a leading man to play opposite her in She Done Him Wrong in 1933, Mae West spotted a slender young actor on the Paramount studio lot, looked him up and down and purred, “If he can talk, I’ll take ‘im.” And that’s how Cary Grant became the recipient of the most famous, though misquoted, female chat-up line in movie history – “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?”

In the popular imagination, Grant is now so associated with charm and ease that it’s not difficult to imagine him arriving at the top in such a magical way, but in fact he’d taken a while to get there. Like Bob Hope, Grant (real name Archibald Leach), was one of those Hollywood stars who was actually British born. Growing him in Bristol, his childhood was a sad one. His mother was committed to a mental asylum and, like many lonely, sensitive souls, he’d found an escape via the stage and music hall. Joining a touring acrobatic troupe, he learnt about patter and pratfalls, went to America and did a stint in vaudeville, before finally winding up in Broadway musicals where reviewers praised his dashing looks. Getting signed to Paramount in 1932, he’d already played ‘the other man’ in the Marlene Dietrich film Blonde Venus before Mae West drilled her eyes on him.

He would become a polished enigma. “Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant,” he once said. A very private man, he seldom gave interviews and, hating large crowds, avoided parties. It’s easy to be dazzled by the tanned grace of his later films, such as opposite Grace Kelly in Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955), or Audrey Hepburn in Charade (1963) and simply remember him as a suave, stylish man. That is to overlook the elusiveness of this “very strange guy,” in film critic and historian David Thomson’s words: “not American, not English, but something in between.”

Take that voice, like none other you will ever have heard, for instance. Tony Curtis did an impersonation of it in Some Like It Hot (1959). Staccato, part cockney, part transatlantic, it emphasized Grant’s classlessness – or maybe placelessness sums it up better. It also helped him in a career that embraced roles of much diversity, even if his acting generally involved varying shades of emphasis on the essential Grant screen persona. This versatility is the something the BFI season intends to showcase across two months. In a previous BFI Grant retrospective in February 1983, Thomson, who regards Grant as the best and most important actor in the history of cinema, wrote an introductory essay in the monthly programme guide, and defined the complexity that is so easily missed: “He was light if you look quickly. But he had black eyes and dark thoughts enough for suspicion. No actor could be more enigmatic or unsmiling in making a joke, and no Hollywood actor has conveyed solitariness with so little self-pity.”

Two Howard Hawks-directed films would quickly wean you off the notion that Grant was all elegance and charm. In Only Angels Have Wings (1939) which, despite taking place on a tiny set, contained a remarkable atmosphere of danger and suspense, he played a tough nut flyer. In His Girl Friday (1940), hailed as a model verbal comedy for the breakneck speed of the dialogue and which even managed to make the dreadful Rosalind Russell bearable, he played a Chicago newspaper editor. Both movies reflected the cold calculating side of Grant that could be so startling.

I sometimes wonder if today’s younger generation has the appetite for the Golden Age of Hollywood movies as mine did as students and film buffs in the 1980s. To us, the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda, Greta Garbo and Katherine Hepburn were wall poster material. Over thirty years on, do they now seem as remote as the silent stars of an earlier time seemed to us? If I was advising the beginner on where to make an entry into the world of Cary Grant films, it would be a tough one, because although he did appear in some bad movies, his overall standards were high. The curators of the BFI season won’t have been scrabbling around for suitable candidates to screen.

They are giving a big push to a new 4K restoration of Notorious (1946), which is opening in cinemas across the UK on 9 August. This was the second of a quartet of Hitchcock thrillers in which Grant starred, the first being Suspicion (1941), with poor tormented Joan Fontaine. Grant was, said Hitchcock, “the only actor I have loved in my whole life,” which, coming from a director who elsewhere described actors as “cattle,” was some praise.

In Notorious he, Ingrid Bergman and the ever relishable Claude Rains are enmeshed in a romantic triangle in what the BFI says, might “just be the perfect movie”. After its restoration, it still shimmers with tension.

Also recommended is North by Northwest (1959), the last of his Hitchcock films. Its playfulness always seems to me to anticipate the James Bond series. It has some famous action set pieces, including the thrilling crop duster scene, and the literally cliff-hanging climax on Mount Rushmore. Grant, by now in his mid-50s but still looking good, is always ready with the wisecracks, and Eva Marie Saint, coolest of Hitchcock’s cool blondes, is an outrider for the Bond Girls. For the proto-Bond villain, it has James Mason’s study in velvet-voiced nastiness. No Bond movie ever had a musical score like Bernard Herrmann’s, however.

Entirely different in tone are the ultimate 1930s screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby (1937), which pits Grant’s befuddled palaeontologist against Katherine Hepburn’s eccentric heiress and a leopard, and The Philadelphia Story (1940), with Hepburn again, and James Stewart. This film reminds you what great voices these old stars had, but also how unselfishly Grant listened to other actors in scenes: so still and intent.

Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), with Myrna Loy, which James Agee, one of America’s wittiest mid 20th century film critics called “a bull’s eye for middle class middle-brows,” was a major post-war box office smash that is affectionately recalled, but I have a soft spot for two earlier films made with a popular, intelligent and graceful, but now almost forgotten Hollywood leading lady of the pre-war period, Irene Dunne. These are the comedy The Awful Truth (1937), which has the added bonus of the great player of wealthy bumpkins Ralph Bellamy, and the sentimental Penny Serenade (1940). The opening scenes of the latter are an understated treat.

Despite Tony Curtis’s homage in Some Like It Hot, Grant himself never sank to self-parody. He retired from films in his early sixties, still looking like Cary Grant, but in his last-but-one film, the romantic comedy Father Goose (1964), against type, he played an unshaven, drunken beach bum. “This man’s more like me than any of the parts I have played,” he quipped, only partly tongue in cheek. Just to show what a nonsense the whole awards thing is, Grant never won an Oscar, having to content himself with a special award at the1970 ceremony for his “sheer brilliance.” Did he care? Before he died, he insisted there should be no fuss, not even a private funeral. Thirty-three years since his passing in 1986, the films still speak for themselves.

‘Notorious’ opens in cinemas UK-wide on 9 August. The BFI’s two-month Gary Grant seasons begins on 1 August:

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