Happy Birthday, Archibald: An Artistic Lesson from Cary Grant

To see Cary Grants films from 1937 and on, you might assume that Cary Grant always exuded the sophistication and confidence for which he is legendary.

His lengthy career—72 films in all—showcases his talents in diverse roles, but through it all, he gives all his characters (e.g., cat burglars, artists, brain surgeons, and spies) a touch of class that is his alone. No, he didn’t play every role the same way. The ‘wronged’ Devlin‘s icy dismissiveness in “Notorious” is the flip side of David Huxley‘s abrupt, screwball-y hyperactivity in “Bringing Up Baby.” In “Holiday” (1938), Cary, as Johnny Case, delights with his breezy attractiveness, regular-guyness, and an offbeat sense of humor. Just a year later, he’s a quiet, tough boss and pilot of a South American mail carrier business in “Only Angels Have Wings.”

As whatever character he is playing, Cary Grant (in 1937 and after) shines. And every character he plays has a special imprint, a touch that no one else can give the character.

But that legendary style isn’t something that he just had from the moment he walked on screen. In fact, early Cary Grant is downright hokey and almost embarrassing to watch. He seems more Archibald Leach (his birth name) than Cary Grant (his stage name).

The Early Versions of Cary Grant

As part of my Cary Grant Project, I’ve had to endure the early films of an actor who had not found himself just yet. The playfulness that he let shine through his characters in films in 1937 (and after) is not evident in 1934. For example, in the wretchedly overdone “Kiss and Make Up,” he is a Parisian plastic surgeon who is one-dimensional and awkward. His swaggering confidence is feigned, and it shows. (Plus, he launches into song completely out of nowhere.) And in the idiotic “Wings in the Dark” (1935), he shows a glimmer of the darkness that Alfred Hitchcock would later tap for his films, but that’s it. His role is more of a caricature than character.

To see his early work, you’d think he’d be reduced to eye candy in every subsequent film. You wouldn’t know that he’d find his voice (literally), his style, his very Cary Grant-iness, just a few short years later.

The Breakthrough Role

After almost 30 films, Cary Grant finally becomes the Cary Grant. The gloriously good-looking man finds his footing and becomes more than just the best man to ever wear a suit on the silver screen. In the screwball comedy, “The Awful Truth,” Cary Grant’s breakout role is the rascally Jerry Warriner, who is sneaky, sexy, funny, musical, acrobatic, and ridiculously lovable. It’s as if he finally decided to have fun with this role, and the stifling self-consciousness of his early work seems to be gone.

From this point on, Cary Grant just owns Hollywood. In the late 1930s and 1940s, he was almost always the first choice for the male lead in any film. The actresses of his era seemed to be  funnier, sexier, and just all-around better when in a Cary Grant film.

Finding One’s Voice

So, why am I mentioning Cary Grant on a writing blog? (I mean, besides the obvious.)

Cary Grant’s long career is a good example for creative people, for it shows the various stages of a creative life.

  • The struggle to find one’s voice
    He had a strange accent that blended both sides of the pond, acted in regrettable films, but he worked and he worked hard. True artists are always working and growing.
  • The triumph of finding one’s style
    The hard work pays off eventually. A true artist improves with each project.
  • The redefining one’s style
    Despite being known now mostly for his romantic films, he seemed to go through phases. When the screwball comedies stopped being produced, he played up his romantic hero side. Later, he did some military films. And some of his best work was with Alfred Hitchcock, who allowed the darker, edgier side of Cary to emerge.

If you haven’t seen a Cary Grant movie, today’s the perfect opportunity to do so. Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is running a Cary Grant marathon. Check your local listings for details.

Happy birthday, Cary.

5 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Archibald: An Artistic Lesson from Cary Grant

  1. Cary Grant was my husband’s name-sake. My mother-in-law was completely infatuated with him. You can’t blame her, with his debonair demeanor and striking good looks. I’ll have to check out some of his earlier films. I’ve only ever seen his more famous roles!

  2. What an interesting peek behind the scenes at one of my all-time favorite actors! Well done!

    It’s true…..I will never forget the time I saw him in person. He just exuded presence. It was one of the most singular moments of my life to hear him speak and to see him off-camera. Everything that made him what we know him to be took effort and time to cultivate. And the parallels to cultivating one’s writing life and identity are spot on.

    Thanks for the memories, Cary, and for being one of the people that has made life worth living! Cheers!

  3. C.K. Dexter Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaven … How could I have failed to mention that character in the brilliant ‘The Philadelphia Story’? (swoon)

    You know, by the way, that I will be jealous of you forever because of that evening. Or maybe I should delight in the two-degrees of Cary Grant. I know you, you saw him, it’s like I met him!

    Or not quite, right?

    Happy swooning, my dear.

  4. ;)
    Happy to share my one worthwhile brush with true greatness with you, of course.

    And yes, I was wondering about the missing P.S. (my favorite ever), but you redeemed yourself with the nod to Notorious and his work with Hitch…….

    “Mellow greetings, yukie dukie!”
    (Yes, you forgot dear Mr. Nugent as well…….but you can’t possibly include everything here. You’d have to write a book…..hey! Wait a minute. . . . j.k.)

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