Cary Grant, Hollywood Leading Man

Retro Staff 2 Comments
Cary Grant in North by Northwest

Cary Grant in “North by Northwest”

One of the most handsome and sophisticated leading men in Hollywood in the ’30s, ’40s and  ’50s, Cary Grant was born in Bristol, England on January 18, 1904. His real name was Archibald Alexander Leach. His father pressed trousers for a living and the family was quite poor. And since Grant’s parents argued frequently, he escaped every Saturday afternoon to the matinee, enjoying the new phenomenon of motion pictures.

An only child, Grant was very close to his mother. When he was 9, however, his father had her admitted to a mental institution for a nervous breakdown, telling Grant she’d gone off to a seaside resort. Grant’s mother remained locked up for 20 years; Grant wasn’t told of her real whereabouts until he was in his 30s, and many believe the repercussions of this tragic separation may have resulted in his failed marriages later in life. Grant visited his mother, and later at the home he bought for her. They continued to be close until her death in 1973.

Ready to attend secondary school, Grant received a scholarship to Bristol’s Fairfield Academy. While there, he worked backstage on the school’s theater productions. A field trip to the Bristol Hippodrome vaudeville theater helped Grant decide that he wanted to be an actor.

He was also influenced by time spent volunteering one summer as a junior air raid warden during WWI. He saw soldiers leaving Southampton to travel abroad and decided that he would like the opportunity to see some of the world. His dual passions of acting and travel led to his running away from home to join the Bob Pender Troupe, a group of comedians and acrobats. It was discovered that he had lied about his age (he was only 13) and was forced to return home. At 14 he was old enough to obtain a work permit and proceeded to get himself expelled from school so his father would allow him to join back up with the Troupe, which traveled throughout England performing in small towns and villages. Grant learned gymnastics and comedy, and in 1920 he followed them to the US for a two-year tour. When the tour was over, he decided to stay behind in New York City to try pursuing an acting career.

Grant made a determined effort to lose his English accent and developed his “mid-Atlantic” style of speaking. The result was an American accent but with the British pronunciation for certain words. Orson Welles was also known to speak with a mid-Atlantic accent, as well as members of the American upper class, like FDR. Grant’s new accent helped him develop his new suave demeanor. He was becoming the antithesis of his cockney, lower class upbringing. And yet, he often drew on his earlier days for some of the roles he played.

Cary Grant in This is the Night

Grant’s first role was in 1932’s “This is the Night”.

Grant worked successfully in Broadway musicals until 1931 when he went to Hollywood in the hope of becoming a movie actor. He changed his name to Cary Lockwood, and after auditioning for Paramount Pictures in 1932, they signed him to a 5-year contract. Hollywood was looking for fresh, new talent it could groom into a movie star. After some debate, the studio and the actor settled on another name change: Cary Grant.

Grant’s first movie role was as a supporting cast member in This Is the Night (1932). Later that year he appeared in Blonde Venus with Marlene Dietrich. After seeing the performances, Mae West chose him to star as her leading man in I’m No Angel (1933) and She Done Him Wrong (1933). Since West was a star in her own right and had a lot of clout with Paramount, these roles were a huge boost to Grant’s career. I’m No Angel was very successful financially and She Done Him Wrong was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture.

When Grant’s contract with Paramount expired in 1937, he opted to go freelance so he could choose his own films and scripts. He was one of the first stars to negotiate for the rights to his films, eventually making him a very wealthy man. He fined-tuned his skills in the movies with a lot of physical comedy, starring in “screw-ball comedies” that were designed to cheer up audiences during the Great Depression. In addition to the occasional pratfall, these movies featured a lot of witty banter and innuendo. Grant’s comedic timing had been honed at an early age from his time working with the Bob Pender Troupe. From the start of his acting career, he exuded a polished, sophisticated demeanor, which was the complete reverse of his humble beginnings. He often expressed an awareness of these two opposing aspects of his personality.

Motion Picture Magazine January 1945

Cover of Motion Picture Magazine (January 1945)

Grant had two hits following his independence from Paramount, Topper and The Awful Truth, both released in 1937. The latter made him a star and he continued to appear in hits for the next three years. Some of these features were Bringing Up Baby (1938), Holiday (1938), The Philadelphia Story (1940) with Katherine Hepburn, His Girl Friday (1940) with Rosalind Russell, Only Angels Have Wings (1939) with Jean Arthur and My Favorite Wife (1940) with Irene Dunne. Grant did not only play roles opposite Hollywood actresses. In the 1939 movie Gunga Din, he played opposite Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

Grant starred in several movies directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Among these was Suspicion (1941), in which Grant played his first role as a villain. Additional Hitchcock movies were Notorious (1946), To Catch a Thief (1955) and North by Northwest (1959). Hitchcock had a reputation for not liking actors, but he said Grant was “the only actor I ever loved in my life.”

In 1944 Grant starred in one of my personal favorites, Arsenic and Old Lace. He played Mortimer Brewster, who visits his elderly aunts to inform them that he has gotten married, despite his diatribes against marriage. In the course of trying to tell them, he discovers that the two spinster women have been poisoning elderly men and burying them in the basement. Also starring Peter Lorre, this movie is hilarious and a bit macabre, but a lot of fun.

Speaking of marriage, Grant was married five times and divorced four times. He married actress Virginia Cherrill on February 10, 1934 and she divorced him on March 26, 1935. Next, he married the heiress Barbara Hutton in July of 1942, and they divorced in August of 1945. Despite the rumors, he never took a penny from her, including in the divorce settlement. He married actress Betsy Drake in December 1949 and they were divorced in August 1962. He married Dyan Cannon who was 33 years younger than him in July 1965. Grant’s only child, Jennifer, was born on February 26, 1966 when he was 62. He and Cannon were divorced in March of 1968. His final marriage was to 31-year-old Barbara Harris in April 1981 when Grant was 77. They remained married to his death.

Later in life Grant commented, “It seems that each new marriage is more difficult to survive than the last one. I’m rather a fool for punishment. I keep going back for more, don’t ask me why.”

Grant was a naturalized US citizen, having immigrated to the US in 1942. At the 42nd Academy Awards in 1964, Frank Sinatra presented a special award to Grant for his “unique mastery of the art of screen acting with the respect and affection of his colleagues”. After 34 years of starring in a long list of successful films, Grant retired from filmmaking when he was still at the top of his game. He was 62 and the year was 1966. Hollywood was moving away from elegant, sophisticated leading men. The new crop of actors was made up of rebels, unshaven and very unlike the debonair figure of Cary Grant.

Grant went on to accept a position on the board at Fabergé, a role in which he was more than a figurehead. He attended regular meetings and appeared at product launches.

Cary Grant Postage Stamps

LEGENDS of HOLLYWOOD: Cary Grant’s US Postage Stamp was issued October 15, 2002.

In his final years, Grant toured around the US in a one-man show called A Conversation with Cary Grant. It was while preparing for one of these question and answer sessions that he had a stroke. He died that evening at the age of 82.

Did you know:

  • John Cleese’s character in “A Fish Called Wanda” was named Archie Leach as a tribute to Cary Grant.
  • Grant tanned year-round so he wouldn’t have to wear stage makeup.
  • Grant fell in love with his costar, Sophia Loren while filming The Pride and the Passion in 1957.
  • Grant was nominated for two Oscars, but never won. He was nominated for his serious roles in Penny Serenade and None But the Lonely Heart.
  • Grant was opposed to film stars making public political declarations. He said, “I’m opposed to actors taking sides in public and spouting spontaneously about love, religion or politics. We aren’t experts on these subjects. Personally I’m a mass of inconsistencies when it comes to politics. My opinions are constantly changing. That’s why I don’t ever take a public stand on issues.”
  • Grant gave his entire fee for The Philadelphia Story (1940) to the British war effort.
  • He donated his entire salary for Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) to the US War Relief Fund.
  • Grant turned down the role of James Bond in Dr. No (1962). He thought he was too old at age 58.
  • He participated in an experimental psychotherapy program and was prescribed LSD. He underwent about 100 sessions and said he benefited greatly.
  • Grant introduced First Lady Betty Ford at the Republican National Convention in 1976. Maintaining his stance on not talking politics, he referred to the Republicans as “your party” and not “our party”.
  • He has only one incisor. He lost a tooth while ice skating and wanted to avoid getting in trouble with his father, so he went to a dental college and had them gradually push his teeth together.
  • Was the subject of a United States Postage Stamp.

Do you have some interesting Cary Grant stories to share? What is your favorite Cary Grant movie?

Last updated: Feb 10, 2009
Filed under: Movie Stars of Old Hollywood Tagged with: actors, Hollywood, movies