Cary Grant

A Celebration


By Richard Schickel

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Richard Schickel’s text, combining critical analysis and a re-interpretation of all the available biographical information, masterfully maps the intersections where a great star’s personal history and his screen personality met in a style as elegant, graceful and witty as the actor himself.





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First eBook Edition: November 2009

ISBN: 978-0-316-09032-2


DESPITE THE VAST ATTENTION THAT HAS BEEN paid to movie stardom over the seventy year life of that institution, despite the endless interviewing and profiling of its exemplars that continues to proceed apace, the process by which a great and enduring star personality is created and sustained in the public eye is one of the least intelligently examined phenomena of. popular culture. Mostly critics, journalists and the audience have contented themselves with the faintly contemptuous belief that movie stars 'play themselves'. This has been considered a lesser act of creation than the conventional role playing of the stage – as if one's self does not infuse the interpretation of any role, even the classical ones – and as if playing oneself were easy, when in fact it is the most difficult part anyone can undertake, given the confusing, literally self-contradictory mass of data at hand, and the problems subjectivity imposes on the task of selecting and presenting the self or perhaps more properly a self.

'To play your self – your true self – is the hardest thing in the world to do. Watch people at a party. They're playing themselves… but nine out of ten times the image they adopt of themselves is the wrong one…' The speaker knows whereof he speaks, for the speaker is Cary Grant. His choice of words is significant, suggesting that all of us, screen stars or not, have a large range of selves available to us when we set forth on the path of self-portrayal. We are not realistic novelists after all; we can't put everything in, not even all the good bits. We have to pick and choose among the images within our range, stress one quality now, another then, and hope that over the long run our public, be it large or small, will more or less get the idea of us – and that it will be a pleasant one.

Selectivity always suggests art and, in the case of the very few stars who achieve the magnitude of Cary Grant, art of a very high and subtle order. Indeed, the evidence both of our eyes and of such testimony on the point that the star himself has offered, suggests that Grant went further than most in that the screen character he created starting some time in the mid-1930s, drew on almost nothing from his autobiography, was created almost entirely out of his fantasies of what he would like to have been from the start, what he longed to become in the end. He has in fact said that he first created an image for himself on the screen, then endeavored to learn to play it off-screen as well as he did on. This is not an unknown phenomenon. Most stars to some degree become what they have played over the course of the years. But the refraction is more intense in Grant's case, and the more interesting therefore.

By this I do not mean to imply that Grant has totally eliminated from his screen presence all traces of his humble and troubling childhood. If he had I think he would have had a short and not very merry screen career as a rather vapid juvenile, perhaps, or as a second string leading man of no great distinction. No, there was always something more there – clouds constantly scudding across what we perhaps erroneously understood as an entirely sunny personality, sometimes quite blotting out its light. It would be too much to suggest that he hinted at tragic dimensions in any of his roles, but there was always a wariness in him, an uneasy sense that the perfect tailoring might at any time become unravelled, whether through comic or melodramatic encounters. And just as he implied a sense that circumstances might not always be what they at first seemed to be, he also implied a feeling that people – and most especially women – were not always what they claimed to be either. The possibilities of inconstancy and duplicity seemed always to be on his mind – even when they were not necessarily on the minds of director and screenwriter. These possibilities did not make him anxious, but they did make him careful, even (it sometimes seemed) a little bit depressed underneath the charm and ease with which he confronted people and events. It was there that his singularity and his specificity as a character lay; and it was there, finally, that his appeal lay. For it was that hint of a darker knowledgeableness underlying the more confident and seductive forms of knowingness that tugged at the mind and lingered in the memory. And most important humanised him, permitted us our identification with him.

Young man about town: Grant joins a grass-skirted Mary Pickford, the Countess de Frasso and Tullio Carminati at writer Donald Ogden Stewart's costume party at the Vendome, c. 1933. Guests were supposed to come dressed as their favorite stars. Just who this group was impersonating is lost in the mists of memory. Among those identifiable on another night on the town are Randolph Scott, Carole Lombard, Regis Toomey, Toby Wing and, of course, the former Archie Leach.

Typically the assumption that a star 'plays himself' justifies the demand for interviews with him, not to mention the general interest the public takes in allegedly intimate anecdotes and gossip about him. For if a man is only playing himself then manifestly the exposure of that self, a probing of its history in search of its unspoken secrets, will reveal the sources of his magical hold on us. This, I have come to believe, is an error of enormous proportions. And it is especially true of someone like Cary Grant who, if he draws on himself at all draws not on his autobiography as such, but on his most elusive feelings, remembered states of mind, which normally lie well beyond the purview of the written word. I do not believe that in an essay of the kind that follows I have the right or the duty (or the knowledge) to pursue such a course. What I have had available to me is the public record he has left – his films and a scattering of what seem to me reliably recorded public statements by and about Grant the actor. From these I have attempted to recreate and interpret his screen character – in other words to make a plausible critical evaluation of one of the most delightful and indelible screen personalities ever to insinuate itself into our collective consciousness – and unconsciousness. This creation has always seemed to me more complex, more elusive, more subtle than most critics – and certainly most gossipists – have ever credited it with being. If, inevitably, I have touched on aspects of Cary Grant's life, I have, by design, made no effort to intrude on his privacy, to go beyond the public record as he has preferred to let it stand. My hope is that this essay will enrich the reader's understanding of what he was up to on the screen, demonstrate that there was more at work before our eyes than simple charm.

Richard Schickel


WITH WHAT DIFFIDENCE DOES ONE APPROACH Cary Grant as he approaches his eightieth birthday! The intention of course is to celebrate. What mood or mode other than the celebratory would be appropriate to such an occasion? For as long as we have known him – and for most of us that has been for the lengths of our lifetimes – he has been the object of, and inspiration for, a delight so innocent and perfect that the attempt to analyse its sources seems an act of ingratitude, a laying on of thumby hands that will inevitably bollix the job. And earn the scorn of the subject and the impatience of the reader.

This is a matter on which Grant has for many years been particularly grouchy. 'When I read about myself, it is so not about me that I'm inclined to believe it's really about the writer,' he said in his only autobiographical jottings, almost a quarter of a century ago. 'Fantasy, exaggeration, drivel, or further embellished retellings of past inaccuracies,' he called the journalism that has accreted around his admirably elusive private self and an image that is more complex as a creation, if not in its final effect, than people like to think it.

Yes. The usual, and usually justified, complaint of the public figure. And one that bitter experience has taught him cannot be rectified. For he knows that even if he replaces silence with loquaciousness the press, although it may cease to make up things about him, cannot escape its own limitations, which include the custom of incompetence, and so will inevitably continue to misapprehend and misquote him. 'Go ahead, I give you permission to misquote me,' Grant once told an interviewer, 'I improve in misquotation.' Maybe so, but one really does hesitate to chance it. Or any of the other sins our subject exasperatedly enumerated – not at the birthday party, certainly. If fantasy, exaggeration or drivel here ensue, let it be understood that they arise from an earnest, if cheerful, effort to understand not the man who was born into the world as Archibald Alexander Leach eight decades ago, but that brilliant and utterly essential figure of fantasy which, with a little help from his friends, he created; the figure we know, or think we know, as Cary Grant.

'Man is the only animal that reviews,' said Marshall Brickman, the comedy writer, a little while ago. So as a member of that slightly exotic subspecies, doomed by some grim Darwinian jest to shoulder a seemingly inescapable burden on behalf of the racial need for the critical gesture, one feels that perhaps the best gift one can bring to the anniversary fete is a small sample of one's curious speciality. A humble gift, doubtless, but in at least one sense of the word, a thoughtful one – handmade, toiled over, a labor of love, really. For one does deeply care about the movies and therefore cannot help but agree with an admired colleague, David Thomson, author of one of the two worthwhile essays on Cary Grant, that it is simply impossible to think about movies without him, a statement difficult to make about any other star this side of James Cagney.

But the moment one picks up one's critical tatting, and begins to contemplate its design, a daunting thought occurs. It is that the very occasion that inspires it is for most of us utterly improbable, impossible to accept. 'Cary Grant – eighty? You've got to be kidding.' For something singular, something entirely without precedent in movie history, in any kind of history, for that matter, happened in the life of Cary Grant, therefore in our perception of him and our relationship with him. That is, very simply, that some time in his fifties, while he still looked as if he were in his forties – happily combining an elegant and easeful maturity with an undiminished capacity for playfulness – he simply ceased to age. Just plain stopped. As far as we in the audience could see. As far as his intimates could see, too. 'Everyone grows older,' his friend and co-star Grace Kelly (twenty-four years his junior) once conceded wearily, 'except Cary Grant.'

It was uncanny. Many of his contemporaries clung to their careers, and in a certain sense clung to their looks, which is to say that they aged gracefully, more gracefully (thanks to artful cameramen and even more artful plastic surgeons) than ordinary mortals did. But they did so at the price of denaturing themselves or, at least, their former screen selves. They played grizzled westerners, or befuddled sitcom daddies or elder statesmen, pillars of this community or that. But they did not get the girl. If a woman was placed anywhere near them she was not a girl and usually they already had her – some nice plain Jane wife-type, with whom one imagines them comfortably playing gin rummy as they declined into an impotence about which she was good-natured. But not Cary Grant. Cary Grant had rarely chased girls anyway – they had more often chased him – and they were permitted to go right on doing so, in approximately the same context they had always done, that is in romantic comedies. These were not as good as they once had been, but they were their star's natural milieu. And since their most obvious conventions, though not their true spirit, were as they had ever been, they helped to keep Grant's screen persona isolated from such contemporary realities as might contrast too vividly with it, jar us from the pleasant time capsule in which he had encased himself. Such was the persuasiveness of his charm and the good nature of his vehicles, they did not engender, in and of themselves, many stray thoughts about how time seemed to be fleeing for everyone but Cary Grant. One rarely stopped to think that he alone among our institutions refused to acknowledge such unpleasantness as the Cold War, (which was remarkable considering that two of his best late films involved espionage), changing sexual mores (which was even more remarkable, considering that virtually all of those late films involved romantic contretemps of some sort) or the general fall-off of manners, dress and, for that matter, interior decoration. The last significant historical occurrence in his realm was the Second World War; everything that occurred thereafter, including Holiday Inns, fast food and even television went determinedly unacknowledged. He still travelled by boat, dressed for dinner, and was never inconvenienced by the decline of the serving class.

Mae West's once and future co-stars, W. C. Fields and Grant join friends at a Hollywood jollyup in 1933. At right, Grant ran into Marlene Dietrich, his Blonde Venus co-star on a 1938 crossing of the Normandie, and they posed for ship's news photographers when the ship docked in New York 'just in time for Thanksgiving dinner' as the wire service caption put it. Somehow, one does not think of either of them gnawing on a drumstick with much enthusiasm.

Grant never acknowledged any conscious strategy in the selection of these vehicles, which more often than not he produced himself. Pressed on the point he took a view one could well have imagine one of his screen characters expressing. 'Life is to be enjoyed… If I didn't like making comedies, I wouldn't make them. I certainly don't have to.' No more did he take any extraordinary credit for the luck of the genetic draw that seemed to be the largest factor in permitting him to retain his youthful air. He would allow that he sensibly practised moderation in all things, but no Spartan regimens, either dietary or athletic, were ever mentioned. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, it is true, he went determinedly public with the news that he had experimented with a carefully controlled program that involved a combination of LSD and psychiatric therapy. To this he attributed, in his word, a 'rebirth', and implied that his continuing youthfulness of manner and appearance might well be one of the boons he derived from it. But since he had looked fine before embarking on that program, and continued in his splendidness well after he had left it, one was inclined to discount his claims for its physical fringe benefits, however well it made him feel in other respects, and however serious he was in his belief that hallucinogenics, properly prescribed and monitored, might have significant psychiatric uses.

But if he was peculiarly blessed in his resistance to the visible manifestations of the aging process, that did not mean he was immune to the professional benefits to be derived from his good fortune and he shrewdly capitalised on them. His strategy was to play down the age question when it was raised, which it generally was when the press doltishly appeared, looking as always for 'an angle'. For a time he professed honest puzzlement on the point. He said that the birth records of the city of Bristol, England, where he was born, had been destroyed in a wartime bombing raid and so he could not satisfy even his own curiosity on the matter of his birth date, conveniently ignoring the fact that his vital statistics, like those of all other Englishmen, are kept centrally in London, and that these records were spared by the bombers. Sometimes he could be disarmingly funny about the question. In the famous exchange of telegrams that one devoutly hopes is not apocryphal, the query from the magazine arrived reading: HOW OLD CARY GRANT? And the reply went forth: OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU? Often though, he became uncharacteristically cranky on the subject: 'I'm sick and tired of being questioned about why I look young for my age and why I keep trim,' he told a reporter in 1960. 'Why should people make so much of it? Why don't they emulate it rather than gasp about it?' Whereupon he launched into a tirade about smoking, the imbibing of 'poisonous liquids', the use of greasy, pore-clogging make-up. These unfortunate habits, he said, so debilitated their addicts that they were rendered incapable of doing the one thing they should be doing – making love.

Most unusual, an outburst of that sort. But perhaps a measure of how significant the appearance of agelessness, however accidental its causes, had become to him. And, as he obviously understood, to the rest of us. For Cary Grant – no, better to write it thus, 'Cary Grant' – was, is, and always has been, a pure fantasy creation, far purer than any other star creation one can think of. Among the few contemporaries who were his peers something of their autobiographies, something of the time and place that had made them, whether it was Cagney's New York or Fonda's Nebraska, clung to them, was a presence in their presences. These hints of truth are what grounded their screen characters in reality, granted believability to whatever outrageously improbable behaviour – heroic or comic or romantic – the script called upon them to perform. Besides specificity it gave them singularity as well. It is what made them stand out from their competitors, made them memorable even when many of their roles were not. With Grant it was, as we will have occasion to observe in more detail, quite the opposite. The persona he constructed deliberately referred to nothing in his life or in the life of his times. Mostly he played not what he had been, but what as a youth, he wished he could be, not a remembered reality, but a remembered dream. His screen character was a stylisation, based on previous stylisations that he had observed around show business, and although he became a nominal star within a couple years after his first screen appearance, he did not become one in the fullest meaning of the term until several years later, when the movies themselves evolved a highly stylised conceit, the lunatic 1930's comedy which could encompass this creation of his, give it the proper setting as it were. Looking back, one sees that the only great star of his era who truly offers an analogy with Grant is that other great purveyor of highly stylised stylishness, Fred Astaire, who like Grant offered no hint of personal history on screen, and had to wait for, and help to form, an imaginative world in which his great creation could breathe easily and live naturally. To put it as simply as possible, they were the only men in screen history, in the history of this century, who looked as if they belonged in top hat and tails.


On Sale
Nov 29, 2009
Page Count
192 pages

Richard Schickel

About the Author

Richard Schickel was a movie critic for LifeTime, and from 1965 through 2008. He is the author, co-author, or editor of close to forty books, including You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story. He is also the director, writer, and producer of a similar number of documentary films. His profile of Ron Howard, is nineteenth in his film series of director portraits, which constitute an unparalleled history of authorship in America.

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