In Praise Of... Cary Grant

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In the first of an occasional series of sycophantic respectful tributes to stars now no longer with us, we’re looking at just what it was that made the superstars of yesteryear as great as they were… and continue to be to this day. And who better to start with than Cary Grant, the man Howard Hawks called "the best that there is” and Hitchcock once described as "the only actor I ever loved in my whole life." So here it is, our eulogy to the great man – and apologies if it gets too lovey. He’s just that great, you know?

When Ian Fleming set about creating James Bond, he was thinking in part of Cary Grant – which makes it all the more of a shame Grant turned down the role in Dr. No in 1962. Next to Sean Connery, who wouldn’t want to see Grant raise a world-weary eyebrow at SPECTRE’s dragon tank? It’s easy to see why Fleming thought of Grant when he crafted 007: both share the same addictive qualities that have legions of fans wanting to know them, be them, watch them work. That easy charisma and rugged virility, the ability to cast a spell with words, the wry, martini glass worldiness – both remain, in their own ways, definitions of what it is to be a leading man.

Handsome, sophisticated, debonair, Cary Grant embodied every role he played with a sense of manly confidence that defied his humble beginnings as a school drop-out from Bristol, then known, of course, as Archibald Leach. "Everybody would like to be Cary Grant," an interviewer once told him. "So would I," Grant famously replied. And, as you’ll learn from the rest of this tribute, so would we.

Example given:* Cary Grant playing the unforgettable Peter Joshua / Carson Dyle / Alexander Dyle / Adam Canfield / Brian Cruikshank in Charade in 1963. Delightful espionage fun, with Grant taking the reins.

Grant tiptoes the most amazing tightrope between dashing leading man and consummate clown with breathtaking ease. Watch him in his screwiest of comedy roles, such as the unforgettable Bringing Up Baby (1938), and he still maintains a sense of respectability even when clad in some fruity women’s negligee, because, you know, he went “gay all of a sudden.” It’s been said that this stylishly witty yet utterly approachable persona came into being during the shooting of legendary comedy director Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937), with Grant essentially cribbing the McCarey’s character traits and bringing them to life on screen.

For more of his sharp-tongued side, there remains the gilded dialogue of His Girl Friday, rapid-fire witticisms flying across the screen like bullets in another of Howard Hawks’ classic farces. It’s relatable, somehow down-to-earth wit that saw Grant’s star status affirmed in 1940’s Oscar-garlanded The Philadelphia Story – and one that Grant refused to let go. He never playing a villain, or acted in a Western throughout his career. And, it’s safe to say, it worked.

Example given:** **Though his comedic persona varies, naturally, from role to role, be it the ladies’ man Cary Grant (An Affair To Remember) or, say… the spy-like Grant (Charade, Notorious), his comedy stylings are funniest (arguably) in His Girl Friday. “Take Hitler and stick him on the funny page.”

Archibald Alexander Leach only made it in Hollywood thanks a series of very unlikely events. He was expelled from his school at the age of 14 (put it this way – it involved a girl) and quickly joined the Bob Pender Stage Troupe, which took him to the US as a stilt walker, and it’s this training as an on-stage physical comedian that helped Grant hone not only his impeccable timing, but his balletic stunt work, too. While the rest of his troupe went back to the UK, he stayed in America to try his hand at the vaudeville circuit and Broadway comedies into his twenties.

Aged 27 and with stage name finally set in stone (he toyed with ‘Cary Lockwood’, but studio officials disapproved), Grant made a name for himself in Hollywood – picked by Mae West to star opposite her in She Done Him Wrong. Once on the silver screen, his physical skills made regular appearances, from his cat-like rooftop adventures in To Catch A Thief, to the physically demanding Kyber adventures of Gunga Din.

Example given:
He does some amazing physical work elsewhere (North By Northwest’s Mouth Rushmore scene springs to mind) but the torn dress scene from Bringing Up Baby takes the biscuit – if only for being so funny censors didn’t ban such a flagrant flashing of flesh.

Cary Grant is such a charming bastard that even when he loses the love of his life, he just brushes the dust off his immaculate suit and wins her back again. You can see this regular Grant troupe of charming-cad-wins-back-beautiful-lover-from-boring-new-boyfriend in 1937’s The Awful Truth (Cheeky Cary Grant wins back stunning Irene Dunne from dull Ralph Bellamy), 1940’s His Girl Friday (Cheeky Cary Grant wins back stunning Rosalind Russell from dull Ralph Bellamy… again), and in the same year The Philadelphia Story (Cheeky Cary Grant wins back stunning Katharine Hepburn from dull John Howard… with a bit of help from James Stewart) – but there’s a reason why he’s always in this role: he nails it.Who else could be so believable as the man who could not only drive a woman away (his idiosyncrasies coming to the fore) but win her back, you know, with the same idiosyncrasies? That’s right, no-one but Cary Grant.

Example given:* **There’s a similar steal-the-hot-girl-from-the-dull-guy motif in An Affair To Remember, but we’re going for The Awful Truth here, because Irene Dunne is hilarious as she tries to scupper Grant’s romantic entanglement with, needless to say, a song and dance. As you do.

With his year-round tan and ‘boarding school’ Mid-Atlantic accent, it would be such a waste to have Cary Grant in anything other than a suit. In fact, his stripy top in To Catch A Thief still feels wrong every time we watch it, but it’s all made better with the tuxedo-wearing fireworks scene later, so we’ll let him and Hitchcock off for that one. All we can comfortably say is that he “looks better in a suit than we ever could” and we could easily leave it at that.

Whole books have been written about Grant’s superb sense of style, and we’ll do our best not to make fools of ourselves trying to do it justice – instead quoting the internet’s favourite clothing guru ‘The Sartorialist’ when he says about his style in North By Northwest: “Look at the large amount of shirring at the yoke of the shirtback.” Exactly. Couldn’t have put it better ourselves.

Example given:* It has to be North By Northwest’s famous grey Kilgour suit. Hand-picked by Grant himself, he never looks better, not even in a tux. For an excellent discussion of his style in the film, head to the ever excellent Clothes On Film here.

Before Cary Grant, the idea of an actor being a free agent not tied to an exclusive contract with a studio was unthinkable. But Grant’s star rose so high and burned so bright that he started his own production company in the 1950s, Grantley Productions, and broke away entirely from the old studio system, demanding percentages of the film’s gross takings, and the right to pick his co-stars and even his directors on certain films.

On North By Northwest he earned $450,000 flat out, plus $315,000 in overtime for the film’s nine week delay – not to mention an undisclosed percentage of total profits. Now the studio system is dead and buried, and if you’re glad to see a leading man like Ryan Reynolds can skip gleefully from The Proposal to Buried to The Green Lantern without getting typecast, it’s in no small part thanks to our man Cary.

Example given:
Though Grant hated the finished film, That Touch Of Mink earnt him $4,000,000… plus a percentage of the gross. As it flopped, that didn’t much matter, but $4,000,000? Not too shabby at all.

Though Grant was tarred with a reputation for being a little tight-fisted (there were even rumours that he was a poor tipper, as well as charging 15 cents per autograph), in fact the opposite is true. On The Philadelphia Story, for example, he demanded top billing and an amazingly high fee of £100,000 – made all the more unbelievable as he wasn’t a bona fide superstar yet. Why? He wanted to donate it to the British War Relief Fund.

He did the same for his salary for Arsenic And Old Lace, writing a cheque to the U.S. War Relief Fund for $100,000, and on April 18th, 1947, Grant was given the King's Medal for Service in the Cause of Freedom by King George VI, citing his "outstanding service to the British War Relief Society". His motto for his work ethic? “Do your job and demand your compensation – but in that order.”