This month marks the 25th anniversary of the passing of Cary Grant, an actor whose extraordinary looks, sophistication, and star power continue to define Hollywood’s image of the leading man. Others had longer careers, but Grant’s three-decade career coincided almost perfectly with Hollywood’s Golden Age; he was the industry’s finest leading man in its finest hour.
The glamor that Grant enjoyed in Hollywood, however, was notably lacking from his childhood in Bristol, England. He was born “Archie” Leach, and he spent most of his time in poverty, with his schooling and childhood cut short. When he was nine, he returned home from school to find his mother missing. She had taken “a long holiday,” he was told.
In fact, his father had committed her to the “Country Home for Mental Defectives,” where she stayed, unhappily, for 22 years. It wasn’t until he was in his early 30s that “young Archie” learned that his mother was still alive. With his help, she was released from her “Country Home.”
But her long absence from his early life took its toll. He was expelled from school at the age of 14, and shortly thereafter joined a troupe of vaudevillians, which eventually landed him in New York. After trying his hand on the New York stage, Grant headed west to Hollywood.
Within two years of his arrival, he was spotted on a studio lot by Mae West. “If he can talk,” she said, “I’ll take him.” The result was She Done Him Wrong, the movie in which she famously invited Grant to come and see her sometime.
Starting his career at the dawn of the Golden Age of Hollywood, Grant worked industriously under the old studio system. In his first six years of film making, he churned out 28 films, learning the craft alongside more established stars such as Gary Cooper, Charles Laughton, and Myrna Loy.
This period also allowed him to demonstrate the brand of physical comedy he had learned in vaudeville. He was a natural at the screwball comedies of the time, and soon films such as Topper, The Awful Truth, and Bringing Up Baby made him a star of the first order.
As a star, Grant was able to develop his acting further. He applied his physicality to adventure films such as Gunga Din; and he refined his skills to become a master of light comedy, as evinced in films such as The Philadelphia Story, My Favorite Wife, and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream Home.
As his screen image evolved, he seemed consciously to leave “Archie Leach” behind. In His Girl Friday, Grant incorporated his former identity into the script, saying, “The last person to say that to me was Archie Leach, just a week before he cut his own throat.” And in Arsenic and Old Lace, his former name was written on one of the props—a tombstone.
But if Archie Leach was dead and buried, Cary Grant the movie star was alive and well in Hollywood. Even as he approached middle age, he occasionally returned to the broad comedy of his early years, as in Monkey Business with Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe. He ventured into light thrillers such as Stanley Donen’s Charade and Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest. He also teamed with Hitch on darker films such as Suspicion and Notorious. It was perhaps the latter film that prompted Ian Fleming to use Grant as a model for his superspy, James Bond.
But it was his work in romantic comedies that came to typify the Cary Grant on-screen image. He was handsome, graceful, and he possessed impeccable timing, giving his films a unique mix of physicality, sophistication, and humor.
Moreover, he appealed equally to males and females. Women loved him, but not in a way that threatened their dates. Cary Grant was a screen image, not a flesh-and-bones romantic competitor, and he seemed to sense this perception: “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.”
For more than three decades, he was able to be Cary Grant, at least on the screen. He was Hollywood’s biggest star when Hollywood offered the nation’s most popular entertainment.
By the early 1960s, however, both Hollywood and Grant were beginning to show their age. The studio system was crumbling, and television had made inroads into Hollywood’s monopoly on visual entertainment.
Even Grant was showing wear. His hair was going gray, a change that prompted his mother to suggest that he use hair dye. Grant declined, noting that he didn’t mind looking old. “But it makes me look older, too,” she replied.
Not wishing to watch himself “grow old on screen,” and wishing to spend more time with his young daughter, Grant retired from Hollywood at the age of 60. His retirement, like his on-screen image, was graceful.
In his later years, according to Hollywood lore, a reporter wired Grant’s agent, asking “How old Cary Grant?” Intercepting the message, Grant responded, “Old Cary Grant fine. How you?”
But there never was an “Old Cary Grant,” at least not one open to the public. He left in his prime, the Joe DiMaggio of the silver screen.
Always the master of timing, his timely departure preserved his image as the matinee idol that graced cinema screens during his, and Hollywood’s, Golden Age.