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Bringing up Cary.

AS A FILM PROFESSOR and writer, I often am asked who my favorite actor is. Cary Grant is the reply every time. My fascination is born of a performer who combined a romantic leading man's suave good looks with broad physical comedy skills. New Yorker critic Pauline Kael observes, "The assurance "[Grant] gained in slapstick turned him into the smoothie he had aspired to be. He brought elegance to low comedy, and [it] gave him the corky common-man touch that made him a great star." One cannot emphasize enough the double-edged insight of this statement--a slapstick marriage that both elevated low comedy and gave Grant a touch of the Everyman. We so wanted to believe that we could be like him!

This physical comedy polish is what separates Grant from the slapstick shenanigans of Henry Fonda in the acclaimed "The Lady Eve" (1941). While both actors are at home in this genre, Grant radiates a sex appeal that Fonda and other physical comedy-oriented male screwball alumni cannot muster. Fittingly, Grant sometimes has been labeled slapstick's Prince Charming. Moreover, while a pratfall from Fonda, or the screwball male of your choice, often makes the viewer feel affectionately superior, the Grant physical miscue merely adds to what Film Comment's David Thomson calls his "perplexed intelligence."

One should hasten to comment that while Grant has slapstick moments in other genres (such as his Alfred Hitchcock thrillers, or an action adventure like "Gunga Din," 1939), screwball comedy is both where it was born and best utilized as part of his screen persona. This is the focus of Grant's early years in Hollywood as his knockabout exuberance perfectly matched an equally youthful comedy type bent on distracting the nation from the Great Depression. When a markedly older Grant returned to screwball in 1952's "Monkey Business," his still youthful energy level now needed an explanation--which was provided by way of a plot point about discovering an elixir of youth.

Regardless, Grant put his stamp on screwball comedy like no other performer. In the genre's heyday, he seemed to appear in every other watershed film. These pivotal movies included "Topper" and "The Awful Troth" (both 1937), "Holiday" and "Bringing Up Baby" (both 1938), and "His Girl Friday" and "My Favorite Wife" (both 1940). In the postwar era, when screwball comedy waned, he starred in two excellent revisionist works--"I Was a Male War Bride" (1949) and "Monkey Business." However, shifting entertainment tastes made "romantic" a more marketable style than "screwball."

Whereas screwball comedy places its emphasis on funny, the more traditional romantic comedy accents love. Put another way, the screwball genre represents America's distinctive take on farce--accenting broad physical comedy and ludicrous events. Thus, "Bringing Up Baby" chronicles the inspired misadventures of Grant and Katharine Hepburn as they scour the Connecticut countryside for a misplaced dinosaur bone and a pet leopard!

Romantic comedy, though, is more reality-based, with little or no slapstick, and a proclivity for somber plot developments. An unforgettable example would be Grant's later "An Affair to Remember" (1957, with Deborah Kerr), which Take One critic George Morris labeled one of those rare "twilight masterpieces" for the actor. Consequently, while the first half of the picture has a breezy casual tone, a crippling injury to Kerr turns the second half into a decidedly melodramatic movie. Would romance be sabotaged? That is the entertainment hook offered by romantic comedy.

Grant easily moves from slapstick screwball to sensitive romantic comedy, putting his distinctive signature on each style. His pictures include "The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer," "The Bishop's Wife" (both 1947), the aforementioned "Affair," "Indiscreet" and "Houseboat" (both 1958), and "That Touch of Mink" (1962). This sensitivity is not limited to romance, but includes all nature of supportive players.

For instance, an integral part of "Affair" is the relationship between Grant and his screen grandmother (Cathleen Nesbitt). Kerr likes playboy Grant, but it is not until she sees him through the eyes of this loving matriarch that he becomes relationship material. The grandmother also accents the sentimental depiction of love in an additional manner often associated with romantic comedy: She is an ongoing symbol of the eternal purity of love. Long widowed, Nesbitt remains very much in love with her late husband, something that is warmly communicated to those around her without any degree of mawkishness. In death, her promise of a special scarf for Kerr is what brings the couple back together--Grant delivers it and finally discovers why Kerr did not make their Empire State Building rendezvous.

Not surprisingly, this moving conclusion is fueled by the seemingly natural--and effectively portrayed--affection between Grant and Nesbitt. The loving embraces and hand-holding between these two, almost like sweethearts, showcases an eloquent relationship common in real life, but sadly rare in the movies. Leo McCarey, the director of the picture, and a key mentor and molder of the Grant screen persona (starting with "The Awful Truth"), was gifted at sensitively portraying older characters in true-to-reality style (best illustrated in the shatteringly poignant melodrama, "Make Way for Tomorrow," 1937).

Interestingly enough, the catalyst for "Affair," the final McCarey-Grant collaboration--after "The Awful Truth," "My Favorite Wife," and the darkly comic "Once Upon a Honeymoon" (1942)--rested entirely with the actor. Grunt's favorite McCarey film was "Love Affair" (1939), a classic romantic comedy starring his friend and frequent co-star Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer. Grant convinced the director to remake it so he could essay Boyer's part. McCarey's subsequent comment goes to the heart of why Grant is this reviewer's favorite actor: "The difference between 'Love Affair' and 'An Affair to Remember' is very simply the difference between Charles Boyer and Cary Grant. Grant could never really mask his sense of humor--which is extraordinary--and that's why the second version is funnier." Comedy always will be first in my pantheon of values, especially when it is spelled Cary Grant.

Wes D. Gehring, Associate Mass Media Editor of USA Today, is professor of film, Ball State University, Muncie, Ind.
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Title Annotation:Cary Grant
Author:Gehring, Wes D.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Mar 1, 2004
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