This week Chicago moviegoers have the opportunity to see not one but two films featuring the one and only Cary Grant: the famous George Cukor comedy The Philadelphia Story (1940) and the lesser-known Merrily We Go to Hell (1932), which screens as part of Chicago Filmmakers’ “Dyke Delicious” screening series. The film, in which Grant has a small role, is a pre-Code gem about the rigors of monogamy directed by Dorothy Arzner, a seminal if underappreciated filmmaker notable for being the only female Hollywood director of her era. If you’re unfamiliar with Arzner, Merrily We Go to Hell is a great place to start; if you’re a Grant completist who hasn’t seen much of his earlier work, it’s interesting and just a little bit weird to see him still wet behind the ears.
Grant was one of those rare movie stars who was also a remarkable actor. His offscreen persona seemed to inform the people he portrayed in movies, so it was often hard to discern where Grant ended and the character began, which sounds like poor acting but translates onscreen as a sort of behavioral authorship. There’s a sense of mystery in the best of Grant’s performances—not so much within the characterizations, but within the gestures and mannerisms of his acting. It’s no surprise that he collaborated so frequently with some of Hollywood’s most important directors: Alfred Hitchcock, Leo McCarey, Stanley Donen, George Cukor, and, of course, Howard Hawks, each of whom used him in different ways but was nevertheless able to illustrate what made him categorically unique. My five favorite Cary Grant films are after the jump.
5. His Girl Friday (dir. Howard Hawks, 1940) A canonical favorite, brimming with frenzied dialogue that alternately tickles, dismays, and perplexes. Grant is at the center of it all, and he never balks at the breakneck speed. Instead, he sustains the overriding tone and acts as a sort of lighting rod for the supporting cast, simultaneously fulling the job of lead actor and proverbial sounding board. No easy feat.
4. Sylvia Scarlett (dir. George Cukor, 1935) This Cukor curio features the first pairing of Grant and Katharine Hepburn. Jonathan Rosenbaum calls it “the most interesting and audacious movie George Cukor ever made,” and something similar could be said about Grant’s performance. Here for the first time, Grant’s dashing onscreen persona begins to take shape, despite the uncouth cockney accent of his character. His rapport with Hepburn is also in its early stages here, but their chemistry is evident from the start.
3. Charade (dir. Stanley Donen, 1963) Few actors enjoyed their golden years like Grant, as evidenced by this hugely entertaining comedy caper. It’s my favorite of his later roles, notable for the grace and wit he brings to the table, matching the tone of Peter Stone’s script perfectly. Donen no doubt had a hand in this, as Grant displays similar ease in Donen’s The Grass Is Greener (1960), which I might have included here if it weren’t for Robert Mitchum, who (naturally) steals the show.
2. Notorious (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1946) Grant is his usual charismatic self here, but there’s a twinge of sadness beneath the surface. Ben Hecht’s script calls for Grant to blunt his charming ways in favor of moral ambiguity, all the better to illustrate in what Dave Kehr describes as the “subtle and detailed portrayal[s] of infinitely perverse relationships.” Grant is unusually and fascinatingly pathetic here, no doubt the influence of Hitchcock, who often tasked his actors with playing against their strengths and reveled in subverting audience expectations.
1. The Awful Truth (dir. Leo McCarey, 1937) The rapid-fire speech and inventive language of this screwball comedy rivals the best of Hawks, and it’s even more impressive because it set a precedent for improvisational dialogue in Hollywood comedies, a true watershed considering how ubiquitous improv is now. (Surely I’m not the only one who’s envisioned Grant in a Judd Apatow farce.) Grant had a penchant for on-the-spot one-liners—”Because I just went gay all of a sudden!”—and he spouts a few good ones here, but mostly it’s his ability to sustain whole emotional arcs via what appear to be entirely improvised scenes that truly impresses.