Next week marks the 108th anniversary of Cary Grant's birth.
Have people forgotten Cary Grant? He's been gone a quarter of a century now, and his last movie was made forty-five years ago.
Personally, I don't believe so. He was too good, too much of an original to fade away from our collective consciousness.
What made him so special?
For one thing, he managed to appeal in equal measure to both men and women: women for all the evident reasons, men because he flew in the face of conventional wisdom. Though possessed of an almost feminine beauty and grace, he still managed to project masculinity, brains, and most importantly, humor.
When an interviewer gushed to the star that everyone wanted to be Cary Grant, he famously replied, "So would I." This seemingly off-hand remark spoke volumes, for the Cary Grant persona was painstakingly developed and refined by a mortal man with his own fair share of foibles, fears and weaknesses.
It's easy to forget (if you even knew in the first place) that this personification of suave elegance endured a miserable lower middle class upbringing in Bristol, England as Archie Leach, the son of a mentally unstable mother and a father who first had his wife committed and then deserted the family.
Archie found salvation -- literally -- by joining the circus, where his natural athleticism made him a skilled tumbler and acrobat. A first tantalizing taste of performing before crowds would eventually lead him to the stage, and eventually, Hollywood.
As great as he was, in his time people sensed he was always playing Cary Grant, and for this he was marginalized slightly, never winning an Oscar over a thirty-five year career.
Of course, Oscar has most always lacked a funny bone, so humorous films have often received short shrift in the nominations. This is, of course, ridiculous, since comedies are the most difficult form to bring off successfully.
As to Grant not winning an Oscar, the sheer talent it took to play Cary Grant -- particularly in his great comedies -- cannot be underestimated; the plain truth is that he was totally unique.
How could anyone so perfect -- with full ten ratings on looks, style, and charm -- also be so approachable? Though blessed with a virtually flawless appearance, he was never arrogant or remote. His innate decency and charm always managed to penetrate the surface gloss. That's why we loved him.
The following ten films represent my top ten "desert island" Cary Grant picks. In anticipation of sampling some of these ageless features, let's wish Archie Leach a happy birthday, and thank him profusely for giving us Cary Grant, a character who will remain forever young, vital and real.
Topper (1937) -- George and Marion Kirby (Grant and Constance Bennett) have it all: they're rich, attractive and glamorous -- that is, until they're killed when driving their roadster too fast. Now bona-fide ghosts, the couple have one final errand to do before going to their eternal rest: help their stifled, hen-pecked banker Cosmo Topper (Roland Young) get more out of life -- while he's still living! This uproarious comedy was another step to super-stardom for Cary, who first showed his comic chops here. Bennett (older sister of Joan) is the essence of high-toned beauty as wife Marion. Young is also memorable as the put-upon Cosmo, a man who must cope not only with a rigid, controlling wife (Billie Burke) but a couple of goofy, upper crust specters who keep turning his well-ordered world upside down.
The Awful Truth(1937) -- Grant and the sublime Irene Dunne play Jerry and Lucy Warriner, a wealthy young couple who temporarily drift apart and impulsively initiate divorce proceedings. Both are unwilling to admit the obvious fact that they're still in love. Their eventual rapprochement becomes one delightful, hilarious dance. Director Leo McCarey was a genius with comedy, and this consistently sharp, side-splitting picture proves it. When Lucy starts an ill-advised rebound relationship with a rich oil rube from Oklahoma (wonderfully played by Ralph Bellamy) Jerry starts popping in even more often to embarrass his former spouse. Predictably, a good bit of the time he ends up embarrassing himself. This underexposed classic hasn't aged a day since its release.
Bringing Up Baby (1938) -- Paleontologist David Huxley (Grant) leads a quiet, studious life. Then, quite by accident he runs into daffy heiress Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) who quickly takes a shine to the handsome, bespectacled scientist. Used to getting what she wants, Susan simply won't let David go. Before long, Huxley's life gets turned upside down, as Susan kidnaps him to her starchy aunt's Connecticut estate, along with her explorer brother's recently arrived present, a tame leopard called "Baby." The mayhem escalates from there. Howard Hawks's quintessential screwball outing remains one of our most riotous and inspired screen comedies. Grant and Hepburn are in fabulous form, with Grant wholly convincing as the nerdy, befuddled victim, and Kate on fire as a flaky but determined lass who's finally found true love, and intends to hold on, come what may.
Only Angels Have Wings (1939) -- The riveting Angel centers on one Geoff Carter (Grant) operator of an airfreight service in South America's fog-enshrouded Andes Mountains. Often confronting treacherous flying conditions, Geoff must make life-or-death decisions about when his men can fly. Further complicating life on the ground is the arrival of Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) a showgirl in transit who's socked in by weather, and Macpherson (Richard Barthelmess) a pilot harboring a dark secret. Macpherson is also joined by his young wife Judy (Rita Hayworth) who, it turns out, had once been involved with Geoff. The plot thickens along with the fog. Elements of drama and romance comingle with the serious business of men being men in this involving, exciting adventure story. Grant stretches his screen persona effortlessly as a tough guy with little humor and no polish, and Arthur makes a spunky love interest. Young Hayworth is also stunning in a breakthrough role.
His Girl Friday (1940) -- Sneaky, slimy newspaper editor Walter Burns (Grant) will do anything to prevent his best reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) from leaving the paper for a dull marriage to the chronically normal Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). As fate would have it, the year's biggest story is breaking, as a condemned killer breaks out of jail, and even Hildy can't resist the lure of the scoop. Will Walter's nefarious scheming prevent Hildy from reaching the altar? Director Howard Hawks teams with Grant again to create what may be the fastest film comedy ever. A remake of The Front Page, this version's inspired plot twist is that Hildy is a female reporter, formerly wed to loveable scoundrel Burns. The conceit works, as underneath Walter and Hildy's scathing, rapid-fire repartee we sense a strong (though somewhat twisted) animal attraction. Both Grant and Russell are in top form, and all we have to do is keep up with them. A rip-roaring good time, from start to finish.
The Philadelphia Story (1940) -- Haughty Philadelphia socialite Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is engaged to marry self-made, upstanding George Kittredge (John Howard) after divorcing her wealthy, careless first spouse, C.K. Dexter-Haven (Grant). C.K shows up for the event with no hard feelings, along with society reporter/frustrated novelist Macaulay "Mike" Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey). What transpires next is a peerless comedy of errors, where, thankfully, everything comes out right in the end. George Cukor's pitch-perfect adaptation of Philip Barry's hit play marked a triumphant Hollywood comeback for Kate (having earlier been labeled "box-office poison" by exhibitors) and an Oscar-winning vehicle for up-and-coming star James Stewart, wonderful as a fish out of water in high society. Though overlooked by the Academy, Grant is every bit as good as the raffish C.K., while Hepburn shines in what may be her signature role. Don't miss Roland Young's hilarious turn as naughty Uncle Willie. Sly and sophisticated, this title stands as one of our finest screen comedies.
Notorious (1946) -- American intelligence officers tracking Nazis in post-war South America coerce Alicia Hubermann (Ingrid Bergman) daughter of an executed Nazi spy, to use her feminine wiles to implicate more of her father's colleagues, including one Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains). Before the assignment is disclosed; however, American agent Devlin (Grant) and Alicia have already begun a passionate romance, complicating matters going forward. Notorious still delivers outstanding suspense, with director Alfred Hitchcock at his most subtle. The story of a fallen woman-first redeemed by love, then put in peril is gripping throughout, and stars Grant and Bergman emit powerful on-screen chemistry. Acting laurels also go to supporting player Rains, who's never been slimier than here, playing a Nazi agent. But then, just look at his friends -- and that mother!
To Catch A Thief (1955) -- On the sun-drenched French Riviera, someone is relieving rich women of their precious jewels, and all the evidence points to retired cat burglar John Robie (Grant). Reluctant to sit still for questioning, "The Cat" evades investigators who show up at his luxe villa and -- with the help of London insurer H.H. Hughson (John Williams) -- cozies up to wealthy American widow Mrs. Stevens (Jesse Royce Landis) who he believes may be the thief's next victim. Robie's only hope for clearing himself will be to expose his imitator, that is if Mrs. Stevens' knockout daughter Francie (Grace Kelly) doesn't distract him too much! Filmed in VistaVision by Oscar winner Robert Burks, Alfred Hitchcock's swanky, breezy suspense film takes a simple idea -- one cat burglar on the tail of another -- and spins it into cinematic gold. With his customary wit and sexual innuendo, the director positions tanned star Grant on a collision course with the resplendent Kelly, who never looked more ravishing as spoiled heiress Francie, especially in a wide-brimmed white sun hat and bathing outfit Jackie O might have coveted. When they kiss, there are literally fireworks on-screen, a technique Hitch used to keep the censors from snipping his film. You'll have a lot of fun catching this "Thief."
North By Northwest (1959) -- By chance, martini-swilling ad man Roger Thornhill (Grant) is mistaken for a top spy, and set up for murder. He then finds himself in the unfamiliar position of fugitive, crisscrossing the country in search of the real culprit, his only chance of survival. Along the way, he meet the beautiful but mysterious Eve Kendall (Eva Marie-Saint) who wants to help him. But is she who or what she seems? Fifty years after release, Northwest still provides kinetic, colorful entertainment for the whole family, full of director Hitchcock's trademark twists and turns. Only Cary could undertake such a rugged and dangerous journey and keep looking marvelous with no change of clothes. Marie-Saint is appropriately enigmatic and alluring as the icy blonde who may or may not be in his corner. James Mason's treacherous turn as cold-blooded enemy agent Philip Vandamm also stays etched in your memory.
Charade (1963) -- Parisian Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) knew she had marital problems, but when her errant husband gets mysteriously killed, she finds being a widow even more troublesome. It seems her spouse was involved in hijacking some significant loot during the war, and now some of his past comrades want to know where the money went. H. Bartholemew (Walter Matthau) is the government agent also interested in the case, and suave Peter Joshua (Grant) the gallant older man who serves as Regina's protector. But is Peter really on Regina's side? This Hitchcock homage provides a last glimpse of Cary as leading man. At sixty, the actor still brings off his trademark persona superbly. Hepburn is also in top form as the put upon damsel in distress. Deftly combining mystery, romance, and humor, director Stanley Donen creates a chic, sophisticated mood via gorgeous Paris locations and a smooth Henry Mancini score. The supporting cast shines as well, with James Coburn and George Kennedy standing out among the heavies. As top-drawer entertainment, Charade is the real thing.
To see John's videos for WNET/Channel 13, go to www.reel13.org
Follow John on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/BMBFarr
Follow John Farr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BMBFarr