Throughout August and September the BFI has been hosting a season called Cary Grant: Britain’s Greatest Export. This means that I’ve been spending even more time there than usual, and I’ve watched a lot of his movies over the past few weeks (with even more to come over the next few!). The season is divided into two parts, so I wanted to talk about the films I’ve seen so far in the first part, which spans from the beginning of his career in the early 1930s until the mid-1940s, when he was fully established as a major Hollywood star.
Blonde Venus (1932)
Blonde Venus is one of Cary’s earliest films, a von Sternberg picture in which he appears with Marlene Dietrich, playing the benevolent millionaire Nick to her increasingly desperate showgirl Helen. Grant is eclipsed by Dietrich – as is anyone appearing opposite her in a von Sternberg film – but there’s groundwork for his later, more established persona of pure masculine glamour. He’s utterly charming as Nick, and although I really enjoyed the film, I was thoroughly disappointed at Helen’s choice to go back to her cruel husband instead of absconding for a life of excitement with Nick!
I’m No Angel (1933)
This was the second film Mae West and Cary Grant made together, after the runaway success of She Done Him Wrong earlier the same year. You know what you’re getting in a Mae West pre-code, and this doesn’t disappoint, with a wealth of elaborate costuming and witty one-liners. Cary once again plays second fiddle to his leading lady, but he’s a fantastic straight-man mirror for West’s unapologetic raunch, and his performance is more confident than in their first on-screen pairing.
Sylvia Scarlett (1935)
Grant appears opposite Katharine Hepburn for the first time in this romantic comedy, which was also his first film to be directed by George Cukor. No one is quite at their best here – Hepburn and Cukor absolutely hated it – but I had a lot of fun watching it, in large part due to the two lead’s creative interpretations of a Cockney accent.
Grant and Constance Bennett are the ghostly rich couple in this Hal Roach-produced comedy. They haunt their friend Cosmo Topper (played by Roland Young), causing endless mischief in an attempt to inject a bit of fun into his regimented life. This is classic Cary – the cheeky, debonair leading man with a glint in his eye – and he has great chemistry with his leading lady Bennett.
The Awful Truth (1937)
This screwball comedy is the first of the three pictures Grant made with Irene Dunne. It was also the film which confirmed him as a major Hollywood star, and is commended not only as one of both actors’ best works, but also as one of the finest American comedies of all time. Both are fantastic as the married couple who, in the midst of divorce proceedings initiated after a classic screwball misunderstanding, are forced to admit the ‘awful truth’ that they are still very much in love.
Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn were one of classic Hollywood’s best comedic pairings, and this is the first of the three classic screwballs they made together. I love all three, but this is undeniably my favourite. Hepburn sparkles as the more free-spirited Linda to her uptight sister Julia (played by Doris Nolan), and the second collaboration between Hepburn, Grant and director George Cukor is notably more successful than the first.
Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
This Howard Hawks-directed drama allowed Cary to branch out somewhat from his previous leading man roles. He’s still handsome and charming, but he’s also distinctly rougher around the edges as pilot Geoff Carter, who’s more bad-boy heartbreaker than dashing romantic hero. He refuses to give up flying for a woman – unable to balance his love of danger with their heart-wrenching fear whenever he takes off – but that hasn’t stopped Rita Hayworth (in her breakthrough role) and Jean Arthur from trying. There’s also an excellent performance from Thomas Mitchell, and the flight scenes are just as impressive 80 years on.
My Favourite Wife (1940)
The second Grant/Dunne screwball is another near-perfect film, and in my opinion the best of the two. Grant plays Nick Arden, who’s extremely shocked to discover the wife he’s just had declared legally dead has in fact been shipwrecked on a desert island for the past seven years, and has finally made it home. There’s a problem, however: Nick’s just about to head off on his honeymoon with the newly-minted second Mrs Arden. This film is so much fun, and Grant and Dunne are positively fizzing with chemistry. It’s truly a shame that they didn’t make more comedies together.
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Perhaps the most iconic of all screwball comedies, Grant gets star billing alongside Jimmy Stewart and, of course, Katharine Hepburn. Stewart and Grant have both honed their leading man personas to near perfection at this point, and they contrast wonderfully – the former with his famous stammering charm, and the latter effortlessly suave. Grant’s role was originally intended for Clark Gable, and Stewart’s for Spencer Tracy, but both were unavailable – and thank goodness! It would have been a very different film, and it’s difficult to imagine it having quite the same charm with another cast.
His Girl Friday (1940)
This was the third Howard Hawks film in a row to star Cary Grant, this time as newspaper editor Walter Burns, who is determined to win back his ex-wife Hildy both romantically and professionally. He can’t help but interfere with her upcoming marriage to the dim but loveable Bruce (played by Ralph Bellamy), and she can’t resist the lure of a good story. It’s hard to believe it’s the only time Cary worked with Rosalind Russell; each snappy line of dialogue is perfectly written and delivered, and was sped up by Hawks in the editing room to deliver the impossibly fast-paced final product. This is one of my favourite films of all time, and I loved getting to see it on the big screen in a packed cinema.
Alfred Hitchcock’s first collaboration with Grant takes everything we know and love about his on-screen persona and turns it on its head, giving the audience (and Joan Fontaine) a handsome, charming leading man…who cannot be trusted. Hitchcock builds a steady sense of anxiety throughout the film by taking characteristics of this persona – his way with words, his ability to seemingly have any situation in hand, no matter how chaotic – and making them just a little bit sinister. Although in the end he’s not guilty of the crime of which we suspect him, he’s proven himself to be thoroughly untrustworthy and unlike everything we have come to expect from a Cary Grant role. It’s so effective, especially as I had seen so many Grant films recently.
Penny Serenade (1941)
This melodrama is the third and final film Grant made with Irene Dunne, and it’s an emotional rollercoaster. Both stars put in moving performances as Roger and Julie Adams – a married couple whose love endures a series of terrible tragedies – proving that they’re just as effective in drama as in comedy.The use by director George Stevens of an album of records as a storytelling device to chart the decline of the Adams’ marriage is so effective, and Penny Serenade is as melodramatic as they come.
Grant and Ingrid Bergman are spies working against a Nazi plot in this Hitchcock noir thriller, and again he works with the director to distort our vision of what a leading man should be. I didn’t enjoy this one as much as Suspicion, but it’s interesting to see Cary portray someone who’s colder and more calculating than previous roles.