- The Washington Times - Friday, January 23, 2004

The late Cary Grant is the first movie great with a centennial birthday on the 2004 calendar, and the American Film Institute has organized a retrospective.

The series begins today with a revival of “Only Angels Have Wings” (1939), a romantic melodrama about dauntless (albeit condor-hating) mail pilots, directed by Howard Hawks, and concludes about three weeks later with “Charade,” an exceptionally clever and stylish romantic mystery thriller directed by Stanley Donen in 1963.

These were two of the directors with whom Mr. Grant worked most frequently during his career. He made five movies with Mr. Hawks and four with Mr. Donen, a close friend and business partner. “His Girl Friday,” Mr. Grant and Mr. Hawk’s superlative remake of the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur comedy “The Front Page,” about hard-boiled reporters, is also part of the AFI series. “Charade,” the last and best Grant-Donen collaboration, is the only picture in the series from their partnership. However, fans of the Cary Grant-Alfred Hitchcock inventory, which obviously influenced “Charade,” will have the whole quartet at their disposal: “Suspicion,” “Notorious,” “To Catch a Thief” and “North by Northwest.” A database survey last week gave “North by Northwest” an overwhelming lead as the most popular Cary Grant movie of them all.

Because the filmography consists of more than 70 movies made between 1932 and 1966, the AFI sampling is far from exhaustive. What it lacks in volume may be compensated for in quality titles and a leisurely schedule of showings. They begin this weekend with “The Awful Truth” and “The Talk of the Town,” romantic comedies that bookend the years of Mr. Grant’s decisive emergence as a leading man.

Born Archibald Alex Leach in Bristol, England, on Jan. 18, 1904, the future Cary Grant came to the United States in 1920 as a versatile teenage acrobat in a comedy troupe organized by English vaudevillian Bob Pender. For the most part, the remainder of Mr. Grant’s career was based in the United States, commencing with vaudeville dates that took him from coast to coast so often that few theatrical cities in the country were unknown to him. Mr. Grant became a naturalized citizen in the summer of 1942.

The vaudeville circuit led him to Broadway musicals and a long-term contract with Paramount. He was cast in 25 movies from 1932 to ‘36, including such notable ones as “Blonde Venus” with Marlene Dietrich and “She Done Him Wrong” and “I’m No Angel” with Mae West. However, the studio management never quite grasped the keys to Mr. Grant’s distinctive comic and romantic temperament, which thrived on slapstick farce at one extreme and handsomely shadowed diffidence at the other.

Perhaps it was always untenable to launch a Cary Grant on the same lot that already had a Gary Cooper. Mr. Grant, whose new name grew out of the Paramount contract, was often cast in projects that Mr. Cooper had spurned. Unlike the George Raft-Humphrey Bogart situation at Warner Bros. in the late 1930s, none of the Cooper rejects paid big dividends for Mr. Grant.

The actor became a flourishing free agent in 1937. He had breakthrough hits with “The Awful Truth” and “Topper,” paired brilliantly with Katharine Hepburn in 1938 on “Bringing Up Baby” and “Holiday,” and kept surging through the turn of the decade: “Gunga Din” and “Only Angels Have Wings” in 1939; “His Girl Friday,” “My Favorite Wife” and “The Philadelphia Story” in 1940; “Penny Serenade,” “Suspicion” and “Arsenic and Old Lace” in 1941, although the latter wasn’t released nationally until 1944, owing to the continued success of the original play.

Confirmed admirers may notice that the current series lacks any of the four Grant-Hepburn vehicles. In AFI’s defense, “Holiday” and “The Philadelphia Story” were included in its Katharine Hepburn tribute in October. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to overlook the fact that two or three dozen Grant movies are standing the test of time quite impressively. Plenty of year remains for additional installments.

The only bad apple in the current series is “Suspicion,” which seems to grow more irksome with age. Alfred Hitchcock miscalculated in believing he could cast Mr. Grant as a cad with predatory designs on virginal, lovelorn Joan Fontaine and get away with the sinister joke. It would have been far preferable to view Mr. Grant as a protector — and never to hear him address Miss Fontaine playfully as “Monkeyface.”

The prestige lingering from “Rebecca” a year earlier seems to have positioned Miss Fontaine for an undeserved Academy Award in “Suspicion.” She was a far more appealing lady in the dark in “Rebecca.” The 1941 best-actress Oscar should have gone to Barbara Stanwyck on the strength of “The Lady Eve” and “Ball of Fire.” She was nominated for the latter, but she evidently played characters who were too smart for the electorate that year.

It’s curious that Cary Grant and Barbara Stanwyck somehow failed to be matched as co-stars during careers that overlapped for three decades. She may be the only prominent leading lady who isn’t on the Grant list. Virtually everyone else is: Carole Lombard, Tallulah Bankhead, Marlene Dietrich, Sylvia Sidney, Mae West, Katharine Hepburn, Joan and Constance Bennett, Jean Arthur, Rosalind Russell, Irene Dunne, Ginger Rogers, Ingrid Bergman, Loretta Young, Myrna Loy, Ann Sheridan, Deborah Kerr, Sophia Loren, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Doris Day, Leslie Caron.

Some of these matches were better than others, of course, but the thought of sustained eye contact between Cary Grant and Barbara Stanwyck is so tantalizing that it’s difficult to believe we don’t have it on the record.

EVENT: “Cary! Cary! Cary!” — a 100th-birthday film series honoring the late Cary Grant

WHERE: American Film Institute Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Road in Silver Spring

WHEN: Selected dates from today through Feb. 18

TICKETS: $8.50 for the general public; $7.50 for AFI members, students and seniors (65 and older)

PHONE: 301/495-6720

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