The man who made men seem like a good idea

Gaby Wood

  • Cary Grant: A Class Apart by Graham McCann
    Fourth Estate, 346 pp, £16.99, September 1996, ISBN 1 85702 366 8

A man has been mistaken for somebody else. He has been kidnapped, forced to drink a bottle of bourbon and sent off to meet his death in a stolen car. He survives, and decides it is time to get things straight. He bribes his way into the hotel room of the man he is supposed to be. On the table he finds a photograph of the person who tried to kill him the night before. In the bathroom he finds a ‘bulleted’ hairbrush – his double had dandruff. In the wardrobe he finds a suit. He takes off his impeccably tailored Hitchcock-grey jacket and pulls on the other man’s. He shrugs uncomfortably to make the collar sit, then lets his arm hang in mid-air as he stares with distaste at the shortness of the cuffs. He holds the trousers up to his waist. They couldn’t be less his style. Gangster bags with woven stripes and turn-ups – and they stop halfway down his shin. ‘Obviously,’ he exclaims, as if this were the worst injustice done to him, ‘they’ve mistaken me for a much shorter man!’

The well-dressed man in a fix is, of course, Cary Grant – a man whose ‘lean-fitting suit’, according to Pauline Kael, ‘seemed the skin of his character’. His audience has come to see his suits as part of his image: clean-cut and suave, all-weather, drip-dry. Together, they can go through anything and come up smelling of Fabergé. As in art, in life: Grant remembered his father being the person who had ‘first put into my mind the idea of buying one good superior suit rather than a number of inferior ones. Then, even when it is threadbare, at least people will know at once it was good.’ Grant’s personal assistant in the Seventies recalls that ‘there was something about Grant that made his clothes stay in perfect shape. While on other people clothes developed stains, creases and spots, Grant’s remained impeccable.’

But the image of a well-cut suit covers up the ever-present underside of Cary Grant. Whether he’s the grinning fibber of The Awful Truth, the nervy nincompoop of Bringing Up Baby, or the irresistible lover suspected of murder in Suspicion, there is always something in Grant that makes sophistication turn. In some films this aspect is unknowably criminal, but even at Grant’s silliest, ‘each movement,’ Kael wrote, ‘was as certain as the pen-strokes of a master cartoonist.’ He was awkward to a tee.

So the moment in North by Northwest when Grant puts on somebody’s else’s ill-fitting jacket epitomises his screen image. By 1959, when this film was made, Grant had spent some of his most famously ridiculous screen moments wearing clothes that were not his own: a feathery negligée in Bringing Up Baby, a leopard-skin dressing-gown in My Favourite Wife, full drag in I Was a Male War Bride. The more renownedly well-fitting his own clothes were, the funnier he was in someone else’s.

In the Hitchcock film, the suit marks a turning-point: having been kidnapped, Grant (Roger Thornhill) is taken to a country house and interrogated by James Mason (Van Damme), who assumes Grant is one George Kaplan. After the bourbon and the car, Grant returns to the scene of the crime with the police, only to find all signs of his story erased. While he is trying on Kaplan’s suit in the hotel room, the phone rings. He answers. It is one of his kidnappers, who sniffs at Grant’s protestations about his identity: ‘You answer his telephone. You live in his hotel room. And yet you are not Mr Kaplan.’ The kidnapper is right to sniff. Grant has put himself in a position in which, logically, he ought to be George Kaplan. The valet assumed he was, so did the housekeeper. (‘This is room 796 isn’t it? So you’re the gentleman in room 796, aren’t you?’) A few minutes later we are watching a US Intelligence meeting, where someone is saying with a shrug: ‘How can you get mistaken for George Kaplan when George Kaplan doesn’t even exist?’

We find out long before Cary Grant does: George Kaplan is an invention, a ‘non-existent decoy’. The suit that Grant was trying on didn’t belong to anyone. Or rather, it belonged to nobody; the same nobody Grant’s identity would get tangled up in for the rest of the film. For a moment he was inside that suit, the unsuspecting accomplice in the making of another man. The suit didn’t fit him, but there is no ‘shorter man’ it ever did fit. Since it wasn’t made for anyone else, it must belong to the person who has it on (‘you’re the gentleman in room 796, aren’t you?’). George Kaplan isn’t anyone else, so he must be Cary Grant.

It is this infuriating, embroiling logic which fuels the film: the worst traps are those which make some sort of sense. You can’t argue with them – although Roger Thornhill tries when it’s all explained to him: ‘Now wait a minute, you listen to me, I’m an advertising man, not a red herring.’

Hitchcock plays on Grant’s innate smooth/twitchy quality (normal, good-looking guy makes small but lethal mistakes) and widens it, makes that image of Grant stand for something like the causality of the film, almost turns his nature into a plot device. This is perfectly illustrated by the alien suit: it emphasises an awkwardness which is it-self not entirely foreign to Grant, and places him in a broader awkwardness, a big brother scenario; the suit frames him, in both senses of the word.

There is another game being played here. Roger Thornhill thinks he’s involved in a case of mistaken identity, but the identity is not mistaken, it’s just not inhabited yet – the persona has not been given a person. George Kaplan is, in this sense, a little like Cary Grant. ‘Cary Grant’, after all, was an invention, an idealised hero made out of young Archie Leach from Bristol, his influences and his desires. ‘I guess,’ Grant later admitted, to ‘a certain extent I did eventually become the characters I was playing. I played at being someone I wanted to be until I became that person. Or he became me.’ In 1937, Frances Farmer, his co-star in The Toast of New York, found him ‘an aloof, remote person, intent on being Cary Grant playing Cary Grant’. By the time ‘Cary Grant’ was fully formed, the man had to give in to his creation: ‘Everybody wants to be Cary Grant,’ Grant said. ‘Even I want to be Cary Grant.’

This is the Cary Grant Graham McCann is interested in. He confronts his subject as if he were less a person than an effect – the self-referential hero, endlessly, classily ironic. McCann has not just written the story of how Archie Leach became Cary Grant, or an analysis of how much Archie Leach there was in Cary Grant. He has written the biography of an idea. ‘Cary Grant,’ he begins, ‘was an excellent idea.’ ‘Everyone really liked the idea of Cary Grant,’ he continues, paraphrasing Pauline Kael, then: ‘Cary Grant made men seem like a good idea.’

On 18 January 1904, long before the idea had occurred to anyone, Archibald Alexander Leach was born in Bristol, England. His father, Elias, was a tailor’s presser, a good-looking, convivial, moustachioed man. His mother, Elsie, was small, olive-skinned, with a slightly cleft chin. Their first son had died before he was a year old, and Elsie had ambitions for Archie, her only remaining child. She sent him to school six months before the usual age, she saved up enough money for him to have piano lessons, she made sure he wore stiff collars and always looked smart; as Grant recalled, she ‘tried to smother me with care’. Both parents took him to the cinema. With his mother, Archie went to the genteel Claire Street Picture House (romances, melodramas and tea on the balcony); with his father he went to the brash, barn-like Metropole (slapstick, bad piano-playing and lots of men smoking).

Archie won a scholarship to the local grammar school, and spent most of his spare time working as an errand boy at Bristol’s Hippodrome theatre. He was completely won over by the theatrical life, and before he had reached school-leaving age, he ran away from home to join a troupe of acrobats in Norwich called Bob Pender’s Knockabout Comedians. When his father found him, he made him return to school, where Archie did his ‘unlevel best to flunk at everything’, as Grant later said. He got himself expelled, and returned to Bob Pender’s troupe; he learned to do cartwheels and hand-springs, and to walk on stilts. They toured the country and, in 1920, set sail for New York.

All this is in Graham McCann’s book. McCann is lively in his storytelling and precise in his research. He sets the record straight on Grant’s alleged homosexuality (he wasn’t gay, and McCann is very funny about the proposed evidence). On some matters, such as whether or not Grant was Jewish, there is no way of setting the record straight. Walter Matthau thought he must be Jewish, even though Grant denied it, because ‘he was so intelligent’, but also because he ‘pronounced the r in “yarmulke”. An Englishman wouldn’t pronounce the r.’ As if Cary Grant’s accent was anything to go by.

The accent was Cary’s, not Archie’s. It borrowed Archie’s working-class English tones, and perhaps a little vaudeville Cockney, and swilled them around in the Atlantic until the voice came out half-drawl, half-snap. It was part of Cary Grant’s robotic charm and, together with a hairstyle enforced by Josef von Sternberg and a perpetual tan inspired by Douglas Fairbanks, it made the man. The name Cary was chosen because of a part Leach had played in a theatre in New York – Cary Lockwood. ‘Grant’ was the name which ‘jumped out’ at him from a long list he was shown.

The new star acted in Blonde Venus with Marlene Dietrich in 1932, and in She Done Him Wrong with Mae West the following year. He became a smooth, evening-dressed matinée idol, all slicked hair and smoky gaze. In 1937 he made his true screwball debut when he starred in The Awful Truth with Irene Dunne. The film was directed by Leo McCarey, who had made Laurel and Hardy movies and the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. Grant and McCarey hated each other, which turned out to be a good thing. McCarey would refuse to tell Grant what his lines were and made him improvise. Grant was left to draw on some of his old slapstick techniques and suddenly the dreamy pin-up was tumbling across the floor, glowering like a child, grinning like an idiot and playing the piano like Chico Marx.

A year later he made Bringing Up Baby with Katharine Hepburn, which was to make him a favourite of its director, Howard Hawks. Grant and Hepburn were prime screwballs, fast-talking hairbrains who took it in turns to play straight man to each other’s comic. They perfected a genre which Pauline Kael defined as being populated by ‘a vanished race of brittle, cynical, childish people rushing around on corrupt errands’, and they lent it a daffy sophistication. Next came, among others, His Girl Friday (with Rosalind Russell) and The Philadelphia Story. The ‘Cary Grant movie’ was now fully-fledged. After 1940, though, as Kael put it, ‘there were no longer any Cary Grant pictures.’ ‘He found himself in danger,’ as McCann writes, ‘of seeming a mere light comedian stranded in dark times.’ Grant made two films with Alfred Hitchcock in these dark times, Suspicion (1941) and Notorious (1946). ‘There is a frightening side to Cary that no one can quite put their finger on,’ Hitchcock said, and in these films he put his finger on it better than anyone else. Cary Grant became a producer, and began to act less, but made To Catch a Thief with Hitchcock in 1955, and North by Northwest in 1959. Altogether he was in five films directed by Hawks and four by Stanley Donen, the last and best of which was Charade (1964) – famous for the scene in which Grant has a shower with his ‘drip-dry’ suit on. He was married four times, and had one daughter, with Dyan Cannon. In 1968 he joined the board of the Fabergé toiletries company, describing himself as a ‘travelling businessman’.

‘How old cary grant?’ read the telegram from a magazine. ‘Old Cary Grant fine. How you?’ was the actor’s now legendary reply. Grant denied having written this, which is a shame, as McCann points out, since it has his touch. In a sense, however, there was no Old Cary Grant, at least not to movie audiences. We would never see him age; he ended his acting career twenty years before his death in 1986.

McCann’s book is the kind of biography one often imagines but rarely gets: it likes the movies; it unpacks Cary Grant the star, without being a ‘star biog’; it is intelligent about his screen presence, but also tells the life – is interested in what a life might be; it quotes Mel Brooks and Roland Barthes (in that order). McCann’s interest in the layering of identity is not new for him. In his book on Marilyn Monroe (1988) he writes: ‘Monroe was a professional role-player, she assumed a multiplicity of selves, of “Marilyns”, making it hard even for her to feel settled within any single identity.’ In his book on Woody Allen (1990) he expands: ‘Many observers have been content to settle on the fairly contemptuous belief that movie stars “play themselves” – as if playing oneself were easy, given the complex, contradictory material at hand and the problem of fixing upon a version of oneself that is both coherent and recognisable.’

Cary Grant seems the ultimate subject for someone with these concerns – he is said to ‘play himself’, and he’s also known for having constructed that self. As McCann says, ‘ “Cary Grant” was just a name, a cluster of idealised qualities.’ But his story is not that of the kid who changes his name and becomes a star (that goes for most Hollywood actors). It’s more that what he decided he wanted to be was something his audience recognised; and they didn’t just recognise the result, they recognised the desire. ‘Cary Grant’ was a familiar ambition even before he was the embodiment of that ambition. The actor Louis Jourdan remembered him in his early films: ‘He is a man of the street pretending to be Cary Grant!’ This is what McCann shows so well. Cary Grant the actor, with his raised eyebrow and twitches, combined with Cary Grant the superimposed identity – Cary Grant, if you like, as double-take.

Can this person learn, as McCann says he did, ‘how to avoid self-caricature’? ‘He feared,’ McCann writes, ‘he was in danger of succumbing to self-parody.’ I see what McCann means in terms of his career, but I would have thought that Cary Grant, the same Cary Grant McCann portrays, made words like ‘self-caricature’ and ‘self-parody’ almost meaningless. Mimicry, and a certain distance from his self, was part of who Cary Grant was. ‘People laugh in the theatre because what’s on the screen is not happening to them,’ Grant said, ‘I played my role as though it wasn’t happening to me. I think that’s how I got the audience on my side.’ David Thomson admired Grant’s ‘rare willingness ... to take part in a fantasy without being deceived by it’. So much was he a self-parody in essence, or in style at least, that his play-acting nature became a running joke in his movies. ‘You’re just not convincing, John,’ Grace Kelly tells him in To Catch a Thief, ‘You’re like an American character in an English movie. You just don’t talk the way an American tourist ought to talk.’ In Suspicion a crime writer laughs at him: ‘Look at the expression on his face. Trying to look mysterious, are you? You can’t fool me. You couldn’t commit a murder if you tried for a hundred years.’ In North by Northwest James Mason opens a long attack on Grant’s unconvincingness with: ‘Has anyone ever told you that you overplay your various roles rather severely, Mr Kaplan?’ Cary Grant was a working model of Hitchcock’s dictum, ‘Style is self-plagiarism.’

Nobody talks like that!’ The line is from Some Like It Hot, and McCann quotes it straight, to show how unique Cary Grant’s accent was. But the moment in the film is more complicated. The words are spoken by Jack Lemmon, who is imitating Tony Curtis, who has been imitating Cary Grant in order to pick up Marilyn Monroe. There are all sorts of sly Cary Grant references in the film: both men are disguised as women; Curtis then dresses up in marine gear (almost exactly what Grant wears in Operation Petticoat, in which Curtis also starred, and which came out in the same year as Some Like It Hot); he wears glasses just like Grant wore in Bringing Up Baby, or Monkey Business (1952) – which Grant made with Marilyn Monroe; he does a brilliant impression of The Voice. When Lemmon says, ‘Nobody talks like that,’ the joke is that somebody talks like that, and we know who it is; that nobody apart from Cary Grant talks like that; and that not even Cary Grant really talks like that.

The inimitable Cary Grant was, in fact, extremely imitable. In The Philadelphia Story, Katharine Hepburn starts talking like him, delivering her sentences like a muted machine-gun. In the same film, Grant and James Stewart have a drunken copycat conversation; at another point Hepburn’s younger sister gives Cary Grant a ‘Cary Grant’ raised eyebrow, which he returns. He is not just imitable here, he is contagious. And then there was Tony Curtis. Curtis’s impression and Lemmon’s snide imitation unravel the image of Cary Grant in a way that is similar to Hitchcock’s elegant, ironic unpicking. ‘Nobody’ in ‘Nobody talks like that’ is Cary Grant, just as Cary Grant becomes Nobody, George Kaplan, in North by Northwest. Cary Grant fills a hole: ‘Nobody’, ‘Cary Grant’, call it what you will. He takes on identities, puts on a suit. Even though his actual suits always fit, this metaphorical one never quite does, so he acts accordingly – he twitches, slouches, sashays, smirks. Something in Cary Grant is always borrowed. This gives him room for parody – self or otherwise – within his screen identity. Hitchcock and Tony Curtis lay that quality bare, X-ray it, limelight it. But it’s there all the time, in every Cary Grant performance. There is a sense in which, having seen Some Like It Hot, we can’t watch even an early Cary Grant movie without thinking of Tony Curtis. But this must be because Cary Grant was already more like himself than Curtis ever could be – Grant was just so smooth in his imitation that his wink was invisible.

When Archie Leach was nine years old, his mother disappeared. He discovered when his father died years later that his father had put her into a lunatic asylum. Archie and his mother were reunited in 1935, and Grant later wrote about that occasion: ‘I was known to most people of the world by sight and by name, yet not to my mother.’ When Elsie Leach was asked about her son after the war, she replied: ‘It’s been a long time since I have seen him, but he writes regularly and I see all his films.’ He was ‘known to’ her now, and they saw each other two or three times a year after that. He usually spent his birthday with her in January: he’d pick her up in a Rolls-Royce, they’d eat fish and chips in the back of the car, and then he’d take her to the Downs in Clifton, where they would sit and talk. Towards the end of her life, Elsie Leach was put in a nursing home, where she was apparently very active and coherent, apart from the odd moment of muddle. There were times when she confused her son with his screen image. ‘He’s a very good ship’s captain,’ she would say, or ‘my son’s a much better doctor than any of the doctors here.’