In 1920 Cary Grant—or properly speaking, Archie Leach—was a sixteen-year-old Bristol-born music hall acrobat, specialized in stilt-walking and pratfalls, who was on his way to America for the first time as a member of the Bob Pender troupe. In 1927, after various show-business ups and downs, he was a largely out-of-work actor living in a single-room occupancy hotel in New York, working sometimes as a male escort, sometimes as a tie salesman, sometimes as a sandwich board man for a Chinese restaurant. In 1935 he was a movie actor who, despite having appeared (over a period of only three years) in twenty films opposite such co-stars as Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Carole Lombard, Loretta Young, and Myrna Loy, had failed to live up to the high expectations of his bosses at Paramount, who had signed him in the hope that he would prove a star of the magnitude of Rudolph Valentino or Gary Cooper.
It is astonishing in retrospect to see him in a movie like Born To Be Bad (1934) getting effortlessly upstaged by a cigarette-smoking Loretta Young in deliriously campy “bad girl” mode. Grant, in the thankless part of a dairy company executive who falls for Young’s sleazy charms, looks like a radiantly handsome but otherwise inert male model who has rented out his face and physique to Paramount while his thoughts wander elsewhere.
Then, with mysterious suddenness, he clicked on. He imposed his presence in a striking character role, as a roguish Cockney vagabond, in George Cukor’s otherwise commercially disastrous Sylvia Scarlett (1936), and then came unmistakably into his own as half of the divorcing couple in the screwball masterpiece The Awful Truth (1937). From that point on he enjoyed—in both the audience’s pleasure and his own creative control and financial well-being—something like a perfect career as a movie star. In a move that was then radical, he cut himself loose from long-term studio contracts, and through a shrewd choice of assignments was able, with remarkable consistency, to work with exceptional scripts and superior directors: Cukor, Leo McCarey, George Stevens, Joseph Mankiewicz, Stanley Donen, and above all Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. A movie career that started in 1932 was still peaking in the late Fifties and early Sixties with tremendous box office hits like Operation Petticoat (1959) and That Touch of Mink (1962); then, with the elegant discretion of which he had made himself the embodiment, Grant withdrew from the scene just before signs of old age could dent the screen image he had elaborated with such perfectionist devotion.
When I first encountered Cary Grant in childhood in regularly repeated television reruns of such films as Gunga Din (1939), Mr. Lucky (1943), and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), he seemed both amusingly peculiar—those singular vocal inflections, especially, set him apart from any other actor—and enviably high-spirited. It became evident as well that for the female relatives and caretakers with whom I watched these movies Cary Grant …