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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.

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