Grant, Cary (1904-1986)

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Grant, Cary (1904-1986)

A top box-office draw from the 1930s through the 1960s, movie star Cary Grant personified the ideal attributes of the "leading man" during the golden age of Hollywood. Darkly handsome, with that trademark cleft chin, elegantly attired whether in dinner clothes or soldier's uniform, meeting every challenge with self-deprecating savoir-faire, ready with witty banter or eloquent gesture and possessing a flair for comic timing second to none, Grant was adored by women and admired by men for three decades. Though he occasionally veered from his popular image by attempting more serious roles,Cary Grant's forte was light, romantic comedy. He brought to his films a buoyant charm and an effortless improvisational quality that belied the hard work spent making it look so easy. He was Fred Astaire minus the music and plus the chiseled good looks.

The persona the world came to know as "Cary Grant" was the carefully crafted creation of Alexander Archibald Leach, born in Bristol, England, in 1904. As a teenager, Leach forsook an unpromising existence in Bristol for the uncertainties of a theatrical career, joining Bob Pender's theatrical troupe in vaudeville performances throughout England. Pender's Troupe eventually played America, and young Archie went with it. After deciding to settle in the United States, Leach occasionally found vaudeville work, but just as often found hard times. Once in 1922, he earned his keep as a Coney Island stiltwalker. By the late 1920s, Archie's perseverance was finally paying off in leading roles on Broadway. His first film appearance, as a sailor in Singapore Sue, a musical short shot at New York's Astoria Studio, led to a contract with Paramount in Hollywood, where he began acting under his new moniker, Cary Grant.

Grant's earliest film roles reveal that he had already developed his "Cary Grant voice," with its unique inflection of Americanized Cockney, impossible to place geographically and therefore concealing his humble origins. But the process of becoming Cary Grant was a slow one, evolving from film to film. "I guess to a certain extent I did eventually become the characters I was playing," Grant once confessed. "I played at being someone I wanted to be until I became that person. Or he became me." At first, nothing more was required of Grant than that he be the stalwart leading man, though he soon displayed hints of the charm to come in his badinage with Mae West in She Done Him Wrong and I'm No Angel, (both 1933). Under George Cukor's direction, Grant began to loosen up and find himself, portraying a Cockney con-man opposite Katharine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett (1936). Playing a devil-may-care ghost in 1937's Topper seems to have freed Grant still further. That same year's The Awful Truth featured Grant's first full-out comedy star-turn. Leo McCarey's direction encouraged improvisation, and the interplay between Grant and Irene Dunne delighted audiences. This hit was immediately followed by Howard Hawks's Bringing Up Baby, again co-starring Katharine Hepburn. It was a box-office disappointment but is now recognized as one of the archetypal classics of screwball comedy.

Once he had hit his stride, Grant moved from strength to strength as one of the first big stars to become an independent agent and shop his wares at different studios, thus enabling him to have his pick of the best scripts, directors, and co-stars. Grant proved he could shift suavely from the knockabout Kipling adventure of Gunga Din (1939) to the sophisticated romance of The Philadelphia Story (1940). Alfred Hitchcock was the first director to take advantage of a certain dark undercurrent in Grant by casting him as a murder suspect in Suspicion (1941), though the studio insisted the story be re-written to exonerate Grant's character at the fade-out. Hitchcock and Grant would team memorably thrice more, with Notorious (1946), To Catch a Thief (1955), and North by Northwest (1959). Highlights of Grant's romantic-comedy filmography include His Girl Friday (1940, with Rosalind Russell), The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947, Shirley Temple and Myrna Loy), and That Touch of Mink (1962, Doris Day). Grant's career as a top box-office draw was a long one, sustained partly by his shrewd emphasis on the light romantic fare his public seemed most to favor—although there were occasions when Grant attempted a "stretch," as with "Ernie Mott," the impoverished Cockney he played in Clifford Odets' None but the Lonely Heart (1944).

In many ways, Ernie Mott was the man Archie Leach might have become had he never left Bristol. An important element of Lonely Heart was Ernie's relationship with his mother, played by Ethel Barrymore. Archie's own mother had strangely disappeared for a time when he was a boy, and the adult Cary Grant's relations with women were not as effortless in life as they were on the screen; he was married five times and divorced four. Grant's search for meaning in his life at one point led him to participate in early clinical experiments with LSD, which he claimed were beneficial. Still handsome in his sixties, but growing uncomfortable at playing love scenes with younger actresses, Grant retired from the screen after playing his first character lead in Walk, Don't Run in 1966. Film offers kept coming his way, but Grant was content to pursue other business interests and, more importantly, spend time with his daughter Jennifer, the product of his marriage to wife number four, actress Dyan Cannon. In 1986, while on a speaking engagement in Davenport, Iowa, with his wife Barbara Harris, Grant suffered a fatal stroke.

Much though he doted on his real-life role as father, Grant's image in the public mind would always be the dashing chap in the tuxedo who was never at a loss for the right words to charm Grace Kelly or Audrey Hepburn. Thanks to such 1990s films as Sleepless in Seattle, Grant's 1957 An Affair to Remember remains evergreen in the popular consciousness as the epitome of movie romance. Cary Grant never fully abandoned Archie Leach, and Grant has also come to symbolize the power of creating one's own persona, thus giving a world of Archie Leaches hope for the fulfillment of their own dreams. Once, when told that every man would like to be Cary Grant, the actor replied, "So would I."

—Preston Neal Jones

Further Reading:

Deschner, Donald. The Films of Cary Grant. Secaucus, Citadel Press, 1973.

Donaldson, Maureen and William Royce. My Life with Cary Grant. New York, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1989.

Harris, Warren G. Cary Grant: A Touch of Elegance. New York, Doubleday, 1987.

McCann, Graham. Cary Grant: A Class Apart. New York, Columbia University Press, 1996.

Nelson, Nancy. Evenings with Cary Grant. New York, William Morrow and Co., 1991.

Peary, Danny, editor. Close-Ups: The Movie Star Book. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1978.

Wansell, Geoffrey. Haunted Idol: The Story of the Real Cary Grant. New York, William Morrow and Co., 1983.