Suave, gracious, debonair — he personifies the idealized world of American cinema.
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There are a number of actors who come to mind when someone says the words “classical Hollywood” — Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Clark Gable, Rock Hudson. These are the people who lit up movie screens throughout the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, when Hollywood was establishing itself as the most powerful and efficient producer of movies in the world.
But there is one actor who especially represents everything Hollywood stood for during that era : Archibald Alec Leach, better known as Cary Grant.
Although born in England, Grant has come to personify American cinema in the “classical” era. He is one of the most recognizable and critically beloved Hollywood actors of all time. He perfectly embodied the idealized vision of America that Hollywood sought to portray — in which men are noble, witty, and successful, and everything works out perfectly in the end. His appearance, his mannerisms, his line delivery, and the roles he chose all contributed to his cinematic persona, which audiences saw as the perfect American male.
Not only was Grant a prolific actor, appearing in dozens of iconic films, but he also cultivated a brilliant star persona, which followed him off screen, as well. Movie stars are vital to American cinema — those men and women whose lives we eagerly follow both on screen and off. Those people we elevate to the status of “star,” so that they seem mythical and no longer human. Grant gracefully embodied the role of “movie star,” and to this day is thought of as an American screen legend.
The classical era of Hollywood is where American mainstream cinema began — films today still follow the basic structure and style that they did in the ’30s and ’40s. According to David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson in their incredibly detailed textbook “The Classical Hollywood Cinema,” American films focus on continuity, clarity, and coherence. With the advent of narrative cinema in the 1910s and ’20s, films began featuring psychologically cohesive characters, and linear plot lines with neat resolutions. These basic patterns of narrative filmmaking were perfected in the ’30s and ’40s, when synchronized sound became widespread.
Most films followed these structural and narrative patterns, where characters were noble and always got what they wanted in the end. In a sense, the classical Hollywood cinema constructed a vision of the American Dream where everything works out in the end for the good guys. Hollywood films were so widely seen that it was simple for the industry to spread its ideology about what an ideal version of America would look like. The stars who populated these films also came to represent the American ideal.
Grant starred in dozens of films before he began to be noticed and appreciated by critics and audiences alike. Another aspect of American film stardom which he represents is that he began as a struggling actor. Benjamin Schwarz of The Atlantic points out that he failed to distinguish himself as an actor before he finally came into his own with The Awful Truth. Schwarz also notes that Grant was a vaudevillian from the time he was 14 to when he was 23. He performed acrobatics, juggling, mime, and stilt walking — difficult, strenuous tasks which allowed him to later perfect his sense of physical comedy and comedic timing.
It is often the case that beloved American actors begin as struggling artists and eventually break into the industry and find fame, fortune, and adoration. Success stories such as this add to the magical quality of movie stars, as audiences are inspired by their stories and assume movie stars have a special quality which allowed them to overcome that which most people cannot: poverty and strife.
Grant left behind a life of unremarkable roles when his contract at Paramount ended and he began choosing his own parts. Schwarz notes that Grant was one of the first freelance actors freed from the chains of the studios, and that in his middle age, Grant lamented that he lacked the “daring and abandon” necessary for taking risks in his youth. However, this hardly matters as he provided some of the most iconic performances in Hollywood history once he began choosing his own parts.
The American capitalist ideal focuses on the idea that those who work hard are successful, and deserve to be so. One reason movie stars are so revered is that they are in the center of the public eye at all times, both on screen and off, as they live their daily lives. They are paid exorbitant amounts of money, and the public comes to believe that this is justified in the name of rewarding good, hard work. Audiences idolize movie stars because they are glamorous and rich, and revere them for being able to break free from a dull life worrying about money.
Another way in which Grant personifies American cinema is through his acting range. He starred in many different kinds of films — comedies, romances, suspense, war, and action films, as well as those which combined two or more of these genres. His laid-back, witty acting style worked perfectly in any genre, and he could seamlessly transition from being serious to being lighthearted and goofy.
One of Grant’s first iconic roles was in Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby, in which he played Dr. David Huxley, a paleontologist. Bringing Up Baby is considered one of the greatest screwball comedies in American history, and Grant has great chemistry with Katherine Hepburn as they find themselves in ridiculous, dangerous, and hilarious situations. Grant and Hepburn play a game of tug of war in the film, each one acting crazier than the other until they finally end up together in the end. The film features a leopard, Grant dressed in drag, dinosaur bones, and a very prolonged jail sequence.
Some of Grant’s best work was with Hawks, who is one of the quintessential directors of the classical Hollywood era. Hawks crafted perfectly linear, witty, fast-paced, patriotic films which American audiences (and, evidently, French audiences) fell in love with. In 1939, Grant starred in Only Angels Have Wings with Jean Arthur. This film portrays the professional camaraderie between pilots who deliver mail in South America.
Grant’s character, Geoff Carter, is a take-charge, independent, and brave man, representing the ideal American male. He is professional, putting his work above anything else — particularly romance, which takes a back seat while he manages the other pilots he works with. Of course, this being a Hollywood film, there is a heterosexual love story in which the two main characters realize that love is more powerful than anything. Hollywood films always end with a perfect resolution — Carter asks Bonnie (Arthur) to stay with him by giving her a coin with heads on both sides and telling her to flip a coin to decide whether or not to leave.
Hawks’s films frequently focus on men and women who are completely dedicated to their careers. Professional men and women found friendship and romance among their co-workers in his movies. His characters are hard-working and highly intelligent. Grant fit perfectly into Hawks’s vision of America. In 1940, Grant starred in His Girl Friday as Walter Burns, opposite Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson. His Girl Friday is yet another of Hawks’s classic screwball comedies, and is particularly remembered for its fast-paced and extremely witty dialogue. Schwarz notes that Grant’s blend of American and English accents combined with subtle phrasing and sharp diction allowed him to deliver lines “with a precise sparkle never equalled.”
Pauline Kael wrote that Grant was a rare Hollywood actor who allowed his female co-stars to flourish and blossom, turning them into “comic goddesses.” In His Girl Friday, Grant and Russell consistently treat each other as equals. Their playful verbal sparring is a form of affection between them, and it is clear that Grant listens intently to everything Russell says and plays off her line delivery flawlessly. Grant was never one to talk over or dismiss women, but rather he listened to them and, as Kael noted, paid attention to their idiosyncrasies and unique personal traits, rather than simply their looks.
His incredible skill as a romantic lead is never more evident than in George Cukor’s 1940 masterpiece, The Philadelphia Story. Once again Grant stars opposite Hepburn, and the two carry on their playful relationship which began with Sylvia Scarlett in 1935. Grant plays Hepburn’s ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven, a man who both annoys her and understands her. Their banter throughout the movie implies a deep affection after years of knowing one another intimately, which any lesser actors could not easily portray.
Despite being divorced, the two still have a close relationship and flirt with one another throughout the film. The Philadelphia Story is particularly funny and interesting because Hepburn’s character, Tracy Lord, has so much agency and finds herself torn between three men with barely any guilt. In the end, of course, she chooses Dexter — who could possibly resist Grant’s charms?
Another iconic Hollywood director Grant worked with on a number of occasions is Alfred Hitchcock. What is interesting about this combination is that both men are originally British but did their most successful film work in Hollywood and eventually became synonymous with American cinema. Grant first worked with Hitchcock on the 1941 romantic thriller Suspicion, with Joan Fontaine (who won an Academy Award for her performance!).
Then in 1946, he starred in Notorious with Ingrid Bergman, wherein he plays a government agent who becomes entangled in espionage, which is further complicated by romance. This is one of Grant’s most serious and romantic roles, and both he and Bergman’s commitment to their characters make it one of the most passionate romances in a Hitchcock film. In these collaborations with Hitchcock, Grant proved that not only is he incredibly talented in comedies, but he can also be serious and portray darker emotions.
In 1955’s To Catch a Thief, Grant plays a retired cat burglar who must track down a new copy-cat burglar in order to prove his innocence. In this film, he is funny, cunning, charming, and physically dexterous. After seeing this film, I personally believe Grant could have made a perfect James Bond.
Perhaps Grant’s most iconic Hitchcock role is in 1959’s North by Northwest. Of course, the film is best remembered for the showdown scene set atop Mount Rushmore, but the entire thing is a brilliant espionage thriller, indicative of the types of movies that were popular in America in the late ’50s and early ’60s (just ahead of the 007 series). Grant is the perfect spy thriller hero — he has brilliant and graceful physicality, a perfect sense of comic timing, and the emotional intelligence to portray a man confused and torn by his professional and romantic predicaments.
Richard Dyer notes in his book “Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society” that Grant was the kind of movie star who mastered both the professional and public worlds of Hollywood. He was incredibly mannered and could only be described as “suave, gracious, debonair, sophisticated, and charming.” He was stylish, respectful towards his female co-stars, and mastered every role he was given, once he had perfected his Cary Grant persona in the late ’30s.
Schwarz describes his acting style thusly: “…the detached, distracted wit; the knowing charm; the arch self-mockery; the bemused awareness of his audience, with whom he was sharing a joke (a quality that simultaneously made him cool and warm); the perfectly timed stylized comedic movements…”
Grant maintained this onscreen persona across many films, applying it to all kinds of genres and directorial styles. He has the mythic, mysterious qualities all great movie stars had in the classical Hollywood era, and fit perfectly into the hyper-masculine lead roles he was given. For better or for worse, Grant personifies an incredibly influential period of American cinema, and his body of work remains timeless.