Tuesday, July 12, 2011

That's Typing Tuesday #11: The Essential Cary Grant (A Baker's Dozen)

"That's Typing" Tuesday, in which I share unpolished, unpublished writings from my vast store of unpolished, unpublished writings. On Tuesdays.

Several years ago, Mister Muleboy of The Mouth O' The Mule asked me for a list of the essential films by a number of actors—Cagney, Cooper, Wayne, Tracy, etc. And Cary Grant.

Since Grant is a semi-finalist in Monty's best actor tournament (vote here) and is currently romping to a spot in the finals, I thought I'd polish up that old e-mail and share it here. Make of it what you will ...

Okay, Cary Grant.

Cary Grant made too many essential movies to just list them—I'll break them into essential screwball comedies, sophisticated romances and action flicks.

1) Essential Cary Grant Screwball Comedies:
The Awful Truth—The Warriners (Grant and Irene Dunne) are getting divorced even though neither of them really wants to. The movie won an Oscar for director Leo McCarey (of Duck Soup and Going My Way fame), nominations for Irene Dunne and Ralph Bellamy. One of the things I like about Cary Grant is that someone so handsome and charming was willing to make a complete fool of himself on screen. he does a pratfall with a chair that is priceless. He's my pick for best actor of 1937.

Bringing Up Baby—Now regarded by many as the quintessential screwball comedy, it was a box office bomb of such proportions that the studio fired Howard Hawks and Katharine Hepburn both. Great performances by both Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn playing against type—Grant as a Harold Lloyd-like professor and Hepburn as a dizzy socialite.

His Girl Friday—A remake of The Front Page. Starring Rosalind Russell (in her best role). Grant's a newspaper editor, Russell's his ex-wife and top reporter. She's about to leave the paper to marry Ralph Bellamy ("a house with mother in Albany"). Cary Grant schemes ruthlessly to get her back—although it's not always clear whether it's love or the story that he wants. Apparently still holds the record for most dialogue per minute in movie history.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House—With Myrna Loy and Melvin Douglas. Being a homeowner, I realize now that this is more of a documentary than a comedy but it's a very funny one, the funniest pure comedy Cary Grant made after World War II.

see also:
Topper, My Favorite Wife (with Irene Dunne again), Arsenic and Old Lace, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer ("Mello greetings, yookie dookie"), I Was A Male War Bride, Monkey Business (1952), Operation Petticoat, Father Goose.

2) The Essential Cary Grant Sophisticated Romances:
Holiday—My favorite Katharine Hepburn movie. In fact, this may belong more in the list of essential Katharine Hepburn movies than Cary Grant movies. Still. Grant as Johnny Case is engaged to Hepburn's sister who doesn't understand at all Johnny's desire to basically retire at thirty and do something more with his life than make money. Hepburn—a free-spirit who has lived her life under the stultifying thumb of a rich, dull father—understands Johnny's dream all too well. Tender and sweet without being sentimental and cloying, a hidden gem.

The Philadelphia Story—Katharine Hepburn's comeback vehicle and Jimmy Stewart won the Oscar, but Cary Grant steals every scene he's in without trying. For what it's worth, conventional wisdom now regards this as the best performance of his career. Based on a 1930s stage play, dated in places, but a great movie, one of my favorites.

Indiscreet—I was surprised not too long ago by how much more I liked this than I remembered. Ingrid Bergman falls for Cary Grant despite the fact that he's married—or is he? They make a very likeable couple and it's nice to see a woman who's over thirty playing the romantic lead.

see also:
Blonde Venus (1933 von Sternberg romance featuring Marlene Dietrich in a gorilla costume), In Name Only (with Carole Lombard, and it wasn't a comedy!) The Talk Of The Town, Mr. Lucky, The Bishop's Wife. Avoid An Affair To Remember, the one where Deborah Kerr was running to meet Cary Grant on top of the Empire State Building and bang! met a taxicab instead. Unfortunately, this soppy, sentimental snoozer is a lousy showcase for both stars, and movie fans who first become acquainted with either Kerr or Grant through it tend to walk away disappointed and wondering what all the fuss is about.

3) The Essential Cary Grant Action Flicks:
Gunga Din—Adventure as lark. A trio of British soldiers (Grant, Victor McLaglen, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) in colonial India battle the vicious Thuggie cult—the same one as in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but to much, much better effect here.

Only Angels Have Wings—Vintage Howard Hawks. About pilots in South America trying to carve out an air mail route back in the days when flying was fraught with constant danger. We're all going to die sooner or later, Hawks seems to be saying, can't we do it with a bit of dignity and grace and laughter and good company? With Jean Arthur, Rita Hayworth and, in one of his best supporting performances, Thomas Mitchell.

Notorious—Cary Grant's best serious role. Hitchcock saw something dark underneath the surface of the Cary Grant fa├žade and he exploits it to great effect here. Grant is on the trail of post-war Nazis and he lets the woman he loves (Ingrid Bergman) prostitute herself to help crack their secret. He's a misogynstic, self-pitying cynic, a weak, sadistic one at that. Features a tour de force performance by Claude Rains. Four stars. Highly recommended.

To Catch A Thief—Slick Hitchcock featuring great scenery and Oscar-winning cinematography. With a particularly chilly Grace Kelly, an amusing Jesse Royce Landis and the underrated John Williams (the actor, not the composer).

North by Northwest—Maybe my favorite Hitchcock movie. Enemy spies mistake a callow ad man (Grant) for a government agent and chase him across spectacular landscapes. Hitchcock might be the only director in history who could film a guy standing on the side of a road for five minutes and make it riveting. To me, one of the measures of a great performance is trying to imagine who else could play the role and realizing no one else could. Can't picture this movie with anyone but Cary Grant. Great movie, a must-own classic.

Charade—With Audrey Hepburn. Directed by Stanley Donen (of Singin' in the Rain fame). A lot of comedy, but a very good thriller as well. Walter Matthau in a nice role. Also with James Coburn and George Kennedy. Cary Grant was at the end of his career here and shy about playing opposite a much younger actress, but rather than disguising his discomfort, they play off it to great advantage. The last great film of Grant's career.

see also,
Suspicion (A good performance by Grant even if studio executives forced the cop-out ending on Hitchcock), Destination Tokyo.

Note: Cary Grant was nominated for two Oscars, for
Penny Serenade and None But The Lonely Heart. A couple of tear-jerker super-soapers designed to show Cary Grant as a "serious" actor. Avoid both until you are in your seeing-everything-Cary-Grant-did for-completion's-sake phase.

worst Cary Grant movie, at least from the star period: The Pride and the Passion. Grant plays a British officer fighting Napoleon in Spain. Frank Sinatra plays a Spanish guerrilla leader. They drag a cannon and Sophia Loren over the mountains of Spain. Sinatra was so disgusted, he walked out half way through and filmed the rest of his scenes in Hollywood. Close-ups of Grant talking to Sinatra were shot over the shoulder of a coat on a hanger. Sinatra doesn't sing, Grant doesn't charm, Loren doesn't do anything: a tremendous waste of talent and a tedious bore. Other bad Cary Grant movies: The Howards of Virginia, Night and Day, Kiss Them For Me (Suzy Parker was so bad that Deborah Kerr dubbed her dialogue).

Trivia: In the movie
She Done Him Wrong (1932), Cary Grant was the actor on the receiving end of Mae West's oft-misquoted signature line "Why don't you come up some time and see me?" Grant also co-starred in what I think is West's best movie, I'm No Angel. "It's not the men in your life that counts," she says, "it's the life in your men." Grant is lively indeed.


Maggie said...

Oh, what a glorious way to start my day! Swoon.

Not on your list and rarely ever mentioned was the sweet movie, 'Room For One More' with Grant and Betsy Drake.

A terrific list of movies. : )

LucieWickfield said...

You are so right about "Holiday". I will always like Hepburn best as Linda Seton. Her performance displays her talent, but not in the thunderous manner as in some of her films with Tracy. She fits the role like a glove-- reminds me of Stage Door.

Mythical Monkey said...

Her performance displays her talent, but not in the thunderous manner as in some of her films with Tracy.

I know this is heresy, but I actually think Hepburn was a better fit on screen with Cary Grant than with Spencer Tracy. No knock on Tracy, one of my favorite actors, but he's generally so laid back and sane, watching Hepburn with bemused detachment, that he makes her seem a bit shrill in comparison, and in need of knocking down a peg to make her seem as human as he is. Whereas Grant seems always to happily enter into Hepburn's orbit, like they're equals and no matter what she's doing, she can do no wrong.

As for Holiday, somehow it seems to get lost in the shuffle between Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story, but for me anyway, it's a better movie than either of them.

Which is saying something, since both of those movies are on a short list of my favorite movies.

Mythical Monkey said...

Not on your list and rarely ever mentioned was the sweet movie, 'Room For One More' with Grant and Betsy Drake.

Ah, the sweet Betsy Drake. Or at least Cary Grant must have thought she was sweet -- they were married to each other for 13 years ...

Dr. Heckle said...

I've heard of these movies and never seen them... There are a lot of older movies that I would like to sit down and watch some day... I hope I don't put it off forever.

Mythical Monkey said...

If you haven't seen any of them, Dr. Heckle, I'd suggest you start with North By Northwest, one of the greatest action-suspense films ever made, and the sort of guy film that also appeals to women. And if you don't like it, you're welcome to insult me on your very amusing blog, which I read every day!

Yvette said...

What a great job, M.M. Loved reading this. Loved how you broke everything down. Necessary when you're dealing with an actor who made SO many movies over so many years. Good idea.

I too think that PHILADELPHIA STORY and NOTORIOUS were Grant at his dramatic best. Still, I always did prefer him in the screwball comedies. I am not one who likes hysteria in men under ANY circumstances, but Cary Grant hysterical is okay by me. Especially in BRINGING UP BABY and ARSENIC AND OLD LACE. There's just something about those two performances that always ALWAYS knock me out.

And yes, he was unbelievably believable and good in CHARADE. Great soundtrack too.

Katie said...

For years I haven't been that fond of Bringing Up Baby, I didn't like Katharine Hepburn's character at all. However, this winter the Monkey, the Mule, the Mule's sweetie and I went to see it at the AFI. There's nothing like seeing an old movie on a big screen in an art deco movie theater to make you appreciate it.

LucieWickfield said...

Ahhh, thank you, Mythical Monkey, for explaining my distaste for the Hepburn/Tracy duets. I always wondered at my vague sense of disappointment in them.

Mythical Monkey said...

By the way, for a different, though similar, take on the essential Cary Grant movies, you should check out Canon Movies, which picks his top ten films.


monty said...

Awesome post. Very well done. But I may be bias since I love Cary Grant so much. Still it was great to read your list of essential Grant films.

mister muleboy said...

Dear Katie: that was so much fun, seeing Bringing Up Baby. And you nailed it -- the big screen, and the darkened, shared experience can change a movie that's somehow hidden its charms.

But I mainly love reading the words the Mule's sweetie -- those words give me much happiness. She's the bestest!