Grant was a handsome and charming boy, becoming an acrobat in his early teens. His troupe toured America when he was 16. The experience left a profound impression on him, particularly the warm and easy rhythms of life in Los Angeles in those days. He stayed in the U.S. after his company’s tour ended and became a vaudeville acrobat and comedian. He remained a graceful and adept physical comedian throughout his acting career. Check out, for instance, the pratfall he makes here in Bringing Up Baby (1938).
Over the next decade, Grant toured relentlessly as an acrobat and comedian, performing in theaters all over the country. He became a well-established star of the theater in New York City and landed his first Hollywood movie role in 1932. By most accounts, he was not particularly notable as an actor, but he was so incredibly handsome and charming that it seemed inevitable that he would become a movie star. He even invented an accent for himself. Listen closely to him. There is no place that accent is from in particular. Vaguely English, vaguely American, completely unique.
Grant refined his craft and became, in fact, a great actor. His skill as an actor became particularly clear in the movies he worked on with Alfred Hitchcock. Most of his earlier roles in the 1930s were comedies.
In 1935, Grant was enjoying movie stardom while living in Los Angeles when he was suddenly called to his father’s deathbed. Elias confessed to his son that Elsie was still alive, confined to gloomy Glenside for the last 22 years. All of the years Grant had spent feeling abandoned, guilty, and later mournful were all for naught. He soon reunited with his mother and secured her release from Glenside.
She lived another 38 years, dying in 1973 at the age of 96.
From 1932 until 1940, Grant appeared in 35 films. Among them are some of the best comedies in Hollywood history: She Done Him Wrong (1933), The Awful Truth (1937), and Bringing Up Baby (1938). This comedic output continued, albeit at a slower pace, through the 1940s.
After the middle of the decade, that began to change. In 1946, Grant made his first film with Alfred Hitchcock, Notorious. He played a spy whose heart is broken by a fellow spy played by Ingrid Bergman. It is a knockout performance, widely regarded as one of Hitchcock’s best films. Grant would make three more films with Hitchcock, each time playing the same sort of character: an elegant, debonair man caught in the middle of tangled intrigues that seemed to be beyond his grasp or control. His suit was always perfect, the pocket square properly matched and placed, and his manner only slightly ruffled when in danger.
Grant made his final film in 1966 with Walk Don’t Run, a truffle of a comedy about the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in which he plays a matchmaker to a young couple. And that was it. He grew disenchanted with the scripts he was receiving and generally disappointed with Hollywood’s direction in the 1960s.
Grant was always meticulous about his appearance. Noted costume designer Edith Head said he had the greatest fashion sense of any actor she ever worked with. He made himself into one of the wealthiest stars in Hollywood, stayed trim, quit smoking in the 1950s, and said of himself: “Moderation in everything—except making love.”
In 1964, at the age of 60, he married for the fourth (but not final) time to actress Dyan Cannon. The marriage would only last under two years. Grant was, by his own testimony, a poor husband. He never really trusted women—a wariness that likely sprang from his abandonment as a child.
However, at the age of 62, Grant found the great love of his life: his daughter Jennifer Grant, whom he’d had with Dyan
Wait, what’s that you say? You’ve never seen a Mae West movie? Well, you’re in for a treat. West was one of the great stars of 1930s Hollywood, often living in defiance of censors and in the general disdain of polite society. West was neither slender nor “pretty” by Hollywood’s standards, nor did she have a lilting voice. She was unconventional in every way: bawdy, déclassé, and completely open about how much she enjoyed sex with a variety of men. And audiences loved her for it.
“I believe in censorship,” she once said. “I’ve made a fortune out of it.”
Here, she plays a cabaret singer hiding out from a gangster. Grant is a self-serious and very nervous Salvation Army member who gets roped into helping her. The script was based on West’s Broadway play from 1928, Diamond Lil. The play was notorious for its bawdiness and the censors in Hollywood were opposed to it being adapted into a movie. A compromise was eventually reached: The title was changed and no references to the original play were allowed in any promotional materials or posters. I dealt with network television censors myself during the 1990s and early 2000s, and these are precisely the kind of dopey settlements you often end up having to make.
Anyway, this movie is tremendously amusing. West claimed for years that she “
Cannon. Grant retired from acting and devoted himself to fatherhood after her birth, remaining close with Jennifer for the rest of his life. He absolutely adored her, and she felt the same about him. They had 20 years together.
“My life changed the day Jennifer was born,” Grant once said. “I’ve come to think the reason we’re put on this earth is to procreate, to leave something behind. Not films, because you know that I don’t think my films will last very long once I’m gone. But another human being. That’s what’s important.”
With all due respect to his beautiful expression of love for his daughter, I must disagree with his assessment of his films. They will endure far into the future.
Here is a selection of Cary Grant’s films that I love unreservedly.