Notebook Primer: Cary Grant

Cary Grant was the epitome of the movie star, a Hollywood icon and one of its most entertaining, charismatic, and talented performers.
Jeremy Carr

The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.

It was often said that women wanted to be with Cary Grant and men wanted to be Cary Grant, but perhaps no one was more consumed by the perception of Cary Grant—the handsome, unremittingly suave and stylish movie star—than Grant himself. “Even I want to be Cary Grant,” the actor once mused. Indeed, Grant’s public and on-screen persona was a carefully crafted, meticulously honed, and ultimately triumphant development, as much to suit the needs of his ascending celebrity as it was to shroud an unhappy childhood, a series of romantic passions and disappointments, and a latent dark side fostered by uncertainty and doubt. It was, however, and in any and all cases, resoundingly successful. Grant was the epitome of the movie star, a Hollywood icon and one of its most entertaining, enduringly charismatic, and roundly talented performers.

Born Archibald Leach in Bristol, England, Grant’s early exposure to the theater, performing with assorted acrobatic troupes and touring ensembles, refined his pantomime skills and physical acting technique. Turning his attention to the movies, he appeared in an inauspicious 1931 short, Singapore Sue, and, bolstered by his good looks and comedic aptitude, signed a contract with Paramount Pictures that same year. He made his feature film debut in the 1932 comedy This is the Night, which displayed his practiced athleticism, and before long, Grant’s dashing demeanor was sharing the screen with the phenomenally present likes of Marlene Dietrich, in Josef von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus (1932), and Mae West, in the pre-code features I’m No Angel (1933) and She Done Him Wrong (1933). But Grant called himself “window dressing” with West and a “cad” and “male mannequin” in Blonde Venus, and he generally struggled at Paramount where he was relegated to unfavorable roles in sub-par films, including the romantic comedy Wedding Present (1936), a slapstick newsroom precursor to the more accomplished His Girl Friday (1939). It was when he was loaned to RKO, though, playing a cockney con man in George Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett (1935), his first of four pairings with Katherine Hepburn, that Grant managed to evince his characteristic energy and brashness. According to Cukor, Grant suddenly “felt the ground under his feet.”

Above: Sylvia Scarlett

Freed from his Paramount contract, the newly independent Grant scored consecutive successes with the screwball comedies Topper and The Awful Truth, both released in 1937. Acting as a laughable ghost in the former, alongside Constance Bennett, and an amusingly hesitant divorcee in the latter, opposite Irene Dunne, Grant excelled in such light comedy. For critic Benjamin Schwarz, The Awful Truth began “the most spectacular run ever for an actor in American pictures,” a feat that continued in 1938, where a meek, delightfully daffy Grant again starred with Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, a raucous comedy directed by Howard Hawks (their first of five film collaborations), and Holiday, another madcap coupling with Hepburn. Grant also broadened his range with the rousing military adventure Gunga Din (1939), directed by George Stevens, with Hawks’ aviation drama Only Angels Have Wings (1939), and with In Name Only (1939), a romance co-starring Carole Lombard, with whom Grant worked several times but, as he noted, never in a comedy—“I just think that’s strange,” he recalled.

Above: The Awful Truth

Further affirming his comic chops, Grant’s turn in Hawks’ His Girl Friday had him verbally sparring with an equally capable Rosalind Russell. He then reunited with Dunne for 1940’s affable My Favorite Wife, and he starred with Hepburn and James Stewart in the celebrated romantic comedy The Philadelphia Story (1940). Grant received his first Academy Award nomination the following year for his role in Penny Serenade (1941), a tearful melodrama with Dunne, and director Alfred Hitchcock mined a more menacing side of the star with Suspicion (1941). For Frank Capra, Grant appeared in the macabre dark comedy Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), where he gave what he considered to be his worst performance. While that’s certainly debatable, as critic Stephen Puddicombe points out, here one sees, as was so often the case, Grant’s vaudeville training in full force. “In addition to his talent for pratfalls,” Puddicombe writes, “it is Grant’s willingness to mock himself that helps make him such an endearing performer. In Arsenic and Old Lace, he whelps, gurns and staggers his way through a wacky story of benevolently murderous aunts, hidden corpses and a psychotic Boris Karloff lookalike, with the gusto of a man willing to do anything for a laugh.”

Above: None but the Lonely Heart

Grant’s 1944 appearance in None but the Lonely Heart was significant on two fronts: it garnered him his second Oscar nomination and, as a poor London vagabond, it gave him a chance to play a character close to his own upbringing, with mixed commercial results. “The only time I played myself was in None but the Lonely Heart,” he stated, “and nobody wanted to see the real me. So I put Archie Leach away and went back to being Cary Grant.” That Cary Grant was Cole Porter’s choice for the musical Night and Day (1946), a biopic about the famed composer, and it was the same Grant put to shadier use by Hitchcock for Notorious (1946), a tense, smoldering spy drama with Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains. But far lighter were The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, a lively 1947 film with Myrna Loy and Shirley Temple, and the heavenly wholesome The Bishop’s Wife, with David Niven and Loretta Young. Grant then reunited with Loy for the charming Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), and with Hawks for the 1949 comedy I Was a Male War Bride, a film most famous for its scenes where Grant dresses as a woman.

Grant suffered something of a career slump in the 1950s, with a series of poorly received titles early in the decade, though Hawks’ Monkey Business (1952), co-starring Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe, remains a wildly exuberant farce. He got back on track with Hitchcock’s 1955 To Catch a Thief, an alluring crime drama with Grace Kelly, and with the much-loved romance An Affair to Remember (1957), with Deborah Kerr. Amiable entries like 1958’s Indiscreet and Houseboat and 1959’s Operation Petticoat rounded out the decade, but the capstone was 1959’s North by Northwest, a twisting and turning case of mistaken identity with Grant smack in the middle of intrigue and romance alongside Eva Marie Saint and several inventive set-pieces. The 1960s began with such likable features as The Grass is Greener (1960) and That Touch of Mink (1962), but after 1963’s elegant and exciting Charade (1963), costarring Audrey Hepburn, Grant made only two additional features: the atypical Father Goose (1964), where he played a grizzled character he thought nearest to his true personality, and Walk, Don’t Run (1966), a comedy shot on location in Tokyo. Grant retired from the screen at age 62, following the birth of his daughter, Jennifer. He regarded her as his “best production.”

Above: North by Northwest

Cary Grant was presented an honorary Oscar in 1970, at the 42nd Academy Awards. It was a long overdue acknowledgement of an unrivaled, staggeringly productive career. Grant had become the quintessential leading man, buoyed by his discretion, effortless magnetism, and dynamic appearance. In his comedies, his facial quirks and smirks and deadpan reactions demonstrated a keen knack for screwball personification, while even in his dramatic roles, his sheer presence was a key facet of any given film’s accomplishment, as well as that of those acting beside him. “Grant uses his intense physical awareness to make the scenes play,” observed Pauline Kael, “and never to make himself look good at the expense of someone else—not even when he could waltz away with the show.” Coupled with his indomitably manic and infectious vitality, the assurance Grant gained in slapstick, per Kael, “turned him into the smoothie he had aspired to be. He brought elegance to low comedy, and low comedy gave him the corky common-man touch that made him a great star.” More than that, though, as David Thomson simply contends, Grant was “the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema.”

Above: Only Angels Have Wings


  • The Awful Truth (1937): Based on an Arthur Richman play, which had been filmed twice before and was remade again in 1953, The Awful Truth is arguably the finest example of what critic Stanley Cavell called a comedy “of remarriage,” where Grant and Dunne map out their best laid plans for divorce only to have true love get pleasingly in the way. Like Grant, director McCarey had also recently departed Paramount, but unlike the actor, McCarey was prone to improvisation, a directorial style often at odds with Grant, who grew frustrated with the process and McCarey with him (though the two would work again together). In any event, one would hardly be aware of this disparity watching the film, as Grant engenders a freshness and vibrancy that would serve him well in his subsequent comedies.
  • Only Angels Have Wings (1939): This film may be considered more typical of director Howard Hawks than it is of Grant, but it nevertheless afforded the actor an opportunity to explore a supplementary stoic side to his personality, with an exceptional outcome. Hawks wrote the source short story the year prior, with concepts lifted from tales of real-life aviators, and the Hawksian themes of professionalism and masculine codes of conduct allowed Grant to move away from his frivolous glamour and develop a dispassionate seriousness that borders on sheer insensitivity. Grant had appeared in more than 30 films to this point, in a span of about seven years, but rarely had he shown such hardened artlessness, proving his talents in the adventure film as well as comedy.
  • His Girl Friday (1940): Back with Hawks a year later for this rapid-fire screwball comedy, Grant is absolutely masterful enacting the film’s breakneck pace, going toe-to-toe with Russell in an immensely enjoyable tale of occupational obsession and reluctant romance. Written by Charles Lederer, based on the play “The Front Page” by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, the screenplay for His Girl Friday was submitted at 191 pages, yet the film runs just over 90 minutes thanks to the overlapping dialogue and adroit performances, particularly from Grant who has an obvious field day with the knowing in-jokes (including a mention of one “Archie Leach”) and the good-natured barbs hurled with wild abandon. Despite earlier contentions with McCarey, Grant’s eventual comfort with improvisatory verbal bravado is more than evident.
  • The Philadelphia Story (1940): Although this was largely a vehicle for Katharine Hepburn, the biting dialogue and sophisticated socialite shenanigans were perfectly suited to Grant. The witty, sometimes biting discourse (Donald Ogden Stewart won an Oscar for his script) and the familiar terrain of marital muddles place Grant’s characteristically cool C.K. Dexter Haven front and center of the amorous conflicts and comic misadventures. Hepburn had herself proposed the film to Grant, who insisted on top billing and a liberal salary, which he donated to the British War Relief Fund, and while Stewart was the one who walked away with an Academy Award, many in retrospect recognize the subtly effective Grant as the more compelling performance.
  • Suspicion (1941): Written by Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville, playwright Samson Raphaelson, and Joan Harrison, adapting Anthony Berkeley Cox’s novel (written under the pseudonym Francis Iles), this sly thriller was supposed to end with Grant’s enigmatic playboy killing his new wife, played by Joan Fontaine. But this undoubtedly shocking conclusion was something the studios could not abide, especially with Grant—of all people—as the conceivable murderer. Still, it’s a testament to Hitchcock’s flair for cunning suspense and the convincing nature of Grant’s illusory amiability that Suspicion remains efficiently tense throughout. This was the first of Grant’s four collaborations with Hitch, and his archetypal charisma has never been more deceptive and yet so enticing, proving Peter Bogdanovich’s contention that Grant could display a striking versatility within his own persona.

Above: Bringing Up Baby


  • Cary Grant: A Biography,” by Marc Eliot: Cary Grant is one the most studied actors in film history, a popular and critical object of permanent fascination, but his personal life has always been a source of veiled controversy. To this end, Eliot’s brilliant biography, described as a “complete, nuanced portrait of the greatest star in cinema history,” delves into Grant’s problematic childhood and his much-debated sexuality. This, in addition to the insights concerning the making of his many renowned films, yields what is accurately described in its promotional blurb as “the definitive examination of every aspect of Grant’s professional and private life and the first biography to reveal the real man behind the movie star.”
  • The Other Cary Grant,” by Warren Hoge: This 1977 piece for the New York Times presents Grant as a venerable fashion icon (his wardrobe is adoringly detailed) and, even at the age of 73, an awe-inspiring physical specimen. Written when Grant had been out of the movie business for more than a decade, Hoge’s article weighs several of Grant’s appealing characteristics, nodding to his “resilient good looks” and the fact that even as he aged, and was paired with far younger actresses, the star’s grace and poise kept the juxtapositions well within the realm of believability. In the real-world revelations discussed, however, such attractions were more tenuous. Asking Grant about his four ex-wives (he would remarry again four years later), Grant confesses he doesn’t really know why they all left him, “looking genuinely uncertain” and commenting, “They got bored with me, I guess, tired of me. I really don’t know.”
  • Cary Grant: how 100 acid trips in Tinseltown ‘changed my life,’” by Xan Brooks: When it comes to Cary Grant, his therapeutic use of LSD has been one of the more peculiar topics of conversation and scrutiny. “In the late 1950s, at the height of his fame,” Brooks writes, “Cary Grant set off on a trip in search of his true self, unpicking the myth he had spent three decades perfecting.” Where hypnosis and yoga failed, during his LSD sessions Grant said he learned a “great deal” and the result “was a rebirth. I finally got where I wanted to go.” Written to coincide with the 2017 documentary Becoming Cary Grant, Brooks’ article also examines the revelatory content of the film, its rare footage of Grant, and, “in addition to providing a cinematic case study,” its opening a window “on to a lost utopia of LSD therapy.”
  • The Man from Dream City,” by Pauline Kael: Kael’s 1975 profile, written for The New Yorker, covers an astonishing breadth of material as it relates to Grant’s life, his career, and his fascinating, captivating persona. “The little bit of shyness and reserve in Grant is pure box-office gold,” Kael states, “and being the pursued doesn’t make him seem weak or passively soft. It makes him glamorous—and, since he is not as available as other men, far more desirable.” In addition to biographical exposition (her coverage of his theatrical experience is especially thorough), she writes of his seductive prowess, which set him apart from other male stars of the era, and eras to come. “Grant doesn’t assert his male supremacy,” Kael writes, “in the climax of a picture he doesn’t triumph by his fists and brawn—or even by outwitting anybody. He isn’t a conqueror, like Gable. But he’s a winner. The game, however, is an artful dodge. He gets the blithe, funny girl by maneuvering her into going after him. He’s a fairy-tale hero, but she has to pass through the trials: She has to trim her cold or pompous adversaries; she has to dispel his fog. In picture after picture, he seems to give up his resistance at the end, as if to say, What’s the use of fighting?”
  • New Again: Cary Grant,” by Kent Schuelke: Interview Magazine conducted a conversation with Grant just before his death in 1986, and it was reprinted here in 2013. Although he is somewhat reserved, perhaps owing to his age, Grant reflects on multiple aspects of his life and work, noting for example that he expressed no early ambitions toward acting and, when asked how he would like history to remember him, stating merely, “‘a congenial fellow who didn’t rock the boat,’ I suppose.” Grant also speaks about the many stunning leading ladies appearing by his side in film after film, asserting Grace Kelly was the best actress he ever worked with, and comments, as many classic stars and directors were wont to do, on the baffling nature of academic attention. “We didn’t know [the films’] intentions half the time,” Grant says, “except to amuse and attract people to the box office.” 

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