Watching Cary Grant, do his charming, suave playboy act, wooing and flirting with an already engaged Deborah Kerr in An Affair to Remember, or when you watch him turn up the heat with Eva Marie St in North By North West, here seems to be a man born to play the archetypal Mills & Boon romantic hero, the tall, dark, handsome dream lover, suave, charming and gentlemanly. But beyond that glamorous, screen persona of the charmer, who made the woman want him and the men wanting to be like him, was a rather unglamorous Archibald Alexander Leach, born on the other side of the Atlantic, in a working class suburb of Bristol. For a person who charmed millions of women on and off screen, he had a lonely childhood, his mother hospitalized when he was just 9. For a person who seemed to embody the wealthy, cultured British gentleman, in reality his earlier life was that of struggle and poverty.
But Cary Grant’s enigmatic nature, extended more than just his rags to riches story. A fervent Republican supporter, he however was an outspoken opponent of Mc Carthyism, and did not approve of the way his close friend Charlie Chaplin, was then blacklisted, owing to his liberal views. A person who was one of the biggest stars of his time, whose name was box office gold, he also became one of the first actors to go “indie”, breaking away from the studio system, dictating who should be his directors, co stars, and choosing his own scripts. And also one reason, why he was never given the Oscar during his career. Ok he did get the Lifetime Achievement Award, but then that for me, is more like a “Sorry, we did not give you the Oscar you deserve, so we will make it up now”. Actually going indie during the studio dominated era, would have been professional suicide, but such was Grant’s charisma and personality, that he could get away with it. For a person, who most often played the Clean, Nice guy, who you could take home to Momma on screen, off screen, he had a stormy personal life, and had experimented with LSD, and was also rumored to be bi sexual.Not that those events in any way effected his popularity or status.
But one thing i feel unfair, is overlooking his status as an actor. Being a lover of classic cinema, i quite often have these discussions with people about the stars of Hollywood’s Golden period. While Grant’s super stardom, his charm, his popularity is widely acknowledged, there seems to be a reluctance to accept his acting abilities. The consensus is that James Stewart, Robert Mitchum are better actors, while Cary Grant is more of a star than an actor. It also does not help that most of Grant’s filmography is studded with rom coms, love stories, screwball comedies, in effect the not so serious cinema. But then this was the only actor, Alfred Hitchcock ever loved in his whole life, he should be knowing, he had after all directed him in 4 movies, and then the unforgettable shot of Cary Grant, running from the crop duster plane in North by North West. Aah North by North West, who can ever forget the crop duster scene, the final chase at Mt. Rushmore and last but not least Eva Marie St, surely one of the sexiest femme fatales ever on screen. But then here was the catch, after the rather lukewarm reception to Vertigo, Hitchcock wanted to do a more escapist, racy, action thriller. It was to be a straightforward man on the run movie, free from the symbolism, psychological complexity that quite often characterized his earlier movies. Even among die hard Hitch fans, North By North West is taken as the lesser movie compared to Pyscho or Vertigo , it is considered more of a masala movie, but a good entertainer nevertheless. And on top of it there were rumors that Hitch choose Grant, over his original choice, James Stewart, as he was not satisfied with the latter’s performance in Vertigo.
Rumors, nonetheless they did give weight to the impression of Cary Grant, being a matinee idol kind of star, good for escapist entertainers, while it was people like James Stewart, Robert Mitchum, Spencer Tracy who were the real actors. Even if it was a masala flick, North By North West, to me still stands out as a masterpiece, not just because of the crop duster scene, but also the initial encounter between Grant and Eva Marie St, in the train, where Hitch manages to wink at the censors, in what must be one of the most erotic sequences in movie history. Cary Grant, perfectly fits in the role, essaying the man on the run, with aplomb and grace, and sheer effortlessness. He played the suave charmer to perfection again in To Catch a Thief, his another collaboration with Hitch, Grant playing an ex burglar, John Robie, who needs to clear his name, when a series of copy cat burglaries, point the needle of suspicion to him. He decides to catch the thief, using his old style, and takes the help of a rich heiress, Frances Stevens( Grace Kelly) in his endeavour. Smooth, charming, debonair, Cary Grant is again a delight, here, as the suave burglar, and his chemistry with Grace Kelly, lights up the screen.
With Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief
With Ingrid Bergman in Notorious
But it is Hitch’s Notorious that shows there is much more to Cary Grant, than just being a suave charmer. Grant plays the American spy, Devlin, who asks, Alicia Huberman( Ingrid Bergman), the daughter of a former Nazi spy, to infiltrate a Nazi spy ring in Brazil, taking advantage of the fact that one of the gang members Sebastian( Claude Rains) is hopelessly in love with her. This again to me is one of Hitch’s most complex and layered movie. Grant breaks away from his usual suave persona, to depict a more grayish, neurotic character. Torn between his love for Alicia, and his professional duty, he is neurotic, he feels tormented that he had sent her to doom. And then his final dash to save Alicia, from the gruesome tragedy she is facing in Sebastian’s home, his performance when he encounters her at the mansion, was brilliant. Mostly Grant, had this carefree, subtle approached to acting. He could easily slip into the character without ever trying too hard. Watch him in the final scene, when he confronts Sebastian while carrying Alicia out of the mansion, nothing over the top, just a firm voice, a steely expression, as he says
I’m taking her to the hospital to get the poison out of her…How’d you like your friends downstairs to know? They’ve yet to be told…You haven’t forgotten what they did to Emil, have you Sebastian?…You’ve got your chance here and now. Tell them who she is.
What was fascinating was the relationship between Alicia and Devlin, she is not the perfect woman, she had a rather shady personal life, she is feisty, independent, and yet the love between them is overpowering. Inspite of being deeply in love with Alicia, he requests her to seduce Sebastian, just to get the information. It was a relationship quite bold for it’s times.
With Audrey Hepburn in Charade
And then he also acted in the “best Hitchcock movie which Hitch never made”, the 1963 thriller Charade, opposite one of my favorites, Audrey Hepburn. Audrey plays Regina, who finds her husband murdered, in a mysterious fashion. The plot gets into a major twist, when she is informed by the CIA director in Paris, that her husband was a double crosser, involved in a theft during WW2, and the persons who killed him, were his ex partners in crime. Regina gets deeper into a tangle, as she befriends a charming stranger Peter Joshua( Grant) who promises to help her out, though in reality he is not what he seems to be. Mixing up comedy, thriller and romance, the movie is one fast paced entertainer, with a whole lot of twists and turns. Hepburn is first rate as the damsel in distress, and Grant as the mysterious stranger who keeps playing the charade, conveys the enigma, the charm, the dapper attitude needed for such roles. It is this kind of charm, that i found missing in the rather bland remake The Truth About Charlie. While Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton are good enough performers, they just don’t have the Grant-Hepburn charisma, that makes us sit through some rather silly looking scenes.
As a comedy star, Cary Grant was one of the best, especially the whole host of screwball comedies he has acted in. While i have not seen all of them, i did manage to catch some really memorable ones. Arsenic and Old Lace, is classic, one of the best in the black comedy genre, i have ever seen. Grant plays a successful writer Mortimer Brewster, in this Frank Capra movie, some one who does not believe in marriage. He however soon falls in love with his next door neighbor Elaine, and marries her. The twist in the tale, comes when he visits his old family home, he has to deal with 2 whacked out elderly aunts Abby and Martha, who have this habit of ending the lives of lonely old bachelors by serving them wine spiked with arsenic and a bit of cyanide. And his brother Teddy, who has a delusion that he indeed is the person, his namesake, and the former President of the US. To make matters worse, there is his another brother Jonathan, a psychotic murderer seeking to dispose off the corpse of his latest victim. As he tells his girl Elaine
Insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops.
The supporting cast that makes up Grant’s own Addams Family is brilliant, especially the women who play his two loony aunts. And Grant is brilliant, with an impeccable sense of comic timing, as the hapless Mortimer, whose own marital bliss is threatened thanks to the antics of his brother. Watch him in a scene, where he sits by on the sidelines, as he watches his brother Jonathan, get into a fist fight with the cops, casually lighting up a cigarette. Go on — fight, fight. I don’t care. And then when the cops try to bring his brother down using a shoe, he tells em it never works, and when his brother finally collapses, the parting quote What do you know? it worked!.
The classic pool side scene from Philadelphia Story, along with Katherine Hepburn and James Stewart.
He had a great pairing with the other Hepburn- Katherine, acting in a series of rom coms- Bringing Up Baby, Sylvia Scarlett, Holiday and the most famous of all The Philadelphia Story. George Cukor’s famous adaptation of the screen play, is a deliciously mounted satire, poking fun at the Philadelphia high society, without ever getting too preachy or moralizing. The story centers around a rich Philadelphia socialite Tracy Haven( Katherine Hepburn), who divorces her husband C.K.Dexter( Cary Grant), who though belonging to the same social class, is deemed as not a suitable husband, owing to his drinking habits. She chooses to marry George Kittredge( John Howard), a self made millionaire, man of the people kind. The love triangle gets complicated when a snoopy tabloid reporter Mike Connor( James Stewart), barges in along with Dexter, to get exclusive details of the high society wedding, while Tracy finds herself falling for Mike’s charms, and Dexter wants to get back Tracy at any cost. While Hepburn and Stewart have the more meatier roles, and the better lines, Grant still manages to hold his own as the suave, debonair ex, acting as a wonderful counterpart to Stewart’s more acid tongued character.
Cary Grant was one of the true legends of the silver screen. A suave, charming gentleman on the screen, and a great human being off the screen. Ian Fleming had Cary Grant as 007 in mind, when writing Dr. No, but he turned down the role, as he felt he was too old to be an action hero. He was not sure of romancing Audrey Hepburn, half his age in Charade, and requested the script to be re written to make it look, as if Audrey was pursuing him, honestly though i felt, he still was as charming as ever. He had this habit of turning on the chemistry with his female co stars, though his personal favorites were Audrey Hepburn , Deborah Kerr, Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman. Like most of the British actors of his time, Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir Alec Guiness, he was not a big fan of method acting, in fact he contemplated retirement, when Marlon Brando’s style became more popular. Grant retired from movies, when he felt that his kind of feel good comedies was not having any takers, as he said once.
There is no doubt I am aging. My format of comedy is still the same as ever. I gravitate toward scripts that put me in an untenable position. Then the rest of the picture is spent in trying to squirm out of it. Naturally, I always get the girl in the end. It may appear old-fashioned. There seems to be a trend toward satirical comedy, like The Apartment(1960). Perhaps it is because young writers today feel satirical living in a world that seems headed for destruction.
Cary Grant has departed the world physically, but his influence and legacy lives on with us forever. To date the unforgettable images of Cary fleeing the crop duster plane in North By North West or the romantic encounter with Deborah Kerr, will forever be embedded in our memories.