Cary Grant spent over thirty years as a leading man whose presence in a movie brought people to the box office. During that time he made more classics than almost anyone. And no one created as much of an archetypal screen persona than Grant – a persona that, like a brand name, told the audience what it was getting and that it would be a quality product.
“The New York Times” once called Grant “devastatingly handsome, practically imperturbable, and as elegant as a Cole Porter lyric.” Porter’s words are an apt simile – urbane, sophisticated, with a playful quality that defied predictability. Grant was able to bring other colors to the table as well – selfishness, contempt, misogyny, manipulation, indifference – but when one of these shades surfaces it is balanced by Grant’s more attractive traits, which could have turned cloying without the darker elements.
Cary Grant was born Archibald Leach in Bristol, England in 1904. The son of a garment worker, Grant’s mother was institutionalized when he was nine. For solace, Grant turned to the English music hall, doing odd jobs for theaters before taking to the stage at age 14 with the Bob Pender comedy troupe as an acrobat and stilt-walker. The group toured the U.S. in 1920, and Grant decided to stay, supporting himself by selling painted neckties, working in vaudeville and performing as a stilt-walker at Coney Island.
Returning to England in 1923, he performed in musical comedies until he was discovered by Broadway producer Arthur Hammerstein, who shipped him back to New York for a run in nephew Oscar’s musical, “Golden Dawn.” A stage career followed, until, in 1932 he signed a contract with Paramount which put him in several undistinguished films until Mae West chose him for her foil in She Done Him Wrong (1933). Paramount asked Grant to change his name, and Archie Leach was relegated to film trivia – it is the name on a headstone in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) and in His Girl Friday (1940) Grant says, “The last person who said that to me was Archie Leach, just a week before he cut his throat.”
His first major success was opposite Katherine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett (1935), when Paramount loaned him to RKO. Feeling the studio system too constraining, Grant never again signed with a studio, becoming one of the first successful free agent actors, a model for stars today. The freedom let him choose his own projects and his pay went up enormously (by 1950, his fee had skyrocketed to $300,000 per picture and he was one of the first actors to get a percentage of a film’s gross). Freed from Paramount’s tether, Grant made great decisions about roles and began honing his persona in films like Topper (1937), The Awful Truth (1937), Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Philadelphia Story(1940) and many others. For Penny Serenade (1941), Grant earned the first of his two Oscar nominations. The second was for Clifford Odets’s None But the Lonely Heart (1944), in a role that deviated sharply from Grant’s now well-ingrained persona and was not a box office success.
Though Grant never received an Oscar — until, in 1970, the Academy voted him an honorary award- – he was remembered at the ceremony. In 1964 when one of his movies, Father Goose, won an Oscar for best screenplay, writer Peter Stone, accepting the award, thanked Grant, who, he said, “keeps winning these things for other people.”
In real life, Grant was not far removed from his screen image. “I pretend to be somebody I wanted to be and I finally became that person,” he once said. “Or he became me. Or we met at some point. It’s a relationship.” Politically conservative, Grant became a U.S. citizen in 1942 and spent time entertaining the troops during World War II. A philanthropist, despite rumors that he was a tightwad, Grant was an outspoken opponent of smoking, which he had quit through hypnotism. Grant was fairly open about his quest for self-knowledge through psychotherapy and lectured about his use of LSD. Eschewing makeup, which he claimed never to wear in any role, Grant overcame the paling effect of stage lights by maintaining a year-round sun tan. Four marriages ended in divorce, and he called his actress daughter Jennifer (with wife Dyan Cannon) his “best production.”
Grant quit acting in the late sixties, not wishing to age on film (though he was substantially older than he looked through most of his career) and thereby leaving his image static. Accepting his Oscar a few years later, he said, “I have been privileged to be part of Hollywood’s most glorious era. I think there is an even more glorious era right around the corner.” Opinions on that may differ, but if you are ever asked to name the actor who sums up the first entire century of movies, you can feel safe choosing Cary Grant.
The title of our feature comes from a possibly apocryphal story about a journalist sending a telegram to the actor asking “how old Cary Grant”, Grant notoriously guarded about his age sent a reply saying “Old Cary Grant fine, how old you.”