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.

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