Of the legendary names from Hollywood’s Golden Age, there are few with as great a reputation as Cary Grant. The British turned American actor was featured in over 70 films and never gave a bad performance in any of them. 120 years on from his humble beginnings as Archibald Alexander Leach in Horfield, the Bristol boy is still considered to be one of the biggest movie stars of all time.
Many of Cary Grant’s classic films were massive box office upon their initial release, and even if they weren’t, they caught the imagination enough to seemingly inspire songs named after them: hello Holiday, Notorious, Monkey Business and Kiss Them For Me, the last two not huge hits pairing him with the busty blondes Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield.
More baffling is that despite consistent praise for his acting abilities, Cary Grant was only nominated for an Academy Award twice – first in 1942 for Penny Serenade and then again in 1945 for None But The Lonely Heart, neither of which bagged him the coveted trophy.
This lack of “official” recognition was remedied to a degree in 1970, when, to make up for its stupidity the Academy sheepishly gave him an honorary award lifetime achievement award (what Marlene Dietrich sarcastically termed the “Deathbed Oscar”) for his immense body of work, four years after he retired from the business. Tsk.
Looking back at his filmography, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of outstanding works with the name Cary Grant above the title, though we’ve tried, valiantly, to narrow it down to a Perfect 10 of classic movies. Is your fave rave there?
The Awful Truth (1937)
Irene Dunne is Cary’s favourite wife here, as they play a wealthy but distrustful couple in the throes of divorce, only to sabotage one another’s potential romantic relationships.
Leo McCarey believed that, with the Great Depression in its seventh year, helming a breezy comedy would be a hit with audiences, whom he felt would enjoy seeing a story about rich people having troubles. Though McCarey and Grant — who even mocks the director’s mannerisms on screen — didn’t gel, Leo recognised the actor’s talents and encouraged him to improvise his lines and draw upon his skills developed in vaudeville.
It worked. The Awful Truth was a critical and commercial hit, bagging a Best Director gong for McCarey and confirming Grant’s emergence as an A-list star, beginning what critic Benjamin Schwarz called “the most spectacular run ever for an actor in American pictures” for the West Country boy.
If you take this Holiday, you will find Grant plays a self-made man called Johnny Case, who is about to marry Julia Seton (Doris Nolan), the zany daughter of a wealthy banker.
A film adaptation of a 1928 play, most of the film takes place at a glitzy New Year’s Eve party: for a moment it looks like Johnny has bitten off more than he can chew when he meets Julia’s family – her stern-faced father, Edward (Henry Kolker), her alcoholic brother Ned Jr (Lew Ayres) and her spirited older sister, Linda (Katharine Hepburn). But things turn sour, then sweet, when Johnny finds a twin flame in Linda.
Arsenic And Old Lace (1944)
Cary Grant appears as a marriage-phobic writer who ironically falls head-over-heels for his beautiful neighbour (in this black comedy farce, which follows the former nuptial denouncer Mortimer Brewster as he and his new wife return to his Brooklyn family home to share the unexpected yet exciting news with his loved ones. The smitten newlyweds are in for quite a shock when Mortimer discovers a body hidden in the ancestral home, causing him to make the startling realisation that his two sweet old aunts have a penchant for killing lonely vulnerable men.
Grant took on the role after Bob Hope had to decline due to “scheduling conflicts”, and though he earned rave reviews, he felt his acting was over the top and felt that Jimmy Stewart could have done a better job. Either way, it’s still a spellbinding, hilariously macabre banger, and Cary went on to donate his $100,000 salary to wartime efforts and charities.
Hello monkey face! In the first of Grant’s quartet of collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock he appeared alongside Joan Fontaine in a romantic psychological thriller. Grant portrays a seemingly charming playboy who attracts the attention of a romantically inexperienced woman, and after the pair are married she realises not only is he a penniless con-man, but she also suspects he is planning to kill her.
Based on Francis IIe’s story Before The Fact, the story illustrates how a novel’s plot can be modified in the transition to film by doing away with the author’s original intention. Hitch was forced to alter the ending of Suspicion, due to the studio being concerned Grant’s “heroic” image would be tainted if he was depicted as a murderer. For her role, Fontaine won the Best Actress award and, criminally, is the only Oscar-winning performance in a Hitchcock picture.
The last of several Cary Grant titles shot in France (shucks), Stanley Donen’s celebrated Sixties rom-com mystery centres on Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) as she’s relentlessly pursued by a gang vying to get their hands on the fortune her murdered husband had stolen. She meets the dashing Peter Joshua (Grant) while on vacation in the French Alps, and ends up going on the run with him in Paris while she begins to question his true motives and identity.
Now visibly greying on the silver screen, Cary was conscious of the 25-year age difference between him and Hepburn, and to address his concerns, filmmakers agreed to make the female the pursuer in the relationship. It certainly worked. Despite being three years away from retirement, Grant’s chemistry with the adorable Audrey is beautifully avuncular.
Charade was described as “the best Hitchcock movie never made,” and garnered widespread acclaim for its labyrinthine whodunit screenplay, while hangdog Walter Matthau gives a notable early performance posing as a mysterious CIA operative.
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Another riotous romantic comedy with Katharine Hepburn, and directed by George Cukor, with whom Grant collaborated with on three occasions.
This charmingly chaotic film has Cary playing Dr David Huxley, a palaeontologist who befriends the elegant and haphazard heiress Susan Vance (Hepburn) after the pair keep bumping into each other, and getting caught in increasingly hilarious situations. Susan falls in love with David, who is engaged to be married, there’s a beautiful leopard called Baby running around, and the two new friends end up going on an adventure, taking the formidable feline to a farm in Connecticut. A splendidly absurd epic.
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Also directed by George Cukor, this film’s star-studded sterling reputation precedes it. The combination of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn with director Cukor and a play by Philip Barry had yielded treasure with Holiday, so it was unsurprising they should reunite a couple of years later. In The Philadelphia Story, James Stewart is added into the mix for a four-sided romance between Philly socialite Tracy Lord (Hepburn), her ex-husband (Grant), her new fiancé (John Howard) and the photographer hired to cover their wedding (Stewart).
The picture was nominated for six Oscars, and it won two – Best Screenplay and Best Leading Actor for not Grant but Stewart, which was his only Academy Award. The Philadelphia Story is one of the most famous films of Cary Grant’s career, and often considered one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time, which is why it didn’t take long for to to be remade as High Society starring Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly.
An electrifying thriller from the master of the genre, Hitchcock’s post-war film noir stars Ingrid Bergman as Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a convicted German war criminal. She’s enlisted by the American secret services to infiltrate and seduce one of the leaders of a group of Nazis (a solidly sly Claude Rains) who have fled to Brazil.
Alicia and agent TR Devlin (a darker and more serious Cary Grant) grow closer while preparing for the mission, but repress their true feelings as the assignment goes ahead. Their rocky relationship, which is built on mutual mistrust, is put under further pressure as Alicia gets drawn more deeply into the Nazi organisation.
His Girl Friday (1940)
One of the most famous screwball comedies of the 1940s, His Girl Friday was the third Howard Hawks film Cary Grant starred in. It teams him with Rosalind Russell, playing a pair of divorced journalists who try to ignore their still evident romantic chemistry while working on a breaking news story regarding a man sentenced to death.
Though it was overlooked by the Academy at the time, His Girl Friday broke new ground with its outrageously fast-paced and often overlapping conversations. Film dialogue is generally around 90 words per minute; Hawks had the cast speak at an astonishing 240 words per minute. This was largely unprecedented, and the quick-fire repartee made it one of the most famous films of the era, and a staple entry in cinema history.
North By Northwest (1959)
“Think thin?“ Got Edina the keto campaign. Our favourite of the quadrumvirate of collaborations with Hitchcock, Grant is never better as Roger Thornhill, a sharp-suited Madison Avenue advertising executive who becomes the target of a criminal gang. The heavies in the employ of secrets-smuggler Phillip Vandamm (a scarily unruffled James Mason) mistake Thornhill for an agent by the name of George Kaplan, setting off a domino game of machinations, misunderstanding and murder across the poker face of America.
The kicker, of course, is that there’s no such person as Kaplan. The CIA invented him as a decoy to deflect attention away from their real agent. The CIA? Or was it the FBI? As the shadowy ‘Professor’ (Leo G. Carroll) dismisses: “We’re all in the same alphabet soup.” Even at the intelligence agencies, identity is fluid.
After eluding the thugs it’s a non-stop cat and mouse chase, which becomes increasingly gripping as his own destiny becomes entangled with that of ice-cold blonde, Eve Kendall (a brilliantly understated Eva Marie Saint). One of the most rewatchable films ever made, North By Northwest would be Grant’s fourth and final Hitchcock – as if they both knew they couldn’t ever top it. Yet the James Bond film franchise certainly tried — paying homage to many of its iconic scenes in various outings from Goldfinger to Live And Let Die to Octopussy.
Miaow, time for my milk now?
Steve Pafford, France
To Catch A Thief (1955)
It didn’t make the ten but I could hardly leave this one out, considering the exteriors were filmed in various locations — Nice, Cannes, Èze, Villefranche-sur-Mer — along the French Riviera I call home.
In this stylish romance thriller and his third collaboration with Hitchcock, Grant plays retired cat burglar John Robie, aka The Cat, who must save his reformed reputation by catching an imposter jewellery thief preying on wealthy tourists of the Côte d’Azur. He’s on the hunt for a jewellery thief targeting the area’s rich and wealthy. He captures the attention of Frances Stevens (the always glamorous Grace Kelly, who went on to become Princess of Monaco) a wealthy heiress. The two strike up a friendship of sorts but mistrust grows between the feisty pair, who go for a swim and take a drive, leading to some of the most glamorous, purr-worthy scenes to have ever been caught on camera.
It’s a beautifully shot romp yet there’s something lacking in the suspense and plotting that makes it less gripping than than the three other Hitch classics. Still, To Catch A Thief was a huge hit at the box office, and notable for featuring Cary Grant‘s favourite on screen pairing, telling Interview magazine
“I‘ve worked with many fine actresses, but in my opinion the best actress I ever worked with was Grace Kelly. Ingrid, Audrey, Deborah Kerr were splendid, splendid actresses, but Grace was utterly relaxed – the most extraordinary actress ever. Her mind was razor-keen, but she was relaxed while she was doing it. I appreciated that.”
C’est la vie.