Hollywood legend Cary Grant (1904-1986) won audiences the world over with his charm and sophistication. With a career that spanned over 72 films in forty years, Grant established himself as an icon of American film.
One of the most charming, elegant, and likeable of Hollywood leading men, Cary Grant created a light, comic style that many have tried to imitate but none have surpassed. In 72 films made over four decades, Grant served as both a romantic ideal for women and a dashing role model for men.
Grant was born Archibald Alexander Leach on January 18, 1904, in Bristol, England. His parents were poor, and they quarreled often as they struggled to raise their children. Grant's father pressed trousers in a factory. When war broke out between Italy and Turkey in 1911 and England increased its production of armaments (though they weren't involved directly in the war), he temporarily moved to another town to make uniforms at higher pay.
With his father gone and an increase in the family's income, Grant and his mother enjoyed their time together. After six months, however, his father lost his job and returned to Bristol. Family life was again tense. Grant's father came home from work late, if at all, and spent his time avoiding confrontations with his wife. Although it was unknown to Grant at the time, his father had fallen in love with another woman.
Through all this, Grant found escape in the newly emerging "picture palaces." There he would lose himself in the exciting adventures of movie heroes and heroines and laugh at the comic antics of silent-screen stars.
Mother Sent to Mental Institution
At the age of ten, Grant received news that would forever change his life and influence his future relationships with women. Arriving home from school one day, Grant was told his mother had left for a seaside resort. In reality, she had been locked away in a nearby mental institution where she remained for 20 years. Grant was an adult before he learned of his mother's true whereabouts. Until then she was a topic never discussed, and Grant was left to wonder why she had abandoned him. "There was a void in my life," Grant reflected on this time, "a sadness of spirit that affected each daily activity with which I occupied myself in order to overcome it."
In later years, Grant surmised that his mother had had a nervous breakdown, having never recovered from his elder brother's death. Aged only two months, this child died as a result of convulsions brought on by gangrene. Others have speculated, however, that Grant's father locked her away because at that time divorce was costly and socially unacceptable, and he wanted to provide a home for his pregnant mistress.
In 1915 Grant won a scholarship to Fairfield Academy. There he received good grades with the exception of those in Latin and mathematics, which he disliked. He also received a reputation for playing jokes and getting in trouble. During the summer of 1916 Grant volunteered to use his Boy Scout training to help with the war effort. World War I was well under way and England needed the help of all volunteers. Grant became a messenger and errand boy at the military docks of Southampton. Here, Grant was filled with wanderlust as he watched the ships depart for new and exciting destinations. At summer's end, Grant roamed the Bristol waterfront and fantasized about a life far away.
Decides to Become an Actor
It was at the Hippodrome, Bristol's premier vaudeville theater, that Grant realized just how he would escape his working-class environment and have some adventures. After being allowed backstage during a Saturday matinee, Grant decided to become an actor. "I suddenly found my inarticulate self in a land of smiling, jostling people wearing all sorts of costumes and doing all sorts of clever things," Grant remembered. "And that's when I knew! What other life could there be but that of an actor? They happily traveled and toured. They were classless, cheerful and carefree. They gaily laughed, lived and loved."
In 1919 Grant ran away from home and joined the Bob Pender Troupe of comedians and acrobats. He was soon forced to return home when they discovered that he had lied about his age and about having his father's permission to work. At 13, Grant was a year too young to obtain a work permit and work legally. Undeterred, Grant waited until he turned 14 and then tried to get expelled from school so that his father might let him rejoin the group. Grant's plan worked.
Grant learned comedy, gymnastics, and pantomime from Pender's group. His later skill at physical comedy and timing owed much to this very early training. Grant traveled with the troupe throughout Europe and in July 1920 arrived in New York to tour the United States. When the rest of the troupe returned to England, Grant decided to stay and seek success in America. He worked as a barker on Coney Island, a stilt walker at Steeplechase Park, and in vaudeville as a straight man (the "unfunny" half of a comedy duo). He also won roles in light musicals and in plays. In 1932 Grant took the advice of actress Fay Wray and went to Hollywood to find work. After a screen test, Paramount offered Grant a contract but insisted he change his name from Archie Leach. So the more glamorous Cary Grant was chosen— and a great film career began.
Trademark Sophistication Surfaces Early
Even in his earliest film roles, Grant demonstrates the elegant sophistication that is the very opposite of his working-class background. His credentials as a traditional leading man were established with his appearances opposite Marlene Dietrich in Blond Venus (1932) and Mae West in She Done Him Wrong (1933) and I'm No Angel (1933). The full range of Grant's talent was used most successfully with the directors George Cukor, Howard Hawks, and Leo McCarey.
The perfect format for displaying Grant's verbal and physical agility was in the screwball comedies of the 1930s. These films are marked by their fast pace, unconventional characters, and absurd situations. Grant's romantic sparring with Irene Dunn in McCarey's The Awful Truth, Rosalind Russell in Hawks's His Girl Friday, and Katharine Hepburn in Cukor's Holiday and Hawks's Bringing Up Baby displayed Grant's deft comic touch. His role as the daredevil flyer in Only Angels Have Wings and his Oscar-nominated performances in Penny Serenade and None But the Lonely Heart show that Grant was a capable dramatic actor as well, but it was in sophisticated comedy that his real strength lay. Throughout his career, Grant continued to successfully play the charming leading man, even as late as 1964, with the film Charade.
Works with Hitchcock
Although Grant's comedies represent the majority of his best-remembered roles, his work with the director Alfred Hitchcock in several classic films offers a departure from his usual image. Hitchcock deliberately played against Grant's familiar persona by introducing psychological twists that are in startling contrast to the actor's smooth surface elegance. To Catch a Thief (1955) is probably the Hitchcock film in which Grant plays a character closest to his trademark style—that of a glamorous and well-known jewel thief. In Suspicion (1941) Grant plays a seemingly loving husband who may or may not be trying to kill his wife. While Grant's wise-cracking character in North by Northwest (1959) has a surface charm, the audience gradually discovers that underneath lies a man with a basically selfish nature whose only lasting relationship is his amusing but obsessive bond with his mother.
It is in Notorious (1946), however, that Hitchcock fully uses the conflict between Grant's image and his character's personality. As Devlin, an emotionally repressed American agent, Grant sends the woman he has unwillingly come to love into the arms of a Nazi collaborator. Devlin's struggle against his attraction to this woman nearly causes her death when he blindly ignores signs that she might be in danger. The bizarre love triangle in this film hinges on the woman's attraction to Grant despite his unfeeling behavior, and his performance is both fascinating and disturbing.
Although Grant achieved tremendous success as an actor, his personal life had some disappointments. His first four marriages ended in divorce and Grant speculated that this poor record was tied to the disappearance of his mother. "I was making the mistake of thinking that each of my wives was my mother, that there would never be a replacement after she left," he said. "I had even found myself being attracted to people who looked like my mother—she had olive skin for instance. Of course, at the same time I was getting a person with her emotional makeup, too, and I didn't need that." In 1981 Grant married Barbara Harris. This marriage was reported to be happy, and with her he was said to have found contentment. Harris was at his side when he died of a massive stroke in 1986.
Until his retirement from the screen in 1966, Grant continued to play romantic leads while other actors of his generation often found themselves cast in supporting roles and character parts. Today Grant's name remains a symbol of the stylish sophistication that was his trademark, and repeated viewings of his films reveal an actor whose ability to delight an audience is timeless.
Further Reading on Cary Grant
Interview, January 1987.
Newsweek, December 8, 1986.
New York Times, July 3, 1977; December 1, 1986.
People, December 15, 1986.
Time, December 15, 1986.