Cary Grant, the perma-tanned paragon of Hollywood glamour, was born Archibald Leach in the backstreets of Bristol. He fled home at the age of 15 to join the Bob Pender stage troupe, where he worked as an acrobat and a stilt walker, a juggler and a mime. This slapstick apprenticeship shaped the performer he became. I like Cary Grant in his polished middle years, chaperoning Grace Kelly around the Riviera or lighting Eva Marie Saint’s cigarette on a Chicago-bound train. But I love him best when he’s tripping on a rug or slipping on an olive. The prince is at his most charming when he’s looking like a clown.
If this does not quite make Grant unique, it definitely makes him an oddity – particularly within an industry that likes to distinguish between the stars that provoke laughter and the stars that provoke lust. Most brand-name actors know their audience and their place within the business. But Grant found a way to hop the fence, back and forth, and he did it so fast that the division blurred and broke down. He was fluid, playful and unclassifiable (a “will-o-the-wisp” in the opinion of his friend, David Niven). Along the way, Grant came to embody, simultaneously, a gilded romantic hero and a pratfalling chancer. He was Cary Grant and he was Archie Leach, with each man aware of the other’s existence and each delighting in the dance. It is this airy volatility that makes him so bewitching, although Pauline Kael does a good job of mapping out his pedigree. “Cary Grant’s romantic elegance is wrapped around the resilient, tough core of a mutt,” she wrote. “And Americans dream of thoroughbreds while identifying with mutts. So do moviegoers the world over.”
Notorious excepted, my favourite Cary Grant pictures are the comedies. I love the riotous early screwballs (The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday) and the gossamer morality plays (Talk of the Town, The Philadelphia Story). I’m even rather fond of the breathless, late-period Monkey Business, in which he plays a middle-aged chemist who regresses to childhood and runs amok through the garden. All of these films played to Grant’s strength because they let him marry slapstick with sophistication without compromising either quality. At times, Grant is content to keep the burlesque on a leash, using a cock of the head or an arch of the eyebrow to add some mustard to his dialogue. At others, the man cuts loose and becomes a purely physical performer, as good in the moment as a Chaplin or Keaton. The difference is that viewers loved Chaplin and Keaton, but I’m not sure they ever found them sexy.
For the finest example of Grant’s physical comedy, check out 1937’s The Awful Truth, a freewheeling farce about a sparring couple on the brink of divorce. Midway through the film, while attending a fusty recital, the actor leans back on his seat, loses his balance with a bang and then proceeds to get tangled in his chair. His limbs are contorted and his hair is in his face, and yet his chaos has a poetry. By the very act of casting his dignity to the wind, Grant somehow conspires to look more buoyant and graceful than any of his rivals.
Is there a lesson here for other would-be seducers? These days, Cary Grant is held up as the ultimate Hollywood leading man, a perfect specimen, an ideal to aspire to. And yet Grant became a sex symbol not in spite of his tendency to fall flat on his face but precisely because of it; because he was never afraid to walk into a door, look like a chump and include us in the joke. I’m not convinced that anyone has dared to do that that since, or at least not with such abandon. Yes, Johnny Depp can be kooky and Matt Damon can play gormless. Still, it would be nice to see today’s burnished A-list actors take the occasional slapstick tumble. Who knows? They might enjoy the experience – and we might love them all the more.