Cary Grant will forever be known as one of Hollywood’s most seductive and fascinating stars. Even twenty years after his death, Grant still owns the imaginations of film lovers. This week, the Modern Pea Pod celebrates this consummate icon with reviews of five of his classic films, as compiled on Sony’s new DVD box set. Day by day, we’ll show you some of the best and some of the worst of Grant’s canon. So bust out a nicely tailored suit, make yourself a nice drink, and drop some acid. It’s time to remember our man Archie Leach.
The Talk of the Town
(Director: George Stevens, 1942)
In a career spanning over thirty years of motion pictures, Cary Grant played a remarkably small variety of roles. His greatest parts – Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, North By Northwest – were all essentially variations on a theme: Grant was the cheeky, jovial man with the winning charm and the impeccable suits, usually divorced and almost always with a stiff drink in his hand; not quite an Everyman, but something to which Every Man could aspire in their imaginations. He was, in short, Cary Grant … and if coming into a Grant movie you didn’t know exactly what you were going to see, the general premise still wasn’t too hard to guess. That’s why George Stevens’ Talk of the Town is such a surprising film: in 1942, about the last character audiences would have expected Grant to play is a Communist-sympathizing, working class fugitive from the law. Yet here he is, Mr. C.K. Dexter Haven himself, breaking out of jail, hiding from the authorities and waxing philosophical about the hypocrisies of the American judicial system. And frankly, The Talk of the Town is worth seeing just for that.
Of course, the fact that it also happens to be an intriguing film in its own right doesn’t hurt, either. Talk of the Town is easily one of the odder works to come out of mainstream, Production Code Hollywood; it bounces wildly from screwball comedy to po-faced social commentary and back again, sometimes within the space of a single scene. Parts of the film are even surprisingly dark: when Leopold Dilg (Grant) launches his prison escape early on, he brutally throttles a police officer from behind. This scene, and a number of others, are photographed to stunning dramatic effect by cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff, whose inventive, dynamic camera work stands in sharp relief against an otherwise homogenous early-’40s US cinema. It’s easy to see why Tetzlaff was nominated for the 1943 Academy Award…and why he went on to work with no less a personage than Alfred Hitchcock for 1946′s Notorious.
Also easy to understand is screenwriter Sidney Buchman’s blacklisting in McCarthy’s post-War entertainment industry witch-hunts. Buchman’s script (co-written by novelist Irwin Shaw) may not be all-out revolutionary polemic, but it should be more than capable of raising a few eyebrows among those who think of Code-era Hollywood as purely idealized, all-American line-towing. Grant’s Dilg is a sympathetic protagonist whose plight stems from being falsely accused of arson and manslaughter; the reason, we later discover, is that Dilg has a nasty habit of “making speeches on street corners.”
No, Buchman and company never quite drop the “C”-word on us, but the implication is clear enough – and when Dilg stops hiding from distinguished law professor Michael Lightcap (Ronald Colman) and starts trying to convince him of his innocence, the insinuations leveled against authority and criminal justice in the good ol’ U.S. of A. are more pointed than you might expect. Of course, the Great Depression looms high, in Grant’s character particularly; and for viewers who recall the Roosevelt era and the New Deal in purely abstract terms, without making any connections between the times and the liberalism they cultivated, it’s instructive to watch and see just how “red” American cinema was allowed to be before the Cold War.
The trouble is, Talk of the Town isn’t really a commentary on proletarianism and paranoia in the Depression years. It is, first and foremost, a comedy, and a pretty goofy one at that. Between attacks on police officers and grave discussions of the true nature of the law (“it’s a gun pointed at somebody’s head,” says Leopold), Grant spends most of his time vying with Professor Lightcap for the love of his childhood sweetheart, Nora Shelly (played by Jean Arthur, in one of her final movie roles). There are some funny moments, as well as some particularly bizarre ones: why, for instance, does this fugitive from justice make a habit of flinging open his windows every morning to stretch and yawn in the fresh air? But all in all, the film’s awkward balance between broad comedy and sharp social critique just doesn’t quite gel; it is a fascinating failure, not quite a success.
The same could be said for Grant’s performance: a noble effort, and not entirely without appeal, but hardly evidence that in a less restrictive business Grant could have stepped out of his star persona and become some kind of Brandoesque chameleon. Cary Grant was Cary Grant, and it’s no knock to the man’s effortless charisma that a character like Leopold Dilg is a stretch too far. Grant may have made a living out of playing himself, but it was a role he played with unsurpassed charm and ability.
Still, this is a film which justifies its existence simply by remaining an anomaly. With its unique (if uneasy) mixture of comedy and drama, light-hearted romance and semi-serious political commentary, as well as its rich black and white photography, Talk of the Town could not have been made anywhere else but 1940s Hollywood. It’s one of a kind. And that’s more than enough.
The Awful Truth
(Director: Leo McCarey, 1937)
The Awful Truth, meanwhile, sits at the other end of the Cary Grant spectrum: this is a formulaic Grant movie through and through, a veritable textbook example of screwball conventions. And don’t take that the wrong way; The Awful Truth is actually a much more satisfying Cary Grant vehicle than The Talk of the Town, because it lets us observe Grant simply doing what he does best.
Our hero plays Jerry Warriner, one of his seemingly endless series of jolly-but-conniving divorcees, who agrees to a divorce with his wife Lucy (Irene Dunne) amidst doubts of her faithfulness, then proceeds to try and derail their separation before the legalities are made final. The story is hardly Shakespeare. What makes it work, however, is its application. Grant is hilarious in his mischievous attempts to keep Dunne from seeing other people; an early scene where he interrupts a date between Lucy and her new Okie insurance salesman boyfriend Daniel Leeson (played by Ralph Bellamy, who would later appear as a similarly dull rebound beau opposite Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday) is worth the price of admission alone.
Jerry smirks his way in the door under the pretext of “visitation rights” with the couple’s shared dog, Mr. Smith, then goes into the next room and plays the piano loudly while Mr. Smith barks along; Lucy, in the next room, tries desperately to ignore the racket. By the end of the scene, when she angrily storms out of her own apartment while Jerry – now wrestling with the dog on the floor – looks up and grins from ear to ear, it becomes clear that the actors are having just as much fun as we are.
This sense of joy and ease is probably the result of director Leo McCarey’s alleged approach to production, which saw the whole cast and crew virtually improvising The Awful Truth as they went. Most of the time, the man who in 1933 helmed the Marx Brothers’ delirious Duck Soup had the right idea; every actor (and Grant in particular) rattles off their one-liners and deft pratfalls like clockwork, and the first three-fourths of the movie sparkle with an enviable momentum.
It isn’t until the film’s final setpiece that McCarey, Grant and especially Dunne begin to run out of gas: the story and comedy should be coming to a head, with Lucy now vying for a return of Jerry’s affections, but it ends up being simply amusing. The ending, an implausible reconciliation in adjacent rooms of a drafty cabin, fares worse, somehow coming off as simultaneously over-long and under-conclusive.
By and large, however, The Awful Truth is classic screwball Grant: even better, in some moments, than lofty titles like Bringing Up Baby. Sure, the story is so predictable one could practically recite it by rote without even watching the film. The couple find out they’re still in love with each other, of course; they are alternately brought together and driven apart by various twists and misunderstandings, of course; and in the end, Grant gets the girl – of course. But for an example of Grant’s pure magnetism as an actor, an icon and a brand name, recommendations don’t come much higher than this. No, it’s not a stretch. But it’s Cary Fucking Grant…isn’t that enough?
Sony’s Cary Grant DVD box set is out now. Our coverage of these five classic Grant movies will continue tomorrow, with Only Angels Have Wings and Holiday.
Reviewed by Zach Hoskins
This review is also posted on The Modern Pea Pod.