Reconsidering the movie star who rarely “played himself”
In Cary Grant, The Making of a Hollywood Legend, film historian Mark Glancy sets out to present a definitive biography of a beloved star who lived the American Dream.
Grant’s distinctive accent seemed to be from nowhere, which allowed him to be from anywhere, playing everything from British cockneys to American urbanites, even a French army officer. The actor’s ability to make it all look effortless led to the misconception that he wasn’t really acting, just “playing himself.” However, this new biography reveals the many ways in which Grant’s life was often unlike those of the characters he played on screen. Born Archibald Leach, a poor boy from Bristol, England, he escaped a traumatic childhood by joining a theatre troupe. He would eventually find a new identity as “Cary Grant,” a member of Hollywood’s upper echelon, adored by millions, at one point even married to the world’s wealthiest woman. Later, after retiring from films at age 62, he would embrace the role of devoted father while continuing to shrewdly protect his own image and legacy.
In contrast to typical celebrity biographies which take the tone of a gossipy exposé, Glancy’s book feels balanced, well-researched, even edging toward drily academic. The author treats his subject with polite respect and admiration; however, he doesn’t shy away from discussing Grant’s personal struggles, particularly his strained relationship with his parents and his five marriages. Glancy’s use of the actor’s own archives–“39 linear feet of boxes” containing personal papers, scrapbooks, and press clippings–offers new insights into Grant’s private life, as well as rarely-seen photos from his early years, which the book reproduces.
A substantial portion of the book delves into Grant’s childhood and formative years spent with traveling pantomime troupes in his teens and early twenties. The acrobatic training and comic timing he honed during these years would serve him well decades later when he would star in some of best screwball comedies of the classic era. By illuminating where Grant came from, the book offers even longtime fans a new appreciation for his performances on screen.
Here are four picks from Cary Grant’s filmography that Glancy discusses in his book. They offer glimpses into different stages of his career:
The Awful Truth (1937)
Three major films released or filmed in 1937 cemented Grant as a film star: Topper, The Awful Truth, and Bringing Up Baby. Prior to 1937, Grant was under contract at Paramount Studios and while he had appeared in 27 films by that point, there is not much to recommend from those years except for the Katharine Hepburn vehicle Sylvia Scarlett, the most watchable parts of which feature Grant. When his contract ended, Grant became a freelancer. It was an unusual move for the time, but one that allowed him to control which productions he worked on as well as his public image.
Of the three films, The Awful Truth is arguably the most significant because it established the “Cary Grant” persona–a suave man-about-town equally disposed to sophisticated banter or slapstick zaniness. Grant and Irene Dunne play married New York socialites Jerry and Lucy Warriner, who decide to divorce yet cannot stop crossing paths. Both Jerry and Lucy find new romantic partners, then attempt to sabotage each other’s engagements, before finally reconciling just as their divorce becomes final. Though the film received five Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture, Actress, and Supporting Actor) the Academy notably passed over Grant. Ironically, with this star-making role also came the prevalent, though mistaken, opinion that the actor simply “played himself” on screen.
The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
The Bishop’s Wife is a sweet Christmas comedy about an angel interfering in the life of an Episcopalian bishop (David Niven) consumed with building a new cathedral. As the angel helps the bishop reconnect with his faith, he also enjoys the simple pleasures of earthly life through the eyes of the bishop’s wife (Loretta Young) and young daughter. As the angel Dudley, Grant gives an understated performance unlike the debonair characters from his earlier comedies. However, though Dudley does visual “magic” tricks such as decorating a Christmas tree with a wave of his finger, just as often Grant’s innate charm is presented as evidence of Dudley’s supernatural abilities.
Made ten years after his breakthrough hits, this film provides an example of Grant’s star-power elevating a middling story. By the same token, the producers clearly felt that his movie-star persona was crucial to the film’s success. In some markets, the film was released with the nonsensical title “Cary and the Bishop’s Wife” because merely adding Cary Grant into a situation made it immediately more appealing.
Without Grant at the center, The Bishop’s Wife seems unlikely to have become the box office hit and well-loved holiday classic it did. The 1996 remake, The Preacher’s Wife, which stars Denzel Washington in the angel role, hasn’t enjoyed the same popularity as the original. While Washington does not lack for charisma, his star persona is far less playful than Grant’s. People still want to know what shenanigans Cary will get up to with a bishop’s wife, even if the actual film doesn’t fully live up to those expectations.
North by Northwest (1959)
During the 1940s and 50s, Grant collaborated with director Alfred Hitchcock four times and the resulting films are some of their best: Suspicion, Notorious, To Catch a Thief, and North by Northwest. Though all four are worth a watch, 1959’s North by Northwest was the biggest hit and maintains the highest critical regard. Glancy devotes an entire chapter to breaking down the making of this film, its place within cinema history, and its specific significance for Grant as a metaphor for his life and star image.
One could quibble that the plot of North by Northwest, in which Grant plays an advertising man mistaken for a spy, doesn’t totally hold together under a critical eye; however, silly plot holes become easy to ignore when simply appreciating the film as a relentlessly cinematic experience. The film marks a career high-point for all the talents assembled, including screenwriter Ernest Lehman and composer Bernard Hermann. The sight of Grant diving headfirst into the dirt, pursued by a crop-dusting plane, is an iconic moment even if you have never seen the film – and it will remain so, as long as there is a market for “hooray for the movies” clip montages. If you’ve never seen a Cary Grant film before, don’t start here. Watch The Awful Truth and his other urbane comedies then see how North by Northwest cleverly plays upon that star image.
Father Goose (1964)
In what would be his final starring role, Grant plays Walter Eklund, a disheveled, gruff, alcoholic loner reluctantly tasked with protecting a stranded schoolteacher (Leslie Caron) and her pupils on a deserted island during WWII. Though Grant maintained that, at least as far as his appearance, Walter was the character most like him that he had played, it was a departure from the handsome charmer audiences expected in a “Cary Grant” movie.
As the film’s producer, Grant brought in the screenwriter Peter Stone, who also wrote Grant’s previous hit Charade, to adapt an existing script to fit Grant’s vision – no touches of sophistication allowed. When Stone later accepted his Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, the only award nomination granted to Father Goose, he gave thanks to Grant, “who keeps winning these things for other people.” In the nearly 20 years since The Awful Truth, the Academy consistently recognized Grant’s films, but not the actor himself. And it would be six more years, after Grant’s retirement, when they would finally give him an honorary Oscar for “the unique mastery of the art of screen acting.”