Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Cary Grant

It’s that time again to profile a classic Hollywood star by briefly looking at 4 of their films. Today’s centerpiece is Archibald Leach more commonly remembered as Cary Grant, the suave, debonair, screwball extraordinaire who groomed himself into one of Hollywood’s preeminent leading men.

Philadelphia Story (1940)

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He’s rude and obnoxious and yet something about him makes it hard for Katharine Hepburn to say no to her old beau even as he tries to scandalize her latest marriage. The dynamics between Grant, Hepburn, and Stewart are what you dream for with such a pairing. While you’re at it, Bringing Up Baby is a must.

His Girl Friday (1940)

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This is a true Cary Grant tour de force as he whizzes through the newsroom sparring with his old matrimonial partner in crime Rosalind Russell. Their verbal jousts are truly frenetic poetry, and the turbulence they churn up is some of the best conflict any screwball comedy was ever blessed with. The Awful Truth and The Favorite Wife with Irene Dunne are swell as well.

Notorious (1946)

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He’s always a bit of a debonair or lovable cad. In this one there’s no pretense. As the callous government agent Devlin, he makes Ingrid Bergman cry. This total revision of his persona is powerful, and it would lay the groundwork for one of the great Hitchcock movies. Not only that, their amorous kiss fest would slyly obliterate Hollywood convention.

North By Northwest (1959)

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What makes him so great in North By Northwest is how ordinary and amicable his Roger Thornhill is only to be thrown pell-mell into a cross-country murder plot. The advertising exec finds himself fleeing from the authorities and the perpetrators in this delightful man-on-the-run pulse-pounder.

Worth Watching:

Holiday, Only Angels Have Wings, Gunga Din, Suspicion, Talk of The Town, The Bishop’s Wife, People Will Talk, To Catch a Thief, An Affair to Remember, Indiscreet, Charade, and many more!

Show Boat (1936)

ShowboatposterMost of what I know about riverboats can be gleaned from Mark Twain, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates, and that ever beloved Snoopy incarnation The World Famous River Boat Gambler. The 1936 musical Show Boat falls into that very same rich tradition but some clarification is in order.

In truth, this is not the most remembered or even the first adaptation, for that matter, of the wildly popular stage hit of the 1920s. Those laurels go to the 1951 version starring Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel and then the original partial-talkie released in 1927. But it’s easy to go out on a limb and reckon this is the best of the lot.

James Whale noted for such reputed monster movies as Frankenstein and The Invisible Man proves an equally compelling helmsman of musicals. Here his obvious attention to period authenticity is highlighted making the riverboat world of Missippi circa the 1880s incredibly atmospheric.

The story starts exactly where its title suggests with a Show Boat and the traveling crew of performers who turn up in every town to add a little gaiety and charm into every man, woman, and child’s life. The personable mastermind of it all Cap’n Andy Hawks promises big things to the general public who turn out in droves to get a chance on the entertainment.

But as is the case with any such narrative the true meat and potatoes is either on the stage with every song and dance or behind the curtains where people are living life and trying to get by the best they know how. Hawk’s wife is constantly nagging him and demanding that their daughter never become an actor. Instead, young Magnolia (Irene Dunne) is relegated to sit behind the piano.

Still, there is another plot thread with major implications on the contemporary constitution of race relations. I personally had no idea what was at the core of Edna Ferber’s Show Boat. I assumed it was only a musical perhaps bred in the rather sorry tradition of Gone with the Wind and other such pictures when it comes to depictions of African-Americans.

It’s true that there are some of those stereotypes present but this is a surprisingly forward-thinking narrative at first because at its core is miscegenation–in simpler terms the marriage of a white man with a woman of color. The two tragic lovers are actually depicted in a sensitive light while at the same time giving Magnolia her break with their sudden ignominious departure in the midst of the public scandal.

Still, in this small way,  it’s not unlike Ferber’s later work Giant in how it begins to dissect the hypocrisy in society. For his part, singing giant and future blacklist casualty Paul Robeson’s epic rendition of Old Man River is one of the true capstones of the film imbuing the story with even more meaning and power. For another minor instant, it seems like the point of view of the downtrodden and marginalized is, at the very least, being acknowledged and given a place of significance. as if to say even for a split second that there are dignity and worth there.

Of course, it loses all the credibility it could have in one regrettable stage number where the happy notes make the blackface feel even more abhorrent. Though I have no major qualms enjoying this movie on a whole, any discussion must come with a substantial caveat.

In its second half, Show Boat does admittedly succumb to some pacing problems hitting its peak early on and slowly dropping off from its frenzied and energetic openings to more wistful conclusions that are understandingly less diverting even purely from a tonal perspective. It seems to even acknowledge its own weaknesses by condensing decades for the sake of time and the audience’s attention span.

It all began with lively commotion, spirited passion, and young love. In the end, it settles for a sentimental reunion of two lovers torn apart by destitution and time itself. It’s a lovely feel-good conclusion but it’s not nearly as satisfying as it could have been if Show Boat had kept its steam from the starting gates.

Though this is far from being Irene Dunne’s greatest role, she still gives a winning performance that memorably showcases her vocal training opposite her romantic co-star the rich-toned tenor Allan Jones.  As a side note, she also exhibits the most unique churning dance you’ve seen rather like a caterpillar in a dress–only surpassed by Lauren Bacall’s shoulder shimmy in To Have and Have Not.

Still, Paul Robeson stands as one of the titans of this film. I hope he got the respect that he deserved for this role and if nothing else time seems to have honored him as “Old Man River” still remains one of the great musical numbers out there.

4/5 Stars

I Remember Mama (1948)

I-remember-mama-1948_poster.jpgInitially, I Remember Mama comes off underwhelmingly. It’s overlong, there’s little conflict, and some of the things the story spends time teasing out seem odd and inconsequential at best. Still, within that framework is a narrative that manages to be rewarding for its utter sincerity in depicting the life of one family–a family that feels foreign in some ways and oh so relatable in many others.

In this case, the Hanson’s are a family of Norwegian immigrants circa 1910 and the story gleaning inspiration from two earlier works features a post-war George Stevens at the helm with Irene Dunne anchoring the cast as the titular character.

And it’s true that the film is rather like a eulogy, memorializing this woman who was such a strong, stalwart example despite her unassuming ways. It is her daughter Katrin (Barbara Bel Geddes) who looks back fondly at her mother, as she, now being an author sees her mama as a worthy protagonist for a story. Because, after all, this is their story, personal, individual, and unique.

The film feels anecdotal as much as it is serial, taking galvanizing moments, little snippets of that time and place and crafting a very distinct picture of what life was like back then. And that’s part of the simplistic beauty of I Remember Mama just like Marta Hanson herself.

In the opening moments, the adult Katrin recounts vividly the evenings at the dining room table where the whole family would gather around to count out the weekly expenses. They scrimp and squeak by with the meager funds at hand so mama never has to go to the bank. Meanwhile, the timid Aunt Trina (Ellen Corby) looks to marry the local undertaker and she calls on her sister to rein in their two other sisters Sigrid and Jenny who are both rather unfeeling.

Other happenings include the entrance of the boisterously quirky Uncle Chris who blusters his way into their lives initially frightening the children with his antics which secretly mask a generous spirit. Young Dagmar subsequently goes in for an operation and Mama goes to visit her breaking hospital protocol to keep a promise to her little girl. This instance reflects exactly the character that Marta imbues.

She also appreciates the influence of the families’ elderly lodger Mr. Hyde who reads each evening from his many editions of classic literature from Dickens and “Fenimore Kipling” as mama recounts erroneously. She sees this as a gift not only to herself but also her children, opening them up to thoughts, ideas, and even a little bit of culture that she can never give them. The fact that he leaves behind his books in lieu of rent receives only her gratitude while her sisters become puffed up with contempt.

Again and again, she exemplifies that almost all-knowing love of a parent. While never perfect, there’s an innate understanding of what is best for each one of her kids and she is continually willing to work and sacrifice for the sake of her family. To say what those things are would be precisely against the ethics of such a person as Mrs. Hanson and so I will refrain. See them for yourself and you too will understand as Katrin does what makes this woman great.

This is yet another feather in the cap of Irene Dunne, confirming my belief that she is one of the most underrated actresses of the 20th century. At times she’s almost unrecognizable hidden behind that accent and a certain amount of stern, straightforward, and still motherly charm. Look at her character and you see a woman of such a phenomenal stock and integrity.

Nicolas Musuracas’ crisp black & white photography lends an authenticity to the San Francisco street corners as well as the interiors helping to develop a healthy aura of nostalgia. And you get the sense, that perhaps George Stevens was intent on tapping into a bit of that old-fashioned goodness because the post-war world was a far different, far darker place. I Remember Mama is a film of tremendous virtue and inextinguishable light.

There’s also a bit of a personal connection to this film as well because half of my ancestors were, themselves, Norwegian immigrants. Although I doubt they came through San Francisco there are some familiar touchstones and it’s easy to imagine that these people pictured up on the screen could share the contours and backgrounds of my own kin from bygone generations. Wishful thinking perhaps but it’s also incredibly exciting and that’s part of the reason that I left this story feeling as if I gained something from it.

So Stevens and Dunne succeed excellently with what they set out to achieve providing a character study that is nuanced and still evocative in its pure depiction of the sacrificial love of a parent. Some would say that there’s no greater love than that.

4/5 Stars

 

Penny Serenade (1941)

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Irene Dunne still remains one of the most underrated actresses of the 20th century. She was both a lively comedienne, an impressive singer, and performed in melodrama better than most. Pair her with Cary Grant and director George Stevens and you have an impressive bulwark to build a film out of.

I disdain the rather condescending term “Woman’s Picture,” but if Mildred Pierce was one of the darkest exemplars of the genre than Penny Serenade might be one of the most heartfelt. It finds its inspiration in the revolving melodies of records on a Victrola. It’s true that music is so very powerful in evoking emotion and it is precisely these songs that lend themselves to Julie Gardiner’s myriad memories. They began when she initially met the love of her life, a budding journalist who was not too keen on getting hitched or the future prospect of having kids. But Roger’s career took him to Asia and he tied the knot with Julie because he was not about to let another man take her away from him.

The rest of the film can best be described as a marital drama concerned with the many moments that make up a marriage. The thrill of the honeymoon period. The little marital tiffs. The tough times when your fledgling self-run paper is not doing the best. The struggles of trying to have kids or wanting to adopt and realizing the process is far more arduous than you first expected. All of these moments can be found in Penny Serenade. But it is one of the sweetest that also becomes the most heartbreaking.

Julie and Roger get the child that they so desire and it’s hard and trying and oh so scary, but they make a go of it and truly revel in being parents. But even that joy is taken away from them. It’s that same pain that shakes the foundations of their marriage just like the deadly earthquake they experienced in Japan. Once more amidst the heartbreaking tremors, there are wonderful revelations and an ultimate resolution that is good.

It’s true that Penny Serenade is overlong, lacking a great deal of substantial conflict or direction but it certainly plays to its strengths. The third time around Grant and Dunne continue their impeccable chemistry that carries the film alongside the direction of George Stevens who always seems to know how to helm both drama and comedy with ease. And the secondary roles are filled out marvelously by the always venerable Beulah Bondi and a noticeably younger Edgar Buchannan playing his usual old softie with a gravelly voice.

So if you’re in a sentimental mood tune into Penny Serenade a film that is less of a classic than a film that rides on the laurels of its main players who elevate the storyline above the normal fray through sheer charisma and ingenuity. While Grant is always remembered as a comedic actor, there are several notable heart-wrenching sequences where he taps into a different side of his persona.  In the end, having Cary Grant and Irene Dunne together again is worth it in itself.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: The Awful Truth (1937)

theawfultruth2The Awful Truth came out of a trend that was in vogue during the 1930s. It’s called a comedy of “remarriage.” During the Hays Code era, it allowed films to nimbly skirt the whole issue of divorce and extramarital romance. We would see it again in the more remembered screwball His Girl Friday and various other forms as My Favorite Wife and The Lady Eve.

However, when I first saw this film I was floored by its pure comic fun that pushed Cary Grant’s persona into the public eye for the first time and made me consider Irene Dunne one of the most underrated actresses that I can possibly conjure up. I try not to use the Oscars to define the greatness of a film or star, but for her, I’ll break the rule. She got nominated for Best Actress 5 times and never won.  To call her a Jean Arthur-type is rather condescending given both stars’ magnitude, and I will say she easily gives Katharine Hepburn at least a run for Cary Grant’s best romantic partner. She was an unexpected joy of beauty perfectly wed with comedic wit.

I was afraid that with that element of surprise gone the film would lose some of its mystique. True, perhaps it was not as magical this time around, but I will still acknowledge the merit of The Awful Truth as an often under-appreciated gem of a comedy. Director Leo McCarey came into his element in 1937 with this film and Make Way for Tomorrow. They are starkly different pictures, but here he embraces the tension, the awkwardness, and everything else that makes comedy transcendent. And there is hardly anyone more transcendent than Cary Grant.

His smirks, which would be recycled for His Girl Friday and numerous other films, are universal. His adeptness with pratfalls and physical comedy are fully on display, and he simply had smashingly good chemistry with Dunne. Every time they throw a jab and the sparks begin to fly you know how much they care for each other, just like two of Ralph Bellamy’s chickens madly in love. A great deal of their success could undoubtedly be attributed to McCarey who gave them very little actual script to work with and forced them into ad-libbing scenes. The results speak for themselves.

In truth, the film begins quite innocently enough before evolving into an utterly acrimonious divorce proceeding, ending with a bitter fight for their prized pooch Mr. Smith (Asta of Thin Man fame). The second round goes to Grant as he plays third wheel with Lucy’s new air-headed, Texas beau Dan (Ralph Bellamy). He makes a new acquaintance of a southern belle who just happens to be a nightclub singer. Her performance is an awkward affair crossing Gone with the Wind with Marilyn Monroe‘s antics in The Seven Year Itch. We could take or leave her little ditty, but the reactions from our stars are priceless. On top of that, Grant shows his tumbling prowess a couple times, while also having a lark with Mr. Smith in the home of his old love and hiding behind doors at all the inopportune times. Lucy can’t seem to get rid of him and by the end of it all, she doesn’t quite want to.

Round three goes to Dunne as she tries to find a way to weasel her way back into Jerry’s life. He’s about to be wed to a high-brow socialite, but Lucy gets into the mix by masquerading as Jerry’s screwy sister. It’s an inspired bit of ditziness that Dunne plays to a tee, being the remarkable comedienne that she is. Meanwhile, the whole well-to-do family looks on rather stink-eyed, as Grant and Dunne spar back and forth. She’s trying to mess things up, he’s trying to keep all the plates from toppling as he attempts to maintain all his covers stories. It’s fit to be a disaster.

The final act is the most wistful because time is winding down and we know what that means. Jerry and Lucy won’t be married anymore. But they both still love each other, they just won’t say anything for fear that this is a one-way street. Happy endings abound in an old cabin in the woods. There, creaky doors, kitty cats, and cuckoo clocks spell wedding bells. And they go out on top, together again, in one bed. Grant and Dunne remained a phenomenal screen couple for a couple more films, but this original offering from McCarey was undoubtedly their best.

4.5/5 Stars

My Favorite Wife (1940)

My_Favorite_Wife_posterThis is a film that I arrived at by a rather roundabout route indeed. Let me explain. I genuinely loved Cary Grant and Irene Dunne’s chemistry in The Awful Truth, but I wanted to watch My Favorite Wife before moving onto their final film together Penny Serenade. Time passed and I found two other films.

First, Something’s Got to Give which was Marilyn Monroe‘s final project that remained unfinished after her death. Only about 30 minutes were completed and it was scrapped, only to be reincarnated a year later as a Doris Day vehicle co-starring James Garner. Being a fan of Day and especially of the late-great Garner, I had to indulge in this romantic comedy Move Over, Darling.

All that is to say that the Monroe film and ultimately the Doris Day film were both based on this same basic plot. A man just recently gets married only to learn that his wife who has been missing for seven years is alive. He must figure out how to break it to his new wife, only to learn that she was shipwrecked on a tropical island with a strapping young man.

After three renditions it certainly feels over-trod, but the beauty of each adaptation is that they only have this basic framework intact. A lot of the really juicy bits are filled out by the cast. Of course, your stars change. Because James Garner is no Dean Martin is no Cary Grant. And the same goes for Monroe, Day, and Dunne. However, the same goes for the crotchety judge, the desk clerk at the hotel, the bookish shoe salesman who takes part in a deception, or even the friendly neighborhood insurance salesman.

It becomes a fun game of compare and contrast, but these different performances also free you up to watch these films on their own merit and enjoy that three times over. I have found myself to often be a proponent of characters over plot and this is another case of that.

Grant and Dunne are a lot of fun together once more even if I have seen these predicaments before because Day and Garner are great to watch, but for different reasons. And of course, all the locales and fashion trends changed a lot in two decades.

Also, I will not pass judgment on who my favorite wife was out of the three and, truth be told, I saw them out of order — I would usually pick the original. In this rendition, the judge played by Granville Bates was a real scene stealer so I was sorry to discover he passed away the same year and had very few other roles.

My only question is, would this film have been propelled to greater status if Leo McCarey had been able to direct it? Also, I am now excited I finally feel clear to watch Penny Serenade and I might just have to go back and revisit The Awful Truth because it has been a while.

3.5/5 Stars

An Affair to Remember (1956)

anaffairto2An Affair to Remember (1956) has always been noted as a great American romance as far as I can ever remember, and I figured out that part of that was because it gets a mention in Sleepless in Seattle (1993). Whatever the reason, I finally got around to watching it and it is certainly an enjoyable weepy. Any film with Cary Grant as a romantic lead is usually, at the very least, charming and this one is too. He is a famed man on an ocean liner who has finally gone and gotten himself hitched. It’s big news and as soon as the ship touches down he is going to meet his love.

Quite by chance, he meets Deborah Kerr’s character and they are immediately taken with each other. Soon their friendship grows into an affectionate romance, and yet they feel uncomfortable in front of the other passengers who seem to be watching their every move with interest. They both know that once the boat reaches New York things will not be the same between them for some time.

anaffairto4And so it is, but they had made one last plan to meet each other at the top of the Empire State Building. Grant makes it, but Kerr is detained for a very good reason. After seeing her in an awkward situation at the theater, Grant resolves to go see her and get to the bottom of what happened. It’s a tearful, albeit happy, reunion as they come back together.

If any of this feels familiar, like a rerun, that’s because it is. Leo McCarey actually made An Affair to Remember (1956) as a scene for scene remake of his earlier film Love Affair (1939). I never thought I’d say that I like a film with Charles Boyer more than a comparable one with Cary Grant, but it’s the truth. I’m not sure if it’s because I saw it first or that the film feels more intimate, but I really enjoyed Love Affair. An Affair to Remember is certainly elegant in color and Deborah Kerr gives a fine performance, but I was personally blown away by Irene Dunne as an actress. In fact, back in the day, Dunne worked quite a bit with Cary Grant (The Awful Truth, My Favorite Wife, and Penny Serenade).

So my advice is, go back and give Love Affair a watch. It’s still by McCarey with much of the same story so it’s really a personal preference what film you like more.

3.5/5 Stars

Love Affair (1939)

Love Affair (1939)Imagine meeting someone through a porthole, that’s what happens in this film when a gust of wind sends Michel Marnet’s letter flying. The lady who is kind enough to return it is the friendly Terry McKay. The two acquaintances enjoy each others company and strike up a friendship in the few days before they dock in New York. Both of them have fiancees waiting for them. They begin seeing a lot of each other, but they also start to notice that the other passengers are looking on.

One day they make a stop and Michel pays a quick visit to his grandmother. Terry agrees to come along and strikes up a fast friendship with the elderly woman who really likes her. As they get close to New York Michel and Terry agree to meet in 6 months at the top of the Empire State Building. By then he will know if he can carry a job to support her. So it goes.

The 6 months finally passes and the time of the meeting arrives. An excited Terry rushes off to “get married” but tragedy strikes. Michel waits all alone and she never shows. For a long while they lose all contact as Terry recuperates and Michel continues to paint while nursing a broken heart. When he finally tracks her down, they share a slightly awkward introduction. In a marvelous sequence, Michel tells her about how “he” missed the meeting and apologizes for what “she” must have gone through. She knows what happened now, but Terry still will not tell him what happened to her, because she did not want to be a burden. In a eureka moment, Michel figures it out and goes to embrace his love. As she did the whole film, Terry accepts the hardship and meets it with a joyful heart.

Love Affair is just that, but it fails to lower itself to uninhibited passion and romance without any substance of character. Its leads are not that superficial. They are better than that and certainly more complex. In all honesty, I never have been a big fan of Charles Boyer. I see his appeal as a suave, debonair Frenchmen with an accent, but he never did anything for me. Here I saw him as more than a playboy. He filled that expectation at first, but the scenes with his kindly grandmother and then when he thinks Terry have forgotten him, show a softer, more vulnerable side.

I do not quite know why, but Irene Dunne is especially enjoyable to watch. Whether it is her skill as a comedienne with comic timing or the expressions on her face, I find her endearing every moment on the screen. She makes me smile just as she smiles. In many ways, she reminds me of another actress of the 1930s, Jean Arthur. However, Arthur I know far better because of films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. With Dunne, I have seen very little and yet I have been so impressed by her. Love Affair was another film that proved her genial appeal.

Furthermore, Leo McCarey does not get enough credit, because he is a great director with some great films to his name like The Awful Truth. He would later remake Love Affair as An Affair to Remember, which was a success in itself.

4/5 Stars

The Awful Truth (1937)

99f81-theawfultruth1937Starring Irene Dunne and Cary Grant, the film revolves around a couple after they split up over unfounded assumptions of unfaithfulness. The divorce is granted and after the wife gains custody of the beloved dog Mr. Smith, the 90 day waiting period begins. First she tries to get over him by spending time with a kind but dimwitted man from Oklahoma. Then Grant gets involved, and at first he gets enjoyment seeing his wife uncomfortable, but he soon becomes a bit jealous and sad. He then takes up his own relationship with an heiress and on the eve of their divorce they seem to be parting ways. However, Dunne’s character will not let it end that easily and she poses as his sister, eventually getting him away from his fiancee. Needless to say that in the end they get back together. This screwball comedy has very funny dialogue and Grand does some wonderful slapstick. It probably is one of my favorites from the genre.

4.5/5 Stars