As the story goes, a reporter once told Cary Grant, ”Everybody would like to be Cary Grant,“ to which the star famously replied, ”So would I.“ The rejoinder could have issued from any number of Grant’s smooth screen charmers, but it confirmed what the actor himself had made so easy to forget — that Cary Grant was indeed a creation, a performance that was one of Hollywood‘s greatest. Much as Grant had done in nearly all his 70-plus screen roles, those three words slyly hinted at the icon’s human aspect, his all-important regular guyness. Whether he was goofing it up or playing it straight, at his most impossibly debonair Grant still kept the everyday fellow in the picture. That whiff of the commonplace under such sophisticated cover not only made him more accessible and easier to adore, but suggested that there might be something of that divine suavity in us as well.
He was born Archibald Alexander Leach on January 18, 1904, in the British seaport of Bristol, to a poor tailor‘s presser and a pretty virago, who, when her son was 10, abruptly disappeared. Archie was told that she’d left on holiday, but she never returned. It wasn‘t until he was an adult on the verge of movie fame that his father, in a fit of drunken pique, revealed not only that he’d had his wife committed, but that she was still at a nearby sanitarium. At 13, desperate to escape what he later would intimate was a bitterly lonely life, Archie left home to join Bob Pender‘s Knockabout Comedians, becoming a tumbler and stilt walker before finding success as a song-and-dance man. After causing a stir on stages in England and the U.S., he signed a contract with Paramount and, in 1932, Archibald Leach became Cary Grant.
At least in name. A paragon of masculine beauty, with his mass of glossy black hair, penetrating dark eyes, rugged jaw and spectacular physique, Grant first found notoriety as a favored screen stud of Paramount vamps. Opposite Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus, then Mae West in I’m No Angel and She Done Him Wrong, Grant provided a potently sexual yet comparatively demure counterpoint to his leading ladies. His demeanor in those early pictures smacks of eagerness to please, yet star quality will out, and he soon built a reputation as an urbane comedian in frothy pleasures such as Topper and Thirty Day Princess. It was as a hotheaded society husband tussling with an equally touchy wife (Irene Dunne) in Leo McCarey‘s 1937 film The Awful Truth — which kicks off the Los Angeles County Museum’s five-week tribute — that Grant made the transition from sideline paramour to bona-fide star. Ironically, he had tried to get out of the picture, frightened by McCarey‘s glee for improvised dialogue and unsure of his own ability to carry it off. He managed, and, as his character was reduced from manly confidence to pratfalls, duets with a dog and other embarrassments, Grant located the sweet spot where bumbling and savoir-faire exist in harmony, and discovered that vulnerability only made a romantic hero all the more irresistible.
It must have been liberating for him to realize that he needn’t kill Archie Leach in order to be Cary Grant. The same impulse that could compel a 13-year-old to devote his life to at least mimicking joyfulness found new employment in the building of an identity that was Archie‘s self-assured, worldly complement. Rather than hiding his first self according to Hollywood custom, Grant carried him along for the ride, drawing on his humble origins, knockabout athleticism and profound unhappiness to give the movie star emotional authenticity. Over the next 30 years, Grant honed his double-action persona to a point where he could deploy it with equal skill in screwball comedies (His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby), in melodrama (Penny Serenade, None But the Lonely Heart) and in the romantic thrillers he made with Alfred Hitchcock.
By 1955, when the pair made To Catch a Thief — which concludes the series’ opening weekend — Grant was ready to poke a little fun. As a retired international jewel thief who wants only to relax and enjoy his golden years on the Cote d‘Azur, Grant is besieged by a world that insists he remain a dashing figure of intrigue. To Catch a Thief was meant as a lark, and Grant clearly enjoys toying with his image, at once raising a puzzled eyebrow at all the fuss and standing proud in bathing trunks for all to enjoy. It’s an enjoyable sight, to be sure, the picture of a man who‘s lifted himself to delirious heights, and of a Bristol boy who got the chance to be, at least part of the time, Cary Grant.