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Cary Grant

Graham McCann: Cary Grant: A Class Apart (Columbia, 1996)

As a rule, I'm not a consumer of Hollywood biographies. But the other day, I found myself wondering if younger people know much, if anything, about Cary Grant, and I realized that I didn't know very much myself. Of Grant's 72 movies, only a handful are truly indispensable, and perhaps as many as half are forgettable. But his image (which he developed over a long career) was one of Hollywood's most singular, and from very near the beginning of his sojourn in Hollywood he enjoyed a celebrity rooted in but not limited to his films. Like Katharine Hepburn's, his style was easy to caricature but impossible to copy, because it welled up from an extraordinarily idiosyncratic nature. But while Katharine Hepburn really did belong the patrician world that most of her screen roles hailed from, Cary Grant invented his suave and debonair personality. More accurately, an acrobat from working-class Bristol, by the name of Archie Leach, invented Cary Grant. Or did he?

I ask the question because it would appear, at least from a reading of Graham McCann's Cary Grant: A Class Apart, that Leach didn't so much invent Grant as take advantage of every scrap of opportunity to learn how to give his already stable character its eventual high polish. Like so many successful American immigrants, he seems to have known exactly what he wanted before he even got here. Cary Grant was more adroit than Archie Leach, more knowledgeable, more articulate, and certainly better dressed. But he was not a different person. Like anyone who grows successfully through life, he simply became more completely himself.

Very limited experience has taught me that most actors are just that - actors. Onstage, or before the camera, they take the lines that they're given and create the illusion of actual people. They may find it useful to continue the illusion offstage, but in most cases it's easy to catch them out, in any but the most complaisant interviews. It can be a painful fallacy to imagine that an actor is 'like' one of his roles. This isn't to say that actors aren't intelligent. I'm second to none in admiration for fine acting. But for many actors it does seem as though having a mind of one's own would just get in the way of realizing roles.

But then there are actors who make a career out of impersonating themselves. Katharine Hepburn has had to bear, throughout her career, the charge that she's only playing herself. This is true, I think; but it happens that Katharine Hepburn is simply remarkable, and this, combined with her nonpareil beauty (like Cary Grant, she seemed to refashion the act of smiling), has meant that her work is almost bound to be interesting, no matter what the material. Because his image is so strong, what one associates with Cary Grant is likely to be handsome sophistication, but when you watch the movies, you see it's something else altogether, a skeptical wariness infused with an almost throbbing joie de vivre. In his best movies, Grant was rarely more than a minute away from a smile, or a snort, or a dry crack the very understatement of which heightened the joke.

Thinking about Cary Grant, I've been reminded of Hari Kunzri's novel of last year, The Impressionist, which is very much a book about the invention of personality. The protagonist, who also changes names, has hardly any character at the start, and too much at the end. He is a fast learner, like Cary Grant, but he doesn't have Grant's common sense, nor the happy buoyancy of that joie de vivre. He is beset by a vague conviction that other people are more real than himself, and this leads him to overcompensate. But Archie Leach never seems to have been a cipher. His unremarkable, scrappy childhood took a turn for the theatrical when, at about the age of thirteen, he was taken backstage at Bristol's Hippodrome by an electrician whom he met at school, and he was immediately taken by the 'classless, cheerful and carefree' life of the actors he saw there. Not long after, the boy was kicked out of school, for reasons unnamed, and in the summer of 1918, he signed on as an apprentice to Bob Pender, whose Knockabout Comedians was a moderately successful acrobatic troupe. He had taken it upon himself to compose and send to Pender a letter that purported to come from his father. This sort of initiative would reveal itself over time as characteristic.

Mr McCann's biography is more of a study of the steps by which Archie Leach became Cary Grant, and how, as Cary Grant, he came to terms with having been Archie Leach. What seems at the outset to be an incredible stunt looks, from the vantage of Grant's long retirement, a lot more like a case of fruitful maturation. It seems incorrect to speak of transformation; 'education' is the better word. Archie Leach had a lot to learn about life, more than most English people of any class today would. He spent much of his mid-twenties, always an impressionable age, in New York, playing leading roles on Broadway; he could hardly have picked a better school. Some of the deeper lessons took him a very long time. Married five times, he claimed that the first four wives walked out on him, and there's no reason to doubt this. He could be a strikingly old-fashioned gent, with definite ideas about the arrangement of furniture and his wives' appearance. (It would be ironic that Alfred Hitchcock chose James Stewart, and not Cary Grant, to play Scottie Ferguson in Vertigo - "The gentleman certainly knows what he wants" - were it not that Grant would have suffocated in that great movie's austere humorlessness.) And even McCann's sympathetic account makes it clear that Grant was a canny businessman - among other things, a genuine arbitrageur, trading pounds and yen, at the start of the day, according to his 1939 co-star Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. He was the first star to break free of the studio system; in 1936, shortly before the expiration of his contract with Paramount, Grant bought his freedom and signed a joint deal with RKO and Columbia. He would go on to work at all the big studios - even Warner Bros, where one wouldn't have expected his art to flourish.

From this time on, Cary Grant movies would be distinguished by a curious complicity with the audience, dotted with tiny but piquant breaks from character, taken to acknowledge his identity as Cary Grant, Leading Man. A famous example occurs toward the end of Bringing Up Baby, when Katharine Hepburn calls him 'Jerry the Nipper' - an allusion to Grant's immediately previous movie, The Awful Truth. Grant's retort: "Constable, she's making all this up out of motion pictures she's seen!" Grant saw to it that the first name of his character in Gunga Din, a lower-class Englishman, was 'Archie.' My favorite wink occurs in 'North By Northwest,' when Roger Thornhill, making his escape from the Rapid City Hospital, passes through the room of a neighboring patient. Startled by the intruder, the woman cries 'Stop!' and turns on the light. Reaching for her glasses, she takes a good look at the frozen Thornhill, and repeats 'Stop,' but in a very different voice - the voice of a woman who realizes that she has Cary Grant in her room. Delightfully, Grant hems admonishingly and continues on his way. 

I wish I'd had this book to read as a young man. Like Trollope's 'An Autobiography,' it is the story of an unlikely gentleman whose instincts are sound but whose manners are, at the beginning, somewhat rude. Every man wants to be Cary Grant, writes Mr McCann. But he says something even better: "Cary Grant made men seem like a good idea." (February 2003)

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