His mother occasionally took him to the theatre where he would immerse himself in the magical performances of Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle, among others. However, he later started going to those “picture palaces” on his own and they became his escape from his turbulent family life. Grant recalled, “Those Saturday matinees free from parental supervision were the high point of my week.” When he was 10 years old, Grant’s father told him that his mother was dead which was a terrible lie to tell one’s own child. It wasn’t until he was 31 that he discovered his mother was still alive. Of the lost time with his mother, Grant said: “There was a void in my life, a sadness of spirit that affected each daily activity with which I occupied myself in order to overcome it.”
At the age of 13, Grant started frequenting a local theatre where he performed odd jobs and befriended a troupe of acrobatic dancers known as “The Penders”. His fledgeling career in the performing arts came to a brief halt when his father demanded that he continue his education. Grant won a scholarship to attend Fairfield Grammar School in Bristol in 1915 and demonstrated that he was competent at most academic subjects, despite developing a reputation for being mischievous and for not doing his homework. In 1918, Grant got himself expelled from school and convinced his father to let him rejoin Pender’s troupe.
He travelled to New York in 1920 with the troupe but he decided to form his own group called “The Walking Stanleys” with several of the former members of the Pender’s troupe. Grant started performing in the vaudeville circuit, even working as a stilt walker for a time. He later explained the challenges of making it as a stand-up comic, “Doing stand-up comedy is extremely difficult. Your timing has to change from show to show and from town to town. You’re always adjusting to the size of the audience and the size of the theatre.”
While he was performing as a stilt walker at Coney Island during the day, Grant was also working as an escort at prestigious nightclubs and parties in the city. He used these glamorous environments to educate himself about the mannerisms of the elite, perfecting the English accent and dressing like the gentlemen of that time. Although he struggled initially to launch his career in show business, Grant had made several appearances on Broadway by the late 1920s and landed the lead part in the 1931 musical Nikki where he co-starred with Fay Wray, playing a soldier named Cary who fights for Wray’s affections. The production lasted for a short while but it got him enough critical acclaim to launch his film career. He appeared as a sailor in a short film that very year called Singapore Suey and followed his friend, costume designer Orry Kelly, to Los Angeles where he was subjected to interest from film studies as well as increased exposure to Hollywood scouts. He decided to fashion his on-screen persona after the celebrated American actor Douglas Fairbanks and made his feature film debut in the 1932 comedy This is the Night, playing an Olympic javelin thrower opposite Thelma Todd and Lili Damita. Following the suggestion of a studio executive, he also changed his name from Archibald Alec Leach to the more American-sounding name Cary Grant.
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.
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