The Cary Grant persona was firmly in place by the mid-1940s, and his roles during the last two decades of his career were arguably variations of that persona. But that was not so during the 1930s. During the latter half of the decade, he tackles comedy, drama and adventure, exploring each in different ways.
Born Archibald Leach, he traveled with a troupe of pantomime artists throughout Europe and America. He came to the U.S. again at age 16 and ended up staying in Manhattan. He traveled with the circus and even worked as a stilt-walker in Times Square. He refined his movements and diction, and his Broadway work increased until Paramount signed him in 1932 and put him to work.
Unfortunately, Paramount wasn’t sure what to do with him. Grant was competent enough, but watch him opposite Mae West in “She Done Him Wrong” and “I’m No Angel,” both released in 1933. These are vehicles for West, and perhaps any good-looking male would have done. Watching these films today, Grant seems both familiar and strange. He’s pleasant enough but seems too eager and colorless – perhaps by design to show off West.
But it’s a good starting point to track Grant’s growth as a movie actor. After more than 20 movies, he finally broke free from the bland Paramount mold and caught the attention of critics as a cockney con man opposite Katharine Hepburn in “Sylvia Scarlet” (below). It was their first film together, and while they enjoyed working with each other, audiences were baffled by Hepburn playing a woman pretending to be a boy.
Despite being a box office flop, “Sylvia Scarlet” was a personal success for Grant, and his stock continued to rise. Two years later, he finally broke through. In “Topper,” he and Constance Bennett play a lively couple who are killed in a car accident and come back to haunt Roland Young. This film gave Grant a chance to be both romantic, suave and witty.
Then came “The Awful Truth,” Leo McCarey’s screwball comedy in which he plays opposite Irene Dunne as a husband and wife who are divorcing but still are in love with each other, although neither wants to admit to it. Grant displayed his gift for physical comedy, honed through years with the pantomime and circus troupes. He was also smart, funny and winning. It’s a terrific film and a breakthrough performance for Grant. It’s a shame the Academy took note of nearly every major player on this film except for him.
The next year brought two more films with Hepburn, both far better than their first effort. In “Bringing Up Baby,” another screwball comedy, Grant plays a mild-mannered professor who gets caught up in Hepburn’s craziness. He’s playing the straight man to Hepburn, and it’s fun to see how thoroughly he’s grasped the art of comedy with very different performances in “Truth” and “Baby.”
With “Holiday,” a wonderful drama co-starring Hepburn, he plays a hard-working man who decides to take his retirement while young before pursuing a career. Yet again he shows another dimension with this largely dramatic turn. It’s unfortunate that both “Baby” and “Holiday” were box off failures. Yet it was Hepburn who bore the brunt of the criticism. It sent her back to the East coast, thinking her film career was over, while Grant continued to move forward.
In 1939, another drama, “Only Angels Have Wings,” gives him some fine moments opposite Jean Arthur as an airmail flier in South America. “Gunga Din” (below, with Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) is just the opposite – a big adventure film, with Grant clearly having fun in a movie that was one of the year’s top box office hits.
At this point, Grant’s confidence is on display, which allows him to tackle such diverse genres. You can see that Cary Grant persona being honed, yet these roles show off his versatility. If he was a blank slate during his early Paramount years, he had personality to spare by the end of the decade.