To this day Cary Grant is uphelp by his legacy as a hilarious and effortlessly charming entertainer. Here's a guide to the best of his works throughout his life
Cary Grant might have departed this world in 1986 (and made his final film 20 years before that), but he’s still held to be the very epitome of male elegance. (Those of you on Twitter might have seen the “meme” that contrasted his suave style with the—er—less refined look favoured by modern men.)
Throw in effortless wit and boundless charisma, and you understand why he was such a box-office draw, and why he remains so well-loved today.
No one should need a reason to celebrate this great star but it just so happens that one has conveniently presented itself anyway; the BFI are holding a lengthy retrospective of his work. Suitably inspired by their efforts, we thought we'd get in on the act with a short tribute to cinema's greatest thoroughbred...
Bringing Up Baby
In His Girl Friday, someone warns Cary Grant's character that he’s “through”. Grant doesn't take this well: “the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach just a week before he cut his throat!”
This is what is known in the trade as an in-joke: “Archie Leach” was Cary Grant's real name. Young Archibald was born in 1906, not in the US, as you might expect, but somewhere altogether better: Bristol. History does not recall if he spoke with a thick West Country accent before the DIY elocution lessons that resulted in his famous transatlantic twang, but let's hope so.
"He was a talented fellow and, better yet, really, really good looking"
The Awful Truth
As “Cary Grant”, Archie Leach would always be associated with upscale high society but his own upbringing was rather more humble. In fact, he came from the sort of poverty that even Charles Dickens might consider a bit grim.
Daddy Leach was a violent alcoholic while his mother Elsie had already lost one child before Archie arrived, and suffered terribly with depression. When the future superstar was nine, Elsie went on a holiday, during which she died, at least so her son believed until 1935.
In fact, his father had placed her in an asylum. When the truth was revealed—Mr Leach confessed all just before he died—Cary Grant (as he now was) was able to get her released; his money allowed her to live in comfort until her death in 1973.
The Grass Is Greener
No, with a background like that, Archie Leach was not going to be sticking around. His ticket out of town came with membership of The Bob Pender Stage Troupe, music hall performers and acrobats who toured around Britain and, eventually, further afield; he joined up when he was just 14.
A couple of years later, he was in New York and, after a successful run, decided to stick around after the Pender troupe headed home. He remained active in show business, working in circuses and even as a stilt walker in Coney Island (although a very elegant one, no doubt).
He might not have been rich, he might not have had connections but Cary Grant—he'd rechristened himself by this time—was a talented fellow and, better yet, really, really good looking. Some combination of those elements earned him roles on Broadway and, in time, a trip to Hollywood in 1932.
The trouble was, Tinsel Town didn't really know what to do with him—he bounced around for several years, appearing in supporting roles, most notably opposite Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus and Mae West in I'm No Angel.
His breakthrough came in The Awful Truth, a screwball comedy that helped establish his persona, debonair but down to earth, with a fine casual wit. Insiders knew he had modelled his performance on that film's director, Leo McCarey, but no one fancied queuing round the block to look at McCarey, allowing Grant his place in the limelight.
The 1930s were the golden age of what's now known as the Screwball Comedy, fast paced rom-coms that folded clever dialogue and crude slap-stick into one unbeatable package. It was a style at which Cary Grant excelled.
Despite his reputation as a dandy, Grant was never above doing a really good prat-fall—his training in acrobatics assisted there—and this willingness to compromise his dignity made him a huge favourite, and films like Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday and The Philadelphia Story endure to this day.
"Indirectly, we can blame Cary Grant for Prog Rock"
Night and Day
While most stars were perfectly content to plough the same furrow over and over, Cary Grant was always keen to mix things up a bit. He could do comedy with the best of them but also acquitted himself well in slightly tougher roles: if anyone thought he was too polite for action, then Only Angels Have Wings and Gunga Din put them straight.
What's more, he was even prepared to risk his romantic image; few other stars would have been comfortable taking the lead in Suspicion for director Alfred Hitchcock. While his character is as cool and attractive as people would expect from Cary Grant, there's also the small matter that his wife—played by Joan Fontaine—thinks he's trying to kill her.
His next role for Hitchcock was just as dark, as a saturnine CIA agent in Notorious who obliges Ingrid Bergman to cosy up to Nazi Claude Rains. But not every collaboration with Hitchcock saw him turning to the dark side—both To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest see him at his breezy best, giving as good a definition of what “movie stardom” is as has ever been put on screen.
The Amazing Quest of Ernest Bliss
After the upbringing he'd had, it was no surprise that Cary Grant was a troubled man. He sought all sorts of therapies to help him cope, some of which went a wee bit further than modern mindfulness.
During the 1950s, Cary Grant was an early adopter of LSD, then recently discovered and regarded as a potential miracle cure by the psychiatric profession. He undertook over 100 sessions, and enthused about the experiences in interviews.
Intriguingly, it was one of those interviews that first alerted a chap called Timothy Leary to the existence of this new drug. Leary would go on to be its greatest champion, spreading its use far and wide, into the culture and counter-culture. So indirectly, we can blame Cary Grant for Prog Rock.
"He determined to be the best father he could and if that meant jacking in the movies, then so be it"
By 1959, Cary Grant was so well-known, that Tony Curtis could get an easy laugh in Some Like It Hot simply by doing an impersonation of the great man (his role as the phoney millionaire in that flick owes an awful lot to our Cary).
But the real Grant was having doubts about his work; he was enjoying acting less and the scripts he was being given weren't to his liking. Even worse, he worried he was just too long in the tooth—while working on the engaging Hitchcock pastiche Charade, he was cast opposite Audrey Hepburn. She was 25 years his junior and he needed to be reassured that he didn't look like a dirty old man.
What finally persuaded him to walk away was the birth of his first child, Jennifer in 1966. (Her mother was Dyan Cannon, his fourth wife). Mindful of his own awful upbringing, he determined to be the best father he could and if that meant jacking in the movies, then so be it.
I'm No Angel
He could be an incorrigible cove, Cary Grant. Once, he intercepted a telegram a journalist had sent to his publicist, enquiring of the star's age with the clipped speak used when you were paying by the word: HOW OLD CARY GRANT?
Grant couldn't resist: OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU?
Room for One More
Cary Grant's last film was Walk, Don't Run, made in 1966; people kept trying to tempt him back onto the screen—Hitchcock wanted him for Turn Curtain and Warren Beatty tried hard to recruit him for Heaven Can Wait—but he didn't want to play any more, thank you very much indeed.
But finally recognising what they'd lost, Hollywood did at least try to remedy one grievous oversight. No matter that he was one of the most popular movie stars there was, he'd only been nominated twice for an Oscar (for Penny Serenade and None but the Lonely Heart) and missed out both times. That was corrected in 1970; sure, it was long overdue, and it was only an honorary award, but hey—better late than never.
He died in 1986. If he didn't always get the acclaim he deserved during his lifetime, he is remembered as one of the very best. Oh, and a credit to the fine city of Bristol.
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