Wednesday, December 10, 2014

TCM Star of the Month: Cary Grant

Of all the male superstars of classic Hollywood, Cary Grant has endured as my very favorite. He's ridiculously good-looking, effortlessly charming, and one of the most versatile actors of the period, feeling right at home in ribald romps or earnest melodramas. His bisexuality off-camera naturally adds extra appeal to me, but when examining the stars of golden age, it's their on-camera persona that's most important in evaluating their lasting popularity. Grant possessed impeccable comic timing, a talent which took some time for Hollywood to notice before he became the virtual face of screwball comedy in the 1930s and 1940s. He could play cads, family disappointments, and suspected murderers and still charm the pants off the audience, which could possibly also be seen as a hindrance to his career. By the 1950s and 1960s, Grant's graying but still very good looks kept him working in romantic comedies opposite women considerably younger than him, but unlike others of his era like Gable and Cooper, one could understand why younger ladies would fall head over heels with Cary. He had that voice, that smile, those dimples, those sincere eyes. I'm hard-pressed to think of a film in which I didn't fully love Cary Grant, even if the film itself was a dud, and that's one of the great signs of a star.

With my shameless gushing wrapped up, let's get down to business. TCM has selected Cary Grant as their Star of the Month for December, programming pretty much every single gem of his career over the course of four Mondays this month. I could not be happier with their choice of spotlighted superstar! The first selection highlighted some of Grant's earlier work, before 1937's The Awful Truth truly made him a star to be reckoned with, though some later-period Grant did pop up in the wee hours of the morning. It's rather surprising that it took so long for Grant to become a superstar, especially because his first studio put a considerable amount of publicity into building him into a matinee idol. The problem is one that plagued several stars during the first years of their careers: the studio developed the concept of the star persona without necessarily taking all the star's talents and interests into consideration. Watching his early films, one can see Grant's comic sparkle, but only in bits and pieces. His dashing British

Born Archibald Leach in 1904 in Bristol, England, Grant took to show business at an early age, assisting magicians in his adolescence and leaving school to join a vaudeville troupe in his teens. It was there where he learned the arts of pantomime and dialogue-free performance, talents he brought with him to the silver screen (his facial expressions, especially in comedies, were always peerless), as well as theatrical acrobatics, seen in his more athletic performances. This stage experience is what brought him to America in 1920, where he took up residence in New York and toured with several different theatre troupes before hitting Broadway and making strong impressions with his performances in musicals for Arthur Hammerstein and the Shuberts. His first screen test was for Fox Film Corporation in 1929, which he failed, but after appearing in a 1931 short subject for Paramount (Singapore Sue), the studio offered him a contract and put him to work immediately upon signature.

Grant liked to pretend Singapore Sue didn't exist, preferring to acknowledge This is the Night (1932) as his first film. Being cast in the second romantic lead in his debut feature indicates Paramount's strong faith in his audience appeal and hopes for box office success with their new star. Shot at the same time was Sinners in the Sun; Grant went back and forth between sound stages during his first weeks at the studio, hitting the ground running as Paramount rushed to push him into stardom. Other than functioning as Grant's first feature film, This is the Night also has an interesting opening, tinted blue (all of the night scenes are) and knowingly ripping off the musical comic confections of Paramount's own Ernst Lubitsch and Rouben Mamoulian. Nothing like a major studio cannibalizing its own. Grant makes his first cinematic entrance singing off-stage, entering the screen carrying javelins and singing his first lines to Charles Ruggles. It's certainly a memorable debut, and Grant projects sexual thrills from the get-go. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn't quite live up to the somewhat promising start, which is oddly similar to Grant's later, far better Awful Truth. In the film, our Cary plays the husband of Thelma Todd, who is indulging in an affair with Roland Young (seriously? she'd ditch Cary Grant for Roland Young?). When the two are almost found out, he hires ingenue Lili Damita to play his wife and throw Grant off the scent of infidelity. Damita takes a bit to warm up, but when she indulges in a clothes-ripping tease number and her character's name inspires some good Ruggles business, sparks fly and you get the makings of an enticing pre-Code classic. It's only when the film tries to mime Lubitsch/Mamoulian that it spirals into embarrassing territory. Director Frank Tuttle nails the naughty innuendo, but the musical motifs simply draw poor comparisons to his other studio contemporaries. As asides: Grant and Young would reunite five years later in the very enjoyable Topper, to be discussed later in the month; Damita would later become the first Mrs. Errol Flynn, after being married to director Michael Curtiz from 1925-1926; and of course poor Todd would die prematurely and very mysteriously a mere four years after this film's release. She is regrettably given little to do here. It's really Damita's show.

She Done Him Wrong (1933) was the first of two films pairing Grant with Mae West, the studio's controversial bombshell who was to Paramount in the 1930s what Clara Bow was to the studio in the 1920s: guaranteed sexy box office. Bow was, as I've maintained for some time, peerless, but then so was West, in a very different way. While Paramount had two other notable blonde femmes under contract, brassy (Carole Lombard) and exotic (Marlene Dietrich), both of whom also co-starred with Grant, West was in a class by herself, translating her famous titillating Broadway shows and persona into a series of films allowing her to be both a vamp and a comedienne. This combination was rarely attempted and never equaled by Paramount, or any other studio, for that matter. Legend has it that West personally requested Grant be her romantic lead in this film after "discovering him" as an extra on the lot. While West was a one-woman powerhouse with unheard-of control over her projects, even within the studio system, this is a story that Grant vehemently denied, and the truth is less interesting: Paramount's B.P. Schulberg thought Grant's smooth persona and the bodacious West would be a good match. He wasn't necessarily right. Grant makes no impression at all as a goody two-shoes mission captain trying to save West from her decadent existence in the Gay Nineties. The rest of the film finds West caught between a swarthy Latino gigolo, her escaped convict ex-boyfriend, and Grant's offer of moral redemption, and soon mixed up in an accidental murder. Wait until you see what she does with the body!

Directed by actor Lowell Sherman, whose career both on- and off-screen was cut short by an early death of pneumonia in 1934, this is one of the quintessential pre-Code comedies. Mae West's Lady Lou is one of the dirtiest broads the cinema has ever seen, and you love her balls and bravura every second she's on-screen. She slithers all over any available man in sight, disrobes for costume changes often, and revels in her sinfully slutty lifestyle, no rules, no regrets, until of course a body turns up and she ends up in a prison potentially worse than the one with bars. Surprisingly, this film, which functions solely as a Mae West vehicle with barely any story surrounding her (it was essentially a retread of her stage show "Diamond Lil"), received a Best Picture nomination! It's interesting to see Clara Bow's husband, Gilbert Roland, playing here opposite his wife's obvious bombshell replacement at Paramount, and the same year as her final film, Hoop-la, over at Fox Films. I also greatly enjoyed seeing Rochelle Hudson, ever underrated, as the young ward of Lou's who is saved from a suicide attempt and turned into a showgirl (in the original play she was sold into white slavery!), and Louise Beavers is fabulous as always, even stuck in thankless domestic roles as she often was.

I'm No Angel (1933) reunited Grant and West for the second and last time. As might be evident by their interactions in both of their pairings, there was no love lost between the two superstars. West, at 40, was desperately clinging to her youth with caked-on makeup that she would continue to use well into her 80s, and Grant didn't care for her brazen artificiality. She was all image, the Lady Gaga of her time. This doesn't detract from her accomplishments, of course; Hollywood was built on its stars and their personae. In the case of West, it simply becomes difficult to separate the woman from the illusion, and she clearly wanted it that way. She Done Him Wrong did such stupendous box office, often credited as saving Paramount from bankruptcy that year, that this next star vehicle was released not long after. West is Tira (pronounced Tyra, as in Banks), a carnival tramp who sings and struts on-stage for packs of thrill-seeking gents. Her stage act is touted as "the only show on earth where the tickets are made of asbestos," and you better believe that hoop-la. Speaking of Hoop-la...this bears a striking resemblance to Clara Bow's film of that name made this same year. But I digress... if it's possible, West's stage show in this film is even more salacious and packed with leering pervs than in her previous feature. But the fun and games are over when her seedy boyfriend busts in on her turning a trick and brains the Texas rube with a bottle, sending her scurrying for money to skip town. She earns it by sticking her head in a lion's mouth, earning her fame, fortune, and a ticket to New York where, once again, she finds herself sandwiched between two potential suitors. Where She Done Him Wrong had no plot, I'm No Angel is almost too plot-heavy for a West vehicle. That said, it's also possibly even more fun than the preceding film. But wait...where's Cary Grant in all this? The same place he was before: in the dull romantic interest role, competing with handsome Kent Taylor for Mae's affections. Another vastly underrated character actress, Gertrude Michael, is a welcome addition to the cast, as are character greats Edward Arnold and Gregory Ratoff, plus muscle hunk Nat Pendleton, perhaps the sexiest beefcake of 1930s cinema. No Louise Beavers this time, but Hattie McDaniel has a bit as a manicurist, giving no hint of being a future Oscar-winner.

Yet another unsatisfying role for Grant is found in The Eagle and the Hawk (1933), a quite good war picture that really offers Fredric March, who won the Oscar the year before for the studio's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, more promising material than anyone else. Paramount had won one of the industry's first two Academy Awards for Best Picture (for Wings; the other went to Fox Films for Sunrise), and while this WWI saga is not at all up to the level of Wellman's silent classic, there are some moving and well-done moments once the film gets going. This is primarily because of March, one of the screen's finest thespians of the era, playing the hero to Grant's semi-villain. The two butt heads in flight training before March is stationed in France and Grant is grounded indefinitely as a result of March reporting his unpreparedness for battle. That, of course, changes when March loses five flight observers in two months before Grant requests the chance to work with his nemesis. It's hard enough fighting the enemy without a partner gunning for you, too. The film has obvious similarities to Howard Hawks' The Dawn Patrol (1930), and some of the war footage is lifted from Wings, as Paramount was known to do (who can blame them? it's astonishing stuff), but this is entertaining enough to recommend, with a truly shocking pre-Code conclusion. Grant tries his hardest in a role unlike anything he had played to date, but Carole Lombard, as a vamp with no name, doesn't really fit into this picture at all. Paramount clearly still didn't know what they had in either of them. At least March would get to comically spar with her in Wellman's Nothing Sacred a few years later, and Grant got his Lombard fix a short while later in In Name Only. Third-billed Jack Oakie provides the laughs here, though he did better work later in the decade. Little Douglas Scott is memorable as a rather bloodthirsty British tyke. Kenneth Howell, as a young whippersnapper observer, is surprisingly effeminate and looks like he's wearing make-up. Future unsung director Mitchell Leisen receives prominent billing as the film's "associate director"; he would prove to be one of Paramount's hidden gems behind-the-scenes.

Hot Saturday (1932) is one of Grant's more interesting early programmers because it co-stars him with his longtime companion Randolph Scott, his most publicly acknowledged male lover who had actually been living with him for some time when production started on this picture. Rumors swirled around the lot that the pair were cast together to dissuade any gossipy publicity about their, ahem, roommate situation. The two are on opposite sides here, Grant playing a notorious ladies' man in a small town (who makes his entrance in a blinding white suite) and Scott a knight-in-shining-armor geologist come home on the train to visit. Caught in the middle of this manwich is Nancy Carroll, virtually forgotten today despite her Oscar nomination for The Devil's Holiday (1930). At the time of this production she was reportedly receiving the most fan mail of any star in Hollywood, though that may just be typical studio-era hoop-la. She wouldn't last long at Paramount after this, though she did one more movie with Grant, Woman Accused, in 1933; her contract expired that year and her demands for better material led the studio to not renew her option. She must not have been the box office draw that fan mail story would imply, but is still pretty darn wonderful in everything I've seen her in. Carroll's character is youthful, fun-loving, and carefree, but has her limits, and through a series of misunderstandings involving Saturday date Edward Woods and notorious Grant, the whole town thinks she's tramped it up with the worldly lover. Quel scandale! Small town gossip will getcha. Upping the gay quotient of the film substantially is character actor Grady Sutton, a robust Dom DeLuise type who was often cast as chubby Southern-fried comic reliefs with no luck in the lady department (shocking, I know); you may remember him as the rich simpleton Carole Lombard claims to be engaged to in My Man Godfrey to inspire jealousy from William Powell. Sutton was, like Edward Everett Horton and Franklin Pangborn, one of several unashamedly homosexual character actors working in the studio era; unlike Grant and Scott, Sutton was never a star, sometimes appearing in films without receiving any credit, and didn't give the studio any sleepless nights about covering up his personal activities. Jane Darwell, a decade before her Oscar win for Grapes of Wrath, also appears as Carroll's exasperating mother. As a Grant picture, it's a no-go, though this was one of the first movies to really capture the persona we all know and love. As a pre-Code studio picture, it's worth your time, especially with that great triumphant finale celebrating decadence over chastity. It's appeared on DVD as part of a Pre-Code Hollywood Collection of other Paramount classics, including another Grant pre-Code feature, Merrily We Go to Hell (1932). In one of the kinkiest pre-Code scenes of the era, Carroll finds her sister (Rose Coghlan) has taken a pair of her undershorts without asking and wrestles her down to rip them off of her. It's this kind of scene that would appear in 8mm fetish shorts projected at stag parties for the next few decades.

Suzy (1936) matched Grant with yet another blonde bombshell comedienne, in this case MGM's only superstar of that type: Jean Harlow. One can tell it's going to be another female star vehicle by looking at her co-stars, in this case the underwhelming Franchot Tone and Grant, still in search of a star persona. By 1936, Harlow had done bombshell schtick for some time and Suzy feels like a departure for her while also feeling mildly familiar, an odd sensation to be sure. As the title character, she is a flighty American chorus girl in pre-WWI London who decides to quit the show when it leaves town in the hopes of landing a rich aristocrat as a husband. Enter Tone (whose silly accent comes and goes), who hits her with a borrowed Rolls-Royce, giving her the impression she's hit the jackpot. Naturally she hasn't, as he is a struggling inventor, but love is love...for some reason; Tone has never appealed to me and I find it hard to believe he ever did to women like Harlow and, off-screen, Joan Crawford. Their brand-new romance is tested when it's discovered that Tone's office is a front for German spies; he is seemingly gunned down for knowing too much, Suzy is accused of the deed, and she flees to Paris where she shacks up with gal pal Maisie (Inez Courtney, superb), develops a nightclub act (apparently laying low wasn't on her itinerary), and falls for smarmy French pilot Grant (with no accent) after WWI breaks out. It all becomes a little soap sudsy and melodramatic for my tastes, which is saying something considering what a sucker I am for women's pictures of the era. Harlow is the right girl for the part, but the script feels slightly undercooked and neither romance gels satisfactorily. At least we get a taste of the Grant we know and love, the irascible rapscallion with a sharp tongue, a teasing nature, and a veneer of smarm that is still somehow lovable. Suzy was one of the last films Grant made while on his Paramount contract (loaned out here to MGM) before not renewing his option and pursuing freelance work, a risky move in the studio era. He was one of the first stars to take the plunge into this relatively uncharted territory, and while he wasn't entirely a free agent (he signed a three-year contract with Columbia allowing him to pick and choose outside projects as he wished), it proved a wise decision on his part. But more on that later... Even after the Code began being enforced, there were still a few eyebrow-raising scenes in films of the era. Here, Harlow spends a large part of a conversation topless (hidden) in her dressing room, making you forget this was 1936 and not 1933. Una O'Connor, the go-to actress for British kook parts, is a lot of fun as Suzy's landlady in a one-scene appearance.

The Toast of New York (1937) brought Grant to RKO, arguably the least of the Hollywood major studios, and reunited him with his Eagle and the Hawk co-star Jack Oakie. RKO is where Oakie flourished as a comic actor and box office presence in delightfully watchable pictures like this one. Here, he and Grant are rather equal in their support of Edward Arnold in a rare leading role as Jim Fisk, the real-life opportunist who profited on cotton smuggling during the Civil War and pulled fast ones on wealthy targets until he climbed into control of the nation's gold market. I won't go into the factual inaccuracies in the film, as classic Hollywood was not known for sticking to the truth without embellishing some elements of a person's biography and ignoring others. The first half of the film, with a quick pace and a great sense of humor as we follow the trio of con men successfully scheming to line their pockets with cash, is superior to the second half, which becomes bogged down by a love triangle between Grant, Arnold, and Frances Farmer (before her breakdown) as aspiring actress Josie Mansfield. The story becomes needlessly confused and tough to follow, making one pine for the simple pleasures of the film's enjoyable first act. RKO spent a considerable amount of money on the film, but alas didn't recoup its investment when the film bombed at the box office. It's certainly a confused narrative, but is far from a complete failure and wouldn't be a waste of your time. Anyone with an appreciation for classic Hollywood would find something to enjoy in this picture. In addition to the very capable leading men, some of Arnold's fellow character actor greats of the era contribute their fair share of memorable moments, including Donald Meek as stingy Daniel Drew, Clarence Kolb as cocky Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Billy Gilbert as a flustered German photographer.

Night and Day (1946) doesn't fit in at all with the films preceding it, as it was produced by Warner Brothers a full decade after the rest of them. That said, it is one of Grant's more enduring fan favorites, shot in beautiful Technicolor (a rarity for Grant in the 1930s and 1940s) and featuring lots of Cole Porter music. Frankly, it's one of my least favorite Grant pictures, but there's no denying its importance in his filmography. Preparing to play Cole Porter in this film was stressful for the actor, who hadn't worked for a year when the production of the biopic began, but it wasn't only the studio who wouldn't take no from him for an answer. Porter himself insisted that no one else play him! How interesting that a closeted actor was tapped to play a closeted version of a gay composer's life. Yale 1914: Cole Porter has decided to abandon his studies and become a composer, joining forces with Monty Woolley (playing himself) in putting on stage revues. WWI takes him to France before he returns, begins composing again, marries the society lady who nursed him back to health, and encounters the age-old conflict of love vs. career.

As with Toast of New York, don't come to the table expecting a solid biography of Porter's real life story (see De-Lovely for that). If you want a swoon-worthy Grant, shot for only the second time in Technicolor (the first was for the 1935 MGM short Pirate Party on Catalina Island) and plentiful music, then you won't be disappointed. One can't complain too much about the state of the the facts in the script. Porter himself worked with director Curtiz and his three screenwriters in bringing his story to the screen, and must have realized that his magnificent adventures as a gay composer in America were not going to be embraced by Hollywood or the public, so settled on having his favorite movie star play him in a fabricated tale of romance and songs. Three writers, Curtiz, and Porter came up with this nonsense? The film's production was not a pleasant experience for Grant or seemingly anyone else, save Alexis Smith who got to kiss her youthful matinee idol crush while playing Porter's wife...before he screamed at her for almost getting body make-up on a British-made suit he couldn't get replaced during wartime. Personal problems at home with his then-wife, Barbara Hutton, might have inspired his outrageous diva behavior on the set. Grant demanded and got final cast, costume, and set approval, giving him power superseding studio professionals with years of experience under their belt. He clashed with Curtiz regularly, complaining about the script (which was rewritten regularly during production), insisting on multiple retakes after revising the script himself on the spot, going into fits over what he perceived to be incorrect set dressings or historically inaccurate costumes on extras, whining about the film's three (!) cinematographers and their color photography of him, firing a child actor and sending him crying from the set, etc., etc. Jack Warner himself had to intervene to guide the ship to shore! Did Grant not realize the entire story was a fabrication? None of it really happened except in Hollywood dreamland. Smith believes he was irritable the entire time because he had gone from working with acclaimed playwright Clifford Odets and an Oscar nomination for None But the Lonely Heart to making this pointless biopic garbage; others theorized he was taking out his frustrations with Hutton on everyone else around him. I might lean towards the former. It may have been all worth the nightmares on-set if the film were any good; the final product is strictly average, maybe even worse.

Grant later called his performance "inept", which is unfairly self-critical but not entirely wrong, either. It's hard to play a true-life character in entirely fictional scenarios. The conflict as an actor must have been quite something. There are a few memorable sequences, like a stage audience gradually emptying during a performance when news of the Lusitania's sinking spreads, and the supporting cast has some nice surprises. Eve Arden hams it up with a French accent in a typically fun Arden part. It's easy to forget Jane Wyman began her ingenue career as a blonde; after her Oscar win for Johnny Belinda in 1948, she rarely deviated from the brunette look. She's a personal favorite with any hair color. Woolley was a great presence in all of his film work, and is lucky to have survived the shoot. He was suffering from a bladder infection during most of the production, and had to rush to complete his scenes before undergoing an important operation to save his life.

To be continued...

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