“I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until finally I became that person. Or he became me.” Cary Grant.
Cary Grant was born on this day, January 18th 1904, in Bristol, England. He rose from working class poverty in Britain to become one of the greatest American movie stars that ever lived. Here is a short appreciation on the occasion of his birthday.
For me, he was and is the very model of a successful man. I long ago learned that there was so much one could learn from his movies and from him, the deeds of his life. As I have grown older I have appreciated him more and more. When I was younger I appreciated him for the way he dressed, his worldliness, his connoisseurship. Now I am older I appreciate him for his self-awareness, his generosity of spirit and his love of life. He was and remains my inspiration for writing What Makes a Man.
The truth is, I still do not understand Cary Grant and I think that is a good thing. His reason for not discussing his personal life was sound; he did not feel that he could be a model for anyone else. He was ahead of his time here, understanding how we each play to our own psychology. But his reticence is intriguing because it hides his huge achievement in inventing himself, in becoming Cary Grant.
What he did was almost impossible, he started out poor, badly educated and badly parented, and became a movie star, a worldly connoisseur of art, clothes, food, a successful businessman and a father. It is no accident that Graham McCann’s definitive biography of Grant is entitled “Cary Grant, a class apart”. For Cary Grant invented a man for the twentieth century, a gentleman of quality but of no particular class.
What we do know abut Cary Grant is that, from somewhere, he had a deep-seated desire to better himself, and he never lost that desire. He was only nine years old when he first expressed an interest in clothes, he asked his mother for a pair of white flannels. But this was no disinterested interest. Cary had developed an affection for the butcher’s daughter and even at a young age, realised that good clothes would make him more attractive to girls.
Initially it was his willingness to listen and learn that set him apart. He went to New York as part of a vaudeville acrobatic troupe when he was twenty. When the act folded he stayed in America. By the time he was twenty-four he was appearing in musical comedy on Broadway. He knew musical comedy was a route out of vaudeville and learnt to sing, paying for lessons with the money he earned from a variety of odd, often downright odd, jobs, that were related to show business. In those days when his reviews came in, they were very mixed. However Cary Grant was not dismayed, he read about his faults and duly set out to fix them. Before he was through he added a touch of Noel Coward, a slinky elegance of movement and an accent that combined English diction with American pronunciation.
At the same time he started to become the Cary Grant we know today. He became a “walker”, an escort for attractive women and in the process met a lot of accomplished and successful people. By his own admission he learnt all he could from the people he met. At twenty-four he started clipping articles on all kinds of subjects, something he did for his entire life. It became his habit to make light of his achievements but the truth was, he had a ferocious work ethic.
This shows up in small but inspired ways in the movies. In the early scenes of “To catch a thief” Grant wears a trousers, striped shirt and scarf combination that set the tone for the movie. These were not his own clothes, which Hitchcock felt were wrong for the character. He found the clothes he wore by looking at the style of local men in the South of France (the setting for Thief) and buying in local stores. Once again, looking and learning.
Incidentally Grant’s shirt and scarf “look”, caught on hugely when the movie came out and lots of men took it up, unfortunately, “very badly” in the words of Thief’s costume director.
There was a bit of a downside to this learning. Like many man who teach themselves to be self-sufficient, Grant became used to doing everything himself. His second wife, Barbara Hutton, in a rare critical comment about him, once said that “He was a frustratingly difficult man to care for”.
One of the things that set Cary Grant apart from other actors and other men of the period was his ability to treat women with respect and listen to what they had to say.
All of his female co-stars said the same thing. Cary Grant listened to them; he was not simply waiting for the chance to speak his lines. He did this with great care and it gives his scenes with his co-stars a texture, a depth and a timing that other stars could not match. Part of Cary Grant’s mystique as a star was his chemistry with his female co-stars. This was partly because he was a truly sexy, handsome man.
However it was also because he built that chemistry, by listening to them and making them believably human. It was part of his gift that he brought that feeling to the screen. There is a wonderful early scene in Indiscreet, where Ingrid Bergman’s lonely, beautiful actress is flirting with Grant. Grant is clearly both flirting and hesitating at the same time, but more importantly it is clear that he is responding to Bergman’s conversational gambits. There is a realism about the tone and timing that carries one deeply into the scene. Magnificent acting by both of them.
If Grant was courteous and listened to women, he was still very comfortable in his own skin. His self-possession is evident in many of his roles. He would listen to women but he had his own view of the world, downright challenging. This confidence, even aggression, made for great interplay. In my opinion he never did it better than in the “The Philadelphia Story” as the divorced husband of the imperious Katherine Hepburn. Grant’s classlessness also works beautifully here, as he neither conforms to hierarchy nor flouts it. By starting from a position of certainty he consistently out-manoeuvres Hepburn’s icy aristocrat.
By the time we get to the making “To catch a thief”, Grant was perfectly Cary Grant. The first part of Hitchcock’s genius was to have Cary Grant almost play himself, cosmopolitan, cultured, stylish, but with an element of dangerous alertness. Here is the man that so impressed Ian Fleming that he wanted Cary Grant to play James Bond. It is ironic (and a tribute to Cary Grant) that Fleming, a terrible snob, wanted the poor working class lad from Bristol to play his officer-class spy.
Hitchcock’s second act of genius was to unleash the danger, the aggression in Cary Grant. It starts with Grant’s trick with a shotgun to fool the police and it ends with his willingness to hurl Brigitte Auber’s girl burglar from a fourth-floor rooftop. In between there are times when we are never sure whether we are going to get the well-dressed lover or the underworld parolee.
Now, Grant is the complete master of the woman he is with. Grace Kelly is beautiful, selfish, arrogant and flirtatious as the wealthy but spoilt Francine Stevens. However, Grant’s John Robie is unperturbed by her behaviour. The more Kelly’s Francine tries to play Grant’s John Robie, the more he teases her, showing her who has the power. There is nothing coarse here; Grant defeats Kelly with both wit and style, leaving her no alternative but to fall in love with the man who has bested her.
The end for now
I am going to stop here. Cary grant had formed the man he wanted to be by the time of “To Catch a Thief” and that seems a good place to stop. There are so many other things to talk about, his generosity, his care and loyalty to his friends, his romantic weakness for women. That will wait for another time. But there is one thing that I still find amazing, after years of watching his movies and reading about him.
The man turned out so well.
Given his difficult start in life, there is no English class-war defensiveness in him, no embittered distrust, no predilection to make excuses for any part of his life. His story is of a man who was determined to succeed and happy to do the work that he needed to do.
Cary Grant created Cary Grant and he created a very special man.
God Bless you Mr Grant, wherever you are.
There are of course so many wonderful movies. Here are five of my favourites:
To Catch a Thief
Cary Grant was never more urbane, more stylish or more interesting than in To Catch a Thief
The Philadelphia Story
Witty and exceptionally funny. In some ways it is the ultimate screwball comedy, in others there is no movie quite like it. Sharp, funny and clever.
Before Bond, Grant made a very classy, worldly American spy. Setting the movie in Paris played to Cary Grant’s strengths as a stylish, cosmopolitan man.
Only Angels have Wings
Howard Hawks movie about mail flyers in the Andes. The camaraderie works here. Surprisingly, so does Grant as a tough aviator disdainful of romance.
This movie has grown on me in recent years. Cary Grant play a less-than-ethical character and yet is still appealing to the audience. To carry that through an entire movie and not lose the audience is great acting.
Cary Grant, a class apart.
Though McCann sometimes feels like he is a little cold on his subject, this is the definitive biography, and treats Grant’s acting with the consideration it deserves.
Cary Grant, a celebration of style
This is a book of bits and pieces, but wonderfully illuminating on Cary Grant’s style, his relationships with his friends, his view of movies. Like a mine full of nuggets of gold.
Cary Grant, a life in pictures.
This is a new book which unfortunately contains some errors of grammar, and, I think, one error of fact. That said, it is a beautifully researched book and contains some stunning studio photographs that have rarely been seen.
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