16 March 2010

Care For a Cary? He Comes in Many Varieties

Suave, sophisticated and handsome. Witty but not pretentiously so. Wears a suit or tuxedo like he was born in it. Speaks the King's English in a clipped but clear manner. Cooler than a cucumber. That's the popular image of Cary Grant's film characters, and the man himself, and I wouldn't think of disputing it. Except to say that he was so much more.

Grant is, if anything, grossly unappreciated as an actor. He could do so much more than stand around looking good, swapping bon mots and wooing the dames. As I will prove with a mere sampling of his films, Cary Grant was, like all great actors, many men. Of course he could not be not handsome anymore than he could be Chinese. And the elegant, charming persona was something he did so well and so naturally that he not only played it frequently, but personified it. His characters were never athletes but always athletic. They were rarely intellectuals but always erudite.

Grant was an actor and a star. Films in which he appeared are specifically labeled, Cary Grant movies. In other words he wasn't just in them, he was them. Grant could stretch. He could take that basic essence (and oh what an essence) and trim it or expand it or modify it in so many different ways. Here's what I mean:

Cary the Kooky in Bringing Up Baby (1938). I could have gone several ways with this one. For one thing Grant's character, Dr. David Huxley is a bit of a nerd who despite the spectacles is a dreamboat to at least two women. He's also putty in their hands. It is in the hands of Kate Hepburn's Susan Vance, a certified kook of the first order, that the good Doctor goes all whacky on us. This is Screwball Comedy Cary and he plays it to the hilt. Mincing around with a hat over Hepburn's derriere, flopping around in her dressing gown, cavorting about with a leopard. Grant wasn't just in comedies, he made them comedies.

Cary the Cold in Blonde Venus (1932). This is really a Marlene Dietrich film, but it is interesting to watch Cary pre stardom in a crucial co starring role. I label him cold but he's hot for Dietrich's character (which is to say he has a pulse). This is a very powerful man who's used to getting what he wants by virtue of being filthy rich. Cary plays it totally contained thus not detracting from Dietrich. Grant paid his dues as a second banana for a few years and it was in part by virtue of the strength of performances like these that he soon got starring roles.

Cary the Shady in Mr. Lucky (1943). This is a darker Cary than we're used to in a performance I wrote about last Summer. There's more than a hint of mystery to Grant here. He's tough as hell but with heartbeat beneath the rough veneer.

Cary the Carefree in Topper (1937). This is Cary at his most fun-loving. You can't top a guy who doesn't let his own death keep him from having a great time. It's a character, all decked out and swilling champagne, that is quite close to embodying the public perception of Grant. Grant is an utter delight here. Funny, nimble with a dash of wisdom. He could do slapstick with the best of them because he never went overboard.

Cary the Manipulative in His Girl Friday (1940). You'd not be far off saying that Walter Burns is sleazy, just consider how ill he treats poor Bruce Baldwin, you know, the guy who looks like Ralph Bellamy. But Burns is no stinker. He's simultaneously wooing back his ex wife and getting the big scoop. His dealing from the bottom of the deck is just a case of the ends justifying the means. This version of Grant is one step ahead of everyone and able to keep up with the slick patter of his ex, Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell). A delight to watch for Grant's vocal dexterity alone.

Cary the Resourceful in North by Northwest (1959). You could also say this is Grant as the innocent victim, but he doesn't play it that way. This is a man who won't let circumstances get him down. So he's mistaken for someone else, and people are trying to kill him, Roger Thornhill is no one's fool. This is an older Grant but he's every bit as agile and perhaps even more the debonair ladies man. This is Grant as an action hero of the 1950's variety.

Cary the Radical in The Talk of the Town (1942). Here is Leopold Dilg, a political animal framed for a heinous crime and on the lam. He comes across a Supreme Court justice to be with whom he can palaver about matters legal, philosophical and political. Again he is a victim but one who knows the score and means to clear his good name.

Cary the Complicated in Notorious (1946). I'll come right out and say that I think this is his best performance. He's a complex man. Director Alfred Hitchcock knew what he was doing in casting Grant as U.S. Government agent T.R. Devlin. He's assigned to recruit a lovely young woman (Ingrid Bergman) to spy for the government. He falls in love with said woman. Imagine what he goes through when her duties require her becoming the lover of an older man, an enemy at that. Actually you don't have to imagine so much because Grant is so bloody good in the role. There is a strong yet tortured, conflicted, yet triumphant man conveyed by Grant.

Cary the Cynical in Only Angels Have Wings (1939). He's unfazed by death, even when it strikes those close to him. Just comes with the territory, he reckons. There is a coldness to his Geoff Carter that can be a little off putting to Grant fans used to the charming characters that he so often played. But he plays it well. We come to accept that this is a different guy and if we never in turn accept his manner we understand from whence it comes. I don't know that Carter is an especially deep character, but he makes sense.

Cary the Angelic in The Bishop's Wife (1947). Grant was an angel to many a woman so why not play one? It's a wonderful performance because he plays Dudley as so other worldly. There is a heart breakingly unhuman quality to Dudley. He's got all the style and grace in the world. Maybe so much that it's clear he's not of this world. All those powers but not the gift of humanness. Grant is so good in this that he makes us believe in angels.


R. D. Finch said...

A nice selection of the many modes of Cary Grant, my favorite movie actor of all time. I especially liked the inclusion of the angelic Cary in "The Bishop's Wife," an unusual and unusually thoughtful performance I like very much. Maybe his well-documented problems with relationships with women helped him capture the alien wonder of a romantic relationship, which he conveys most convincingly. "Notorious" is without doubt his most complex performance. I might add to your list Cary the Family Man in "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" and Cary the Criminal in "To Catch a Thief," not Hitchcock's best but one of Grant's most charming performances (and it has his sizzling interaction with Grace Kelly).

Armen Karaoghlanian said...

The Philadelphia Story (1940) - Cary Grant's endless supply of hilarious one-liners!

Millie said...

Great post! I adore Cary Grant, and he never gets enough credit.

I particularly loved the line: "In other words he wasn't just in them, he was them."

That perfectly describes Cary Grant!

Great post!