Archive for the ‘Cary Grant: Screen God’ Category

In Name Only

06 Oct

In Name Only – directed by John Cromwell. Romantic Drama. 94 minutes Black And White 1939.
The Story: Out fishing, a young woman finds herself attracted to a handsome man on a horse, but he’s married and his wife would rather kill him than release him.
Carole Lombard tended not to make “serious” films. She felt a responsibility to her studios to make money for them, and her comedies were perennial hits. She made George Stevens’ “Vigil In The Night” to get an Oscar and she’s darned good in it but she wasn’t even nominated. So you might think that a film with this title, particularly one with Cary Grant, would be a 30s comedy, but it aint.

It’s a serious romantic drama, and well worth seeing because everyone is good in it. Grant is an actor seamlessly adaptable to any genre. He is so victorious in tuxedo comedy that one supposes this film might turn into one, but it never does.

Kay Francis plays the calculating wife, and, in its way, she is the most interesting character – or almost. For what motivates a human being to trick someone she does not love into marriage and then clutch it to her forever? I don’t mean the outer motivations of money and place, I mean the inner motivation, the inner human contraption. Only an actor could truly display such a thing, and Kay Francis reveals glimpses of it.

But of course, Carole Lombard and Cary Grant have the focus of our hearts. And Grant is at his handsomest – although, oddly, his sports clothes are of the wrong material. Why is that? Was this before he brought his own clothes to his roles?

Lombard’s misery at being his mistress is completely convincing, as is the sexual energy between them. Lombard was an actor of clearly defined decisions. She always knew how to tell her story clearly, using a single small detail. The audiences of her day appreciated her for this.

She has that wonderful female quality of the comediennes of her era – and all of them had it – Rosalind Russell, Claudette Colbert, Ginger Rogers, Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn, Myrna Loy – they were game. They were up for some fun. They were game dames. Women who were ready to take a chance. To throw themselves into it – whatever it was. It’s not a quality you find in modern film comediennes, good as some of them are.


Sylvia Scarlett

16 Jul

Sylvia Scarlett – directed by George Cukor. Grifter Romance. Unruly disguises rule. 90 minutes Black and White 1935.


I like all grifter dramas, stories about people gulling other people out of their eyeteeth. Here Cary Grant is the principal con-man, and of course he is first-class at it, and has a lot of fun bringing his good old English carnival shill energy into it.

He is aided and abetted by the great Joe August who filmed it and by the brilliant trick-writer John Collier who was one of the three adapters of Compton MacKenzie’s novel, and it runs well as we hook into Edmund Gwenn and his daughter disguised as his son, as escapees from consequences in France to the luckier shores of England where they fall under the tricky Grant and the dubious spell of a musical hall chanteuse sexpot Dennie Moore. To earn a quick buck they become travelling vaudevillians. Then Brian Aherne turns up to derail the scams by becoming the object of the love interest of Katharine Hepburn, who up until this time is disguised as a boy. Her competition with Aherne is played by The Countess Natalia Pavlovna Von Hohenfelsen (whose biography would make your hair curl or uncurl, depending.)

Well!!! – as Jack Benny so eloquently put it.

The conglomeration travels on unexpected tracks at the start, and this is welcome – but, when romance insists on elbowing in, the movie looses it fascination, energy, imagination, and fun, and turns routine.

What is not routine is Katharine Hepburn as a hobbledehoy! For as a boy she is quite different than what she appears to be as a girl. As a boy she is quite convincing. As a girl she is quite unconvincing. As a boy she is swift, daring, direct, and true. And you really believe she is a boy. As a girl she is arch, sentimental, coy, extravagant, and meretriciously phony. You never believe in her at all. As a boy uninterested in romance, you swallow her whole. As a girl making goo-goo eyes she is a wretched fraud.

So when is she acting?

And when is she just playacting?

And why?

As a boy, Sylvester Scarlett, she delivers one of the greatest acting performances ever laid down on screen.

As a girl, Sylvia Scarlett, she gives one of the worst.

Don’t miss it. Hepburn was one of the great personalities of The Twentieth Century and one of the great things. The movie has a bunch of rewards and the biggest one is Hepburn acting more naturally as a male than any other male in the movie.


Penny Serenade

11 Jul

Penny Serenade – directed by George Stevens. Women’s Weeper. A married couple try raising a family and are met with internal and external obstacles. 119 minutes Black and white 1941.


If you can prepare yourself to suffer through the insufferable Irene Dunne and through this gluey soap opera, there are splendid rewards. Edgar Buchanan as the crusty sidekick and family friend has such perfect timing and governance of his instrument that none of it is noticeable. What a treat he is! And there is the beautiful Beulah Bondi as the adoption official. She hardly moves a muscle, but boy does that project itself as the truth of movement of each situation her character is in. Finally there is Cary Grant in another of his skillful light hearted rapscallion roles. There are movies Grant has not been particularly notable in, but this certainly isn’t one of them. He carries the film on the shoulders of his believability. You go along with it because he brings validity to every scene, a validity already in him. A true cinema actor, whose instrument defined screen acting for his era, modest in its effects, attentive, and personal. He plays in this film probably the greatest scene he ever played in movies. We do not think of Grant as an emotional actor, but it is a long scene, of great emotional power. Despite the fact the writing is banal, his sustainment and modulation of the emotion of this scene, which culminates in an enormously long speech is one of the greatest I have ever seen in film. Watch his body. It scarcely moves. Think of how Sean Penn would have over-miked it, good as he is an actor. In his life, Grant never won an Oscar, but was nominated twice; this was one of those two times. Dunne is 6 years older than Grant, and isn’t convincing as a 20 or even 30 year old. Grant and she had had two big successes together before this, and it must have been hard for her. She was at this moment in her career at the peak of her popularity, as a result of those two hit comedies. In her day the age of certain actresses did not necessarily count as determining their casting, once their hold on the public was secure. Dunne was never a jeune fille; she was a woman, in the way that Susan Sarandon always was a woman and Julia Roberts never has been. So, she was already a grown-up and could be cast as one, her real age being irrelevant. There is something to be said for her as a screen presence. Not having much of sense of humor helped her in being a foil for the rapscallions playing opposite her. She sometimes condescended to be lady, which was both ghastly and futile: Greer Garson had seized the throne. But, as here, she was one of the few stars who could actually play a good woman; Colbert could do it too. Loretta Young could not. Think about it. Meryl Streep could do it; Glenn Close could not. But Glenn Close could play a saint, and so could Loretta Young. If you want to see Irene Dunne at her best, see Showboat or, another George Stevens film the wonderful I Remember Mama, a perfect role for her, suitable to her age and stolidity, a part in which she is simply superb. She is a very good example of a hard-working actress who took her craft seriously and was sometimes moved by the tides of studio casting into waters where she could barely swim. If in this film she suffers too daintily, that may be as a corrective to the lugubrious nature of the material, a weeper, like her famous one with Charles Boyer, remade many years later with Grant and that other lady actress Deborah Kerr.


The Talk Of The Town

10 Jul


The Talk Of The Town – directed by George Stevens. Comedy Of Justice. An escaped prisoner hides out in the summer home of a famous law professor, and both fall for their landlady. 118 minutes Black and White 1942.


I laughed a lot and I loved it. Grant is really good as a lower class type  (which is what he was), a rabble-rouser, a trouble-maker, and general bad boy from the other side of the tracks. He is sly and outspoken and not a gent – but bright and seeking justice. The great matinee idol Ronald Coleman plays the academic legal wizard in whose house he takes secret refuge. And Jean Arthur is the befuddled landlady. She’s just wonderful – exasperation was her comic specialty. As a comedy, like all comedies, the script has a serious center (for a dramatic version of the story see Lang’s Fury), and the legal eagle and the con become friends and expatiate on the law. The film is beautifully shot and the supporting people are first class: the great Glenda Farrell once again as the town floozy, Edgar Buchanan as the foghorn voiced lawyer pal of Grant, Charles Dingle as the contriving factory owner. The themes continue on into A Place In The Sun and Shane. It is, as are most of Stevens’ films, a story of values – not American values, but values in a broader sense, such as, in this case, fairness in love and law. But all this Stevens is able to weave back and capture us by a small town American flavor, the familiar collisions of Main Street, the flimsy bias of free people, the barking of dogs on a hot summer night under the elms. He had a genius for it. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards.


Wings In The Dark

20 Apr

Wings In The Dark — directed by James Flood. Action/Adventure Melodrama. To prove  the efficacy of blind instrument flying, a blind pilot … 75 minutes Black and White 1935.


What made Myna Loy the great star of the 1930s? A melodious speaking voice? Yes. A long-legged slim figure that made her look tall and fabulous in calf-length clothes? Yes. Those restful wide-spaced yes? Yes. A talent for under-playing? Yes. The sweetest mouth in the world? Yes. But I think it was something else. I think it was the alternate sexuality of devotion. It is a sexiness that does not make demands on our endurance. Why? Because it itself endures. It does not flame up and it does not burn out. It is a quality that women in the audience could admire without envy because it represented marriage. It is a quality that men in the audience could admire without fear because it was settled. It led to the domestication of Loy’s talent in wife-roles for the rest of her life. Female transatlantic flyers were much in the news in those days, and this film, one of several aviatrixes Loy played, had Amelia Earhart on set as adviser, and Loy said she was charming, but was not called upon to do much. Loy was taken up for her first flight by famed daredevil pilot, Paul Mantz, who performed the stunts, and she flew upside down in an open cockpit. For Loy plays a barnstorming aviatrix performing trick flight for crowds at fairs – and I was born in 1933, before the days of airlines, and I remember my father taking me to see just such displays. When a plane flew over Queens in those days we all went out of the house to look. Loy marshals her talent to help Cary Grant, a blind-flying pilot-pioneer who actually has gone blind. Loy describes the film, one of 23 she made in three years, as not one of her best, but it has its charms and excitements. One of the charms is Grant who of course is interesting to watch and to hear. But he does have the tendency of the style of the period, to monotonize certain speeches. That’s to say, he will choose a basic emotion, and play it under everything he says, so that it loses variety and inflection and becomes a recitation. Actors don’t seem to do that much any more, but it was one of the riffs of the ‘30s. You can hear it in his high-minded offer to commit suicide. He pitches his voice up an octave and keeps it in that noble, fake-ingenuous realm from beginning to end. It was the sort of stroke that the journalists of the period would call hokum, the journalists of the period being much more satirical and sharp-tongued than those of today. (Rosco Karns is brilliant as an example of it here.) But that high-mindedness was a notion of the age nobly to stalk above fate. It’s also interesting to note how action/adventure works. In the first part of the film, you have wonderful character exchanges, talk, revelation, humor, but when the action/adventure takes over in such a movie, character, dialogue, everything, is swallowed up by the action and the excitement of the action. We know it’s going to turn out well, that’s doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is the danger at the time, the thrill and suspense of that. Improbability doesn’t even factor into it. Only the peril. And in this case it’s very well handled by Flood and by cinemaphotographers Oscar-winning William Mellor on the ground, and in the air Dewey Wrigley. An action/adventure film is a story in the finale of which all humans are devoured. Except, of course, at the end when they are regurgitated for the fadeout.


Big Brown Eyes

20 Apr

Big Brown Eyes — directed by Raoul Walsh. Comedy. A NYC cop and a manicurist turned reporter foil a Chopin-playing jewel fence. 77 minutes Black and White 1936.


You like fast-talking dames? Check out Joan Bennett as the gum snapping, dialogue snapping manicurist that Cary Grant can’t stop chasing. She can’t stop mistrusting him, and it’s no wonder: Cary Grant as a New York City flatfoot? – never! He is both very good in the part and also quite unbelievable. Why? I don’t know. It’s not his accent, which is maybe lower class Bristol and maybe not, and at least is he is never in uniform. In fact, he is a plainclothesman, in really beautiful suits in which his figure looks great. No, it’s hard to pinpoint it, except there is that about Cary Grant which suggests a man who even when taking a bath wears a tuxedo. The dialogue is rich with comebacks, wise-cracks, and quick-draw ripostes – very much in the style of the 30s, and is really a style that has gone out of style, but in its heyday, here is a great example of its fun. They spray the picture faster than a tommy gun. If you like smart talk, alà His Gal Friday, take a gander at this gander and his goose. Bennett is terrific as a classic Walsh heroine, testy and full of personal ability and wit. Walter Pidgeon plays the smarmy sophisticated fence, and he is just wonderful. Unequalled in savoire faire, Pidgeon was released here and in Dark Command to play villains, not what we remember him for, but here he is just grand. Lloyd Nolan is a gun-crazy henchman devoted to cut flowers, and Walsh’s scene with him in a luxe bathroom arranging American Beauty Roses as he gets murdered is heaven-sent. But I say too much. If I don’t watch my lip, Nolan will come alive and gun me down too. But I aint no squelch, I ain’t I tell ya, I’d never rat on nobody. Don’t shoot, I didn’t mean it. Bang. Argh. Crash. I’m under da daisies. And if you watch Lloyd Nolan closely, so is he.



Gunga Din

12 Apr

Gunga Din — produced and directed by George Stevens. Comic Action Adventure. 117 minutes Color 1939.
George Stevens was 17 when he jumped over the wall of the Hall Roach Studios. What he found on the other side was a Western, Rex, King Of The Wild Horses, and its sequels. As assistant cameraman he went off into the rugged mountains and made up movies, and ever after he said that the Western was his preferred genre. What this gave us is, of course, Shane but it also produced The Greatest Story Ever Told, shot in those settings and Gunga Din a sort of Eastern Western, situated in spectacular mountains and in a frontier fort and a remote town, and with a host of bloodthirsty savages.

Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, authors of His Gal Friday, wrote the story, which, naturally therefore, has one of a trio of soldiers of the Raj wanting to get married and the other two sabotaging his immanent retirement by engaging all of them in putting down the Thugees, a tribe of native killers – read The Taliban.

To say there is a plot to this were to rearrange the meaning of that word, for the movie is one thing after another, a comic scene at the fort, followed by a big battle scene, comic scenes back at the fort, another battle scene, another comic scene back at the fort, and so forth.

The battle scenes are as funny as the comic scenes, for Stevens had learned gag comedy at The Roach Studios so the movie resembles Indiana Jones, or rather Indiana Jones resembles Gunga Din, for Jones kept up with Din by aping it in scene after scene. Stevens’ visual imagination in devising interesting and entertaining slaughters was unequalled. They involved thousands of actors and, to insure no one was hurt, they had to be carefully imagined, very slowly rehearsed, then repeated a bit faster, then faster still, then shot at full speed.

But Stevens also knew what to look at with his fort scenes, where the comedy depends not on gags but on the expressions on actors’ faces. Each of the sergeants – Douglas Fairbanks Junior is Scottish, Victor McLaglen is Irish, and Cary Grant is Cockney – has rich comic scenes to play, and from the start they are all involved in comical branagans. Grant has his lust for booty, McLaglen a darling elephant, and Fairbanks the milksop Joan Fontaine.

Stevens knows exactly what to look at with his camera, which is manned by the great Joe August, who even gives us an in-tight Place-In-The-Sun closeup of Fontaine. Abner Biberman and Eduardo Ciannelli play the outright villains outrightly. And Sam Jaffe is just lovely as the waterboy, Gunga Din, a middle-aged man who saves the day and who is the hero of Rudyard Kipling’s poem from which the picture is loosely derived. They originally wanted the great child actor Sabu, so Jaffe said he played it exactly as Sabu would have, and he’s just marvelous.

Alfred Newman’s music is rousing, and the thousands of troops on the parade grounds and threading through huge mountains is spectacular. Cary Grant is especially gratifying in, for him an unusual, lower class part and also a dopey one. There are comic effects on his face you will never see from him in any other film. All you need do is sit back and look at him to be entertained. He was lower class in origins, and it shines through with a warm, particular and special wit.

Stevens seldom moves his camera so the adventure takes place without intrusion, and he seldom used reaction shots, so the energy between actors is never broken. It is one of the most “complete” films ever made, and remained a George Stevens’ favorite.

The film has never been out of circulation since its immensely popular first showing in the year of the movie miracles, 1939.


Amazing Adventure

01 Mar

Amazing adventure (AKA the Amazing Quest of Earnest Bliss AKA Romance and Riches — directed and produced by Alfred Zeisler. Romantic Drama. A bored playboy takes the challenge of living for a year without his money and solely on his wits. 80 minutes Black and White 1937.


This is a gender/switch version of George Bernard Shaw’s The Millionairess, and it is one of the last of Cary Grant’s tuxedo roles, in which for many years he had played playboys with patent leather shoes and patent leather hair, an expensive cigarette, a hand in a pocket, and a waiting air. He is thirty two and that year, 1937, among the five films he would make came The Awful Truth, by which he became the superstar we are incapable of not seeing him as, as now, even here, in this rather footling English comedy. He is quite wonderful, and you marvel that he did not make it double-big sooner. As the bored man about London, caged in a nightclub and surrounded by classy dames, he is perfect. Indeed he is perfect all the way through, so perfect and the movie so imperfect, that you take pause and just look at him, to see what he is doing, what he is as an actor, what his talent consists of. Setting aside his looks as appealing to you or not (he is almost always more beautiful than his leading ladies), his sensual level mouth, his resplendently shaped head and matchless hair, his strong nose – and taking note of his figure, which is high wasted, which therefore makes his pants ride high and lengthens his leg, making him look super in suits – and his height, around 6 feet – as I say, putting all these meritorious distractions to the side – which of course you cannot do since they are major deposits in the big holdings of his stardom – and letting that imitable voice, with its from-nowhere accent, stand over – let’s just turn to what is going on inside all that that would really make him a star. Well, the first thing is that by this time he is a grown man and before that maybe he isn’t, and that’ll do it. But that’s not it. What do women see in him? What have men to learn from him? As an actor, I think it is just one thing: no actor in screen history paid better attention to the person he was acting with. It’s not a question of “listening;” it’s not a question of looking at them; it’s something more. Without actually ever doing it, his entire body leans, leans without leaning into what is going on and you can sense his mind process it and accept the words he utters as a natural consequence of all that. He’s interested. He doesn’t play I Am Interested. He simply is interested. It is the greatest of all romantic feats. Without appearing to, his slightly hunched shoulders bend him in, and he absorbs everything that Mary Brian, the lovely leading lady opposite him, has to offer. He is an actor who is absolutely there for you. And he never shows it. His entire body is engaged – as well he might be, sold as a child into a vaudeville circus act by his father, walking stilts ads on the boardwalk at Coney Island, and tumbling along as an acrobat, he might very well have learned the importance of physical attention. We love him and we make him a star because we give attention to the person who gives attention. Also to be noted, although at one time he is said to have hated it, Cary Grant was a master at improvisation. To see it writ large, take a look at the screen test he did with Suzy Parker, the world’s top fashion model and non-actor, to see how he makes the screen test work, his generosity, his adaptability. Grant was not a great actor – he monotonizes his lines, for instance – and his sexuality is never ever anywhere but on reserve – but he is capable of great film acting. With him the actor’s motion is inward and outward at exactly the same time. Thus – breathing interest– he became visible to us as an inward ideal.


People Will Talk

29 Feb

People Will Talk — written and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. Fairytale Romantic Drama. A famed university clinician has his medical practiced defamed by a malignant colleague. 103 minutes Black and White 1951


This is 1951, and this is a movie about a witch-hunt. Hume Cronyn plays the witch, partnered in virtue by our belovèd Margaret Hamilton, than which there is no one witchier. Hume Cronyn is always despicable, is he not – even his eyeglasses are despicable. And in this case he plays the entire McCarthy Senate Hearing on Un-American Activities all rolled up into one. How this film slipped by the HUAC at that time is beyond me. Anyhow, the film is listed as a comedy, because Cary Grant takes it all in stride. It’s a hard part to make work, because Professor Praetorius is perfect. A pompous know-it-all is how Cary Grant’s wife characterizes him, and to edge it off Grant plays the whole part as though he were in possession of an amusing secret, which works pretty well, although nothing can quite dilute the Teutonic perfection of Professor Pretorius, a man with a past, and even a German name. Then the past is explained away by the wonderful Finlay Currie (remember him in David Lean’s Great Expectations?) in the famous story about Mr. Shunderson. Walter Slezak plays a well-leavened dumpling, and Sidney Blackmer intones his lines as though no one sat nearer than the second balcony. (I remember him in Sweet Bird Of Youth on Broadway doing the same thing, and there was no second balcony there either.) Jeanne Crain is a hard pill to swallow always, but here she rises to the occasion of a well-written grown-up role. She brings her natural spite into it, and it serves her well. Most interesting though is the direction of this screenplay, which is filmed quite simply and wisely, that is to say without reaction shots. When two people are arguing, both are on camera, when three three. This means the energy remains undivided, unsevered, undiluted, and intimate. Young directors should learn from it.  As in his All About Eve it works like gangbusters, particularly since the scenes are long, one starting in a cowshed and moving into the separator room, and the big confrontation scene all played out from beginning to end in a bedroom, and eventually the trial scene, where Mr. Shunderson plays the deus ex macchina. I like films with a lot of talk, and this is one. It is a fable, though, and in fables don’t expect light Cary Grantish humor; remember, like Grimms‘ it’s a German fairy tale. But do expect a happy ending. I loved the improbabilities of the revelation scene — but then, I’m always inclined to say, Why not?


Monkey Business

08 Mar

Monkey Business  — Directed by Howard Hawke — Low Comedy. A college chemistry professor invents the soda fountain of youth, and the wrong people start to drink it.  97 minutes Black and White 1952

* * *

If I had to choose films to be stranded on a desert island with, I would say, Gimme pictures with Edward G. Robinson or Charles Coburn in them. Both men were stout, both were brilliant, and both smoked cigars at birth. Robinson played the heavier roles usually, Coburn the lighter. Hearken to Coburn’s delivery of the line regarding Marilyn Monroe’s secretarial skills: “Anyone can type.” He was to salivate over her again in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, also a Howard Hawks film. Hawks was not a fancy director, and he was best at male/female contention, as in I Was a Male War Bride, To Have and To Have Not, Bringing Up Baby. So here. The opening sequence is the best in the film, a gentle contention between the expert Ginger Rogers and the expert Cary Grant. The film would have been better had this level been sustained, but it falls into crude slapstick. I love crude slapstick, but it’s got to work better than here. Giving Cary Grant a gaudy sports coat and a crew cut is not funny in itself. He just looks terrific in them in a different way. Ginger Rogers as a three-year-old brat is quite cunning.Rogers was quite good at mad impersonations (and to see her in a brilliant performance of them in a brilliant film, see Roxy Hart). Monroe is good in all her scenes, but, although she is starred, her part is only as big as it could be. The monkey, though! Ah, the monkey is worth the price of admission. Never have I seen so clever and risible a monkey in my life!



Hollywood Screen Tests

25 Oct

Hollywood Screen Tests –– documentary scrapbook of  stars’ screen tests. 2 discs 2000.

* * * * *

If you’re interested in the matter at all, it can’t be beat. Judy Garland, horrifyingly skinny doing color costume tests for a picture she was eventually fired from. Bruce Lee, good looking, phenomenally skilled, and displaying the arrogance that must eventually have killed him. Tuesday Weld, as honest here as she is in her pictures. Cary Grant, even wonderful opposite the non-actress Suzy Parker. What skill he had, what readiness, what modesty! He’s even better here than he was in the eventual film. It’s a lesson in supreme screen technique to watch him seamlessly adjust to her, respond to her, play with her. And Rita Hayworth, absolutely lovely, screen testing the children who were to play opposite her in Story On Page One. Her decency, willingness to help them, pay attention to them. quietly humor  them, is a model of kindness. What a beautiful creature she was, what a fine lady.


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