Arsenic and Old Lace
Matisse once remarked that good art was like a comfortable armchair—the viewer simply settles in, regards, and relaxes. While the same couldn’t be said for cinema as a whole, you could certainly apply the aphorism to certain strands of Hollywood film. If you can buy that, you would be hard-pressed to find an actor more comfortable to watch than Cary Grant, the man of whom director Howard Hawks remarked, “[He is] by so far the best that there isn’t anybody to be compared to him.”
Hawks was right. We can identify what it is that makes a movie star a star—a certain combination of energy, charm, sexiness, and gravitas. A star is the coolest person in the room, the man or woman at the party at whom everyone turns to stare during lulls in conversation. And yet something about Cary Grant pushed him well beyond the reach of the cinema’s other giants. Extremely handsome but also quite funny, clearly refined but also quite sleazy (and able to do both simultaneously—see His Girl Friday for proof), and equipped with an impossibly sonorous mid-Atlantic accent (oh, the days of vocal affectation!), Grant was able to hit all the quadrants of movie stardom at the same time, without missing a beat. Whether he was in a screwball comedy or a Hitchcock thriller, he was always suited to the material, yet always comfortably the same actor. Cary Grant played one role his entire career: Cary Grant. And a role it was. When a reporter once remarked, “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant,” Grant himself—born Archibald Leach—famously quipped, “So do I.”
Charade, An Affair to Remember
BAMcinématek is following up its big retro on Grant from last summer with a new series, titled, simply enough, Cary Grant 2. It features some obvious choices (North by Northwest, Bringing Up Baby) as well as some more inspired picks (Thirty Day Princess, This Is The Night). What comes across, as mentioned earlier, is the astonishing consistency of Grant’s onscreen persona. Whether he’s a nebbishy archaeologist, a French army Captain, an average Joe on the run in a case of mistaken identity, or just about anything else, he’s always the same: unfaltering non-rhotic English, dry-as-a-bone comic wit, charming delivery of slightly-faux indignation.
Thirty Day Princess was an interesting choice to kick off the festivities last Friday. One of Grant’s earliest films (1934), it’s a little-known picture directed by Marion Gering. Preston Sturges co-wrote the script, but one wonders how much his contribution was worked over by the inevitable Hollywood assembly line of writers; much of the biting wit present in Sullivan’s Travels and The Lady Eve is not here. A rather stale depression-centric comedy about a struggling actress who gets “cast” as the Princess of Taronia for a publicity tour (Sylvia Sidney, lovely, in both parts), Grant supports as a newspaper publisher who wins the heart of the actress-as-princess. Doing not-unusual double-duty as both debonair newspaper heir and, well, sleazy yellow-journalistic newspaper heir, Grant is his eminently watchable self in a role that doesn’t fully allow him to showcase his talents. Beyond that, he’s only onscreen for perhaps 60% of the film. It was nevertheless a gutsy choice to open the series, and a commendable one, when one considers how under-seen this picture has been.
The retro also provides less-versed cinephiles with the opportunity to catch up with some of Grant’s strongest films, such as Bringing Up Baby and Hitchcock classics Notorious and North by Northwest. The best screwball comedy ever made about a runaway pet leopard, Bringing Up Baby is perhaps Grant’s strongest comedic performance (with the possible exception of His Girl Friday). While he was always charming and breezy when playing playboys with deep pockets and shallow ethics, Grant was even more impressive when he played against type, as the nebbishy dweeb. Such is the case in Baby, where he portrays a stodgy archaeologist who has the misfortune of having his fate tied in with that of Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), an utterly nuts society dame who enlists his help to find her aforementioned pet leopard. By mixing his own good looks and vaudeville-trained comic timing with the buttoned-up persona of a wimpy scientist, Grant created a juxtaposition of character than enabled his performance to truly shine.
If you haven’t already seen North by Northwest, there’s a chance you may be on the wrong website entirely. Barring that, suffice it to say that while it isn’t one of Hitchcock’s strongest films from a formalist point of view, it is a more lively and charming take on the James Bond series than any Bond film ever was. (Incidentally, it predates Dr. No by three years.) Playing Hitchcock’s favorite character, The Wrong Man, innocent ad man Grant gets caught up in a web of espionage and intrigue that goes well beyond his pay grade. The climactic sequence on the face of Mount Rushmore is one of the most famous action scenes in all of cinema, and the last shot is the funniest denouement of any Hitchcock picture.