Born 117 years ago today, Cary Grant is far from a forgotten figure. His excellent work as an actor could easily have faded from popular culture like many film stars of Hollywood's Golden Age , but in Grant's case, his effortless style has proved timeless. He was also a far better actor than he was given credit for because he made it all look so damn easy. Audiences took it for granted he'd be great in everything he did, as he proved in the seventy-six feature films he appeared in. He left behind an extraordinary legacy, especially when you consider he only spent thirty-four years in the movie business.
Grant never failed to delight with his distinctive voice, exquisite physical comedy and exceptional good looks. And even though his hair went from jet black to peppered gray, it seemed as if he never really aged, forever retaining a genuine youthful swagger. His first film, released when he was twenty-eight in 1932, showed a callow young man; handsome, but unformed. But within a short time, this English actor from the tiny town of Horfield, Bristol, had transformed himself from the unsophisticated Archibald Leach to the debonair, soul of sophistication known as Cary Grant. It's not going out on a limb to declare him one of the top film actors to ever grace the screen. But if you doubt it, a list of movies to watch at the end of this column should remove that statement out of the realm of hyperbole to that of fact.
When he retired permanently from show business in 1966, Grant was only sixty-two (to give you an idea of where he was at career-wise, Daniel Day-Lewis is sixty-three). He then lived for the next twenty years with no interest in returning to acting, in spite of turning down numerous offers. Even the persuasive likes of Warren Beatty and Sidney Lumet were unable to lure him back. It was so Cary Grant of him, that this exemplar of elegance managed to remain Cary Grant right up until the day he died suddenly on November 29, 1986. He really was the same striking figure at eighty-two that he was in every one of his seventy-plus films, never looking anything less than his very best. As the film critic Pauline Kael wrote in “The Man from Dream City,” her lengthy essay, published in 1975: “[In 1963’s Charade], we saw him on Audrey Hepburn’s terms: Cary Grant at his most elegant. He didn’t need the show-stopping handsomeness of his youth; his style, though it was based on his handsomeness, had transcended it.”
But like so many movie stars who came before him, Grant’s roots were in the theatre. In his early years in Britain (from age six on) he found his footing in the English Music Halls, where he mostly performed as an acrobat. Coming from a poor family, the money he earned was essential to keeping food on the table and caused a sadness that plagued Grant throughout his long and successful career in Hollywood. From all reports, he never recovered from the poverty of his childhood, nor that his father sent his mother to an institution for the mentally ill, and lied about it to his son. Telling him she had died, it wasn’t until his father’s deathbed confession that Grant discovered his mother had been alive for more than twenty years. He rescued her from the institution where she had been living and cared for her for the rest of her life, but the trauma was significant. Grant himself once said that he forever carried with him "a sadness of spirit that affected everything I did. I always felt that my mother rejected me."
He was only sixteen when young Archie Leach first showed up in America, traveling from England with a young troop of vaudevillians where he juggled, performed acrobatics and even rode a unicycle under the name of “Rubber Legs.” And it was this same-billed Archie Leach who managed credits in five Broadway musicals before heading to the California coast, a place he would call home the rest of his life.
None of the musicals Grant did on Broadway were very successful. His first, Better Times, was a 1922 “Spectacle,” staged at the enormous Hippodrome Theatre with a cast of more than one-hundred-and-sixty (and that doesn’t include the elephants). His next, which opened five years later in 1927, was Golden Dawn, with a slightly smaller cast of one-hundred-and-fourteen. Poor Archie Leach faded into the woodwork on those two, but by 1929’s Boom Boom, a small role as a Spaniard opposite Jeanette MacDonald proved he had learned a thing or two about stealing a scene. In an interview years later, MacDonald called him “absolutely terrible in the role”, but at the same time, slyly suggested that his central charm somehow kept the show from becoming a quick failure.
A 1929 Broadway operetta titled A Wonderful Night managed only one-hundred-twenty-five of them at the Majestic Theatre, although how “wonderful” is open to debate, what with the show’s opening on Halloween, October 31, 1929, two days after “Black Tuesday” (October 29th). What came between was the infamous Variety headline that heralded the start of the Great Depression:
Before the Depression cast its pall over Broadway, causing the shuttering for good of many theatres, a number of which were architectural gems (and some that had only been recently built), Grant had one last role. It was opposite Fay Wray (prior to her working opposite King Kong), when she played the title role in Nikki, a musical by novice composers Philip Charig and James Dyrenforth. It hung around for thirty-nine performances (playing two different Broadway houses over those four weeks, if you can believe it). After that, Archie Leach went out west, changed his name to Cary Grant, and in short order, became … well, Cary Grant.
Grant’s first roles in features were small ones in such films as This is the Night, Sinners in the Sun, Singapore Sue and Merrily We Go to Hell (my personal favorite). It wasn’t until Blonde Venus (released in 1932, the same year as all those titles just listed), when those in power figured out exactly what Grant had to offer on screen. Playing opposite Marlene Dietrich, the heat generated between them got Grant bigger parts with even bigger stars like Sylvia Sidney, Carole Lombard, Loretta Young and Mae West. From then on, Grant never lacked for offers. He was also one of the very few Hollywood leading men who refused to sign a studio contract. He was a very smart businessman, though if the legend holds true, was notoriously as cheap as the fictionally tight-fisted Jack Benny.
As evidence of his unique qualities, watch this scene from one of his top three performances (maybe the top) as Walter Burns in Howard Hawks's brilliantly paced His Girl Friday, considered one of the fastest-talking films ever made. In this scene with Rosalind Russell (sublime) and Ralph Bellamy (perfect), watch Grant's behavior and how he listens. If you don't take your eyes off him for the whole 3:29 minutes, you'll get lessons in acting that stand the test of time.
As promised, by way of what he accomplished as a screen actor, here’s that personal list of films, though by no means complete and open to discussion. If I left off anyone’s personal favorite, what can I say? He made so damn many good ones. Grant’s prodigious talents as a comedian, as leading man, and as dramatic actor are all on display here. No one ever quite held the screen with the authority of Cary Grant in so many genres. Check out any (or all) of these titles — the proof is in the Yorkshire Pudding.
Topper (1937), The Awful Truth (1937), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Holiday (1938), Gunga Din (1939), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), The Philadelphia Story (1940), Notorious (1946), The Bishop’s Wife (1947), To Catch a Thief (1955), An Affair to Remember (1957), North by Northwest (1959), Charade (1963).
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. And please feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.