“Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.”—Cary Grant.
It seems so self-evident—who wouldn’t want to be Cary Grant? But the obvious answers (because he’s good-looking or charming or debonair) don’t get it done. The real answer may be what we’re left with after youth, and after physical strength, and after looks (provided we were lucky enough to have them in the first place): style, or sensibility.
If it were a matter of proving ourselves tough and competent, we might want to be Bogart or Stanwyck. If it were just a matter of classiness, we’d want to be Fred Astaire (and not just in the moments right after we’ve watched him make it seem like walking on air is a reasonable expectation of life, but always). But for an all-round approach to living, who else is there but Cary Grant?
Cary Grant became a star during the 30’s and fit effortlessly into the movies’ version of Americans’ national self-image: We were casual, wisecracking, suspicious of titles, certain the rich had no idea how to enjoy their wealth, generally disrespectful of authority (particularly banks and cops), romantic but not moony, and more savvy to hypocrisy and bull than susceptible to sentimentality.
Grant represented an openness we associate with Americans. Think of the booming hellos he gives his best friends Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon in Holiday (1938). Or the moment in Only Angels Have Wings (1939) when a handshake with a former girlfriend (the impossibly gorgeous young Rita Hayworth) turns into an impulsive kiss. Realizing the familiar desire the kiss stirs up in both of them, he says with a half-smile, “Shouldn’t have done that.” There’s no pretending here, no quarter given to social niceties or sexual hypocrisy. In both The Awful Truth (1937) and His Girl Friday (1940), he manages to embarrass his ex’s fiancé by chuckling over some intimate absurdity from their shared past. That the fiancé is, in both instances, played by Ralph Bellamy only makes Grant’s indiscretion seem the natural thing to do: Who, on God’s green earth, would want to be defined by Ralph Bellamy?
But there’s a big difference between “Hello!” and “Hiya!”—it’s the difference between “Have a drink” and “Welcome to the Rotary lunch.” And Grant always suggests he’s holding something back. Not so much from us. And certainly not from the women his characters fall for, whose suitability to him is based on their ability to recognize absurdity and to share his sense of fun. Irene Dunne, whom Grant called his favorite leading lady and who, in The Awful Truth, conducts her half of their duet with some of the wittiest line readings in any American comedy, said that he was a great mumbler. Grant’s style of comedy can sometimes seem like mumbling spoken out in a clear voice; his words sound perfectly innocent to the target but, to us, they’re undisguised in their irony.
Which is why, for someone so universally considered charming, Grant contains so many characteristics we usually think of as anything but. In the course of the five Columbia films in the new “Cary Grant Box Set”—in addition to The Awful Truth, Holiday, Only Angels Have Wings and His Girl Friday, there is The Talk of the Town (1942)—he’s, at times, jealous, needling and hard. The hardness he shows in Only Angels Have Wings minutes after seeing one of his fellow mail pilots (Noah Beery Jr.) die in a crash makes all other tough-guy posturing seem phony. He tucks into the steak the dead man had ordered for dinner and, when asked by Jean Arthur how he could do that to a dead friend, tells her: “Never heard of him.” There is, of course, all sorts of roiling grief beneath the surface, but the fact of death can’t be uttered in a situation where someone is shortly going to have to fly the same route that got his buddy killed.
And so, before such a thing became fashionable, Grant gives a true demonstration of existential hardness. To Howard Hawks, it was nothing fancy—merely the refusal to cheapen emotion with cant. That hardness is what made it possible for Grant to play a principled bastard in Hitchcock’s Notorious, or an unprincipled one in His Girl Friday.
In that movie, Hawks’ reworking of Ben Hecht and Charles Macarthur’s newspaper comedy The Front Page, the refusal of cant is, as the film historian James Harvey has written, the exhilaration of never having to talk shit again. It may be the fastest of all American comedies; it’s unquestionably the most hard-bitten. And yet Grant’s Walter Burns isn’t wholly cynical. Certainly his campaign to save a cop killer from the gallows has more to do with increasing his paper’s circulation than any concern for the circulation of the condemned.
But while Burns, like any cynic, knows the price of everything, he is not blind to the value of other things. (That’s truer of the movie’s Greek chorus of vultures who hang around the courthouse pressroom.) Grant (and Hawks) refused to turn Walter Burns into a crusading journalist—a mark of the way Grant sidestepped the false nobility that the egos of other stars were prey to.
Of course, it also has to do with his sense of fun. For Grant, amusing himself was no different from amusing the audience. That’s how he could indulge in the most overt mugging—arching an eyebrow; withdrawing his neck like an ostrich smelling something bad; covering his mouth or his eyes to denote embarrassment in gestures as fulsomely “restrained” as Jack Benny’s—without ever losing his luster. He could partake of foolishness without being made a fool. When Bogart played drunk and slovenly in The African Queen or when John Wayne turned himself into a brawling, irascible tub of guts in True Grit, they were doodling on the established authority of their screen images, and it was the lack of vanity that made them so appealing. When Cary Grant steps into a shower fully clothed in Charade, his sophistication is like the drip-dry suit he’s got on: Something that keeps its shape even when it’s all wet. It’s a way of telling us his sense of fun was open to everyone, even though we’ll never see its likes again.