G is for Grant
It’s almost impossible to imagine Cary Grant in anything other than a dinner jacket, martini in hand, exchanging witty banter with other beautiful people. He seemed tailor-made for the smart, sophisticated comedies that propelled him to stardom.
His easy wit, charming manner and air of genial superiority created the Grant persona: the high-born, well-spoken cad at ease with himself and the world. It was a persona severely at odds with the reality: born Archibald Leach into poverty and emotional insecurity that would dog him for most of his life.
Along with a handful of other players – Katharine Hepburn, William Powell, Myrna Loy – he often epitomised the audience’s idea of class and patrician authority, and convinced the world that the wealthy might well deserve their glittering jewels and supper clubs and grand apartments, if only because they had such a wonderful time enjoying their privileges.
In several peerless comedies of the thirties and forties he matched wits with clever women like Constance Bennett, Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell, and was casually cruel to a succession of chumps, usually poor Ralph Bellamy. He would win the girl through connivance, guile and dirty tricks, and have a grand old time doing it.
Of course, it helps that he was a gifted comedian, especially in the hands of director Howard Hawks.
You would be forgiven for thinking that Hollywood invented the comedy of remarriage especially for Grant. In My Favorite Wife he has to win back his ex-wife Irene Dunne from dull Ralph Bellamy. He’d almost lost her to him in The Awful Truth.
He wins ex-wife Rosalind Russell back from Bellamy in His Girl Friday (the film contains two marvellous in-jokes. Speaking on the phone, Grant describes his rival. “He looks like that fellow in the movies – what’s his name, Ralph Bellamy.” Later, he says, “the last man who said that to me was Archie Leach a week before he cut his throat.”)
Grant is Walter Burns, the unscrupulous editor who will do anything to ensure that his ex-wife and best reporter, Hildy Johnson, will postpone her wedding for long enough to stay and cover an execution.
In The Philadelphia Story – a film about “the privileged class enjoying its privileges” – he wins ex-wife Katharine Hepburn from the clutches of her priggish fiance, John Howard (where was Bellamy?) but not before she has an innocent dalliance with James Stewart.
The film opens with Hepburn throwing Grant out of the house. She breaks his golf club over her knee. Emasculated, he makes to punch her, but opts instead to push her back through the doorway. With anyone else, that would be a violent gesture, but even Grant’s physical aggression seems futile.
Besides, he was always better suited to verbal sparring and playful repartee. James Stewart shows up drunk; when he hiccups, it’s Grant that says “excuse me” (an ad-lib that almost has the two actors in giggles).
I am not sure the screen has had a better comic leading man and, like many comedians, he wanted to be taken seriously, perhaps because his private life appears to have been anything but comic, marked as it was by failed marriages, a complex relationship with his mother (she had been committed to an asylum when he was a boy), and persistent rumours about his sexuality (mostly around his relationship with Randolph Scott: the two lived together for more than a decade).
There was the flyer adventure dram Only Angels Have Wings, a weepie, Penny Serenade, about a couple desperate to adopt, and then there was the Cockney poverty drama None But The Lonely Heart, which he desperately wanted (it was perhaps the only thing he ever played in his Hollywood career that came close to his own experience), and it gained him an Oscar nomination.
Audiences, though, still preferred him light, pulling faces and yelping in Arsenic and Old Lace (one of his most popular performances, and also the one he hated the most).
It was Alfred Hitchcock who perhaps used him best. They made four films together, and one, North by Northwest, marked a high point for both of them.
“The Hitchcock film to end all Hitchcock films” is how screenwriter Ernest Lehman described the wrong-man-on-the-run movie.
As with many of Hitchcock’s suspense films, much of it is daft, and it possibly wouldn’t work as well as it does if the hero was not smooth-talking ladies’ man Cary Grant, here playing a smooth-talking Madison Avenue advertising executive.mistaken by the baddies for a CIA spy. It includes many wonderful moments, not least of which a famous scene where the villains try to kill him with a cropduster.
The film also has a lot to do with the suave and charming persona of “Cary Grant”. He was 55 when he filmed North by Northwest – getting up there, but still something of a romantic lead – and some have read his journey in the film as a journey through his career. It’s an interesting idea: at times you can see the Grant of Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, and The Philadelphia Story. There’s a wonderful moment where he breaks into a hospital room and wakes up a woman. She screams “Stop!” Then she gets a good look at him, melts and breathes “Stop…?