Originally published in the New Yorker magazine, July 14th, 1975 By Pauline Kael.
American Masters Online thanks the New Yorker for their kind permission to reprint this classic essay.
“You can be had,” Mae West said to Cary Grant in “She Done Him Wrong,” which opened in January, 1933, and that was what the women stars of most of his greatest hits were saying to him for thirty years, as he backed away–but not too far. One after another, the great ladies courted him–Irene Dunne in “The Awful Truth” and “My Favorite Wife,” Katharine Hepburn in “Bringing Up Baby” and “Holiday,” Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth in “Only Angels Have Wings,” Ingrid Bergman in “Notorious,” Grace Kelly in “To Catch a Thief,” Eva Marie Saint in “North by Northwest,” Audrey Hepburn in “Charade.” Willing but not forward, Cary Grant must be the most publicly seduced male the world has known, yet he has never become a public joke–not even when Tony Curtis parodied him in “Some Like It Hot,” encouraging Marilyn Monroe to rape. The little bit of shyness and reserve in Grant is pure box-office gold, and being the pursued doesn’t make him seem weak or passively soft. It makes him glamorous–and, since he is not as available as other men, far more desirable.
Cary Grant is the male love object. Men want to be as lucky and enviable as he is–they want to be like him. And women imagine landing him. Like Robert Redford, he’s sexiest in pictures in which the woman is the aggressor and all the film’s erotic energy is concentrated on him, as it was in “Notorious”: Ingrid Bergman practically ravished him while he was trying to conduct a phone conversation. Redford has never been so radiantly glamorous as in “The Way We Were,” when we saw him through Barbra Streisand’s infatuated eyes. But in “The Great Gatsby,” when Redford needed to do for Mia Farrow what Streisand had done for him, he couldn’t transcend his immaculate self-absorption. If he had looked at her with desire, everything else about the movie might have been forgiven. Cary Grant would not have failed; yearning for an idealized love was not beyond his resources. It may even be part of his essence: in the sleekly confected “The Philadelphia Story,” he brought conviction to the dim role of the blue blood standing by Katharine Hepburn and waiting on the sidelines. He expressed the very sort of desperate constancy that Redford failed to express. Grant’s marital farces with Irene Dunne probably wouldn’t have been as effective as they were if he hadn’t suggested a bedeviled constancy in the midst of the confusion. The heroine who chases him knows that deep down he wants to be caught only by her. He draws women to him by making them feel he needs them, yet the last thing he’d do would be to come right out and say it. In “Only Angels Have Wings,” Jean Arthur half falls apart waiting for him to make a move; in “His Girl Friday,” he’s unabashed about everything in the world except why he doesn’t want Rosalind Russell to go off with Ralph Bellamy. He isn’t weak, yet something in him makes him hold back–and that something (a slight uncertainty? the fear of a commitment? a mixture of ardor and idealism?) makes him more exciting.
The romantic male stars aren’t necessarily sexually aggressive. Henry Fonda wasn’t; neither was James Stewart, or, later, Marcello Mastroianni. The foursquare Clark Gable, with his bold, open challenge to women, was more the exception than the rule, and Gable wasn’t romantic, like Grant. Gable got down to brass tacks; his advances were basic, his unspoken question was “Well, sister, what do you say?” If she said no, she was failing what might almost be nature’s test. She’d become overcivilized, afraid of her instincts–afraid of being a woman. There was a violent, primal appeal in Gable’s sex scenes: it was all out front–in the way he looked at her, man to woman. Cary Grant doesn’t challenge a woman that way. (When he tried, as the frontiersman in “The Howards of Virginia,” he looked thick and stupid.) With Gable, sex is inevitable: What is there but sex? Basically, he thinks women are good for only one thing. Grant is interested in the qualities of a particular woman–her sappy expression, her non sequiturs, the way her voice bobbles. She isn’t going to be pushed to the wall as soon as she’s alone with him. With Grant, the social, urban man, there are infinite possibilities for mutual entertainment. They might dance the night away or stroll or go to a carnival–and nothing sexual would happen unless she wanted it to. Grant doesn’t assert his male supremacy; in the climax of a picture he doesn’t triumph by his fists and brawn–or even by outwitting anybody. He isn’t a conqueror, like Gable. But he’s a winner. The game, however, is an artful dodge. He gets the blithe, funny girl by maneuvering her into going after him. He’s a fairy-tale hero, but she has to pass through the trials: She has to trim her cold or pompous adversaries; she has to dispel his fog. In picture after picture, he seems to give up his resistance at the end, as if to say, What’s the use of fighting?
Many men must have wanted to be Clark Gable and look straight at a woman with a faint smirk and lifted, questioning eyebrows. What man doesn’t–at some level–want to feel supremely confident and earthy and irresistible? But a few steps up the dreamy social ladder there’s the more subtle fantasy of worldly grace–of being so gallant and gentlemanly and charming that every woman longs to be your date. And at that deluxe level men want to be Cary Grant. Men as far apart as John F. Kennedy and Lucky Luciano thought that he should star in their life story. Who but Cary Grant could be a fantasy self-image for a President and a gangster chief? Who else could demonstrate that sophistication didn’t have to be a sign of weakness–that it could be the polished, fun-loving style of those who were basically tough? Cary Grant has said that even he wanted to be Cary Grant.
And for women, if the roof leaks, or the car stalls, or you don’t know how to get the super to keep his paws off you, you may long for a Clark Gable to take charge, but when you think of going out, Cary Grant is your dream date–not sexless but sex with civilized grace, sex with mystery. He’s the man of the big city, triumphantly suntanned. Sitting out there in Los Angeles, the expatriate New York writers projected onto him their fantasies of Eastern connoisseurship and suavity. How could the heroine ever consider marrying a rich rube from Oklahoma and leaving Cary Grant and the night spots? Los Angeles itself has never recovered from the inferiority complex that its movies nourished, and every moviegoing kid in America felt that the people in New York were smarter, livelier, and better-looking than anyone in his home town. The audience didn’t become hostile; it took the contempt as earned. There were no Cary Grants in the sticks. He and his counterparts were to be found only in the imaginary cities of the movies. When you look at him, you take for granted expensive tailors, international travel, and the best that life has to offer. Women see a man they could have fun with. Clark Gable is an intensely realistic sexual presence; you don’t fool around with Gable. But with Grant there are no pressures, no demands; he’s the sky that women aspire to. When he and a woman are together, they can laugh at each other and at themselves. He’s a slapstick Prince Charming.
Mae West’s raucous invitation to him–“Why don’t you come up sometime and see me? Come on up. I’ll tell your fortune”–was echoed thirty years later by Audrey Hepburn in “Charade”: “Won’t you come in for a minute? I don’t bite, you know, unless it’s called for.” And then, purringly, “Do you know what’s wrong with you? Nothing.” That might be a summary of Cary Grant, the finest romantic comedian of his era: there’s nothing the matter with him. Many of the male actors who entered movies when sound came in showed remarkable powers of endurance–James Cagney, Bing Crosby, Charles Boyer, Fred Astaire–but they didn’t remain heroes. Spencer Tracy didn’t, either; he became paternal and judicious. Henry Fonda and James Stewart turned into folksy elder statesmen, sagacious but desexed. Cary Grant has had the longest romantic reign in the short history of movies. He might be cast as an arrogant rich boy, an unscrupulous cynic, or a selfish diplomat but there was nothing sullen or self-centered in his acting. Grant never got star-stuck, on himself; he never seemed to be saying, Look at me. The most obvious characteristic of his acting is the absence of narcissism–the outgoingness to the audience.
CARY GRANT was a knockout in his dapper young days as a Paramount leading man to such suffering sinners as Sylvia Sidney, Carole Lombard, Tallulah Bankhead, Marlene Dietrich, Nancy Carroll. He appeared with this batch in 1932; Paramount threw him into seven pictures in his first year. In some two dozen roles in four years, he was a passable imitation of Noël Coward or Jack Buchanan, though not as brittle as Coward or as ingratiatingly silly as Buchanan. He played a celebrated javelin thrower in “This Is the Night,” a rotten rich roué in “Sinners in the Sun,” the husband of a diva in “Enter Madam” and of another diva in “When You’re in Love.” He was a flier who went blind in “Wings in the Dark;” he wore a dinky mustache and was captured by the Kurds in “The Last Outpost;” he used a black bullwhip on the villainous Jack La Rue in “The Woman Accused.” But that’s all a blur. He didn’t have a strong enough personality to impose himself on viewers, and most people don’t remember Cary Grant for those roles, or even much for his tall-dark-and-handsome stints with Mae West. He might never have become a star if it had not been for the sudden onset of screwball comedy in 1934–the year when “The Thin Man” and “Twentieth Century” and “It Happened One Night” changed American movies. His performances in screwball comedies–particularly “The Awful Truth,” in 1937, his twenty-ninth picture–turned him into the comedian-hero that people think of as Cary Grant. He was resplendent before but characterless, even a trace languid–a slightly wilted sheik. He was Mae West’s classiest and best leading man, but he did more for her in “She Done Him Wrong” and “I’m No Angel” than she did for him. She brought out his passivity, and a quality of refinement in him which made her physical aggression seem a playful gambit. (With tough men opposite her, she was less charming, more crude.) Sizing him up with her satyr’s eyes and deciding he was a prize catch, she raised our estimate of him. Yet Grant still had that pretty-boy killer look; he was too good-looking to be on the level. And although he was outrageously attractive with Mae West, he was vaguely ill at ease; his face muscles betrayed him, and he looked a little fleshy. He didn’t yet know how the camera should see him; he didn’t focus his eyes on her the way he learned to use his eyes later. No doubt he felt absurd in his soulful, cow-eyed leading-man roles, and tried to conceal it; when he had nothing to do in a scene, he stood lunged forward as if hoping to catch a ball. He became Cary Grant when he learned to project his feelings of absurdity through his characters and to make a style out of their feeling silly. Once he realized that each movement could be stylized for humor, the eye popping, the cocked head, the forward lunge, and the slightly ungainly stride became as certain as the pen strokes of a master cartoonist. The new element of romantic slapstick in the mid-thirties comedies–the teasing role reversals and shifts of mood–loosened him up and brought him to life. At last, he could do on the screen what he had been trained to do, and a rambunctious, springy side of his nature came out. Less “Continental” and more physical, he became funny and at the same time sexy. He was no longer effete; the booming voice had vitality.
It was in 1935, when the director George Cukor cast him as a loud-mouthed product of the British slums–a con man and strolling player–in the Katharine Hepburn picture “Sylvia Scarlett,” that Grant’s boisterous energy first broke through. He was so brashly likable that viewers felt vaguely discomfited at the end when Brian Aherne (who had given an insufferably egotistic performance) wound up with Hepburn. Grant, on loan from Paramount to RKO, doesn’t play the leading male role, yet his con man is so loose and virile that he has more life than anything else in the picture. Grant seemed to be enjoying himself on the screen in a way he never had before. Cukor said that Grant suddenly “felt the ground under his feet.” Instead of hiding in his role, as usual, he expanded and gave his scenes momentum. “Sylvia Scarlett” was a box-office failure, but Grant knew now what he could play, and a year later, free to pick his own projects, he appeared in “Topper” and his fan mail jumped from two hundred letters a week to fourteen hundred. A few months after that, he got into his full stride with “The Awful Truth.”
What makes Grant such an uncannily romantic comedian is that with the heroine he’s different from the way he is with everybody else; you sense an affinity between them. In “The Awful Truth,” he’s a hearty, sociable businessman when he’s with other people, but when he’s with Irene Dunne you feel the tenderness that he conceals from others. The conventional bedroom-farce plot (filmed twice before) is about a couple who still love each other but have a tiff and file for divorce; during the period of the interlocutory decree, the husband has visiting rights to see their dog, and this cunning device enables Grant to hang around, romping affectionately with the dog while showing his (unstated) longing for his wife. Grant is a comic master at throwaway lines, and he turns them into a dialogue, as if he were talking to himself. The husband can’t quite straighten out his marriage, yet every muttered, throwaway word expresses how badly he wants to. Grant’s work with Irene Dunne in “The Awful Truth” is the most gifted stooging imaginable. She was betrayed by the costume designer: she’s shrilly dressed. And though she is often funny, she overdoes the coy gurgles, and that bright, toothy smile of hers–she shows both rows of teeth, prettily held together–can make one want to slug her. The ancestor of Julie Andrews, Irene Dunne has a bad habit of condescending to anything oddball her character does–signaling the audience that she’s really a lady playacting. But Grant stabilizes her and provides the believability. He’s forceful and extroverted, yet he underplays so gently that his restraint enables her to get by with her affectations. Grant uses his intense physical awareness to make the scenes play, and never to make himself look good at the expense of someone else–not even when he could waltz away with the show. He performs the gags with great gusto, but he never lets us forget that the character is behaving like an oaf because he doesn’t want to lose his wife, and that he’s trying to protect his raw places.
Henry Fonda played roles similar to Grant’s, and it isn’t hard to imagine Fonda as the husband in “The Awful Truth” or as the paleontologist hero of “Bringing Up Baby,” but Fonda would have been more of a hayseed, and lighter-weight. And if Grant had played Fonda’s role in “The Lady Eve” Grant wouldn’t have been the perfect, pratfalling innocent that Fonda was: Fonda, with his saintly bumpkin’s apologetic smile and his double-jointed gait, could play bashful stupes more convincingly than any other romantic star. However, it’s part of the audience’s pleasure in Grant that he isn’t a green kid–he’s a muscular, full-bodied man making a fool of himself. There were other gifted urbane farceurs. The best of them, William Powell, with his skeptical, tolerant equanimity, was supremely likable; he got the most out of each blink and each twitch of his lips, and he had amazing dimples, which he could invoke without even smiling. But Powell and the others didn’t have romantic ardor hidden inside their jokes. And although there were other fine romantic actors, such as Charles Boyer, their love scenes often turned mooshy, while Grant’s had the redeeming zest of farce.
Perfection in drawing-room comedy was almost certainly Grant’s dream of glory (it appears to have remained so), but he had, as a young vaudeville comedian, acquired the skills that were to turn him into an idol for all social classes. Drawing-room-comedy stars–no matter how artful–don’t become that kind of idol. When we in the audience began to sense the pleasure he took in low comedy, we accepted him as one of us. Ray Milland, Melvyn Douglas, and Robert Young acted the screwball-comedy heroes proficiently, but the roles didn’t release anything in their own natures–didn’t liberate and complete them, the way farce completed Grant. Afterward, even when he played straight romantic parts the freedom and strength stayed with him. And never left him: he gave some embarrassed, awful performances when he was miscast, but he was never less than a star. He might still parade in the tuxedos and the tails of his dashing-young-idiot days, but he was a buoyant, lusty performer. The assurance he gained in slapstick turned him into the smoothie he had aspired to be. He brought elegance to low comedy, and low comedy gave him the corky common-man touch that made him a great star. Grant was English, so Hollywood thought he sounded educated and was just right for rich playboys, but he didn’t speak in the gentlemanly tones that American moviegoers think of as British; he was a Cockney. In the early sixties, when he was offered the role of Henry Higgins in the big movie version of “My Fair Lady,” he laughed at the idea. “The way I talk now,” he said, “is the way Eliza talked at the beginning.” Cary Grant’s romantic elegance is wrapped around the resilient, tough core of a mutt, and Americans dream of thoroughbreds while identifying with mutts. So do moviegoers the world over. The greatest movie stars have not been highborn; they have been strong-willed (often deprived) kids who came to embody their own dreams, and the public’s.
ARCHIBALD ALEXANDER LEACH, born in Bristol on January 18, 1904, was the only child of Elias James Leach and Elsie Kingdom Leach, their firstborn son having died in infancy. Elias Leach was tall, and in photographs he seems almost reprehensibly handsome, with a cavalier’s mustache, soft, flashing dark eyes, and a faintly melancholy look of resignation. He is said to have been convivial and fond of singing–a temperament his wife definitely did not share. There wasn’t much they did share. He came, probably, from a Jewish background, but went along with his wife’s Anglicanism. He couldn’t live up to her middle class expectations, however. Elias Leach pressed men’s suits in a garment factory, and although he worked hard in the first years of the marriage, he never rose far or made much of a living. Mrs. Leach pampered their protesting child, keeping him in baby dresses, and then in short pants and long curls. A domineering woman with an early history of mental instability, she was married to a pantspresser but she wanted her son to be a cultured, piano-playing little gentleman. The parents were miserable together, and the boy was caught in the middle. When Archie was nine, he returned home from school one day to find that his mother was missing; he was led to think she had gone to a local seaside resort, and it was a long time before he learned that she had broken down and been taken to an institution. In a series of autobiographical articles published in the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1963, he wrote, “I was not to see my mother again for more than twenty years, by which time my name was changed and I was a full-grown man living in America, thousands of miles away in California. I was known, to most people of the world by sight and by name, yet not to my mother.”
After Mrs. Leach’s removal, Leach and his son took up quarters in the same building as Leach’s mother, but the boy was left pretty much on his own, fixing meals for himself most of the week, and trying to live up to his absent mother’s hopes for him. He went to Boy Scout meetings, studied hard, and won a school scholarship; he planned to try for a further scholarship, which would take him to college, but found out that even with a scholarship college would be too expensive. From early childhood, he had been going to the children’s Saturday movie matinees, and he later said that the sessions with Chaplin, Ford Sterling and the Keystone Cops, Fatty Arbuckle, Mack Swain, John Bunny and Flora Finch, and Broncho Billy Anderson were the high point of his week. When his mother was still at home, he had a party (the only children’s party he remembers attending) that featured a candle-powered magic lantern with comic slides, to which he added his own joking commentary. His first contact with music hall came quite by chance. At school, he liked chemistry, and he sometimes hung around the lab on rainy days; the assistant science teacher was an electrician, who had installed the lighting system at the Bristol Hippodrome, and one Saturday matinee he took Archie, just turned thirteen, backstage.
It was probably the only free atmosphere the boy had ever experienced. He wrote later that backstage, in a “dazzling land of smiling, jostling people,” he knew. “What other life could there be but that of an actor? … They were classless, cheerful, and carefree.” He was lonely enough and had enough hustle to start going to the Hippodrome, and another theatre, the Empire, in the early evenings, making himself useful; he helped with the lights, ran errands, and began to pick up the show-business vernacular. When he learned that Bob Pender, a former Drury Lane clown, had a troupe of young knockabout comedians that suffered attrition each time a boy came of military age, he wrote, in the guise of his father, asking that Archibald be taken for training. Pender replied offering an interview and enclosing the railway fare to Norwich, and Archie ran away from home to become an apprentice. He was so tall that Pender accepted him, not realizing that he wasn’t yet fourteen–the legal age for leaving school. It took a few days before Leach noticed that his son was gone. Earlier that year, Archie had taken a spill on an icy playground and broken an upper front tooth. Rather than tell his father, he had gone to a dental school and had the remainder of the tooth pulled out. His other teeth had closed together over the gap (giving him his characteristic upper-lip-pulled-down, tough urchin grin) without his father’s ever noticing. But, whatever Leach’s failings, he appears to have meant well, and when it registered with him that the boy had run off, he tracked him down and brought him back. He might as well have saved himself the effort. Having given up his dream of college, Archie no longer cared about school, and he concentrated on acrobatics, so he’d be in shape to rejoin Pender as soon as he could. It was soon. Just after he turned fourteen, he and another boy attempted to explore the girls’ lavatories, and he was expelled from school. Three days later, with his father’s consent, he was a member of Pender’s troupe. Only three months passed before he returned to Bristol in triumph–on the stage at the Empire, his old schoolmates in the audience.
ARCHIE LEACH found his vocation early and stuck to it. He studied dancing, tumbling, stilt-walking, and pantomime, and performed constantly in provincial towns and cities and in the London vaudeville houses. In the Christmas season, the troupe appeared in the traditional entertainments for children–slapstick musical-comedy versions of such stories as “Cinderella” and “Puss in Boots.” Living dormitory-style, exercising and rehearsing, Archie had left his parents’ class-ridden world behind. Once he’d joined up with Pender, he never lived with his father again, and he lost track of him over the years. The music-hall theatre became his world; he has said that at each theatre, when he wasn’t onstage, he was watching and studying the other acts from the wings. In July, 1920, when Pender selected a group of eight boys for an engagement in New York City, the sixteen-year-old Archie was among them. They sailed on the S.S. Olympic, which was also carrying the celebrated honeymooners Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Mary Pickford. More than forty years later, Cary Grant described his reaction to Fairbanks: “Once even I found myself being photographed with Mr. Fairbanks during a game of shuffleboard. As I stood beside him, I tried with shy, inadequate words to tell him of my adulation. He was a splendidly trained athlete and acrobat, affable and warmed by success and well-being. A gentleman in the true sense of the word. … It suddenly dawns on me as this is being written that I’ve doggedly striven to keep tanned ever since, only because of a desire to emulate his healthful appearance.” He and Fairbanks had much in common: shattered, messy childhoods, and fathers who drifted away and turned to drink. It appears that they were both part Jewish but were raised as Christians; and they both used acrobatics in their careers–though Fairbanks, a narrowly limited actor but a fine acrobat, was a passionate devotee, while Grant used acrobatics only as a means of getting into theatrical life. And, though they represented different eras, they were loved by the public in similar ways–for their strapping health and high spirits, for being on and giving out whenever they were in front of an audience, for grinning with pleasure at their own good luck. Grant’s later marriage to Barbara Hutton–Babs, the golden girl, “the richest girl in the world”–had a fairytale resemblance to the Fairbanks-Pickford nuptials.
In New York City, the Bob Pender boys were a great success at the Hippodrome, which was considered the world’s largest theatre. After the engagement was over, they got booked in the major Eastern cities and wound up back in New York at the top–the Palace. When the American tour ended, in 1922, and it was time to go home, Archie Leach and several of the other boys decided to stay. He had four solid years of performing behind him, but he had never actually been in a play, and though he’d been singing on the stage, he’d never spoken dialogue. The Pender troupe had been big time, but on his own he wasn’t even small time–he had no act. In the first summer of job-hunting in New York, his savings went and he ate into the return fare Pender had given him for an emergency retreat. He must, however, have been an incredible charmer (it isn’t hard to imagine), because, although he was only eighteen, he was invited to fill in at dinner parties, where he sat among the wealthy and famous–on one occasion, he was delegated to be the escort of the great soprano Lucrezia Bori. By day, after he finally landed work, he was a stilt walker on the boardwalk at Coney Island, advertising Steeplechase Park. (It was many years before his status in life was commensurate with the regard people had for him.) In the fall, he shared quarters with a young Australian, who later became known as the costume designer Orry-Kelly; in those days, Kelly made and tried to sell hand-painted neckties, and Archie Leach peddled them along Sixth Avenue and in Greenwich Village. Around the same time, Leach and other ex-members of the Pender troupe got together in the new Hippodrome show, and joined up with some Americans and organized a vaudeville act. After trying it out in small towns in the East, they played the lesser vaudeville circuits through Canada and back across the country from California to New York. In 1924, having saved enough money to go their separate ways, the boys disbanded, some of them returning to England, Archie Leach to job-hunting in New York again.
He worked in juggling acts, and with unicycle riders, and with dancers; he was the audience plant with a mind-reading act. As a straight man for comics, he got one-night stands at churches and lodges, and brief engagements in the stage shows that movie theatres used to put on before the film. As his timing improved and he became more experienced, he got more bookings; he says that eventually he played “practically every small town in America.” Then, when he was working in New York, a friend who was a musical-comedy juvenile suggested that instead of going on with his vaudeville career he should try to get into Broadway musical comedy, and introduced him to Reggie Hammerstein, who took him to his uncle, the producer Arthur Hammerstein. At the end of 1927, Archie Leach appeared in the role of an Australian–the second male lead–in the Otto Harbach-Oscar Hammerstein II show “Golden Dawn,” which opened the new Hammerstein’s Theatre and ran there until the late spring. He’d got onto Broadway, all right–and Broadway was then in its frivolous heyday–but he hadn’t got into musical comedy. It was operetta he was caught in, and, having signed a contract with the Hammersteins, that’s where he stayed. Marilyn Miller wanted him as a replacement for Jack Donahue, her leading man in the Ziegfeld hit “Rosalie,” but Arthur Hammerstein and Ziegfeld were enemies, and instead (despite his pleas) his contract was turned over to the Shuberts–for three full years of operetta.
Archie Leach’s first Shubert show was “Boom Boom,” a 1929 hit, starring Jeanette MacDonald. (The New Yorker’s reviewer, Charles Brackett, wrote that “‘Boom Boom’ can teach one more about despair than the most expert philosopher.”) During its run, he and Jeanette MacDonald were both tested at Paramount’s Astoria studio. She was immediately signed up to be the bubbly Maurice Chevalier’s petulant, coy co-star in Ernst Lubitsch’s “The Love Parade;” he was rejected, because he had a thick neck and bowlegs. Had he been signed as a singing star, he might have been stuck in a Mountie’s hat, like Nelson Eddy. He did become a singing star on the stage. He played a leading role in a lavish and, apparently, admirable version of “Die Fledermaus” called” A Wonderful Night,” but it opened on October 31, 1929, two days after the stock market crash, and it crashed, too; for months it was performed to near-empty houses. In the summer of 1931, the Shuberts sent him to St. Louis for the open-air Municipal Opera season, where he was a great success in such shows as “Irene,” “Rio Rita,” “Countess Maritza,” “The Three Musketeers,” and the Broadway casualty “A Wonderful Night.” After that, he got a temporary release from the Shuberts and appeared on Broadway in the role of Cary Lockwood, supporting Fay Wray (who was already a popular movie actress) in “Nikki,” a musical play by her husband, John Monk Saunders, which flopped.
In 1931, Leach also appeared in “Singapore Sue,” a ten-minute movie short, starring Anna Chang, that Casey Robinson made for Paramount in Astoria; Leach, Millard Mitchell, and two other actors played American sailors in an Oriental café. Leach is striking; he grabs the screen–but not pleasantly, and he does have a huge neck. He’s rather gross in general–heavy-featured, and with a wide, false smile. His curly-lipped sailor is excessively handsome–overripe, like the voluptuous young Victor Mature. Some of the early-thirties Hollywood publicity photographs of Grant are like that, too; the images have the pop overeagerness one often sees in graduation and wedding poses in photographers’ shopwindows. Self-consciousness and bad makeup must have overcome him on that first bout with the movie camera, because photographs of him in his stage performances show a far more refined handsomeness, and the Leach of “Singapore Sue” doesn’t fit the image of him in accounts by his contemporaries.
Although Leach didn’t appear in the smart shows, he was something of a figure in the New York smart set, and he was known to the Algonquin group in that period when the theatrical and literary worlds were one. Some people considered him an intellectual and a powerhouse talent of the future. Moss Hart later described him as disconsolate in those years; Hart and Leach were among a group of dreamers talking of changing the theatre (the circle also included Edward Chodorov and Preston Sturges) who met daily in the Rudley’s Restaurant at Forty-first Street and Broadway. It was a hangout where one got leads about possible jobs, and many performers frequented the place–Jeanette MacDonald, George Murphy, Humphrey Bogart. But Archie Leach was the only actor who was a regular at the Rudley rebels’ table. The Anzac role he’d played in “Golden Dawn” must have clung to him, or perhaps, since he never talked much about his background, some of the others mistook his Cockney for an Australian accent, because they called him Kangaroo, and sometimes Boomerang. “He was never a very open fellow,” Chodorov says, “but he was earnest and we liked him.” “Intellectual” was probably the wrong word for Leach. They talked; he listened. He doesn’t appear to have been much of a reader (except later on, during his marriage to Betsy Drake, when he became immersed in the literature of hypnotism and the occult), but there’s no indication that anyone ever doubted his native intelligence. It’s a wide-awake intelligence, though this may not be apparent from his public remarks of the sixties, which had a wholesome Rotarian tone he adopted during LSD treatments with a medical guru. In his youth, Leach liked to hang around people who were gifted and highly educated; always looking for ways to improve himself, he probably hoped that their knowledge would rub off on him. But there must have been more to it than that; he must have looked up to the brilliant young Rudley’s group because the theatre he worked in didn’t fully satisfy his mind. Uneducated outside the theatre, he was eager for spiritual leadership–for wisdom. In Hollywood, he was to sit at the feet of Clifford Odets, the leading wisdom merchant of the theatrical left (the sagacity was what marred Odets’ plays). And during his many years of LSD sessions he was euphoric about how the drug had enabled him to relax his conscious controls and reach his subconscious, thus making him a better man–less selfish, fit at last for marriage, and so on. Obviously, he felt that he’d found a scientific route to wisdom.
When “Nikki” closed, on October 31, 1931, Leach decided to take a “vacation,” and set out with a composer friend to drive to Los Angeles. He knew what he was after; many of the people he’d been working with were already in the movies. He had the situation cooled: he’d been earning from three hundred dollars to four hundred and fifty dollars a week for several years, and the Shuberts were eager to employ him if he returned. He had barely arrived in Hollywood when he was taken to a small dinner party at the home of B. P. Schulberg, the head of Paramount, who invited him to make a test (“Singapore Sue” had not yet been released), and after seeing it Schulberg offered him a contract. The studio executives wanted his name changed, and his friends Fay Wray and John Monk Saunders suggested that he use “Cary Lockwood.” He proposed it when he went back to discuss the contract, but he was told that “Lockwood” was a little long. Someone went down a list of names and stopped at “Grant.” He nodded, they nodded, and the contract went into effect on December 7th. He wasn’t ever “discovered.” Movies were simply the next step.
If Archie Leach’s upward progress seems a familiar saga, it is familiar in the rags-to-riches mode of a tycoon or a statesman. What is missing from his steady climb to fame is tension. He became a performer in an era in which learning to entertain the public was a trade; he worked at his trade, progressed, and rose to the top. He has probably never had the sort of doubts about acting which have plagued so many later performers, and he didn’t agonize over choices, as actors of his stature do now. A young actor now generally feels that he is an artist only when he uses his technique for personal expression and for something he believes in. And so he has a problem that Archie Leach never faced: When the actor became an artist in the modern sense, he also became a sellout. He began to feel emasculated when he played formula roles that depended on technique only, and he had to fight himself to retain his belief in the audience, which often preferred what he did when he sold out. He was up against all the temptations, corruptions, and conflicts that writers and composers and painters had long been wrestling with. Commerce is a bind for actors now in a way it never was for Archie Leach; art for him was always a trade.
He was unusually long-sighted about his career, and prodigiously disciplined, and so he got into a position in which he didn’t have to take any guff from anybody. The Hammersteins had sold him to the Shuberts when he wanted to go to Ziegfeld; and to get movie roles he had to commit himself to a five-year contract with Paramount. But that was the last time he let others have the power to tell him what to do. He was twenty-seven when he signed the contract–at a starting salary of four hundred and fifty dollars a week. Paramount didn’t know what it had. It used him as a second-string Gary Cooper, putting him in the pictures Cooper was too busy for–or, even worse, in imitations of roles that Cooper had just scored in. In between, Paramount lent him out to other studios and collected the fees. He was no more than a pawn in these deals. M-G-M requested him for one of the top roles in “Mutiny on the Bounty,” a role he desperately wanted, but Paramount refused, and Franchot Tone won the part. A little later, Paramount lent him to M-G-M to support Jean Harlow in the piddling “Suzy.”
When that contract ended, in February, 1937, Cary Grant, just turned thirty-three, was raring to go. He never signed another exclusive contract with a studio; he selected his scripts and his directors, and this is probably what saved him from turning into a depressingly sentimental figure, like the later, tired Gary Cooper, or a drudge, like the big M-G-M stars. It was in his first year on his own, free of studio orders, that he became a true star. In comedy, Cary Grant just might be the greatest straight man in the business, and his specialty is to apply his aplomb as a straight man to romance.
The “lunatic” thirties comedies that made him a star are still enjoyed, but their rationale has dropped from sight. In essence, they turned love and marriage into vaudeville acts and changed the movie heroine from sweet clinging vine into vaudeville, partner. Starting in 1934, when things were still bad but Roosevelt and the New Deal had created an upswing spirit, the happy screwball comedies were entertainment for a country that had weathered the worst of the Depression and was beginning to feel hopeful. Yet people had been shaken up. The new comedies suggested an element of lunacy and confusion in the world; the heroes and heroines rolled with the punches and laughed at disasters. Love became slightly surreal; it became stylized–lovers talked back to each other, and fast. Comedy became the new romance, and trading wisecracks was the new courtship rite. The cheerful, wacked-out heroes and heroines had abandoned sanity; they were a little crazy, and that’s what they liked in each other. They were like the wisecracking soldiers in service comedies: if you were swapping quips, you were alive–you hadn’t gone under. The jokes were a national form of gallantry–humor for survival. Actual lunatics in these movies became enjoyable eccentrics, endearing nuts who often made better sense than anybody else (or at least as much sense), while the butts of screwball humor were the prigs and phonies, the conventional go-getters, the stick-in-the-mud conformists. Ralph Bellamy, the classic loser and opposite number to Cary Grant in “The Awful Truth” and again in “His Girl Friday,” still thought in the strict, stuffed-shirt terms of the Babbitty past. The word “square” wasn’t yet in slang use, but that’s the part Bellamy played–the man who didn’t get the joke. Obliging and available, always around when you didn’t want him (there was really no time when you did), he was the man to be jilted.
The comedies celebrated a change in values. In the movies of the twenties and the early thirties, girls who chased after riches and luxury learned the error of their ways, but after 1934 sin wasn’t the big movie theme it had been. Adultery was no longer tragic; the unashamed, wisecracking gold-diggers saw to that. Glenda Farrell, one of the toughest and most honestly predatory of the millionaire hunters, put it this way in “Gold Diggers of 1937”: “It’s so hard to be good under the capitalistic system.” Impudence became a virtue. Earlier, the sweet, archly virginal heroine had often had a breezy, good-hearted confidante; now the roles were reversed, and the lively, resilient heroine might have an innocent kid sister or a naïve little friend from her home town who needed looking after. What man in the Depression years would welcome a darling, dependent girl? Maybe the hero’s shy buddy, but not the hero. He looked for the girl with verve; often she was so high and buoyant she could bounce right over trouble without noticing it. It was Carole Lombard’s good-hearted giddiness that made her lovable, Jean Arthur’s flightiness, Myrna Loy’s blithe imperviousness–and in “Bringing Up Baby” Katharine Hepburn was so light-headed, so out of it, that she was unbeatable. The mistreated, masochistic women who had been moping through the confessional movies, pining for the men who had ruined them and looking tenderly at their fatherless offspring, either faded (like Ann Harding, Ruth Chatterton, and Helen Hayes) or changed their styles (like Constance Bennett in “Topper,” Lombard in “Twentieth Century,” and, of course, Claudette Colbert in “It Happened One Night” and Irene Dunne in “Theodora Goes Wild” and “The Awful Truth”). The stars came down to earth in the middle and late thirties–and became even bigger stars. Marlene Dietrich, who had turned into a lolling mannequin, reëmerged as the battling floozy of “Destry Rides Again.” Just as in the late sixties some of the performers loosened up and became hip, thirties performers such as Joel McCrea and Fredric March became lighter-toned, gabby, and flip. An actor who changes from serious to comic roles doesn’t have problems with the audience (the audience loves seeing actors shed their dignity, which has generally become a threadbare pose long before it’s shed); it’s the change from comic to serious that may confound the audience’s expectations.
The speed and stylization of screwball humor were like a stunt, and some of the biggest directors of the thirties had come out of two-reel comedy and had the right training. Leo McCarey, who directed “The Awful Truth,” had directed the Marx Brothers in “Duck Soup” and, before that, Laurel & Hardy comedies for Hal Roach. George Stevens, who directed Grant in “Gunga Din,” was also a Hal Roach alumnus–cameraman on Laurel & Hardy and Harry Langdon shorts, and then a Roach director. “Topper,” with its sunny hocus-pocus and Grant as a debonair ghost, was actually a Hal Roach production; it was considered Roach’s most ambitious project. Movies in the thirties were still close to their beginnings. Wesley Ruggles, who directed Grant in “I’m No Angel,” had been one of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Cops; Howard Hawks, who directed Grant in several of his best thirties films, had started as a director by writing and directing two comedy shorts. The directors had graduated from slapstick when sound came in and Hollywood took over Broadway’s plays, but after a few years all that talk without much action was becoming wearying.
The screwball movies brought back the slapstick tradition of vaudeville and the two-reelers, and blended it into those brittle Broadway comedies. When it was joined to a marital farce or a slightly daring society romance, slapstick no longer seemed like kid stuff: it was no longer innocent and was no longer regarded as “low” comedy. The screwball movies pleased people of all ages. (The faithful adaptations of stage plays had often been a little tepid for children.) And the directors, who had come out of a Hollywood in which improvising and building gags were part of the fun of moviemaking, went back–partly, at least–to that way of working. No longer so script-bound, movies regained some of the creative energy and exuberance–and the joy in horseplay, too–that had been lost in the early years of talkies. The new freedom can be seen even in small ways, in trivia. Grant’s screwball comedies are full of cross-references, and gags from one are repeated or continued in another. In “The Awful Truth,” Irene Dunne, trying to do in her (almost) ex-husband–Grant–refers to him as Jerry the Nipper; in “Bringing Up Baby,” Hepburn, pretending to be a gun moll, tells the town constable that Grant is the notorious Jerry the Nipper. And the same dog trots through the pictures, as Mr. Smith in “The Awful Truth,” as George in “Bringing Up Baby” (and as Mr. Atlas in “Topper Takes a Trip” and Asta in the “Thin Man” movies). That dog was a great actor: he appeared to adore each master in turn.
Once Grant’s Paramount contract ended, there seemed no stopping him. As long as the screwball-comedy period lasted, he was king. After “The Awful Truth,” in 1937, he did two pictures with Katharine Hepburn in 1938–“Bringing Up Baby” and “Holiday.” It was a true mating–they had the same high-energy level, the same physical absorption in acting. In 1939 he did “Gunga Din” and “Only Angels Have Wings,” and in 1940 “His Girl Friday,” “My Favorite Wife,” and “The Philadelphia Story.”
During those peak years–1937 to 1940–he proved himself in romantic melodrama, high comedy, and low farce. He does uproarious mugging in the knockabout jamboree “Gunga Din”–a moviemakers’ prank, like “Beat the Devil.” Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur stole the adolescent boys’ fantasy atmosphere from “The Lives of a Bengal Lancer,” then took the plot from their own “The Front Page,” mixed it with a slapstick “The Three Musketeers,” and set it in a Hollywood Kipling India. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., plays the Hildy Johnson role–he plans to leave the British Army to get married and go into the tea business–and Victor McLaglen, in the Walter Burns role, and Grant, as the Cockney bruiser Archibald Cutter, scheme to get him to reenlist. When the three comrades fight off their enemies, they’re like three Fairbankses flying through the air. Grant looks so great in his helmet in the bright sunshine and seems to be having such a marvelous time that he becomes the picture’s romantic center, and his affection for the worshipful Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe) becomes the love story. The picture is both a stirring, beautifully photographed satiric colonial-adventure story and a walloping vaudeville show. Grant’s grimaces and cries when Annie the elephant tries to follow him and Sam Jaffe onto a rope bridge over a chasm are his broadest clowning. (The scene is right out of Laurel & Hardy.) And he’s never been more of a burlesque comic than when he arrives at the gold temple of the religious cult of thugs and whinnies with greedy delight at the very moment he’s being shot at. The thug guru is shaven-headed Eduardo Ciannelli (the original Diamond Louis of “The Front Page”), who wears a loincloth and chants “Kill! Kill! Kill for the love of killing!” Perhaps because the picture winds up with a bit of pop magic–an eye-moistening, Kiplingesque tribute to Gunga Din, shown in Heaven in the British Army uniform he longed to wear–the press treated it rather severely, and George Stevens, the director, was a little apologetic about it. He may have got in over his head. He had replaced Howard Hawks as director, and when he added his Stan Laurel specialties to the heroic flourishes Hawks had prepared, and after the various rewrite men (William Faulkner and Joel Sayre were among them) built on to the gags, the result was a great, bounding piece of camp. Grant has always claimed that he doesn’t like to exert himself, and that his ideal role would be a silent man in a wheelchair, but his performance here tells a different story. (All his performances tell a different story.) The following year, when Grant played Burns in “His Girl Friday” (this time an acknowledged remake of “The Front Page,” and, with Charles Lederer’s additions, a spastic explosion of dialogue), he raised mugging to a joyful art. Grant obviously loves the comedy of monomaniac egotism: Walter Burns’ callousness and unscrupulousness are expressed in some of the best farce lines ever written in this country, and Grant hits those lines with a smack. He uses the same stiff-neck, cocked-head stance that he did in “Gunga Din”: it’s his position for all-out, unsubtle farce. He snorts and whoops. His Walter Burns is a strong-arm performance, defiantly self-centered and funny.
When Grant was reunited with Irene Dunne in “My Favorite Wife,” they had another box-office smash, but his playing wasn’t as fresh as in “The Awful Truth.” This marital farce was really moldy (it was based on Tennyson’s “Enoch Arden,” filmed at least a dozen times, starting in 1911), and Grant’s performance as the rattled husband is a matter of comic bewilderment and skittish double takes. The presence in the cast of his close friend Randolph Scott (they shared a house for several years) as the rival for Irene Dunne’s affections may have interfered with his concentration; he doesn’t provide an underlayer of conviction. He’s expert but lightweight, and the role and the bustling plot don’t bring anything new out of him.
The Hollywood comedy era was just about over by then. The screwball comedies, in particular, had become strained and witless; the spoiled, headstrong runaway heiresses and the tophatted playboy cutups had begun to pall on the public, and third-rate directors who had no feeling for slapstick thought it was enough to have players giggling and falling over the furniture. Right from the start, screwball comedy was infected by the germ of commercial hypocrisy. The fun-loving rich, with their glistening clothes, whitewall tires, mansions in the country, and sleek Art Deco apartments, exalted a carefree contempt for material values. The heroes and heroines rarely had any visible means of support, but they lived high, and in movie after movie their indifference to such mundane matters as food and rent became a self-admiring attitude–the attitude that is still touted in “Travels with My Aunt” and “Mame.” Like Mame, the unconventional heroines of the thirties were beloved by their servants. Irene Dunne in white fox and a trailing evening gown would kick her satin train impatiently to tell us that it was not money but love and laughter that mattered. The costume designers often went in for sprightly effects: Irene Dunne and Katharine Hepburn would be put into pixie hats that clung on the side of the head, dipping over one eye, while on top there were pagodas that shot up six or seven inches to a peak. All too often, the villains were stuffy society people or social climbers (as in “Mame”), and the heroes and heroines just too incorrigibly happy-go-lucky. Love seemed to mean making a fool, of yourself. The froth hung heavy on many a screwball comedy, and as the pictures got worse and the Cary Grant parts began to be played by Lee Bowman and David Niven the public got fed up. The movement had already run down before the war started. In the forties, there were still some screwball comedies, but they were antic and shrill, except for a few strays: some of the Tracy-Hepburn pictures, and the comedies in which Preston Sturges reinvented slapstick in a more organic form–creating an image of Americans as a people who never stopped explaining themselves while balling up whatever they were trying to do.
THOUGH he remained a top box-office star, Cary Grant fell on evil days. After 1940, he didn’t seem to have any place to go–there were no longer Cary Grant pictures. Instead, be acted in pictures that he wasn’t right for, and in pictures that nobody could have been right for–abominations like the 1942 anti-Nazi romantic comedy “Once Upon a Honeymoon,” in which he was an American newsman in Warsaw trying to rescue the American stripper Ginger Rogers from her Nazi husband (Walter Slezak). From the first frame, it was as clammily contrived as anything that Paramount had shoved him into, and in one pathetically insensitive sequence Grant and Rogers are mistaken for Jews and held in a concentration camp. His performance is frequently atrocious: he twinkles with condescending affection when the nitwit stripper develops a political consciousness and helps a Jewish hotel maid escape from danger. Mostly, he acted in stock situation comedies– comedies with no comic roots, like “The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer” (1947), in which Myrna Loy is a judge who works out a deal. Grant, a philandering artist, will go to jail unless he dates her schoolgirl sister (Shirley Temple) until the teenager’s crush on him wears off. Escorting Shirley Temple–wearing his shirt open and acting like an adolescent–Cary Grant is degradingly unfunny. There’s no core of plausibility in his role. Grant doesn’t have the eyes of a Don Juan, or the temperament. When the artist is accused of being a skirt-chaser, it seems like some kind of mistake.
In the thirties, Grant would sometimes appear in a role, such as the despondent husband of a mercenary, cold-hearted woman (Kay Francis) in the 1939 “In Name Only,” that suggested that he had unexplored dimensions. They remained unexplored. In 1941, when he departed from comedy, it was in just the sort of sincere tearjerker that Hollywood was always proudest of–“Penny Serenade,” with Irene Dunne again. The unrealistic casting of this inert, horribly pristine film is the trick: the appeal to the audience is that these two glamorous stars play a ordinary couple and suffer the calamities that do in fact happen to ordinary people. When tragedy strikes Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, it hurts the audience in a special way–“Penny Serenade” is a sweet-and-sour pacifier. Grant, who got an Academy Award nomination, could hardly have been better. Using his dark eyes and his sensuous, clouded handsomeness as a romantic mask, he gave his role a defensive, not quite forthright quality, and he brought out everything that it was possible to bring out of his warmed-over lines, weighting them perfectly, so that they almost seemed felt.
Nearly all Grant’s seventy-two films have a certain amount of class and are well above the Hollywood average, but most of them, when you come right down to it, are not really very good. Grant could glide through a picture in a way that leaves one indifferent, as in the role of a quaint guardian angel named Dudley in the bland, musty Goldwyn production “The Bishop’s Wife” (1947), and he could be the standard put-upon male of burbling comedy, as in “Every Girl Should Be Married” (1948) and the pitifully punk “Room for One More” (1952)–the nice-nice pictures he made with Betsy Drake, who in 1949 became his third wife. He could be fairly persuasive in astute, reflective parts, as in the Richard Brooks thriller “Crisis” (1950), in which he plays a brain surgeon forced to operate on a Latin-American dictator (José Ferrer). He’s a seasoned performer here, though his energy level isn’t as high as in the true Grant roles and he’s a little cold, staring absently when he means to indicate serious thought. What’s missing is probably that his own sense of humor isn’t allowed to come through; generally when he isn’t playing a man who laughs easily he isn’t all there.
He was able to keep his independence because he had a good head for business. Within a short time of leaving Paramount, he could command a hundred and fifty thousand dollars a picture, and that was only the beginning. Later, he formed partnerships and produced his pictures through his own corporations–Grandon, Granart, Granley, and Granox. He didn’t do what stars like Kirk Douglas did when they gained control over their productions: he didn’t appear in Westerns, for the virtually guaranteed market. He was too self-aware for that; he was a lonely holdout in the period when even Frank Sinatra turned cowpoke. From the thirties on, Grant looked for comedies that would be mass-oriented versions of the Noël Coward and Philip Barry and Frederick Lonsdale drawing-room and boudoir farces that Broadway theatregoers admired in the twenties. And so he settled for Sidney Sheldon (“The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer,” “Dream Wife”), or Stanley Shapiro (“Operation Petticoat,” “That Touch of Mink”), for Norman Panama and Melvin Frank (“Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House”), or for Melville Shavelson and Jack Rose (“Room for One More,” “Houseboat”). He sought the best material and got the second-rate and synthetic, because good writers wouldn’t (and couldn’t) write that way anymore. His taste didn’t change, but he didn’t do the real thing–not even the real Lonsdale. His friends say he believes that the world doesn’t understand fine language. With “People Will Talk” and “The Talk of the Town,” he was probably reaching toward Shaw. He got the loquacity without the wit.
Considering that he selected his roles, these choices indicate one of the traps of stardom. When actors are young, they’re eager for great roles, but when they become stars they generally become fearful that the public won’t accept them in something different. They look for roles that seem a little more worthwhile than the general run. With one exception–“None but the Lonely Heart”–Cary Grant appeared to be content throughout his career to bring savoir-faire to pratfalls, romantic misunderstandings, and narrow escapes. It seems reasonable to assume that he attained something so close to the highest aspirations of his youth that, as far as acting was concerned, he had no other goals–and no conflicts. Moss Hart said that Archie Leach’s gloom vanished when he became Cary Grant.
THE only trace of gloom in Grant’s movies is in “None but the Lonely Heart,” which he made in association with Clifford Odets (as writer and director) in 1944. The film was an ironic interlude in Grant’s career, coming, as it did, between the cloying whimsey of “Once Upon a Time,” in which he was a Broadway sharpie exploiting a boy who had a pet dancing caterpillar, and “Night and Day,” the ten-ton Cole Porter musical bio, in which he skittered about as a youthful Yalie before facing life with stoic courage and inscrutable psychic hangups. In “None but the Lonely Heart,” set in the East End of London he plays Ernie Mott, a young Cockney–a restless drifter who lacks the will to leave the ghetto for good. Ernie grew up in oppressive poverty, but he wants to make life better for his mother, who runs a grubby antiques and secondhand-furniture shop. Made at Grant’s instigation (he acquired the rights to the book), the film was a gesture toward the ideas he shared with the other dissidents at Rudley’s, and, even more, a gesture toward his own roots–toward the grimness of his life before he apprenticed himself to the theatre. His mother was released from confinement in 1933 (that same year, his father died of “extreme toxicity”), and he established a surprisingly close relationship with her. Eccentric but hardy and self-sufficient, she had a whole new life after that twenty-year incarceration. She lived into her mid-nineties, and until she was in her late eighties she did all her own shopping and housework, and occupied her days with antiquing–driving fierce bargains when she spotted something she wanted. Grant has described her as “extremely good company.” He wrote that “sometimes we laugh together until tears come into our eyes.” In the thirties, he flew to England several times a year to see her, and he took the English beauty Virginia Cherrill (Chaplin’s leading lady in “City Lights”) to meet his mother before they were married, in, London, in 1934–his first marriage, which was dissolved the following year. The outbreak of the Second World War must have brought his English past even closer to him; he was still a British subject, and in 1939 he became involved in activities to aid the British. Later, when the United States was in the war, he went on trips to entertain the troops and on bond-selling tours. (In one routine, he played straight man to Bert Lahr.) In June, 1942, less than two weeks before his marriage to Barbara Hutton, he legally changed his name and became an American citizen.
Grant’s old name had long been a joke–to the public and to him. He had named his pet Sealyham Archibald, and when the dog ran away from his Los Angeles home (it is said that the dog ran out the door while Grant was carrying Virginia Cherrill over the threshold), he took large ads in the papers giving the dog’s name. In “Gunga Din,” when Grant, as the soldier Cutter, receives an invitation to a regimental ball, he reads the salutation aloud–“Arch-i-bald Cutter”–chewing the syllables and savoring their preposterousness. As the editor in “His Girl Friday,” when Grant is threatened with prison by the mayor and the sheriff, he yammers out, “The last man to say that to me was Archie Leach, just a week before he cut his throat.”
Yet when he played Ernie Mott in “None but the Lonely Heart” he became Archie Leach again; even the names are similar. “None but the Lonely Heart” was the first movie Clifford Odets had ever directed, and although the original material was not his but a best-selling novel by Richard Llewellyn, Odets gave it the rich melancholy of his best plays. Too much of it, however: the dirgelike, mournful, fogged-up atmosphere seemed fake and stagy. Odets worked up each scene (almost as one develops scenes in the theatre) and didn’t get them to flow thematically, but he went all out. He brought off some hard-earned effects with an élan that recalled Orson Welles’ first films, and there were unexpected crosscurrents. (Ernie’s girl, played by June Duprez, was plaintive and distressed, and turned out not to be Ernie’s girl at all.) It was an extraordinary debut film, and it is an indication of the movie industry’s attitude toward talent that Odets got only one other chance to direct–fifteen years later (“The Story on Page One,” in 1959). The complicated texture of “None but the Lonely Heart” made a pervasive, long-lasting impression. What can one remember of such Grant films as “Room for One More” or “Dream Wife” or “Kiss Them for Me” or “Houseboat”? But from “None but the Lonely Heart” one retains June Duprez’s puzzlingly perverse face and voice; a scene of Grant and a buddy (Barry Fitzgerald) drunk in a tunnel, letting out their voices and teasing their echoes; and–especially–Grant and Ethel Barrymore together. She played his mother, and her great, heavy eyes matched up with his. In her screen roles, this statuesque, handsome woman usually substituted presence and charm and hokum for performance; she wasn’t tedious, like her brother Lionel, but she was a hollow technician. Not this time, though. In a few scenes, she and Grant touched off emotions in each other which neither of them ever showed on the screen again. When Ernie, who has become a petty racketeer, is told that his mother has been arrested for trafficking in stolen goods, he has an instant’s disbelief: “They got her inside, you mean–pinched?” Grant says that line with more fervor than any other line he ever delivered. And there are viewers who still–after three decades–recall the timbre of Ethel Barrymore’s voice in the prison hospital when she cries, “Disgraced you, Son.”
Grant is not as vivid in the memory as Ethel Barrymore is. Of the profusion of themes in the film, the deeply troubled bond of love between the mother and the son must have been a strong factor in his original decision to buy the book. Yet he didn’t fully express what had attracted him to the material. His performance was finer than one might have expected, considering that in all his years on the stage he’d never actually done a play without music, and that he couldn’t use the confident technique that made him such a dynamo in screen comedy, or the straightforward, subdued acting he depended on in the war film “Destination Tokyo.” Grant was always desperately uncomfortable when he played anyone who wasn’t close to his own age, and though he may have felt like the Ernie of the novel (a dreamy nineteen-year-old, an unformed artist-intellectual), as an actor he was too set in his ways. The slight stylization of his comic technique–the deadpan primed to react, the fencer’s awareness of the camera, all the self-protective skills he’d acquired–worked against him when he needed to be expressive. Cary Grant acts from the outside; he’s the wrong kind of actor to play a disharmonious character, a precursor of the fifties rebel-hero. Grant isn’t totally on the surface: there’s a mystery in him–he has an almost stricken look, a memory of suffering–but he’s not the modern kind of actor who taps his unconscious in his acting. Part of his charm is that his angers are all externally provoked; there are no internal pressures in him that need worry us, no rage or rebelliousness to churn us up. If he reacts with exasperation or a glowering look, we know everything there is to know about his reaction. When we watch Brando, the dramatic stage is in him, and the external aggressions against him are the occasions for us to see the conflicts within; the traditional actor’s distance and his perfect clarity are gone. Life seemed simpler with Cary Grant’s pre-Freudian, pre-psychological acting-as-entertaining. But he couldn’t split Ernie Mott apart effectively, and he couldn’t hold him together, either. And–it was no body’s fault–one reason Ernie wasn’t as vivid a character as he needed to be was that it was Cary Grant trying to be grubby Ernie Mott. A movie star like Cary Grant carries his movie past with him. He becomes the sum of his most successful roles, and he has only to appear for our good will to be extended to him. We smile when we see him, we laugh before he does anything; it makes us happy just to look at him. And so in “None but the Lonely Heart,” in the role that was closest to Grant’s own buried feelings–the only character he ever played that he is known to have consciously identified with–he seemed somewhat miscast.
It’s impossible to estimate how much this failure meant to him, but more than a year passed before he plunged into the inanities of “Night and Day”–the only year since he had entered movies in which he made no pictures, and a bad year in other ways, too, since his marriage to Barbara Hutton broke up. However, Cary Grant appears to be a profoundly practical man; after the disappointing box-office returns from “None but the Lonely Heart” (he did get an Academy Award nomination for it, but the award was given to Bing Crosby for “Going My Way”), he never tried anything except Cary Grant roles. As far as one can judge, he never looked back. He remained a lifelong friend of Clifford Odets; he was proud to be accepted by Odets, and Odets was proud that the handsome, tanned idol was there at his feet. But Odets’ passion no longer fired Cary Grant to make business decisions. When Odets was trying to set up picture deals and needed him as a star, he didn’t return the calls. This didn’t spoil their friendship–they had both been living in Los Angeles a long time.
No doubt Grant was big enough at the box-office to have kept going indefinitely, surviving fables about caterpillars, and even such mournful mistakes as hauling a cannon through the Napoleonic period of “The Pride and the Passion.” But if Alfred Hitchcock, who had worked with him earlier on “Suspicion,” hadn’t rescued him with “Notorious,” in 1946, and again, in 1955, with “To Catch a Thief” (a flimsy script but with a show-off role for him) and in 1959 with “North by Northwest,” and if Grant hadn’t appeared in the Stanley Donen film “Charade” in 1963, his development as an actor would have essentially been over in 1940, when he was only thirty-six. In all four of those romantic suspense comedies, Grant played the glamorous, worldly figure that “Cary Grant” had come to mean: he was cast as Cary Grant, and he gave a performance as Cary Grant. It was his one creation, and it had become the only role for him to play–the only role, finally, he could play.
Had he made different choices, had taken more risks like “None but the Lonely Heart,” he might eventually have won acceptance as an actor with a wide range. He might have become a great actor; he had the intensity, and the command of an audience’s attention. But how can one tell? One thinks of Cary Grant in such a set way it’s difficult even to speculate about his capacities. Yet, considering his wealth and his unusually independent situation, it’s apparent that if he was constricted, it wasn’t just Hollywood’s doing but his own. Working within the framework of commercial movies, James Mason, who at one time also seemed a highly specialized star, moved on from romantic starring roles to a series of deeper character portraits. However, Mason had to move away from the sexual center of his movies to do it, and it’s doubtful if Grant would have sacrificed–or even endangered–the type of stardom he had won. His bargaining power was probably more important to him than his deve1opment as an actor; he was a tycoon. Whatever his reasons were, they’re concealed now by his brisk businessman’s manner. He doesn’t seem to know or to care whether his pictures were good or bad; he says that if they did well at the box office, that’s all that matters to him, and this doesn’t appear to be an affectation. He made a gigantic profit on the gagged-up “Operation Petticoat,” which he produced in 1959; his friends say that he makes no distinction between that and “Notorious.”
Cary Grant always looks as if he’d just come from a workout in a miracle gym. And it’s easy for audiences to forget about his stinkers (they’re not held against him), because he himself isn’t very different in them from the way he is when he has a strong director and a script with some drive. It’s his sameness that general audiences respond to; they may weary of him, but still he’s a guaranteed product. (It’s the pictures that aren’t.) And if he didn’t grow as an actor, he certainly perfected “Cary Grant.” One does not necessarily admire an icon, as one admires, say, Laurence Olivier, but it can be a wonderful object of contemplation. (If Olivier had patented the brand of adorable spoiled-boy charm he exhibited on the stage in “No Time for Comedy,” he might have had a career much like Grant’s–and, indeed, in “Sleuth” Olivier played the sort of role which would then have been all that could be expected of him.)
As a movie star, Grant is so much a man of the city that he couldn’t play a rural hero or a noble, rugged man of action, and so much a modern man that he couldn’t appear in a costume or period picture without looking obstreperous–as if he felt he was being made a fool of. In “The Howards of Virginia,” it wasn’t just the hot-blooded fighter-lover role that threw him, it was also wearing a Revolutionary uniform and a tricornered hat, with his hair in a chignon; he waddled through the picture like a bowlegged duck. The thought of him in Biblical sackcloth or in a Roman toga or some Egyptian getup is grisly funny. And he’s inconceivable in most of the modern urban films: how could Cary Grant play a silent stud or a two-fisted supercop? Grant never quite created another character–not even in the limited sense that screen stars sometimes do, using their own bodies and personalities as the base for imaginative creations. There are no Fred C. Dobbses or Sam Spades in his career. It’s doubtful if he could even play a biographical character without being robbed of his essence. As Cole Porter, he wanders around in “Night and Day” looking politely oblivious; he’s afraid to cut loose and be himself, yet he’s too constrained to suggest anything resembling Cole Porter, so the hero seems to have a sickly, joyless nature. Composing song after song, his Cole Porter appears to have less music in his soul than any other living creature. Grant relaxes a little just once, while singing “You’re the Top” with Ginny Simms.
He sings quite often in movies–as in “The Awful Truth,” when he parodies Ralph Bellamy’s version of “Home on the Range,” or in “Suzy,” in which he does the number that is included in “That’s Entertainment,” and he replaced Bing Crosby as the Mock Turtle in the 1933 “Alice in Wonderland,” and sang “Beautiful Soup”–but he played an actual singing role in only one movie, early in his career: the disarmingly frilly 1934 “Kiss and Make Up,” one of Paramount’s many imitations of the Lubitsch musical-comedy style. A sense of fun breaks through when he shows off his vaudeville skills–a confident, fullhearted exhibitionism. He frequently plays the piano in movies–happily and enthusiastically–and he does off the screen, too. For the past decade, since the breakup of his fourth marriage–to Dyan Cannon–following the birth of a daughter (his first child), he’s been in retirement from the screen, but he’s been active as an executive with Fabergé, whose president, George Barrie, used to play the saxophone for a living (Barrie composed the title song for “A Touch of Class,” produced by Brut, a subsidiary of Fabergé); they sometimes have jam sessions after board meetings, with Grant playing piano or organ. It’s a corporate business right out of a thirties Cary Grant movie: in “Kiss and Make Up,” he actually ran a swank beauty salon. Grant belongs to the tradition of the success-worshipping immigrant boy who works his way to the top, but with a difference: the success he believes in is in the international high style of the worldly, fun-loving men he played–he’s got Rolls-Royces stashed away in key cities. He has lived up to his screen image, and then some; welcome everywhere, more sought after than the Duke of Windsor was, he’s glitteringly–almost foolishly–hale at seventy-one.
Grant has had an apparently wide range of roles, but only apparently. Even in the era when he became a star, his sexual attraction worked only with a certain type of co-star–usually playing a high-strung, scatterbrained heroine, dizzy but not dumb. He would have been a disaster opposite Joan Crawford. With her gash smile, thick syrup voice, and enormous tension, she required a roughneck titan like Gable to smite her; she would have turned Cary Grant into Woody Allen. A typical fan-magazine quote from Joan Crawford in her big-box-office youth was “Whatever we feel toward the man of the moment, it is he who is our very life and soul.” It hardly matters whether Crawford herself was the author of those sentiments; that was the kind of woman she represented on the screen. It’s easy to visualize Cary Grant’s panic at the thought of being some body’s “very life and soul.” He wanted to have a good time with a girl. It was always implicit that she had something going on her own; she was a free lance. She wasn’t going to weigh him down–not like Crawford, who was all character armor and exorbitant needs. Crawford actually intended to take over the man of the moment’s life and soul; that was what love meant in her pictures, and why she was so effective with skinny, refined, rich-hero types, like Robert Montgomery and Franchot Tone, whom she could scoop up. She gave the same intensity to everything she did; she inspired awe. But Grant didn’t want to be carried away–nobody scoops up Cary Grant–and he didn’t want an electrical powerhouse. (He’s unthinkable with Bette Davis.) Once Grant became a star, there was a civilized equality in his sex partnerships, though his co-star had to be not only a pal but an ardent pal. When he appeared with Myrna Loy, they were pleasant together, but they didn’t really strike sparks. Loy isn’t particularly vulnerable, and she isn’t dominant, either; she’s so cool and airy she doesn’t take the initiative, and since he doesn’t either (except perfunctorily), nothing happens. They’re too much alike–both lightly self-deprecating, both faintly reserved and aloof.
In dramatic roles, the women stars of the thirties and forties could sometimes triumph over mediocre material. This has been one of the saving aspects of the movie medium: Garbo could project so much more than a role required that we responded to her own emotional nature. Her uniquely spiritual eroticism turned men into willing slaves, and she was often at her best with rather passive men–frequently asexual or unisexual or homosexual (though not meant to be in the course of the films). Garbo’s love transcended sex; her sensuality transcended sex. She played opposite Clark Gable once, and the collision, though heated, didn’t quite work; his macho directness and opacity reduced her from passionate goddess to passionate woman. And Garbo seemed to lose her soul when she played mere women–that’s why she was finished when the audience had had enough of goddesses. But for a time in the late twenties and early thirties, when she leaned back on a couch and exposed her throat, the whole audience could dream away–heterosexual men as much as the homosexuals (whom she was, indeed, generally seducing in her movies). Something similar operated, to a lesser extent, with Katharine Hepburn. In the thirties, she was frequently most effective with the kind of juveniles who were called boys: they were male versions of sensitive waifs, all cheekbone. She was effective, but there wasn’t much sexual tension in those movies. And, despite the camaraderie and marvelous byplay of her later series with Spencer Tracy, she lost some of her charge when she acted with him. She was humanized but maybe also a little subjugated, and when we saw her through his eyes there seemed to be something the matter with her–she was too high-strung, had too much temperament. Tracy was stodgily heterosexual. She was more exciting with Cary Grant, who had a faint ambiguity and didn’t want her to be more like ordinary women: Katharine Hepburn was a one-of-a-kind entertainment, and he could enjoy the show. The element of Broadway conventionality that mars “The Philadelphia Story” is in the way she’s set up for a fall–as a snow maiden and a phony. Grant is cast as an elitist variation of the later Spencer Tracy characters.
Cary Grant could bring out the sexuality of his co-stars in comedies. Ingrid Bergman, a powerful presence on the screen, and with a deep, emotional voice (her voice is a big part of her romantic appeal in “Casablanca”), is a trifle heavy-spirited for comedy. She was never again as sexy as in that famous scene in “Notorious” when she just keeps advancing on Grant; you feel that she’s so far gone on him that she can’t wait any longer–and it’s funny. 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. This may be a pain to a scenarist or a director, but in his own terms Grant knows what he’s doing. He’s the greatest sexual stooge the screen has ever known: his side steps and delighted stares turn his co-stars into comic goddesses. Nobody else has ever been able to do that.
When the sexual psychology of a comedy was right for Grant, he could be sensational, but if it was wrong and, his energy still came pouring out, he could be terrible: In Frank Capra’s “Arsenic and Old Lace” (made in 1941 but not released until 1944, because, by contract, it couldn’t open until the Broadway production closed) he’s more painful to watch than a normally bad actor–like, say, Robert Cummings–would be, because our affection for Grant enters into our discomfort. As it was originally written, the Mortimer Brewster role–an acerbic theatre critic being pursued by his aggressive, no-nonsense fiancée–wouldn’t have been bad for Grant, but the Capra film sweetened the critic and turned the fiancée into a cuddly, innocuous little dear (Priscilla Lane). Capra called Grant Hollywood’s greatest farceur, but the role was shaped as if for Fred MacMurray, and Grant was pushed into frenzied overreacting–prolonging his stupefied double takes, stretching out his whinny. Sometime after the whopping success of “It Happened One Night,” Frank Capra had lost his instinct for sex scenes, and his comedies became almost obscenely neuter, with clean, friendly old grandpas presiding over blandly retarded families. Capra’s hick jollity was not the atmosphere for Cary Grant; and he was turned into a manic eunuch in “Arsenic and Old Lace.”
In drag scenes–even in his best movies–Grant also loses his grace. He is never so butch–so beefy and clumsy a he-man–as in his female impersonations or in scenes involving a clothes switch. In “Bringing Up Baby,” Katharine Hepburn takes his suit away, and he has nothing to wear but a flouncy fur-trimmed negligee. When Hepburn’s aunt (May Robson) arrives and demands crossly, querulously, “Why are you wearing a robe?” Grant, exasperated, answers, “Because I just went gay all of a sudden.” It doesn’t work: he goes completely out of character. Burt Lancaster was deliriously, unself-consciously funny in a long drag sequence in “The Crimson Pirate” (a parody adventure picture roughly comparable to “Gunga Din”); he turned himself into a scrambled cartoon of a woman, as Harry Ritz had done in “On the Avenue.” That’s what Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon did in “Some Like It Hot”–only they did it by yielding to their feminine disguises and becoming their own visions of gorgeous, desirable girls. Bert Remsen does it that way in “California Split,” anxiously seeing himself as a gracious lady of quality. But Grant doesn’t yield to cartooning femininity or to enjoying it; he doesn’t play a woman, he threatens to–flirting with the idea and giggling over it. His sequence in a skirt and a horsehair wig in the stupid, humiliating “I Was a Male War Bride” was a fizzle. He made himself brusque and clumsy to call attention to how inappropriate the women’s clothes were on him–as if he needed to prove he was a big, burly guy.
The beautifully tailored clothes that seem now to be almost an intrinsic part of the Cary Grant persona came very late in his career. Decked out in the pinstripes, wide lapels, and bulky shoulders of the early forties, Grant, with his thick, shiny black hair, often suggested a race-track tout or a hood. He was a snappy dresser, and when he was playing Ivy League gentlemen, his clothes were often kingpin flashy, in the George Raft manner. Happy and hearty, he looked terrific in those noisy clothes; he wore baggy pants in “Only Angels Have Wings” and was still a sexual magnet. But sometimes his slouch hats and floppy, loose-draped jackets seemed to dominate the actor inside. His strutting appearance was distracting, like a gaudy stage set. As he got older, however, he and his slim-line clothes developed such an ideal one-to-one love affair that people could grin appreciatively in the sheer pleasure of observing the union. In “North by Northwest,” the lean-fitting suit he wore through so many perils seemed the skin of his character; and in “Charade,” when for the sake of a dim joke about drip-dry he got under the shower with his suit on, he lost the skin of his character–even though that character was “Cary Grant.”
It’s a peerless creation, the “Cary Grant” of the later triumphs “Notorious,” “To Catch a Thief,” “North by Northwest,” and “Charade.” Without a trace of narcissism, he appears as a man women are drawn to–a worldly, sophisticated man who has become more attractive with the years. And Grant really had got better-looking. The sensual lusciousness was burned off: age purified him (as it has purified Paul Newman). His acting was purified, too; it became more economical. When he was young, he had been able to do lovely fluff like “Topper” without being too elfin, or getting smirky, like Ray Milland, or becoming a brittle, too bright gentleman, like Franchot Tone. But he’d done more than his share of arch mugging–lowering his eyebrows and pulling his head back as if something funny were going on in front of him when nothing was. Now the excess energy was pared away; his performances were simple and understated and seamlessly smooth. In “Charade,” he gives an amazingly calm performance; he knows how much his presence does for him and how little he needs to do. His romantic glamour, which had reached a high peak in 1939 in “Only Angels Have Wings,” wasn’t lost; his glamour was now a matter of his resonances from the past, and he wore it like a mantle.
Some stars (Kirk Douglas, for one) don’t realize that as they get older, if they continue to play the same sort of parts, they no longer need to use big, bold strokes; they risk self-caricature when they show their old flash, and they’re a bit of a joke when they try to demonstrate that they’re as good as they ever were. But if they pare down their styles and let our memories and imaginations fill in from the past, they can seem masters. Sitting in an airport V.I.P. lounge a few years ago, Anthony Quinn looked up from the TV set on which he was watching “To Catch a Thief” and said, “That’s the actor I always wanted to be” which is fairly funny, not only because Quinn and Grant are such contrasting types but because Quinn has never learned the first thing from Cary Grant. He’s never understood that he needs to dry out a little. Some actors are almost insultingly robust. If you should ask Anthony Quinn “Do you know how to dance?” he would cry “Do I know how to dance?” and he’d answer the question with his whole body–and you’d probably wind up sorry that you’d asked. Cary Grant might twirl a couple of fingers, or perhaps he’d execute an intricate, quick step and make us long for more. Unlike the macho actors who as they got older became strident about their virility, puffing their big, flabby chests in an effort to make themselves look even larger, Grant, with his sexual diffidence, quietly became less physical and more assured. He doesn’t wear out his welcome: when he has a good role, we never get enough of him. Not only is his reserve his greatest romantic resource–it is the resource that enables him to age gracefully.
What the directors and writers of those four suspense films understood was that Cary Grant could no longer play an ordinary man–he had to be what he had become to the audience. In box-office terms, he might get by with playing opposite Doris Day in “That Touch of Mink,” but he was interchangeable with Rock Hudson in this sort of picture, and the role was a little demeaning–it didn’t take cognizance of his grace or of the authority that enduring stardom confers. The special charm of “Notorious,” of the piffle “To Catch a Thief,” and of “North by Northwest” and “Charade” is that they give him his due. He is, after all, an immortal–an ideal of sophistication forever. He spins high in the sky, like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. He may not be able to do much, but what he can do no one else has ever done so well, and because of his civilized nonaggressiveness and his witty acceptance of his own foolishness we see ourselves idealized in him. He’s self-aware in a charming, non-egotistic way that appeals to the very people we’d want to appeal to. Even when he plays Cockneys, he isn’t English or foreign to us–or American, either, exactly. Some stars lose their nationality, especially if their voices are distinctive. Ronald Colman, with his familiar cultivated, rhythmic singsong, seemed no more British, really, than the American Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.; they were both “dashing” men of the world. Ingrid Bergman doesn’t sound Swedish to us but sounds simply like Ingrid Bergman. Cary Grant became stateless early: he was always Cary Grant. Making love to him, the heroines of the later movies are an aware that he’s a legendary presence, that they’re trying to seduce a legend. “How do you shave in there?” Audrey Hepburn asks bemusedly in “Charade,” putting her finger up to the cleft in his I chin. Her character in the movie is to be smitten by him and to dote on him. Actually, he had begun to show his age by that time (1963); it was obvious that he was being lighted very carefully and kept in three-quarter shots, and that his face was rounder and a little puffy. And although lampblack may have shielded the neck, one could tell that it was being shielded. But 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.
Everyone likes the idea of Cary Grant. Everyone thinks of him affectionately, because he embodies what seems a happier time–a time when we had a simpler relationship to a performer. We could admire him for his timing and nonchalance; we didn’t expect emotional revelations from Cary Grant. We were used to his keeping his distance–which, if we cared to, we could dose in idle fantasy. He appeared before us in his radiantly shallow perfection, and that was all we wanted of him. He was the Dufy of acting–shallow but in a good way, shallow without trying to be deep. We didn’t want depth from him; we asked only that he be handsome and silky and make us laugh.
Cary Grant’s bravado–his wonderful sense of pleasure in performance, which we respond to and share in–is a pride in craft. His confident timing is linked to a sense of movies as popular entertainment: he wants to please the public. He became a “polished,” “finished” performer in a tradition that has long since atrophied. The suave, accomplished actors were usually poor boys who went into a trade and trained themselves to become perfect gentlemen. They’re the ones who seem to have “class.” Cary Grant achieved Mrs. Leach’s ideal, and it turned out to be the whole world’s ideal. –PAULINE KAEL