Who was Cary Grant? As one of Hollywood’s most celebrated stars during an era when the major studios were at their most powerful, his private life was kept hidden in favour of a carefully moulded public image. And that public image was of almost an impossible debonair, a man with an effortless poise and suave sophistication, who looked as though he was born wearing a tuxedo. He was the ideal man, setting a standard that even the person playing him, Archibald Leach (who adopted his stage name upon signing for Paramount in 1932) could not live up to. “I always wanted to be Cary Grant,” Leach was once told by a friend. “So did I,” was his droll reply.
The persona of ‘Cary Grant’ was gradually cultivated during his time in Hollywood, and reached its peak in the late ’50s and early ’60s when his box office clout was at its most potent. Films like North by Northwest and Charade were big hits that showcased his talents, for remaining smooth and unruffled despite everything that director Alfred Hitchcock throws at him in the former, and for representing the epitome of old-fashioned chic alongside Audrey Hepburn in the latter. These two films are arguably his most recognisable roles, and solidify what springs to mind when we think of Cary Grant.
Before Cary Grant was born into creation, however, Archibald Leach was just a normal young man from Bristol, England with a modest background. It may come as a surprise for those most familiar with late-period Grant, who donned a suit like no one else in North by Northwest and Charade, to learn that he first earned his break as a performer in a touring troupe as an acrobat. The man who would become famed for urbane sophistication spent his early adult years riding unicycles, juggling and walking tightropes on the comparatively undignified, gleefully low-brow vaudeville circuit – not exactly a familiar career path for a Hollywood icon.
In between his grey-haired later roles and beginnings in Vaudeville, Grant first became a star in Hollywood thanks to his roles as a comic leading man in screwball comedies. This particular genre was a perfect platform for Grant to marry his particular set of talents. Actors famed for their good looks like Carole Lombard, William Powell and Claudette Colbert would star in them as beautiful romantic leads, yet were also happy to humble themselves in the name of comedy – and no-one was as good-looking, nor as skilled at comedy, as Grant.
Though these roles did not call upon him to literally re-enact the skills he honed working in vaudeville (with the notable exception of Holiday, in which we’re treated to him performing front flips, back flips, and a routine with co-star Katharine Hepburn, as a means of contrasting his characters’ vivacity with his wife-to-be’s stuffy family), they did allow him to showcase his physical comic talents. In The Awful Truth, a comedy of remarriage in which Grant and co-star Irene Dunne scheme to sabotage the other’s romantic pursuits, he displays a remarkable proficiency for falling over, at one point even conspiring to fall off and break a chair – a scene made all the more hilarious for the refined suit he is wearing.
In addition to his talent for pratfalls, it is Grant’s willingness to mock himself that helps make him such an endearing performer. In Arsenic and Old Lace, he whelps, gurns and staggers his way through a wacky story of benevolently murderous aunts, hidden corpses and a psychotic Boris Karloff lookalike, with the gusto of a man willing to do anything for a laugh. If that film was a little too goofy, Grant perfects his craft in the peerless Bringing Up Baby. Playing an esteemed but unassertive palaeontologist professor whose imminent wedding is threatened when Katharine Hepburn determines to have him for herself, Grant shows a delirious lack of vanity from the stiff walk and pleading voice he puts on to the dorky glasses and, at one point, women’s night dress he adorns, and acts hilariously dumbfounded as a scatter-brained Hepburn runs rings around him.
As Grant got older, his appearances in comedy became sparser as he moved more towards the mature leading man – although he was still sprightly enough in 1952’s Monkey Business to play a role that required him to act like a child after his character accidentally consumes an elixir of youth. But even in North by Northwest, by which time he was well into his ’50s, Grant still displays the agility of his youth – the famous scene of the crop duster attacking him could in another context play out as a comedy, thanks to his trademark jerky movements and exasperated facial expressions.
A new documentary titled Becoming Cary Grant looks to answer the question of who exactly Archibald Leach was, but we may never truly know. But for all this, his self-deprecating comic style is key to understanding the enduring appeal of this enigmatic Hollywood icon.
Published 28 May 2016
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