Movie Stars: Grant, Cary: Hollywood’s Ultimate Movie Star (Part I)

“Do you know what’s wrong with you” Katharine Hepburn asks Cary Grant in “Bringing Up Baby,” Howard Hawks classic screwball comedy of 1938.

“Nothing,” she says before he has a chance to absorb her question, let alone respond.

In his long and successful career, Cary Grant represented the epitome of the elegant, suave, and urbane man. He became the eternal fantasy of the seductive man–daft, sophisticated, marvelously dressed.

In his best work, Grant displayed enormous charm, boundless energy, and occassionally even devilishness.

Grant was the sound era’s most durable and most accomplished romantic-comedy actor. Frank Capra, who directed him in “Arsenic and Old Lace,” thought of Grant as “the greatest farceur” in Hollywood’s history.

The essence of Grant’s screen image was defined by dualities: His ability to appear both attractive and unattractive, young and old at the same time. Hitchcock took advantage of Grant’s light-dark dichotomy in his movies, beginning with “Suspicion” and “Notorious.”

George Cukor had said that his greatest casting frustration was the failure to persuade Grant to play Norman Maine, the alcoholic actor down on his luck in his 1954 version of “A Star Is Born” (opposite Judy Garland). Grant rejected the role because it was too similar to his real life at the time. Cukor thought that Grant’s duality would be perfect for the role.

The part was later successfully played by James Mason, an actor who looked like Grant.  In fact, Hitchcock used their physical resemblance to great advantage when he cast both men as hero and villain in “North By Northwest.”

Grant’s long-enduring career was based on his miraculous ability to defeat time. He never looked really young (even in the 1930s), and he never looked really old. It was impossible to determine his characters’ age, which was deliberately vague in an effort to appeal to both younger and older moviegoers.

Please read Part II

From Rags to Riches:

Born in Bristol in 1904 as Archibald Alexander Leach, Grant was the product of a poverty-stricken environment. He ran away from home at 13 to join a traveling acrobatic troupe as a juggler. His interest in showbiz began when he first discovered the backstage workings of a professional vaudeville theater. Soon thereafter, he became an apprentice electrician without pay.

Determined to break into showbiz not as a stagehand but as an entertainer, he drafted a letter to “The Bob Pender Troupe,” which consisted of teen-age boys trained as acrobatic comics. He signed in his father’s name and enclosed a photograph that made him look 16. His bluff paid off, and he got a train fare to Norwich, where he was offered a contract.


Grant began his career at Paramount in 1932, playing second fiddle to Gary Cooper, the studio’s then major star.

In 1937, after five years of routine pictures–except for the campy Mae West comedies–he became Hollywood’s first successful free-lance actor. Refusing to sign exclusively with any studio, Grant became responsible for his own career, carefully choosing scripts and directors. Unlike Bogart, Tracy, and Cooper, Grant was never forced to do anything he didn’t want to.

Quite remarkably, Grant’s distinctive screen persona took shape without the help of the studio’s publicity machine. He gave his best performances when he was on his own: “The Awful Truth,” “Bringing Up Baby,” and “His Girl Friday,” all made in or after 1937.

Hollywood was a good working ground–dream factory or assembly line–for young and ambitious actors. Grant made 7 films in 1932, and 6 in 1933. Between 1937 and 1941, Grant made 15 movies, more than one fourth of his entire output.

Seven of those features have become classics: the aforementioned titles as well as “Topper,” “Holiday,” “Gunga Din,” and “The Philadelphia Story.” Most of his work in the late 1930s and 1940s was either for Columbia or RKO.

After “Notorious” (1946), Grant didn’t make any first-rate picture until he was given a second chance to work with Hitchcock, in 1955’s “To Catch a Thief,” opposite Grace Kelly.

Between 1957 and 1959, Grant made 7 movies, including “An Affair to Remember,” “Indiscreet,” and “North By Northwest,” one of Hitchcock’s finest and most commercial thrillers that also represents the pinnacle of Grant’s work.

“Charade,” in 1963, was Grant’s last good movie. The Stanley Donen stylish romantic thriller should have been his swan song. It was, however, the last movie in which Cary Grant played Cary Grant, the urbane lover who doesn’t need to take himself seriously because the girl (Audrey Hepburn) would and should.  His performance in this picture was a career-summation, expressing his trademark of calm elegance.

Creating a Screen Image

Grant was an actor known not for his versatility or ability to submerge his personality into his roles, but rather for his skill to maintain the image of the handsome, witty, well-groomed man. Clothes were always important to Grant, who turned up for years on various best-dressed men list. He wore his own clothes when making a movie, using 14 to 16 suits per film.

Almost without exception, Grant played a character that he had devised and honed to perfection. As he once explained: “When I appear on the screen, I’m playing myself. I pretend to be a certain kind of man on screen, and I become that man in real life.” Grant’s advice to younger stars was: “Adopt the true image of yourself, acquire technique to project it, and the public will give you its allegiance. ”

But Grant’s range was not as limited as his detractors claimed. He could be a dramatic actor (“None but the Lonely Heart”), and in his youth he could play action heroes (“Gunga Din”, “Destination Tokyo”). However, despite occasional success in dramas, it was clear that the public preferred to see Grant in comedy. It was a comedy that made him a star (“The Awful Truth”), and comedy that placed him among the screen’s immortal stars.

The durable appeal of Grant’s persona was based on a number of variables, or in fact contradictions:

*While sporting a British accent, his was not typecast as the stuffy, upper-class kind.

*Grant’s persona was kind of classless: he could seem to be comfortable among the working class but not out of place among the rich and famous.

*The name Grant became synonymous with a kind of cockney brashness, combined with impeccable taste and a subtle wit.

*Grant was able to mix elegance and good manners with silliness and foolishness in the same film; often in the same scene.

*He was handsome without being narcissistic. Unlike pretty faces like Robert Taylor or Tyrone Power, Grant used his good looks as an integral ingredient of his strong screen persona.  At times, Grant was able to toy with his own dignity without ever losing his grace.

Unlike Clark Gable, who embodied a more aggressive sexual image, Grant appealed to women without ever threatening the men.

Sex Appeal

Grant did not play the boyish type but rather the suave mature lover who boasted worldliness and glamour. Even in the star vehicles, “She Done Him Wrong” and “I’m No Angel.” Grant was not a passive sexual foil to the independent and spirited Mae West.

At the peak of his career, he worked with Irene Dunne, making three classics with her. The trio consisted  two comedies, “The Awful Truth” and “My Favorite Wife,” and one melodrama, “Penny Serenade.”

His other important leading lady was Katharine Hepburn, with whom he made four films: “Sylvia Scarlet,” “Bringing Up Baby,” “Holiday,” and “The Philadelphia Story.”

Photo: George Cukor directs Cary Grant and Hepburn (playing a boy) in Sylvia Scarlett.

Of the actors of his generation (Cooper, Gable, Bogart, Taylor, Power), Grant was the least touched by age. Many thought that with years he had become even more attractive. He retained his romantic appeal to the end of his career by appearing opposite much younger actresses: Grace Kelly in “To Catch a Thief”, Sophia Loren in” Houseboat”, Eva Marie Saint in “North By Northwest,” Audrey Hepburn in “Charade,” Leslie Caron in “Father Goose.”

Departures from Screen Image

Even when Grant played semi-villains and bad guys, he managed to retain a certain finesse, a certain class.  Grant played ambiguous characters in most of his Hitchcock films, and yet had viewers on his side.

In “Suspicion,” for example, his John Aysgarth cashed in on the duality of his screen persona as both attractive and unattractive. “Suspicion” was to end with Grant mailing a letter, which unbeknownst to him would accuse him of murdering his wife. The studio’s top brass objected, arguing that the audiences simply wouldn’t accept a star like Grant playing a villain. A happy ending was then imposed, completely changing the original story.

Toward the end of his career, Grant made the offbeat film “Father Goose”, in which he played an unshaven, grizzled, semi-alcoholic South Pacific beachcomber pressed into WWII service. It was the first time that he departed from the “Cary Grant” formula since “None But the Lonely Heart,” in 1944. Grant felt close affinity with his role, as he noted: “As precise as I’ve always been about my attire and appearance, there’s been that hidden desire, a subconscious urge, to go around like my character, unshaven, untidy. ”


Grant’s specialty was comedy, both screwball and romantic comedy, which is the most difficult of genres. He learned the most valuable essentials of comedy craft, timing, subtlety, and economy of movement, during his music hall apprenticeship. While still in his thirties, he had the good fortune to work with perceptive directors like George Cukor (“Sylvia Scarlett”, in 1936, was a turning point) and Howard Hawks (their first comedy was “Bringing Up Baby,” in 1938).

Grant was known for his timing, naturalness, and ease of movement. Though he made acting look effortless, he took his jobs seriously. He once explained: “Since I was twelve, I’ve been entertaining people. I would have had to be nutty not to have acquired some experience along the way. Or nuttier still, not to have learned something about technique.”

Grant’s intelligent, methodical approach to his craft was his strongest point. Behind that carefree and sophisticated gentleman (or foolish guy, depending on the genre) onscreen, there was a hard-working actor. He continued to polish his skills to the point where his craft became his art, ever-determined to demonstrate that his popularity wasn’t based on good looks–even when such proof was no longer necessary.