I first saw the light of day — or rather the dark of night — around 1:00 a.m. on a cold January morning, in a suburban stone house which, lacking modern heating conveniences, kept only one step ahead of freezing by means of small coal fires in small bedroom fireplaces; and ever since, I’ve persistently arranged to spend every possible moment where the sun shines warmest.
— Cary Grant
In honor of Cary Grant’s birthday, some links and stories and reposts (full archive of stuff here):
To start with, one of my favorite quotes from the man himself, and a perfect rejoinder to those who say, “He was just playing himself in that movie” in regards to, oh, Cary Grant, John Wayne, Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, take your pick. As though “playing yourself” is easy, first of all, and as though that’s all these people did? But I’ll let Grant take it from there: Grant said (and this is brilliant and fascinating):
To play yourself — your true self — is the hardest thing in the world. Watch people at a party. They’re playing themselves … but nine out of ten times the image they adopt for themselves is the wrong one.
In my earlier career I patterned myself on a combination of Englishmen — AE Matthews, Noel Coward, and Jack Buchanan, who impressed me as a character actor. He always looked so natural. I tried to copy men I thought were sophisticated and well dressed like Douglas Fairbanks or Cole Porter. And Freddie Lonsdale, the British playwright, always had an engaging answer for everything.
I cultivated raising one eyebrow and tried to imitate those who put their hands in their pockets with a certain amount of ease and nonchalance. But at times, when I put my hand in my trouser pocket with what I imagined was great elegance, I couldn’t get the blinking thing out again because it dripped from nervous perspiration!
I guess to a certain extent I did eventually become the characters I was playing. I played at someone I wanted to be until I became that person. Or he became me.
What is so unique about him, so extraordinarily unique is that he looked like that, first of all, but that he also had to create this persona from the ground up. And he did. He worked it like a job until it was second nature. One of the most self-conscious (and in the best sense) stars. That guy we all love was created, not by the studios, but by him. And that he worked it so specifically – how to put your hands in your pockets, how to cross your legs. A man who had been abandoned by his mother (so he thought), a man who ran away and joined the circus at a young impressionable age, he had to cultivate things that came naturally to others. He was not born to privilege or status, and yet eventually he became the symbol of all of that: tuxedos on ocean liners and everything. What is amazing is how naturally it came to him once he got the hang of it. Dude was a genius.
Grant spoke about his influences, and what it was like traveling around the provinces as a teenager, learning tumbling and being the “straight man” to the comics:
Touring the English provinces with the troupe, I grew to appreciate the fine art of pantomime. No dialogue was used in our act and each day, on a bare stage, we learned not only dancing, tumbling, and stilt-walking under the expert tuition of Bob Pender, but also how to convey a mood or meaning without words. How to establish communication silently with an audience, using the minimum of movement and expression; how best immediately and precisely to effect an emotional response — a laugh or, sometimes, a tear. The greatest pantomimists of our day have been able to induce both at once. Charles Chaplin, Cantinflas, Marcel Marceau, Jacques Tati, Fernandel, and England’s Richard Herne. And in bygone years, Grock, the Lupino family, Bobby Clark, and the unforgettable tramp cyclist Joe Jackson; and currently Danny Kaye, Red Skelton, Sid Caesar, and even Jack Benny with his slow, calculated reactions.
Surprisingly, Hitchcock is one of the most subtle pantomimists of them all.
Garson Kanin said:
Cary was not one of those movie stars who gets out there just because he’s handsome and has a flair for playing one key or another. He worked very hard. I remember that indelibly. Almost more than any other quality was his seriousness about his work. He was always prepared; he always knew his part, his lines, and the scene. And he related very well to the other players. He took not only his own part seriously; he took the whole picture seriously. He’d come and look at the rushes every evening. No matter how carefree and easygoing he seemed in the performance, in reality he was a serious man, an exceptionally concentrated man. And extremely intelligent, too. Still, he played far more on instinct than he did on intellect. I don’t recall him ever intellectually discussing a role or a scene or a picture or a part. He trusted his own instincts, which had worked for him so well. He just polished that up and used it.
My 5 for the Day at House Next Door.
“He had a hard-boiled egg ….”
Excerpt from Peter Bogdanovich’s interview with Howard Hawks:
PB: By the end of the film, would you say that [Cary] Grant has abandoned his scientific life?
HH: Well, let’s say he mixed it. He had an awfully good time and if anyone had to choose between the two girls, they’d certainly choose Hepburn. We start off, as I said, with a complete caricature of the man and then reduce it to give him a feeling of normality because he certainly wouldn’t have had any fun going through life the other way, would he? You’ve got a rather happy ending. You have to almost overdo it a little in the beginning and then he becomes more normal as the picture goes along, just by his association with the girl. Grant said, “I’m kind of dropping my characterization.” I said, “No, she’s having some influence on you. You’re getting a little normal.”
Cary Grant in HOT SATURDAY, 1932
An old love affair: “Brooksie” remembers.
My appreciative piece on Penny Serenade.
Jimmy Stewart said, of the great drunk scene in Philadelphia Story:
I play a writer who falls in love with Katharine Hepburn. The night before her wedding I have a little too much to drink. This gives me the courage to go and talk to Cary, who’s playing her ex-husband. So I go to Cary’s house and knock on the door. It’s obvious I’ve had too much to drink, but he lets me in.
It was time to do the scene, and Cary said, “George, why don’t we just go ahead? If you don’t like it, we’ll do it again.” So, without a rehearsal or anything, we started the scene. As I was talking, it hit me that I’d had too much to drink. So, as I explained things to Cary, I hiccuped. In answer to the hiccup, Cary said — out of the clear blue sky — “Excuse me.” Well, I sort of said, “Ummm?” It was very difficult for me to keep a straight face, because his ad-libbed response had been so beautifully done … Cary had an almost perfect humor.
Irene Dunne said:
I loved working with Cary — every minute of it. Between takes he was so amusing with his cockney stories. I was his best audience. I laughed and laughed and laughed. The more I laughed, the more he went on.
Cary Grant said:
Comedy holds the greatest risk for an actor, and laughter is the reward. You must be laughed at. You know right away that you’re a flop if no one laughs. An actor in a drama doesn’t get that kind of immediate feedback. Unless it’s a great tearjerker, you can’t tell how you’re doing. People think it’s easy to get a laugh. It’s not. There’s a story about a dying actor who was asked how it felt to die, and he said, “Dying’s easy; comedy’s hard.”
I liked making comedy films even though there was little flexibility. Your timing had to be modified for the screen. Since a laugh rolling up the aisles of a big city movie theatre took longer than one bouncing off the walls of a tiny rural vaudeville house, you had to time what you thought would please all audiences. And you had to think about theatre audiences because the film crews don’t laugh. They are too busy doing their own jobs.
Rosalind Russell wrote in her autobiography about filming His Girl Friday:
Hawks was a terrific director; he encouraged us and let us go. Once he told Cary, “Next time give her a bigger shove onto the couch,” and Cary said, “Well, I don’t want to kill the woman,” and Hawks thought about that for a second. Then he said, “Try killin’ ‘er.”
And once Cary looked straight out of a scene and said to Hawks (about something I was trying), “Is she going to do that?” and Hawks left the moment in the picture — Cary’s right there on film, asking an unseen director about my plans.
Gene Wilder tells a funny story in his memoir:
Silver Streak was a big hit and was chosen as the Royal Performance for the queen of England and the royal family. I couldn’t go to London because I was filming The World’s Greatest Love at the time, but a month later, when Prince Charles came to visit 20th-Century Fox, I was invited to attend a luncheon in his honor, to be held in the Fox commissary.
As I was walking along the small street that leads from the office buildings to the commissary, a taxi pulled up and I heard someone shouting, “Oh, Mr. Wilder! … Mr. Wilder!” I turned and saw Cary Grant stepping out of the taxi. My heart started pounding a little faster, but I didn’t throw up this time, as I did when I met Simone Signoret. Cary Grant walked up to me, and after we shook hands, he said, “I was sailing on the QEII to England with my daughter, and on the second day out she said, ‘Dad-dy, I want to see the Silver Streak — they’re showing it in the Entertainment Room.’ And I said, ‘No, darling, I don’t go to movies in public.’ And she said, ‘Dad-dy, Dad-dy, please – I want to see the Silver Streak.’ So I took her to see your film. And then we saw it again the next day, and the next. Tell me something, will you?”
“Was your film in any way inspired by North by Northwest?”
“Absolutely! Collin Higgins, who wrote the film, loved North by Northwest. It was one of his favorites. I think he was trying to do his version of it.”
“I thought so,” Mr. Grant said. “It never fails! You take an ordinary chap like you or me … (An ordinary chap like you or me? Didn’t he ever see a Cary Grant movie?) … put him in trouble way over his head, and then watch him try to squirm out of it. Never fails!”
Yeah, you know. An “ordinary chap”.
Mm-hm. Completely an Everyman, isn’t he?
But that was part of the genius going on here, the trick of it that can never again be replicated because there is only one Cary Grant. There is nothing more “ordinary” than poor David Huxley just trying to survive the night in the company of insane Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. He wasn’t smooth or elegant. He COULD be, but he was funnier when he TRIED to be smooth, and somehow ended up slapping a woman on the ass with his top hat in the middle of a crowded nightclub. But then, when he got to be smooth, no one was smoother. I believe that Cary Grant has an almost otherworldly element to his talent. It is so conscious, so engineered, and yet also so innate. It exists on both levels simultaneously. Almost impossible to pull off, and nearly unheard of in a man who looks … well, like THAT.
Excerpt from Marc Eliot’s biography of Cary Grant
Just as amazing, if not even more impressive, the film career of the actor whom Time magazine once described as “the world’s most perfect male animal” began relatively late, according to Hollywood’s quick time clock. Grant was twenty-eight years old when he first went west to seek his fortune in films, having spent the better part of his twenties as a steadily rising leading man in a succession of Broadway musicals and comedies.
Over the next three and a half decades, his impact on movies was so enormous, he would virtually redefine the cinematic image of the romantic American male. In the hands of Hollywood’s immigrant-bred, mostly Jewish studio moguls endlessly obsessed with female WASP beauty, British Archie Leach was reborn as the projection of their own idealized American selves and presented to the world as Cary Grant.
Yet, despite his physical beauty (and that was, with rare exception, all the moguls ever really required of him), Grant early on sensed something was lacking in his acting, that there was an internal disconnect between his manufactured cinematic image and his inner being. Indeed, without a masterful script to provide a compelling character, without a brilliant costume designer to dress him up, without an artful makeup man to apply the sheen to his skin, without a tasteful set designer to enshrine him, without a skillfuyl editor to exact his comic timing, without a sharp-eyed cameraman to place him in the most favorable light, without a beautiful costar to externalize desire, and without a director to impose his own unifying personality, Grant feared that, at heart, he was less than the sum of his movie-star whole, a spiritless cinematic symbol.
Moreover, once a performance was constructed and frozen on film, he knew he would forever have to compete with that symbol in a battle against time in reality he could never win. That is why, in to the fifties (both his own and the century’s), he became increasingly more selective in his choice of screen roles and directors, choosing only those parts and the men who guided him in them, directors who best knew how to help him perform that special Grant sleight-of-hand on audiences over and over again without ever once giving the trick away.
He is my favorite actor.