Cary Grant’s Lasting Legacy: Screwballs and Beyond

The Cary Grant centenary (1904-1986) is currently being celebrated in many venues. David Schwartz, the chief curator of film at the American Museum of the Moving Image, has provided an ultra-auteurist perspective with his “Cary Grant x 5″ series, focusing on Grant’s stellar appearances in films directed by Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, George Cukor, Leo McCarey and Stanley Donen. About the only serious omissions in terms of transcendent Grant performances are George Stevens’ Penny Serenade (1941), The Talk of the Town (1942), and of course, Gunga Din (1939). Clifford Odets’ gloomy None but the Lonely Heart (1944) won Grant one of his two Oscar nominations, and for the past 60 years it’s been mistakenly regarded as his only “serious” piece of acting.

The Schwartz series is running from May 29 to June 27, and consists of such Howard Hawks works as Only Angels Have Wings (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), Bringing Up Baby (1938), I Was a Male War Bride (1949), Monkey Business (1952); from Alfred Hitchcock there’s Suspicion (1941), Notorious (1946), To Catch a Thief (1955) and North By Northwest (1959); from George Cukor there’s Sylvia Scarlett (1935), The Philadelphia Story (1940) and Holiday (1938); from Leo McCarey, The Awful Truth (1937), My Favorite Wife (1940)-which Garson Kanin completed after an illness incapacitated McCarey- Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942) and An Affair to Remember (1957); and from Stanley Donen, Indiscreet (1958), Charade (1963) and The Grass Is Greener (1960). The American Museum of the Moving Image is located at 35th Avenue at 36th Street, in Astoria, Queens (1-718-784-4520). If you happen to miss any of these Grant classics, I am sure they are available on VHS or DVD, or both.

The eminent film critic and historian David Thomson described Cary Grant as “the best and most important actor in the history of cinema. The essence of his quality can be put quite simply: that he can be attractive and unattractive simultaneously; there is a light and dark side to him, but whichever is dominant, the other creeps into view.”

I’m tempted to endorse Mr. Thomson’s appraisal, if only because Grant was so ridiculously underrated by his peers and other pundits when he was alive. I would, however, prefer to place him in a triptych of equal acting greatness with James Stewart (1908-1997) and James Cagney (1899-1986). Observers at the time ranked Grant well below such overrated performers as Spencer Tracy, Fredric March and Gary Cooper.

Among English-speaking actors, John Gielgud (1904-2000), Laurence Olivier (1907-1989) and Ralph Richardson (1902-1983), though titans of the theater, had considerably less presence onscreen. And even their shining icon, Shakespeare, fared better on the page and the stage than on the screen.

One of Grant’s major problems was that, come award time, comedy was never taken as seriously as drama; it’s still the case today vis-à-vis Bill Murray’s in Lost in Translation versus Sean Penn in Mystic River . Nonetheless, Grant can be credited for virtually inventing the screwball-comedy genre with his strange mix of shy, nervous detachment and clownish bravado, which worked well with the underlying censor-imposed uncertainty of sexual by-play in the genre.

Grant was also the first big star to escape the bondage of a single-studio, long-term contact (though it’s never quite clear which, if any, of his first 26 movies before The Awful Truth gave him the power to call his own shots). Mae West tried to claim credit for “discovering” Grant for She Done Him Wrong (1933), but the young actor had already made eight movies before West’s famous come-on certified his stud status. The late George Cukor insisted that Sylvia Scarlett (1935) put Grant in line for stardom. Since the movie itself was such a commercial and critical dud at the time-and contributed mightily to making Katherine Hepburn “box-office poison”-Cukor’s assertion seems downright bizarre. Nor did Grant’s involvement with Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg in Blonde Venus (1932) do much for his own image.

Although he appeared in films with such yesteryear icons as Carole Lombard, Sylvia Sidney, Tallulah Bankhead, Jean Harlow and even songbird Grace Moore, he was most effective in a lighthearted way with Nancy Carroll in Hot Saturday (1932) and Woman Accused (1933), and Joan Bennett in Big Brown Eyes and Wedding Present (both 1936). Topper (1937) with Constance Bennett as his after-life consort, (and Roland Young as the eponymous survivor of this otherwordly fantasy farce), helped establish a certain high-society gloss for his persona, but was otherwise by far the least enduring of his “classic” screwball comedies.

Then came the one shot that, more than any other, provides the visual cue for the screwball era. It occurs early on in McCarey’s The Awful Truth : Grant is seen seated atop a luxurious sofa with his right elbow balanced casually on his right knee, which is bent over the sofa’s armrest, and his left arm is extended to his left knee, which is bent over the seat cushions. His posture is that of infantile irresponsibility. Off to his right stands Irene Dunne as his wife, still swathed in ermine after a night out with her “music teacher,” a perfectly typecast snake-in-the-grass in evening clothes (Alexander D’Arcy). Two other couples are standing at either side of the frame, along with a seated but skeptical aunt (Cecil Cunningham) in the center, as witnesses to this early morning-after marital misunderstanding.

The one conspicuously askew element is that of Grant, perched unconventionally in what would otherwise have been a traditional Coward-Maugham-Barry-Behrman drawing-room tableau of suspected infidelity. The acrobatics of Archie Leach, combined with the acquired sophistication of Cary Grant, proved time and again that the rich need not be stuffy and stodgy in manner. The talkies had found at last a well-tailored romantic gentleman with the physical gifts of a baggy-pants comedian. It was not just a matter of the pratfalls and somersaults that Grant performed throughout his career, but the innumerable bits of business that tilted his body parts in some speedy flash of behavioral vaudeville.

Grant’s darker side emerged mostly in the films of Alfred Hitchcock, particularly in Suspicion , in which he seems to be planning to murder his wife, played by Joan Fontaine-and he would have, if the original homicidal ending had been kept as both Grant and Hitchcock had wanted (the studio intervened for the sake of protecting Grant’s “image”). François Truffaut has valiantly defended the revised ending on the grounds perhaps that a wife’s somewhat comic paranoia is more interesting than her justifiable fear would have been.

In Notorious (1946), Grant doesn’t set out to kill his sweetheart, played by Ingrid Bergman; her husband, played by Claude Rains, is taking care of that little detail. Still, Grant’s character is not above torturing Bergman’s patriotic Mata Hari by constantly throwing her checkered past at her.

A delicious dividend of the Grant series is the dazzling diversity of his leading ladies, with whom he enjoyed unfailingly felicitous chemistry. These included Jean Arthur, Rosalind Russell, Katharine Hepburn, Ann Sheridan, Ginger Rogers, Joan Fontaine, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, Irene Dunne, Deborah Kerr and Audrey Hepburn. And it all seemed so logical that even male viewers could not help admiring Grant’s seamless sophistication in the presence of beautiful women. Then, as now, it takes two to tango. When shall we see his like again?

Dangerous Love

Yann Samuell’s Love Me If You Dare , in French with English subtitles, makes a lifelong dare out of the game of love. In the process, the story takes two childhood lovers, Julien and Sophie, from ages 8 to 80, with three pairs of performers engaged in ever more dangerous rituals seemingly designed as much to avoid a lasting relationship as to perpetuate it. As children, Julien (Thibault Verhaeghe) and Sophie (Joséphine Lebas-Joly) are two spiritually wounded and socially alienated creatures who find solace in each other’s mischievous company. Julien’s melancholy is compounded by the mystical affection he feels for his beloved dying mother (Emmanuelle Grönvold), with whom he has always shared the same adventurous fantasies that will bind him forever to Sophie.

For her part, Sophie suffers through childhood for reasons less Oedipal than ethnic. Her classmates taunt and bully her for her Polish last name and origins. Julien, immediately attracted to her spunky stoicism in the face of persecution, joins her in a game in which they each dare the other to perform an antisocial act; the other must meet the challenge to qualify for the next dare. This leads to expulsions from school and later, in adulthood, to enforced promiscuity and sexual betrayal to keep the “game” alive at the expense of a loving relationship.

The grown-up Julien (Guillaume Canet) and Sophie (Marion Cotillard) seem anything but as they allow the “game” to thwart their love until a completely ambiguous ending in which they either die together for their amour fou or live on into a quarrelsome old age. Love Me If You Dare has been likened to earlier romances by Truffaut and Jacques Demy, but Mr. Samuell’s vision is darker and more despairing, even though it’s more playful visually and psychologically. It is not to be missed.

Meta Von Trier

The Five Obstructions at the Film Forum is a special auteurist treat that’s easier to enjoy than to describe or categorize. Co-directed by the Danish filmmakers Jørgen Leth and Lars von Trier, the film’s screenplay credits reflect a curious enterprise that is as much competitive as collaborative. In true cosmopolitan fashion, the players speak in English, Danish, English, French and Spanish (with English subtitles). The film itself was derived from an idea by Mr. von Trier, based on the short film The Perfect Human by Mr. Leth.

Mr. von Trier is much better known in America than Mr. Leth, who seems more of a Renaissance man than the cinéaste fou Mr. von Trier. As Richard Combs describes him in his perceptive review in Film Comment (May/June ’04), “Jørgen Leth is a veteran Danish film-maker, poet, novelist, sports commentator, and now his country’s honorary consul in Haiti. It’s his 1967 short The Perfect Human , with a beguilingly limber actor gyrating through the human condition, that Trier admired so much that he had to crack it, dissolve its perfection by getting Leth to make five other versions that couldn’t be as good as the first and might even, he hoped, turn out to be ‘crap.’”

Ironies are piled upon ironies in Mr. von Trier’s aesthetic stunt: persuading his former teacher in film school to submit to creative conditions far more outrageous than the strictures of Mr. von Trier’s much-discussed Dogma 95, though honored (even by Mr. von Trier) more in the breach than in the observance. Indeed, the whole film could be interpreted as Mr. von Trier’s impish spoof of his own dictatorial affectations, though Mr. Leth’s marvelously unruffled reactions may have been more chastening than Mr. von Trier could have anticipated in his Oedipal frenzy.