It is axiomatic, perhaps, that Cary Grant was as much a creation as the films he starred in. His grace was learned in part while working the vaudeville circuit as a young man, beginning as an acrobat traveling Europe and the United States in the 1920s, exhibiting a hunger and precision he carried into his film career. His voice—with the cinematically rooted mid-Atlantic accent, clipped and fast as sparked dynamite—was born from nowhere. He scrubbed away from the surface the markers of his Bristol childhood to become an aristocratically inflected portrait of the masculine ideal of the Western world, the man who had it all.
But Grant’s manner and movements always carried echoes of his past—those working-class rhythms bleeding through—and the ideal he formed for the world, we now know acutely, did not reflect the private man. That confidence? It was largely a concoction. Grant was notoriously anxious and riddled with self-doubt. In his recently released, achingly thorough biographical tome Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise, historian Scott Eyman details the sharp divide between Archie Leach and Cary Grant—noting his issues with anxiety and depression, his ambivalence toward and distrust of women, and most importantly, where these issues were born in part from: his father forcefully committing his mother to a mental asylum she didn’t need to be in while lying to the young Archie by saying she died. It was only as an adult, somewhat new to the fame that would rewrite the course of his life, that he learned the truth.
So when we watch Grant grow supine leaning over to catch a glimpse of the wife he thought was dead (Irene Dunne) as an elevator door closes, arch shock on his face, in My Favorite Wife (1940), or jump up with emphatic mania shouting “I’ve gone gay all of a sudden” while wearing a fur-lined peignoir in Bringing Up Baby (1938), we know that lightness and ease—that essence of Cary Grant—is not just about the character or the star or who he was as a human being but a masterful blending of all three, a hard-won persona he carried into public life as well. Grant himself was aware of the divide between his public and private selves, commenting later in life, “I have spent the greater part of my life fluctuating between Archie Leach and Cary Grant, unsure of each, suspecting each.” It is easier to track this duality and its effect on his performances in Grant’s darker-hued dramas, which show how cold he could be, like the towering and slippery Alfred Hitchcock masterwork Notorious (1946). But what can we learn when we set his life against his considerable work as a comedian, both boldly physical and romantically seductive? This doesn’t bog down his witty comedic performances but instead makes them even richer texts to consider, for how they show us both the gaps between Grant’s public and private selves and his artistry as an actor and creator of the identity he tried to live his life by. In many ways, his comedic performances are the most revealing of his career.
Grant’s comedic work is, in a word, effervescent. It is easy for me to get lost in the manic grooves of His Girl Friday (1940) or the utter lunacy of The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947). To watch Grant is to come to an understanding of just how expressive our bodies can be. Grant treats his as a canvas on which ideas of desire, power, class, and masculinity are painted. His physicality, at first blush, is marked by a poise that speaks to a bodily confidence and control most actors dream of. But what makes him so amazing within this context isn’t his considerable beauty or his charm, although each is important. Instead, it’s how he subverts the expectations that come with his suave, glistening surface with pratfalls and acrobatics, perfectly timed, that allow him to be silly, even foolish, but retaining an assured sensibility that means he never becomes the fool. Beyond the supreme quality of his physicality and the way he used his voice, there’s the way he looked at and related to women in the romantic comedies he appeared in that provide these works their wonder. This grows all the more remarkable when you consider the vexing and complex ways he related to women in life.
But Grant wasn’t an immediately formed star. Few are. It takes time to feel out the persona you’re destined to project on-screen. Paired with Mae West in the 1933 sexual comedies She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel, we meet a Cary Grant who has yet to live up to the legends that soon attach to his name. He’s handsome, undeniably. He wears clothes with a marked understanding of their power. But there’s no dimension, no depth. He fails to capture the imagination here. Part of the problem is how his role functions. He’s only meant to look good and hit his marks. He functions, like men often deliciously do in women’s pictures, as an accoutrement to the real story, which is about her. It took another four years for Grant to become, on-screen at least, the man we have come to revere in the uneven and mostly forgettable Topper. But it is the delightful screwball confection The Awful Truth, also from 1937, that his star persona and its wonderful possibilities in comedy truly crystallizes.
The most evocative composition in Leo McCarey’s film comes about five minutes into the story. Grant plays Jerry Warriner with bemused yet growing annoyance as he hosts a small get-together at his home while his wife, Lucy (Irene Dunne), is curiously and notably absent. When she bounds into the home with “darling” exuberantly leaving her lips, he wraps her in a kiss, which we see from behind. The camera then takes a vantage point from the opposite side of the couple. He is wrapped in Lucy’s embrace, her magnificent white fur coat obscuring the lower half of his face, so we see the reaction to the other man Lucy has brought home with her in the lurching of his eyebrows. Jerry and Lucy Warriner don’t seem all that happy together. But they don’t want either moving on to someone else either, which is where the film roots its humor.
Early in the film, when Lucy is entertaining the affections of poor Ralph Bellamy’s Oklahoma momma’s boy, Daniel Leeson, Jerry decides to crash their dinner with a woman he’s been talking to who sings at the club. “I just met her,” Jerry says with amusement as he watches his once-date sing while her dress gets blown up in what’s supposed to be an uncomfortably racy number. What comes soon after is even better when Jerry slyly tells Daniel how much Lucy loves to dance, after Grant makes a hilarious “what the hell?” face to Daniel’s suggestion that she doesn’t. His eyes volley between the newly minted couple; the more uncomfortable Lucy grows, the more mischievously delighted Grant plays Jerry. It starts as a simple waltz between Lucy and Daniel until the tempo picks up and he starts haphazardly dancing in ways she struggles to enjoy or keep up with. As her embarrassment deepens, Jerry smiles serenely, gets up from his chair and finds one closer to the dance floor to better watch this mayhem, all in one fluid motion.
The persona Grant embodies in The Awful Truth, which he would continue to play within, subvert, and expand upon throughout the decades of his career, is one of refinement. Everything from his slicked hair to the way he wears suits speaks to the grace of the character, his romantic bona fides, his unending allure. He’s who everyone wants to be and be with. It’s important to understand that Grant was a pioneer, crafting a persona and stardom at a time when the medium and its business were still fresh. The mold of the modern male movie star hadn’t been set. He created it. Grant was keenly aware of his own creation and what it took to maintain it. Yes, there was his charm and his talent. Yes, there was his shrewd business sense. But there was magic too. Something as tricky to capture as smoke in your hands. And Grant’s skillset as an acrobat—the timing, the understanding of audience expectation, the physicality—is integral to this persona as well. In many ways, Grant is at his best in comedy when his smooth veneer is disturbed.
About forty-eight minutes into The Awful Truth, Cary Grant falls flat on his face. Literally. He’s snooping to see if Lucy is having an affair with her opera instructor, Armand (Alexander D’Arcy). He’s tripped by Armand’s servant. His tall and lean body falls smoothly to the floor face first, legs propped against the door that when opened will provide his answer. He gets in a skirmish with the servant trying to open the door when they both bust in, entangled, to see Lucy giving an opera performance. But that’s only the beginning of his pratfalls. Jerry tries to quietly sit down, thumbing his hat and sheepishly looking over the small audience. He leans back in his chair only to fall over completely, his limbs tangled in the chair and end table he brings down with him. As he tries to gain his bearings and stand, he only creates more of a ruckus. His brow sweats. His clothes get ruffled. His hair unfurls from its unmoving sheen, revealing curls resting along his brow that leave him looking as disheveled as a man like Grant can ever look. In The Awful Truth, Grant’s persona reveals itself to be a marriage of opposites and complications: a supreme sense of control and confidence with the ability to undercut that with silliness; a man who seems to tower above the rest in charm and gallantry yet always feels human thanks to the humor he laces through pivotal gestures. Grant was able to create a conspiratorial relationship with his audience, letting us in on the joke and creating an intimacy all stars need to survive. The next year he would best the already considerable physical artistry he uses here to bring his character to life in Holiday (1938).
George Cukor’s Holiday is ostensibly a romantic comedy but has a touchingly melancholic heart. Here, Grant doesn’t play a rich and powerful man as he does so convincingly in films like That Touch of Mink (1962). Instead he calls upon his own background, fashioning Johnny Case as a common man. “I’m a plain man of the people,” he tells his exceedingly rich fiancée Julia Seton (Doris Nolan). Johnny doesn’t know much about Julia. He didn’t know her family were the powerful and well-connected Seton banking family. He just knows how he feels about her. But their romance is riven by the class dynamics. Enter, Julia’s iconoclastic sister, Linda, played with remarkable sincerity by Katharine Hepburn. Cukor and his collaborators don’t make an ostentatious display of what we can expect to happen—Julia and Johnny falling in love. Instead, it’s a suggestion that runs and grows through the film, thanks in no small part to Grant’s physical presence. There’s a moment early on, when Johnny has just met Linda and she reaches out her hand with a half-eaten apple. “Want a bite?” she asks in that brittle voice that Hepburn made legend. He bends down without hesitation and takes a bite. There’s something immediately intimate about how Grant moves in spaces with Hepburn that speaks to his character’s growing fondness for Linda. His body language is open, even yearning, when he’s around her. His eyes soften when she supports his beliefs in not being run down by work, forever hustling, and instead getting out of the banking game after making a small nest egg. Julia doesn’t understand. As Linda says earlier, money is the family’s god. “There’s no such thrill in the world as making money,” Julia says, parroting her father’s beliefs. It’s an especially hilarious statement considering she’s inherited her money and not worked a day in her life.