A real leading man

Interesting article about Cary Grant in today’s New York Times, in connection with a series of his films being shown in New York City in August: Once Upon a Time, a Real Leading Man.

I love this part, and couldn’t agree more.

Watching him is to be reminded of a time when intelligence, grace and self-containment were their own rewards. The 21st century, so far, hasn’t deserved him.

For all the good things he has to say about Grant’s work in the article, however, Mike Hale still can’t help slipping into snooty, 21st-century, cooler-than-thou mode now and then, as when he discusses Penny Serenade.

It’s brave of the Brooklyn Academy of Music to be showing the 1941 weeper “Penny Serenade,” a hit at the time and an important moment in Grant’s career. But when Grant and Irene Dunne smile as their adopted child says she wants to be an angel before next year’s Christmas pageant, the howls will be heard across Fort Greene.

And yet Grant is worth watching, even in something as preposterous as “Penny Serenade,” and he makes the film worth watching too. (Well, almost. It helps that Edgar Buchanan is around to play the crusty older friend.)

Oh yeah, so brave. Forgive me if I roll my eyes. There’s no denying that Penny Serenade is unabashedly sincere and sentimental, and it’s a product of its time in terms of style, but is that so terrible that you have to be “brave” to screen it? Oh brother. In spite of its old-fashioned melodrama, the movie tackles a lot of issues that are still relevant today: infertility, adoption, what makes a “real” family, financial woes and a marriage struggling to survive a devastating loss.

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Irene Dunne and Cary Grant are both great. Cary is especially heartbreaking, falling in love with his adopted little girl, fighting to keep her when the court wants to take her away, and coming apart at the seams when years later he loses her in a way he can’t prevent. I love Penny Serenade! It is not preposterous. Hmph.

I also disagree that director George Stevens’ 1942 movie The Talk of the Town is “plodding” and a “clunker.” I watched it for the first time last weekend and found it quite funny, thought-provoking, and entertaining.

Jean Arthur is her usual smart, spunky, hilarious self. There’s a scene involving a newspaper and an egg that made me laugh so hard I nearly fell out of my chair! I won’t say more in case you haven’t seen it, but good night that lady was funny. I’m just crazy about Jean Arthur these days.

Ronald Colman is outstanding as a stuffy law professor and soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice who gets caught up in a crazy, career endangering situation that tests his beliefs about the law and brings out his humanity in a wonderful way.

And of course Cary is fantastic in a role that’s a strange, unexpected one for him. He plays a character called Leopold Dilg, a troublemaking, leftist rabble-rouser unjustly accused of burning down a factory and killing someone inside. He escapes from prison and hides out at Jean Arthur’s character’s house, which is being rented by the law professor. His character is idealistic yet wary, suspicious yet trusting, serious-minded yet in many ways a bit of a goof. It’s not a typical Cary Grant role, but as usual he brings his intelligence and perfect comic timing to the part. He’s endlessly fascinating to watch and is the most interesting person in the movie. At least to me he is, but then I’m biased!

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The whole thing is a weird mix of crime drama, social commentary, and screwball comedy — kind of a bridge between the silly farces popular in the 1930s and the more serious “message” pictures of the 1940s, like Gentleman’s Agreement (one of my favorite Gregory Peck films) and others produced by Darryl F. Zanuck at Fox.

The only real problem I had with the movie was that the romance seemed almost an afterthought, like it was tacked on only because movies need to end with a couple getting together. The three leads developed a lovely friendship, and both men grew to have feelings for the girl. I didn’t feel like she had a huge preference for one over the other, though, and the fact that she chose Cary Grant in the end seemed to happen mostly because, well, he was Cary Grant. And even if he was a penniless, unstable kind of guy and not an oddly English-sounding Supreme Court Justice, who cares? It was Cary Grant.

I read somewhere that George Stevens actually filmed two endings, one where Colman ends up with Arthur, and one where Grant does, intending to go with the ending test audiences preferred. I don’t remember all the details, but it was something like that. It feels like that uncertainty translated to the rest of the movie, since I could never quite figure out which fellow she was most smitten with.

Anyway, overall I liked The Talk of the Town a lot. It didn’t cause the kind of huge, revelatory “Oh my Lord, how have I never seen this masterpiece before?!?” moment Only Angels Have Wings did, but I’m still happy I finally watched it.

Another new-to-me movie I watched recently was Mr. Lucky, from 1943. This is another of those in-between movies Grant did in the early 1940s, and it too blends comedy and drama in an interesting way. I love his performance in this. He plays an amoral, draft-dodging gambler and con artist who, under a name stolen from a dead man (hello Don Draper/Dick Whitman!) plans to bilk a wartime ladies’ relief organization out of a huge amount of money.

Of course there’s more to this guy than all his bad qualities. He’s charming and funny, uses Cockney rhyming slang (something Grant apparently added to the script himself, since he knew it from his years growing up in England), and starts to develop tender feelings for one of the society ladies in charge at the relief organization. (She’s played by Laraine Day, whom I found rather bland and boring compared to other of Grant’s leading ladies.)

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Can this guy change his ways and go straight? Does he even want to? Does he really care about this lady or is it all part of the con? He puts on a smooth, happy-go-lucky façade with Day’s character, but at a certain point he blows up at her, full of anger and bitterness. He barks that her kind, upper class and wealthy, see through his kind, those who clawed their way out of the gutter however they could, as if looking at a dirty pane of glass. It’s a powerful moment; you can see the pain in his eyes.

I love the rare occasions when we see Cary Grant play someone lower class and gritty. The darkness always there beneath the surface of his elegant, sophisticated persona appears even more strongly, and it’s as if you get a glimpse of the motherless (to his knowledge, anyway), poverty-stricken young Archie Leach for a while. It’s an intense performance.

Hilarious in places too, as when one of the matrons at the aid society teaches him how to knit. He hates it at first, it offends his masculinity, but eventually he gets better at it and ropes his mob buddies into knitting, too. Nothing is funnier than hearing Cary Grant complain in his grumpy, put-upon way that someone made him drop a stitch. Hee!

Interesting bit of trivia. The idea for Mr. Lucky was pitched to Grant by the tennis pro at his club. He liked the idea so much that he asked the pro to write the script. The studio agreed, but only if the guy had the assistance of a professional writer. Still, what a vote of confidence, having Cary Grant go to bat for you like that!

Cary did that kind of thing quite a bit in his career, allowing first-time directors and writers to create material for him and getting studios to go along with it. (Richard Brooks making his directorial debut with Grant’s Crisis springs to mind.)  He eventually became a very hands-on producer when he started his own production companies. He was encouraging to new talent he believed in and gave them a hand when he could. 

It’s almost surprising that someone as controlling of his image and careful about the work he did as Grant would do something as risky as letting his tennis pro write a movie for him, but he did. And yet he refused other parts in top-shelf pictures that seem completely made for him, like the role of Joe Bradley in William Wyler’s Roman Holiday and the role of Linus Larrabee in Billy Wilder’s Sabrina. He and Wilder were personal friends for years, but he always said no to acting in one of Wilder’s films. Why?! It was BILLY WILDER!

Cary was nothing if not a contradictory character. A complex one too, who had his own reasons for what he did or didn’t do. Whatever those reasons, he was usually spot-on at knowing what worked for him and what didn’t, and we’re lucky enough to have a lot of good movies and performances to enjoy because of that.

Oh gosh, I really love him an insane amount. Maybe the 21st century doesn’t deserve him, but thank goodness we have him anyway.

So many movies, so little time

Busy, busy week so far, which is frustrating because I have lots to write about.  Two more new-t0-me Cary Grant movies, Mr. Lucky and The Talk of the Town, plus Monkey Business, which I watched recently for the first time in years.  (Bringing Up Baby it is not, though it wants to be.  It’s better than I remembered it being, however.)

I also have two great Barbara Stanwyck movies to discuss: The Lady Eve and Remember the Night.  Gah, Preston Sturges.  The best.

Additionally, I’m reading Richard Schickel’s book about Cary Grant and skimming through Peter Bogdanovich’s Who the Hell’s In It, both of which are very interesting and quotable.

It’s so frustrating when work and real life get in the way of movies and reading.  Heh.  Hopefully I’ll be back soon with more than just a placeholder post, but in the meantime here’s one of my favorite pictures — Kings of Hollywood, taken by society photographer Slim Aarons in 1957.  Such glamour! 

Film stars (left to right) Clark Gable (1901 – 1960), Van Heflin (1910 – 1971), Gary Cooper (1901 – 1961) and James Stewart (1908 – 1997) enjoy a joke at a New Year’s party held at Romanoff’s in Beverly Hills.

Cary Grant’s favorite leading ladies

Irene Dunne

Co-star in “The Awful Truth”, “Penny Serenade”, and “My Favorite Wife”

“I loved working with Cary – every minute of it.  Between takes he was so amusing with his cockney stories.  I was his best audience.  I laughed and laughed and laughed.  The more I laughed, the more he went on.”

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Katharine Hepburn

Co-star in “Sylvia Scarlett”, “Bringing Up Baby”, “Holiday”, and “The Philadelphia Story”

“We got on well, Cary and I.  It was fun to play with him, and I think he had a good time, too.  People liked us together, so we enjoyed it.”

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Ingrid Bergman

Co-star in “Notorious” and “Indiscreet”

When Hollywood shunned Ingrid Bergman for leaving her husband to marry Italian director Roberto Rossellini, Cary was one of the only stars who stayed in touch with her, stood by her side, and remained a friend.  When she returned to movies in the mid-1950s, he co-starred with her for the second time in “Indiscreet”.  “I was very fond of Ingrid,” Cary said.  “She was an amazing woman.  She was one of the world’s most talented women, completely secure and happy.”

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Rosalind Russell

Co-star in “His Girl Friday”.

  Cary introduced Russell to her husband, his friend Frederick Brisson, during the filming of “His Girl Friday” in 1941.  “Cary, you will never know the great joy you have helped bring us both and how much we shall always love you for it,” Rosalind wrote Cary.  “You must know, too, that the wedding would not be complete without you.  You who brought us together.  All love to you, Cary, darling.”  Cary was best man at their wedding.  Russell and Brisson were happily married until her death in 1976.

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Here are Cary and Rosalind at the 1942 Academy Awards.  Wartime, so no tuxedos and evening gowns here.  Looks like they had a fine time anyway.

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Grace Kelly

Co-star in “To Catch a Thief”

Cary absolutely adored Grace Kelly and was a devoted friend for the rest of her life.  “Grace had a kind of serenity, a calmness, that I hadn’t arrived at at that point in my life – and perhaps never will, for all I know.  She was so relaxed in front of the camera that she made it look simple.”  Cary admired women who were elegant, ladylike and refined.  Leslie Caron once said “Cary liked women who had a distinction and a certain education about them.  That’s what he liked about Grace Kelly.”

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 Deborah Kerr

Co-star in “Dream Wife”, “An Affair to Remember”, and “The Grass is Greener”

“His elegance, his wit, his true professionalism were outstanding, and I learned so much from just watching him work,” Kerr said.  “As a person, apart from his talent, he was warm and affectionate and a joy to have as a friend.  He lived simply and was not tremendously social – a very private person.  He was also a keen and shrewd businessman; in fact there was no end to his talents.  I treasure my memories of him.”

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Audrey Hepburn

Co-star in “Charade”

“I think he understood me better than I did myself,” said Audrey.  “He was observant and had a penetrating knowledge of people.  He would talk often about relaxing and getting rid of one’s fears, which I think he found a way to do.  But he never preached.  If he helped me, he did it without my knowing, and with a gentleness which made me lose my sense of being intimidated.  I had this great affection for him because I knew he understood me.  It was an unspoken friendship, which was wonderful.  He would open up his arms wide when he saw you, and hug you, and smile, and let you know how he felt about you.”

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Jean Arthur

I really hadn’t seen many of Jean Arthur’s movies until fairly recently, and there are still quite a few I haven’t seen, but she’s quickly becoming one of my favorite actresses ever.  Her performances have so much intelligence, heart and humor.  And of course there’s that funny husky/squeaky voice.  She’s not a great beauty, but her characters have so much life and spunk and goodness that you wind up thinking she’s the prettiest girl around.  She’s just the best.

 

 On Friday I watched The Devil and Miss Jones, which is one of the movies I most wish would come out on DVD already, and Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take it With You, which I saw for the first time.  What a funny, heartwarming gem.  Oh Jimmy Stewart, so sweet and young and dreamy.  Be still my heart.

 My favorite Jean Arthur movies so far…

 The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)

If you you have TCM, keep an eye out for this movie.  It’s absolutely hilarious and has a good social message, like many of Jean Arthur’s movies seem to.  Charles Coburn (just seeing him makes me so darn happy, dear cuddly old man) plays a department store owner bedeviled by union organizers.  He goes undercover in the shoe department to try and find out who the troublemakers are and of course ends up making friends with his “co-workers” and having a change of heart.

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The More the Merrier (1943)

Due to a wartime housing shortage in Washington, D.C., Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, and a matchmaking Charles Coburn wind up as roommates.  Very funny movie!  Can I say again how much I adore Charles Coburn?  One of my all-time favorite character actors.  This movie was remade in 1966 as Walk, Don’t Run starring – you guessed it – Cary Grant.

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  You Can’t Take it With You (1938)

Jean Arthur and her very eccentric family (headed by Lionel Barrymore as Grandpa) win over the hearts of her fiance Jimmy Stewart’s snooty, rich family.  Lots of fun, but also leaves you with a lump in your throat when Jimmy’s father, played by Edward Arnold, faces the reality of who he’s become.   

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 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

I know everyone’s seen this movie, right?  Right.  So there’s nothing more to say except aren’t they pretty?

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 Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

My current favorite movie.  I can’t stop re-watching it!.  Honestly, it’s the sexiest, most romantic, most exciting and entertaining film I’ve seen in a long, long time.  Please don’t be a dope like me and wait a zillion years to finally see it!  And if you’ve already seen it, please let’s talk about how wonderful it is.  I need someone with whom to gush.

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 The Talk of the Town (1942)

I watched it this weekend and will have a review soon.  Jean Arthur and Cary Grant together – it doesn’t get any better than that!

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Room For One More

My quest to watch Cary Grant movies I’ve never seen before continues.  Thanks to Warner’s awesome “Warner Archives” project (more about that in a bit) I was finally able to see Room For One More, a 1952 film co-starring Cary’s then-wife Betsy Drake.

I don’t recall ever seeing Room For One More on TCM’s schedule or anywhere else on TV for that matter, which is a shame because it’s really good!  A funny, touching family comedy/drama with fine performances by Grant and Drake, as well as the child actors.

I love seeing Cary in harried father roles like this one, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House and Houseboat.  He’s so much fun to watch with children, and he enjoyed working with them.  Some critics look down their noses at the roles he took in the late ’40s and early ’50s, between his early screwball comedy phase and his later Hitchcock phase, but there’s some good stuff there.  The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer always gets short shrift, for instance, but I think it’s hilarious.  Maybe not a masterpiece like Bringing Up Baby or North by Northwest, but lots of fun.

Grant is great as a husband and father in this movie – always a little crabby and put-upon, frustrated with the shenanigans of his wife and kids but loving and warm at heart.  Also still frisky with his wife, who sadly has little time for all that, what with taking care of a houseful of children and pets.  (What is she, nuts?  You  make the time for Cary!  Heh.) 

Betsy Drake is the best part of Room For One More.  She gives a lovely, tender, funny performance as a woman whose heart is too big to let her turn anyone in need away, from stray neighborhood animals to a couple of “problem children” in desperate need of a stable foster home.  You just love her, and you can see why Cary’s character loves her too, in spite of how exasperated he gets with his overflowing house and emptying wallet.  Grant and Drake have a comfortable, loving chemistry together.  Sometimes real life couples don’t have much onscreen spark, but they do.

Very, very sweet movie.  Kind of corny in a wholesome 1950s way, but it has a good, uplifting message about giving of yourself and about what really makes a family.  It’s a lot of fun too, and has some laugh out loud moments.  Track it down if you can! 

Back to the Warner Archives.  Warner has a huge library of movies from Warner Bros., MGM, and RKO, many more than they can quickly mass produce and market, so they came up with the fantastic idea of opening up their vaults and letting people order movies, either by online download or on DVDs created on demand.  There’s an article about it here.  An excerpt:

The consumer who visits www.warnerarchive.com initially will find 150 classic titles from Warner Bros. Pictures, MGM and RKO that each can be ordered either as a computer download ($14.95) or as a DVD ($19.95) that arrives in the mailbox approximately five days after purchase.

The studio says it intends to bolster that list at the rate of 20 new titles a month — including TV series and TV movies. Many of the movies and shows were once available on video cassette, but none has been on DVD, and many others have never been available for purchase at all.

What a brilliant idea!  It’s so frustrating to want to see something and have to wait for studios to decide when and if it’s time to release it.  I got DVDs of both Room For One More and Mr. Lucky through the archives.  The DVDs don’t have fancy menus or any extra features, but it’s really the film that matters and the quality of those seems to be good. 

Hopefully other studios will follow Warner’s example.  Just imagine all the thousands of little seen but fondly remembered movies out there to be watched! 

(Tops on my “please come out on DVD soon” list:  Midnight Lace starring Doris Day and Rex Harrison, Margie starring Jeanne Crain, Every Girl Should Be Married starring Cary Grant and Betsy Drake, and Dear Heart starring Glenn Ford and Geraldine Page.)

It makes me sort of giddy to think about all the good old movies still waiting to be seen.  Especially considering that the people who made films in the days before TV arrived and started running old movies had no idea there would still be an audience for their work fifty, sixty or seventy years later.  They thought they were making movies that would be seen for a few months then be forgotten, but here we are decades later, still enjoying them.  I think that’s pretty neat.

The pretty boy and the pilot

Two more movies from the collection of Cary Grant’s early Paramount work. They may not be particularly good, but at least they’re short!

Kiss and Make-Up (1934)

This movie is ridiculous, with a thin, nonsensical plot and very cheesy acting by all involved, but there were things I enjoyed about it in spite of that. Grant plays a doctor who once had great promise, but who has given up serious science in favor of running a Helena Rubenstein type “Temple of Beauty” in Paris. He nips and tucks society ladies, has brief affairs with some of them, and sends them on their way with a list of beauty instructions a mile long: apply a zillion creams and lotions, wear gloves and face goo at night, stay out of the sun and the sea, exercise daily, eat only lean ham, lettuce and dry melba toast.

He has a sweet, supposedly plain secretary, portrayed by Helen Mack (who later played Mollie Malloy in His Girl Friday). She looks down on what he does and wants him to go back to science. Of course she’s in love with him and of course he barely notices her, because she’s plain and never remembers to powder her nose.

The doctor winds up marrying one of the (alleged) beauties he’s created, but soon realizes that she’s shallow and dumb, and that she spends all her time obsessing about her looks. She won’t eat, she won’t go swimming with him, and she comes to bed on their wedding night with her face coated in cold cream and her body wrapped up like a mummy. Not exactly conducive to the hanky-panky he was so looking forward to.

Eventually he learns his lesson and realizes that looks aren’t everything, goes back to science, tells his longsuffering secretary he loves her, etc. But not until after a really silly sped-up car chase that could’ve been straight out of Keystone Kops.

My description makes the movie sound a lot better than it is, to be honest!

The most interesting aspect of Kiss and Make-Up, to me, was how risqué it was. The motion picture production code began to be enforced in 1934, but this movie must have slipped in right under the wire. You see women stripping down to their skivvies, close-ups of women’s panty-clad bums jiggling in weight-reducing belts, women in thin bathing suits jumping around in the ocean. The movie’s full of double entendre and innuendo, too. It’s quite scandalous!

Other things that made the movie worth watching:

- Edward Everett Horton as the ex-husband of Cary Grant’s new wife. Horton is one of my favorite character actors. He’s always so funny! I love him in Holiday, with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, and Top Hat with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

- Helen Mack, who is really pretty and who’s by far the most believable character in the movie. Which isn’t saying much, but still.

- Cary Grant performs a musical number, then reprises it later in the movie. He plays the piano (I’m pretty sure it was really him; he played in real life) and sings a song called “Love Divided by Two.” I wish I could find it on YouTube!  Grant didn’t sing very often in films*, so it’s fun to see him do it here. He has a unique but pleasant singing voice that sounds pretty much the same as his speaking voice. The same staccato cadence and the same indefinable Cary Grant accent. I read somewhere recently that Grant sing-talks songs, whereas Rex Harrison talk-sings. It’s a good comparison.

- Horton and Mack sing a song about corned beef and cabbage. Out of nowhere. They’re eating in a restaurant where they both order corned beef and cabbage, and then they sing a song about how much they love corned beef and cabbage. What the heck? It’s bizarre! A sample of the lyrics:

I’m simply wild about you.
I couldn’t do without you.
Corned beef and cabbage, I love you.
You always set me raving.
You satisfy that craving.
Corned beef and cabbage, I love you.
If I could have you every day, my life would have more spice.
And even if I’d have to pay, I’d gladly pay the price.
I see you and surrender, oh won’t you please be tender!
Corned beef and cabbage I love you!

Move over, Cole Porter! This is truly a movie only for hardcore Cary Grant fans, I think. It’s pretty terrible, but in a fun way.

*An aside about Cary Grant, his accent, and singing on film. Jack Warner was dying for Cary to play Professor Higgins in the film version of My Fair Lady and offered him a huge amount of money to do so, but Cary refused. He said something to the effect of “I can’t play a professor of elocution! The way I speak is the way Eliza speaks at the beginning of the movie.” He also told Warner that not only wouldn’t he play Higgins himself, he wouldn’t even see the movie unless Rex Harrison got the role. Love that story! It’s one of those common knowledge, oft-told tales, so sorry for rehashing it, but I love what it says about Grant. The man had class.

Wings in the Dark (1935)

I liked this movie. It’s an enjoyable little melodrama even if the plot is unrealistic. Cary plays Ken, a pilot creating and testing instruments to allow safe flying in fog and dark. The marvelous Myrna Loy plays Sheila, a daring aviatrix and admirer of Ken. She wants to be a serious pilot, but because she’s a woman she can’t fly the mail or work for the government and is stuck doing silly and dangerous stunts like sky writing and flying under bridges for publicity.

Boy meets girl, boy is blinded by an accident, boy and girl fall in love. Ken’s plane is repossessed because he’s behind on his payments, and also because the company that owns it thinks a blind man can’t fly a plane. (The gall!) So Sheila takes a dangerous stunt mission, flying from Moscow to New York to earn $25,000 and be able to buy it back for him. When Sheila gets in trouble up there, Ken steals back his plane and flies (literally) blind, using the instruments he’d been working on in order to help her get her plane down in a terrible fog.

Then she saves him by smashing her plane into his when they reach the ground, since he told her that after she landed he was going back up in the air to fly until he ran out of gas, depressed as he was about being blind. But thankfully the crash jolted him enough that his sight started coming back! Whew! Too bad someone didn’t bonk him over the head even sooner.

Sounds pretty bad, huh? It was oddly entertaining, though. Myrna Loy is great in this movie. Her character is cool, jaunty, and confident, and her acting has a naturalness lacking in a lot of actors in that time period. I just love her, and I totally believe her as a spunky and sweet lady pilot.

Cary is more recognizably Cary than he was in either 1934 film, and he does a good job pretending to be blind. Even so, he’s probably the weakest link in the picture. His acting is a little over-the-top dramatic at times.

It’s funny – four years later he played another flier in the wonderful Only Angels Have Wings, and BOY, what a difference those years made. A massive, unbelievable difference, both in the quality of the material he was getting and in the quality of his acting. I’d put Geoff Carter in Only Angels Have Wings in the top four or five performances Cary Grant ever gave. He’s complex, subtle, nuanced and so moving in that part.

How does that happen? It’s like a switch went off inside him in 1937 and he went from mediocre to brilliant overnight. I know it’s not that simple, but in watching his movies from before ’37 it really feels like that’s what occurred.

Cary Grant at Paramount

Lately I’ve been making an effort to track down and watch the Cary Grant movies I haven’t yet seen. Last week I watched three of the movies in Universal’s Cary Grant collection, a lovely set of five films from Grant’s early years, when he was under contract at Paramount.

First up, Thirty Day Princess, from 1934.

It’s a little 70 minute trifle, very silly and somewhat amusing, but not especially good. Still, it was interesting to see Cary’s performance, which every now and then breaks away from a more stagey, stilted style of acting to show glimmers of the Cary Grant wit and style that would later emerge.

When he’s on the screen it’s hard to take your eyes off him, even if the amount of makeup he wears in the movie is seriously distracting. He was already gorgeous; adding all that goop to someone so pretty was just gilding the lily, even if it was the norm in movies then.

Grant signed with Paramount in 1932 and this was something like the 14th feature he made. They churned them out one after another in those days! Four or five pictures a year wasn’t unusual for an actor, and sometimes Cary would be working on two movies at once, playing one role in the morning, then heading over to another part of the lot to play in a different movie in the afternoon. The studio really was a factory.

His name wasn’t above the title yet (it was “Sylvia Sidney in ‘Thirty Day Princess’ with Cary Grant”), and there wasn’t a whole lot for him to do other than wear evening clothes, look handsome, and kiss the girl. Paramount didn’t know what to do with him. It’s like they couldn’t get beyond his looks to see the wry, intelligent, comedically gifted guy who would soon shine in screwball comedies. He was more or less wasted there, although I guess you could make the case that the work he did at Paramount was good practice for what was to come. He learned a lot, most of all what he didn’t want – to be stuck in those boring pretty-boy roles forever.

Thank goodness he was smart enough to refuse to renew his contract in 1936. Who knows what would have happened to him if he’d stayed there, forced to take mediocre parts not good enough for Gary Cooper? Maybe he could have signed with another studio that would have understood and appreciated him better. Columbia used him to good advantage right after he left Paramount, after all, but then Cary was choosing those pictures, not just being assigned to them. If he’d stayed in the system he most likely wouldn’t have had the brilliant and varied career he ended up having. He chose his movies, his directors, and before too long he had approval of his co-stars. No studio boss made him – he made himself. I love that about him. It’s hard to express how unusual it was not to belong to a studio in those days. It took a lot of smarts and a lot of chutzpah on his part to break away.

I’m completely fascinated by the studio system. The wheeling and dealing, the behind the scenes scandals and dramas, the nasty but brilliant studio bosses like Mayer, Cohn and Zanuck all intrigue me to no end. In many ways the system worked beautifully. A place like MGM had its roster of stars (more stars than there are in the heavens, etc.), wonderfully talented writers, directors, set designers, costume designers, and cameramen, all under long-term contract. It was a well-oiled machine and they made a lot of quality movies in an amazingly short period of time. (Look at 1939 alone!) They discovered talent, groomed it, fitted it into whatever slot they needed at the time, and managed stars’ careers and images completely.

Many actors and artists hated being so confined but some, like Ann Miller, mourned seeing the system go. She still seemed sad about it when interviewed by Robert Osborne on TCM many, many years later.  The end of the studio system basically meant the end of her movie career.

Sometimes studios got things right and careers like Spencer Tracy’s at MGM and Bette Davis’s at Warner were the result. But sometimes talented people weren’t used to their best advantage, slipped through the cracks and disappeared. Would that have happened to Cary if he hadn’t gone out on his own? It’s interesting to contemplate. To me it is, anyway, geek that I am.

Here’s a clip from Thirty Day Princess. Preston Sturges co-wrote the script and much like with Cary’s performance, you can occasionally catch a glimpse of what was to come with Sturges as well. Mostly though, you just have to shake your head and remember that everyone has to start somewhere.

The most exciting thing to me about seeing early Cary Grant movies (like The Amazing Quest of Ernest Bliss, which I watched the other day – what a stinker!) is realizing how much better, smarter, and more sophisticated his performances would be just a few years later in The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, and Only Angels Have Wings. He learned fast, and when the right combination of material, directors and co-stars came along he took off like a rocket and never looked back.

Reviews still to come for Kiss and Make-Up and Wings in the Dark.