A STUDY IN THE CHARISMA & NONCHALANCE OF CARY GRANT

Very few actors have the ability to balance the dual persona of romantic hero and comedian.  A lot of the time these two persona’s will be played by two actors such as Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Cary Grant however, simultaneously played both romantic hero and comedian (Britton, 1983).  He had the ability to perform Jerry Lewis pratfalls with Dean Martin’s charisma.  He could be funny and still get the girl even when he would play a geek.

Grant’s career spanned from the early 30s through to the late 60s.  Through almost four decades as a screen icon, he went through several phases.  Grant’s most popular films are most likely his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock.  Films such as North by Northwest (1959), Notorious (1946), To Catch a Thief (1955) and Charade (1963) have given him continued popularity with modern mainstream audiences.  However, the Cary Grant Persona was established by the time he made these films.

To understand the appeal of Cary Grant and his persona this investigation will look at his pre-Hitchcock films.  These films were primarily romantic and screwball comedy[1].  The focus here is on Grant’s screwball comedies from the 1930s through to the late 1940s and early 50s. These films utilize Grants skills to better effect than other genres that he worked in.  The Screwball period includes his collaborative efforts with Directors George Stevens, Leo McCarey and Howard Hawks[2].

Leo McCary’s main contribution to Grants persona was Marx Brothers style slapstick.  This was most noticeable in The Awful Truth (1937).  This is the film where Grant began to incorporate his acrobatic training into his cinematic performances.  Before this point, he appeared to be physically stiff.  Good examples can be seen in his Mae West collaborations I’m No Angel and She Done Him Wrong (both 1933).  From Awful Truth onwards he became a very physical comedic actor.

The Persona of Cary Grant was already in its early stages when he made his Howard Hawks films[3].  What these films did was highlight Cary Grants charisma with rapid-fire dialogue and strong leading women such as Irene Dunne and Katherine Hepburn.  The Hawks films are also some of his most popular and enduring comedies.

The screwball comedy not only cultivated the persona but also used the persona as a comedic tool.  For example, in the opening scene of Monkey Business Cary Grant opens a door and attempts to walk out.  Howard Hawks voice is heard saying “Not yet Cary.”  This gag was repeated three times in the opening scene.  The brilliance of this meta-joke is that it makes it clear that you are watching Cary Grant and whatever character he is playing is largely irrelevant.  The Cary Grant persona is what the cinema audiences were paying to see.

The films in question were all Black and White.  They also predate the common usage of the widescreen lens.  All they had to use in these technically modest productions were costuming and basic framing techniques to draw the audience’s attention to the central character.  This is why Cary Grant was often dressed in whites and long coats that made him appear to be taller than his co-stars.  The white suits were a reinvention of the knight in white armour.

A good example would be Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings.  In this film, Grant was dressed in light colours.  These were white and tan clothes as opposed to darker dirtier shades on the other actors.  Hawks filmed him from a low angle looking up.  It was also common for Hawks to position Grant a few feet closer to the camera.  This made Grant look larger than life.  Yet, his character in this particular film was distant from those around him.  Grant appeared to be on a different plain than the rest of the pilots featured.

He was the quintessential Gentleman.  This is different from a ‘ladies man’, a ‘Casanova’ or a general pursuer of women.  Cary Grant represented what few men do.  He had the confidence to make himself subtly unattainable.  If a woman wanted Cary Grant, she would have to work for his affections[4].

Director Peter Bogdanovich once asked Howard Hawks why in his films the women chase Cary Grant.  His response was “Did you ever see anything sillier than a man making a pass?”(Jeremy Northam, 2004).  This is one of the key points to understanding Grant’s persona.  He rarely if ever chased women.  When he did however, there was always another woman chasing him or another man competing with Grant.  For example in George Stevens’ The Talk of the Town (1942), Jean Arthur played a woman caught in a love triangle between two men. In the final moments of the film she tells Cary Grant’s character that the other suitor has proposed.  Cary Grant’s wry response was “He’s a good man.”  In other words, “have a nice life together.”  He proceeds to turn and confidently walks away from her.  Jean Arthur follows him after a brief pause.  She tells him that he is the one she chooses.  In this scene, she was attracted to this man like a magnet.  Why did she choose Cary Grant after he removed himself from the equation?  It is simple.

Most men in these films would either fall into two categories.  The first category of men were the over bearing character types.  They were intent on possessing the female leads.  A good example would be Hugh Marlowe’s character in Monkey Business; he played Grant’s romantic Nemesis vying for Ginger Rogers’s affections.  Then there is the push over types who women could not respect.  A good example would be Ralph Bellamy’s characters in Awful Truth and His Girl Friday.  He often played the fiancé’s of the ex wives that Cary Grant wanted back.  He was always too eager to please.  Cary Grant however was in a different category.  He kept his cards very close to his chest.  He represented the third and most unique character type.  This is category of male is often forgotten.  This was the Gentleman.

The Gentleman is possibly the most misunderstood character in the screwball comedy genre.  In Cary Grant: Comedy and Male Desire (Britton, 1983) the writer argued that Screwball comedy was “the comedy of male chastisement.”  Film Professor Wes Gehring argued that Screwball was an “eccentric battle of the sexes, with the male generally losing” (Gehring, Romantic Vs. Screwball Comedy, 2002, p. 4).  These scholars may have missed the point of what Grant was actually doing on screen.

Screwball romance in this writer’s opinion was more like a game of bluff.  The first to reveal their feelings or make physical contact had the greater interest in that relationship.  By revealing their interest, they give up an element of their power to the other party.  The party that loves the most will always be at a slight disadvantage.  Unfortunately, no two people will ever love each other equally.  One will always love more than their other will.  This may only be a five percent difference.  It is not a drastic difference just a slight tilt of the scales in one persons favour.

In I was a Male War Bride for example, there was a scene in a café where Grant and Ann Sheridan are drinking coffee.  She begins to fall in love and strokes his arm.  Grant remains stoic.  In a wry tone he says, “I should tell you one more thing…  You’re paying for the coffee.”  He was stoic and he was nonchalant.  He existed in his own space.  By remaining self contained and keeping his hands to himself, he epitomised the gentleman.

Grant was predominantly the ‘nice guy’ with the unique ability to say “NO.”  For example in the Mae West film I’m No Angel (1933) she had the power to make any man in the room fall at her feet and give her whatever she wanted.  When it came to Cary Grant and her offer to “come up and see me some time” Cary Grant told her he was busy.  This elevated her interest in Grants character over every man in the film.  He was different because he was indifferent.  He was respectful and he was funny.  Ultimately he was a Gentleman with the highly uncommon character trait that is discipline.  He wanted her and he gets her in the end by removing himself with grace, and maintaining his self-respect.  It was not unlike a poker game where he would hold onto his cards for as long as possible even when he knows that he has a winning hand.  To some viewers this inaction appears to be weak.  However, this nonchalance won the girl by allowing her to think she has won him.  This is an absolute strength and is in no way representative of male chastisement.

Even when his female leads would become hostile or insult him his smile never waivered and his wry wit remained intact.  He was his own man.  This was his erotic appeal.  He understood how to behave.  He appeared to understand that if he gets angry with a woman, he loses.  If he bows down to her, he loses.  When he neutralises the conflict with nonchalance he becomes more attractive.  This is because he is not an easy target and is not an easy catch.  Cary Grant represented the fantasy of the Gentleman.  The fantasy is the unattainability of his persona.  It is to want what you believe you cannot have.

Howard Hawks used the screwball romance formula to lesser effect in Rio Bravo (1959).  In Rio Bravo Angie Dickinson played a girl named Feathers who was John Wayne’s Love interest.  John Wayne’s character always played down his interest in the girl.  This would leave her to pursue him.  The love story used in Rio Bravo was the same formula that Hawks used for Cary Grant.  However, John Wayne did not have the charisma that Grant had. This is not to say John Wayne was without confidence.  It simply means that Cary Grant’s confidence was different.  He would probably be less confident picking up a gun or leading troops into battle as John Wayne would.

What worked for Grant did not work for Wayne even though they had the same director and scriptwriter from Only Angels have Wings (1939).  Therefore, Grant’s appeal was not in the writing.  It was not in the directing.  It was not in the cinematography.  It was in his confidence. It was in his self-control.  Ultimately it was in his ability to challenge and perplex the women around him.  His power was in his self-containment and his autonomy.

He not only had autonomy and absolute command of himself.  He also had a self-conscious self-sufficiency, interpreted as vulnerability.  Despite Grant’s swagger, he did have vulnerability.  He just never revealed it in its full capacity.  He would only ever give his audience and his ‘Leading Ladies’ a whiff of vulnerability.  A mild odour was all that was necessary and Cary Grant appeared to be intuitively aware of exactly how much was required.  This vulnerability showed he was human.  A good example of this was in Only Angels Have Wings.  He played a cantankerous mail pilot running cargo during World War II. This was a great combination of comedy and drama.  This character was darker and drier than the screwball characters that he had played in the past.  This character could have been tough and over bearing, but Grant played this character as a man with a slight chink in his armour.  By only revealing, a hint of vulnerability when indulging in a cigarette he avoids going over the edge into marchioness.  He still maintains the fantasy of the Gentleman.

In My Favourite Wife (1940) for example, Grant plays a recently remarried widower.  His long lost wife (Irene Dunne) returns to discover that her family has moved on with out her after five years.  In the final act after he gets his original wife back, she is still angry with him and resentful.  He asks, “Can’t you see how I feel about you?”  She is indifferent towards him.  He asks her when she wants to see him next.  She tells him in a sarcastically aggressive tone to “come back at Christmas.”  He exits the room and she is lying in bed worried that he will not be back.  There are loud sounds of rustling suitcases and luggage thrown around off screen.  In these moments she is petrified that she has lost the man she loves.  Then Cary Grant re-enters the room in a Santa suit shouting Merry Christmas.  She lights up and hugs him.  The brilliance of this scene was that she had to lose him before she knew how much she truly loved him.  In this scene as well as every film viewed for the purposes of this essay, he never said the words “I love you.”

A scene such as the one above is also a good example of Cary Grant’s physical comedy.  He was capable of performing pratfalls and slapstick.  This style of comedy was usually for the buffoons or the female leads such as Katherine Hepburn’s eccentric character in Bringing up Baby (1938) (Jeremy Northam, 2004).  Cary Grant had the ability to be foolish at times while never becoming the fool.  The Awful Truth is also a good example of this.  He was ‘the dignified folly’.  This is “the ritualistic humiliation of the man” (Gehring, Romantic Vs. Screwball Comedy, 2002).  Dignified silliness was common in Screwball comedy.  The silliness of Monkey Business (1952) for example, escalated in the final act to the point where the whole principle cast are swinging from light shades and playing water fights.

Looking at the wry wit and the nonchalance of his early films through to the outright silliness of War Bride and Monkey Business it is clear that Cary Grant went through several reinventions.  Each reinvention added something new and distinct.  The acrobatic training was already in place from an early age.  The nonchalant attitude towards women was present well before Leo McCarey or Howard Hawks worked with him.  These attributes were already present they just needed refinement.  Cary Grant is the refined version of Archibald Leach. Therefore, Cary Grant may not even exist outside of the persona.  This leads to one final question.  What is Cary Grant?

In this writers opinion Cary Grant is the fantasy of what a man should be.  A man should be confident, self-contained, witty, slightly unattainable and nonchalant.  However, very few men can maintain these qualities twenty-four hours a day. Even Cary Grant could not live up to the persona he created.

In one of his final appearances during a live series of lectures titled An Evening With Cary Grant he reportedly said, “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant…  Even I want to be Cary Grant.”

Bibliography

Britton, A. (1983). Cary Grant: Comedy and Male Desire. Newcastle, NSW: Tyneside Cinema.

Hawks, H. (Director). (1938). Bringing Up Baby [Motion Picture]. USA: Universal.

Hawks, H. (Director). (1952). Monkey Business [Motion Picture]. wentieth Century Fox.

McCarey, L. (Producer), & Kanin, G. (Director). (1940). My Favourite Wife [Motion Picture]. RKO Radio Pictures.

Ruggles, W. (Director). (1933). I’m No Angel [Motion Picture]. USA: Paramount Pictures.

Sherman, L. (Director). (1933). She Done Him Wrong [Motion Picture]. USA: Paramount Pictures.

Charles Lederer, B. H. (Writer), & Hawk, H. (Director). (1940). His Girl Friday [Motion Picture]. USA.

Dale, A. (2000). Comedy is a Man in Trouble. Minesota, USA: University of Minesota Press.

Gehring, W. D. (2005). Leo McCarey: From Marx to McCarthy. Toronto: Scarecrow Press.

Gehring, W. D. (2002). Romantic Vs. Screwball Comedy. Oxford, UK: Scarecrow Press.

Hawks, H. (Director). (1940). His Girl Friday [Motion Picture]. USA: Columbia Pictures.

Hawks, H. (Director). (1949). I was a Male Warbride [Motion Picture]. USA: Twentieth Century Fox.

Stevens, G. (Director). (1942). Talk of the Town [Motion Picture]. Columbia Pictures.

Harvey, J. (1987). Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, from Lubitsch to Sturgess. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Hawk’s, H. (Director). (1938). Bringing Up Baby [Motion Picture]. USA.

Trachtenberg, R. (Director). (2004). Cary Grant: A Class Apart [Motion Picture]. USA: Turner Classic Movies.


[1] The basic difference between Romantic and Screwball comedy is that Screwball has an unpredictable element such as rapid fire dialogue and faster pacing.

[2] Howard Hawks was a screenwriter, director and producer during Hollywoods golden years.  Leo McCarey was equally famous in his day through his work with the Marx Brothers and his unique approach to filmmaking and improvisation.

[3] The Howard Hawks films were His Girl Friday (1940), Bringing up Baby (1938) and When Angels have Wings (1940), “Monkey Business (1952) and I was a Male War Bride (1949).

[4] This is not to say Grant was rude or disrespectful.  In reality, he may have been rude and obnoxious in his personal life. Some rumours even claimed Grant and Randolph Scott had a sexual relationship.  Whatever Cary Grant did in his personal life is irrelevant to this discussion.  What is of importance is his screen persona.

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Posted on May 25, 2012, in Essays and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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