The making of Cary Grant

Before he became a bona fide star in the late 1930s, Cary Grant spent a number of years as a studio player, often miscast in forgettable films – but as he experimented with roles to find what worked best, the contours of the legend we know were gradually being etched.

Pamela Hutchinson
Updated:

Bringing up Cary… Cary Grant in 1932

Bringing up Cary… Cary Grant in 1932
Credit: Getty Images

Everyone, we know by now, wanted to be Cary Grant, even the most powerful man on the planet. President Kennedy named Grant, more than ten years his senior, as the star he’d like to see play him in a biopic, and he admired the British-born actor so much that he and Bobby would dial him up from the Oval Office just to enjoy the distinctively transatlantic tones of his voice.

Grant would bat away such marks of devotion, famously quipping, with his characteristically easygoing charm, that if others wanted to be him, so did he. But there was a bitter truth in that gag. “I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until finally I became that person,” he said. “Or he became me.”

Mae West liked to claim that she discovered Grant, eyeing up a “sensational-looking man” in Hollywood and commenting, “If that guy can talk, I’ll take him.” That’s not true, and Grant consistently denied it – for one thing, they already knew each other from Broadway.

So in the absence of an origin story as succinct as a West one-liner, how long did it take Bristol’s Archie Leach to become Hollywood’s Cary Grant? The statistics are fairly stark. Over the course of his 34-year cinema career, Grant would make more than 70 feature films, but it wasn’t until the 27th, supernatural comedy Topper, that he was the lead in a smash hit, and the 29th, Leo McCarey’s crystal-cut screwball The Awful Truth, that he starred in a true classic. The year 1937, the date of these near back-to-back successes, may mark the spot when he hit the big time, but by that point, Grant was 32 and had been in Hollywood for what probably seemed like five long years.

The Awful Truth (1937)

The Awful Truth (1937)

During that first half-decade, Grant was sometimes making films two at a time, including ones he later tried to forget, picking up roles spurned by his more famous peers and becoming increasingly frustrated by his studio; he was also the target of insidious gossip, and the victim of some dubious miscasting. Whoever he was pretending to be then, it didn’t yet look like the Cary Grant that Pauline Kael hymned as a “slapstick Prince Charming”. Nevertheless, Grant’s star was steadily rising throughout these evolutionary years, and they contain some delicious surprises and hints of his later brilliance to savour.

Hollywood costumier Orry-Kelly recalls that his Bristolian acrobat pal had his first screen test, for Warner Bros, when they were flatmates living in New York and hustling a variety of sidelines and short-term gigs into what might euphemistically be described as a portfolio career. Leach had reached New York with the Pender Troupe, a British knockabout comedy act, in 1920 and decided to stick around in the States to make a name for himself.

Leach’s 1920s were a period of concerted self-improvement, as much as a time for post-adolescent scrapes. He was a regular cinema-goer for one thing, studying the slapstick of Chaplin, Stans Lupino and Laurel, and Harry Langdon, in his free hours. Stinging comments about his appearance prompted him to elongate his profile with face and neck exercises and invest in a sun-lamp, too. His accent, a Bristol burr mixed with a trace of Cockney from his music-hall days, was frequently mistaken for Australian and Leach worked diligently at retraining his voice into an impression of Manhattan chic. He failed that test, wrote Kelly, because he was too handsome: “Too much the Arrow-collar type.”

Somehow, between periods of unemployment, repertory tours, vaudeville stints, stilt-walking at Coney Island, selling ties with Kelly and other late-night misadventures, the increasingly polished Leach made it on to Broadway, as a leading man in musical comedies. Paramount picked him up for a short film made at its Astoria studio, Singapore Sue, in 1932, and although the director Casey Robinson put in a good word for him, Leach knew he’d have to head west to realise his Hollywood ambitions.

With Mae West in She Done Him Wrong (1933)

With Mae West in She Done Him Wrong (1933)

In January 1932, after playing opposite, and falling for, Fay Wray on stage in Nikki, he drove to California with the show’s composer, and talked his way into a meeting with B.P. Schulberg. This time he aced the test and emerged with an enviable contract, paying out a generous $450 a week, in deference to his Broadway experience.

Schulberg insisted on an all-American screen name and Leach picked Cary from his character in Nikki and Grant off a proffered list. Paramount publicity touted its new star as a mature actor, and a scion of the legitimate stage, with an invented thespian grandfather (Sir Percival Leach) and a tailor father (Elias Leach was a garment-presser in a factory, not a Savile Row artisan).

As for that pseudonym, the initials were conveniently close to those of two of the great screen stars of the day, Paramount’s own Gary Cooper and MGM’s Clark Gable, whom Grant would be repeatedly measured against. Photoplay even posited Grant and Cooper as rivals in the boxing ring, going six rounds to win the crown of Tinseltown’s leading lover. Grant later compared Hollywood to an overcrowded streetcar – for each passenger who piles on, another is pushed out. “It took me a while to reach the centre,” he said. “Then Warner Baxter fell out the back, and I got to sit down.”

This Is the Night (1932)

This Is the Night (1932)

Grant made his debut playing Lili Damita’s javelin-thrower husband in a film he hated, This Is the Night (1932). However, the critics lapped him up, praising him as a “splendid figure” and a “potential femme rave”. That should have pleased Paramount, which wanted what West claimed she wanted: Grant’s sex appeal.

Sadly, his first movies mostly traded on his looks rather than his capacity for humour, and, in doing so, cramped his style. In the worst of them he is stiff and uncomfortable, playing characters who, if they weren’t actually supposed to be older than him, were certainly more worldly-wise, business-like and unsympathetic – cruel seducers rather than boyish lovers.

Blonde Venus (1932) was a hit of sorts, for example, but it almost boggles the mind to see him as a sleazy millionaire paying Marlene Dietrich for sexual favours, when you sense he’d rather be doing anything else, including shimmying on stage alongside her. It was a formative role for one reason, though: director Josef von Sternberg berated Grant for parting his hair on the “wrong” side – he combed it in the other direction and wore it that way for the rest of his life.

Blonde Venus (1932)

Blonde Venus (1932)

Perhaps the most important film he made in his first year was Hot Saturday (1932), a cheery pre-Code romcom starring Nancy Carroll as a virtuous bank clerk who becomes subject to small-town gossip when it appears she has spent the night with Grant’s rapacious millionaire (one of many such fat cats he would play, though this time a refreshingly jovial type).

This was the movie where Grant first met Randolph Scott, who played the good-guy rival for Ruth’s affections. Watching them circle her on the dancefloor as she passes from one to the other, we can witness the opening of a new chapter in Grant’s private life. The two men lived together on and off until 1944, as the press rarely failed to mention, sharing mundane details of the living arrangements, staff and physical fitness regimes of these two “gay bachelors”, as well as pictures of them out on the town together without girlfriends. Plenty of other Hollywood stars shared houses, but the relationship between Scott and Grant went beyond being roommates. As biographer Marc Eliot put it: “They’d fallen into something that resembled conventional love and didn’t give a damn who knew it.”

Paramount sent out a decree to the magazines not to insinuate anything more about their relationship, but as most of the coverage was heavily coded and vague there was little to be done. Pictures of the two men preparing dinner in pinafores, for example, prompted columnist Jimmie Fiddler to snarl that they were perhaps “carrying the buddy business too far”.

Randolph Scott and Cary Grant

Randolph Scott and Cary Grant
Credit: Shutterstock

It was also in 1932, while filming Merrily We Go to Hell, that Grant worked with Dorothy Arzner, who was living with Marion Morgan, as she would for decades. This might have given him the confidence to brazen out his domestic arrangements, at the place the papers called ‘Bachelor Hall’. He certainly had fairly loose lips, admitting Scott was his “date” for a premiere, or explaining to Silver Screen magazine that even after his marriage to Virginia Cherrill in 1934 they would live as a threesome, asking reporter Helen Harrison: “I wonder whether such a temporary arrangement would be thought – er – unconventional?” Harrison appears to calm his fears, saying: “One can have a design for living, without designs…” – thereby proving the truth of the ironic process theory, or, in other words, as soon as you tell people not to imagine an elephant, it’s all they can think about.

The rumours enveloped Grant and Scott throughout the 1930s, at a time when leading men often felt the need to prove themselves heartily ultra-masculine off-screen to wash away the taint of doing anything as effeminate as appearing in a love story. When Grant took action-man roles, such as a pilot in The Eagle and the Hawk (1933), Wings in the Dark (1935) or Suzy (1936), Hollywood insiders would smirk, although now these roles seem to be simply the forerunners of his cool professional aviator in Only Angels Have Wings (1939).

Needless to say, although audiences have lapped up his ambisexual charms for decades (that “gay all of a sudden” moment in 1938’s Bringing up Baby, or his obsessive thoughts about Scott in 1940’s My Favorite Wife), Grant, who was married five times, publicly maintained he was heterosexual. As did Scott, who married twice. In 1980, Grant successfully sued Chevy Chase for calling him “a homo” on TV. “I don’t have anything against homosexuals,” he told Peter Bogdanovich, “I just don’t happen to be one.”

Speaking of sexual innuendo, the film Grant made with Mae West, She Done Him Wrong (1933), was his eighth, and a surprising success. Playing opposite such an imposing, carnal leading lady, who was also the studio’s biggest female star, gave Grant a touch of the fear, but his nervousness translated into aloofness on screen. His Salvation Army officer comes across as surprisingly macho rather than diffident, stiffly refusing West’s lubricious advances. In time for their second collaboration, I’m No Angel (1933), Paramount raised Grant’s salary to $750 a week.

I’m No Angel (1933)

I’m No Angel (1933)

It’s at this point, too, that another side of Grant’s persona came to the fore. Working with West convinced him that whenever he had the choice, he would take parts where he was the wooed, rather than the wooer. Meanwhile, Paramount repeatedly stuffed him into tuxedos and cast him as playboys, missing the fact that he was better as the love object rather than the desiring male, and that seriousness dampened his charisma. His breezy charm in later successes gives off a sense of reckless ambivalence about the romance in the air, which of course could be powerfully attractive. How could Rosalind Russell or Irene Dunne fail to come crawling back to that puppy-faced prankster, who seems more intent on causing mischief than sweeping them off their feet?So it goes, for example, that while Grant’s tailoring is impeccable, sparks fail to fly satisfactorily between him and Benita Hume as two reformed members of the criminal set in Gambling Ship (1933).

Nobility doesn’t suit him either. In The Woman Accused (1933), it’s not his dashing wardrobe or his tenderness with Nancy Carroll as a murder suspect that distinguishes Grant’s performance, but the last-reel burst of violence in which he horsewhips a rascally Jack La Rue.

Likewise, he’s unhappily muted as the sentimental president of a dairy company in Born to Be Bad (1934) with a very young Loretta Young as a desperate single mother, but he visibly thrives in the frothy demi-musical Kiss and Make-Up (1934) – a film that is provocatively determined to be nothing more than frivolous. In the latter, Grant plays a handsome, high-achieving New York cosmetician pursued by his patients and adored by his secretary, and it’s a camp delight. Although contemporary reviews found it over-reliant on laughs, the double-act formed by Grant and Edward Everett Horton is a hoot, and the film’s frank send-up of the beauty industry has barely dated. In her seminal essay on Grant, The Man From Dream City (1975), Kael singles out the “confident, full-hearted exhibitionism” of his performance. He even manages to be serious, in a sexy way, for the minute it takes him to croon Love Divided by Two.

Grant was becoming more skilled in the art of sparking off his co-stars, though, when they had the requisite heat, and increasingly Paramount’s Adolph Zukor paired him with some of the best young actresses in Hollywood, including Carole Lombard and Myrna Loy.

Suzy (1936)

Suzy (1936)

It took time, but the years he spent cultivating this kind of chemistry meant that he was suddenly rather hot as a World War I aviator toying with a disarmingly sincere Jean Harlow in Suzy (1936). By far the best moment in that movie is the scene in which Grant playfully parodies Harlow’s barroom ballad Did I Remember to Tell You That I Adore You. In his early films, singing seems to put him at his ease, much as a burst of gymnastics or a tinkle on the ivories would crack the tension in his mid-career movies. It didn’t work quite so well in 1933, when he was an unlikely replacement for Bing Crosby as the lugubrious Mock Turtle in Alice in Wonderland – Grant was a clown, not a tragedian, even in fun.

In 1935, the stars aligned for Grant’s very particular persona, even though the film itself was a flop at the time. In Sylvia Scarlett Grant plays a cockney conman turned minstrel, who indulges in some transgressive flirtation with Katharine Hepburn in cute boy-drag. He even gets to play the piano. Here was the first, fullest incarnation of the wildcard Grant persona yet to be unleashed on the screen and while he’s more rambunctious than romantic, he’s never more appealing than when he’s visibly enjoying himself. As director George Cukor put it, Grant finally “felt the ground beneath his feet” and despite his second-fiddle role, Variety opined that he stole the picture.

Now Grant knew where he was headed, even if Paramount didn’t. “For years I had begged Paramount to let me do something other than straight romantic leads,” he recalled. “I said I should be doing light comedy. They wouldn’t listen.”

Sylvia Scarlett (1935)

Sylvia Scarlett (1935)

Indeed, Zukor had mostly ignored his requests, fobbing him off with parts that Gary Cooper had turned down, but in the wake of Sylvia Scarlett, he raised Grant’s salary again (now at $3,500 a week) and lined him up a prestige role opposite Joan Bennett in Big Brown Eyes (1936), a Thin Man-style detective drama. However, he told Grant that if he continued to complain, he was free to leave his contract any time soon, a statement he would later have cause to regret. After Big Brown Eyes failed to sparkle, Grant was loaned to MGM for the Dorothy Parker-scripted Suzy. Perhaps working with Harlow was as much fun as it looked, because it’s then that Grant took Zukor at his word and decided to leave the studio shackles for good, to go freelance and get himself an agent for the first time.

He made one last, underrated film for Paramount, the rowdy newsroom romcom Wedding Present (1936), in which he teamed up once again with Bennett. Grant plays a fast-talking practical joker of a Chicago newspaper editor trying to woo back his reporter-lover and land a scoop. It doesn’t have the polish of His Girl Friday (1939) but it’s a very close relative. There is even a cheeky gag about him being an unlikely aviator, and a couple of sly references to an ‘Uncle Archie’ in the dialogue. Grant is very clearly in his element, right up to the absurd slapstick finale.

It was this manic energy that propelled Grant towards his freelance career, and in particular towards United Artists and Topper, one of the big summer hits of 1937, in which he cavorted as a mischievous ghost alongside Bennett’s sister, Constance, and cemented his status as Hollywood’s premier humorous heartthrob. The bait for Grant was the chance to work with producer Hal Roach, hero of silent comedy, and the genius of Topper is that it presents Grant’s lunatic edge as a therapeutic virtue, giving the ageing hero a new lease on life, rather than merely an impediment to romance. Topper made Grant a parcel of money too, as his new agent had negotiated a percentage deal of the profit.

It was just a tumble from there to The Awful Truth (1937), and his peerless performance as Irene Dunne’s incorrigible ex-husband. It’s in this film that Grant at last achieves what he admired most about his idol Chaplin: pure gracefulness in physical comedy and a meticulous control of gesture that endowed a tilted eyebrow with the same comic force as a one-liner or a pratfall.

The Awful Truth (1937)

The Awful Truth (1937)

Grant nearly stormed off the set for this one, however, frustrated by director Leo McCarey’s insistence on improvisation. He even sent producer Harry Cohn an eight-page screed headed “What’s Wrong With This Picture”, before he settled into the new way of working – taking heed, perhaps, of Mae West’s advice in She Done Him Wrong: “Loosen up. Unbend. You’ll feel better.”

The rest is Hollywood history: The Awful Truth was a hit and sent Grant straight to the A list, though – likely owing to the fact that he was a freelancer – he was pointedly not included in the film’s six Oscar nominations. McCarey maintained a lifelong grudge against Grant, and also remained unhappily convinced that the debonair but daffy demeanour he traded on for much of his career was forged from mimicking his director’s instructions in rehearsal. If you’ve seen the best of his early 30s work, though, it’s hard to agree that Grant was pretending to be anyone other than his own wildly idiosyncratic persona, one that had been forged film by film, in spite of Paramount’s plans.

As if to prove how little he cared for other people’s opinions, early in 1937, on the brink of his big breakthrough, Grant had rolled up to one of Marion Davies’s famous Hollywood costume parties with a newly married Scott. They were kitted out in matching skintight circus outfits, topped off with tutus. A queer spectacle staged in defiance of the studio system’s morality clauses and sexual prescriptiveness, a throwback to Grant’s acrobatic past – and a declaration of identity.

There were photographers present, naturally, and the gossip columnists pounced on cue, but there was never a surer sign that Grant was far happier out of his Hollywood harness. His five years of pretending to be someone else were over – Archie Leach had finally found his Cary Grant. Or perhaps it was the other way around.

 

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