“I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until finally I became that person.
Or he became me.” – Cary Grant
English-born American actor Cary Grant’s classic charm and his impeccable sense of comic timing propelled him towards the apex of the film industry and transformed him into a screen icon. His debonair on-screen persona was beloved by all but like most performative images, it was a constructed one. Grant’s personal life had been very difficult which makes his achievements even more impressive. On the 34th anniversary of his death, we revisit the life of the legendary actor as a celebration of his undeniable talents.
Born in a northern suburb of Bristol in 1904, Grant’s childhood was far from an ideal one. His father who worked as a tailor’s presser at a clothes factory was an alcoholic and his mother suffered from clinical depression. She was still haunted by the untimely demise of Grant’s elder brother John who died in 1900 because of tuberculosis. Although his mother was ultimately institutionalised in 1913, it was she who introduced Grant to the world of cinema. She taught him how to sing and dance from the age of four and even wanted her son to have piano lessons. His mother occasionally took him to the theatre where he would immerse himself in the magical performances of Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle, among others. However, he later started going to those “picture palaces” on his own and they became his escape from his turbulent family life. Grant recalled, “Those Saturday matinees free from parental supervision were the high point of my week.” When he was 10 years old, Grant’s father told him that his mother was dead which was a terrible lie to tell one’s own child. It wasn’t until he was 31 that he discovered his mother was still alive. Of the lost time with his mother, Grant said: “There was a void in my life, a sadness of spirit that affected each daily activity with which I occupied myself in order to overcome it.”
At the age of 13, Grant started frequenting a local theatre where he performed odd jobs and befriended a troupe of acrobatic dancers known as “The Penders”. His fledgeling career in the performing arts came to a brief halt when his father demanded that he continue his education. Grant won a scholarship to attend Fairfield Grammar School in Bristol in 1915 and demonstrated that he was competent at most academic subjects, despite developing a reputation for being mischievous and for not doing his homework. In 1918, Grant got himself expelled from school and convinced his father to let him rejoin Pender’s troupe. He travelled to New York in 1920 with the troupe but he decided to form his own group called “The Walking Stanleys” with several of the former members of the Pender’s troupe. Grant started performing in the vaudeville circuit, even working as a stilt walker for a time. He later explained the challenges of making it as a stand-up comic, “Doing stand-up comedy is extremely difficult. Your timing has to change from show to show and from town to town. You’re always adjusting to the size of the audience and the size of the theatre.”
While he was performing as a stilt walker at Coney Island during the day, Grant was also working as an escort at prestigious nightclubs and parties in the city. He used these glamorous environments to educate himself about the mannerisms of the elite, perfecting the English accent and dressing like the gentlemen of that time. Although he struggled initially to launch his career in show business, Grant had made several appearances on Broadway by the late 1920s and landed the lead part in the 1931 musical Nikki where he co-starred with Fay Wray, playing a soldier named Cary who fights for Wray’s affections. The production lasted for a short while but it got him enough critical acclaim to launch his film career. He appeared as a sailor in a short film that very year called Singapore Suey and followed his friend, costume designer Orry Kelly, to Los Angeles where he was subjected to interest from film studies as well as increased exposure to Hollywood scouts. He decided to fashion his on-screen persona after the celebrated American actor Douglas Fairbanks and made his feature film debut in the 1932 comedy This is the Night, playing an Olympic javelin thrower opposite Thelma Todd and Lili Damita. Following the suggestion of a studio executive, he also changed his name from Archibald Alec Leach to the more American-sounding name Cary Grant.
Grant put his childhood trauma behind him and rose to dizzying heights, becoming an established leading man in Hollywood by the late 1930s. He appeared in a wide variety of films, ranging from war dramas to romantic comedies. However, it wasn’t until the 1937 screwball comedy Topper that he became a major success. The film showcased his comedic gifts and intuitive comic timing, paving his way to The Awful Truth that year. Despite the director Leo McCarey’s dislike for Grant, he recognised the burgeoning actor’s undeniable talent and encouraged him to draw inspiration from the time he spent in the vaudeville circuit and improvise his lines. The Awful Truth solidified his reputation for shining as a sophisticated actor in screwball comedies. It also started what has later been called “the most spectacular run ever for an actor in American pictures”, starring in classics like His Girl Friday (1940) and George Cukor’s iconic romantic comedy that year. He co-starred alongside Katherine Hepburn and James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story but he was disappointed that he failed to earn an Academy Award nomination for his strong performance. He joked:
“I’d have to blacken my teeth first before the Academy will take me seriously.”
The following year, he managed to make the Academy take notice of him when he earned his first nomination for Best Actor for his work in Penny Serenade. In 1941, he also collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock for the first time (out of four collaborations) on the romantic psychological thriller Suspicion. Grant decided to make the switch to a serious dramatic role for the 1944 film None but the Lonely Heart where he played a wandering prodigal son who returns home when his family needs him. For his brilliant performance, he received his second Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. He later regarded the film as one of his personal favourites, “the part seemed to fit my nature better than the light-hearted fellows I was used to playing.” Grant became one of the first actors to gain the status of a free agent, going on to pick his own parts in an extremely selective manner. He starred alongside Ingrid Bergman in Hitchock’s 1946 film Notorious where he played an American agent who tries to infiltrate a Nazi ring. Two of Grant’s most iconic performances came in his later collaborations with Hitchcock, co-starring with Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief (1955) and in what has is probably his most famous appearance on the silver screen, North by Northwest (1959). The veteran actor finally retired from acting after the 1966 comedy Walk, Don’t Run where he completed the inevitable transition from the charming romantic lead to the mature matchmaker.
Cary Grant remained a public figure after quitting the film industry, taking on a directorial position at the fragrance company Fabergé and travelling around the world as a brand ambassador. The actor underwent a remarkable journey to rise above his childhood troubles but his personal life was plagued with other turmoils. Grant went through 5 marriages and was subjected to psychotherapy. He faced prejudiced public criticism due to rumours about his sexual orientation, experimenting with LSD to cope with all his problems. Over the years, Grant received several accolades for his contribution to cinema including an honorary Academy Award in 1970 as well as the prestigious Kennedy Center Honour for Career Achievement in the Performing Arts alongside such greats as Helen Hayes and Count Basie. In November of 1986, the film icon agreed to make a public appearance but suffered a fatal stroke in his hotel room. Cary Grant is still fondly remembered as one of the defining talents of the Golden Age of Hollywood. He showed the world that the art of cinematic comedy can benefit from a personal touch, impressing several generations with his polished wit and charming humour. Grant was asked about death later in his life and this is what he had to say:
“Death? Of course I think of it. But I don’t want to dwell on it … I think the thing you think about when you’re my age is how you’re going to do it and whether you’ll behave well.“