- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Cary Grant appeared in three movies in 1944, the year he turned 40. One remains a negligible title: the whimsical comedy “Once Upon a Time,” derived from a radio play. Another, the major hit of the trio, became a 1944 release on a technicality: Frank Capra’s still unreplicated movie version of “Arsenic and Old Lace.”

Filmed in the last quarter of 1941, it ordinarily would have been released the next year, but the success of Broadway’s playfully coldblooded “Old Lace” delayed its debut by running more than three years. Warner Bros. had borrowed three of the original cast members for about 10 weeks and had agreed not to open the finished film until the Broadway engagement — augmented by several touring companies — concluded.

It was the spring of 1944 by the time the Broadway gold mine closed. Millions of uniformed moviegoers already had seen the picture at bases around the world because Jack Warner had authorized distribution to military exchanges a year earlier. Evidently, this gesture generated positive word-of-mouth; the belated theatrical release was a rousing success.

The third Grant vehicle epitomized the prestige failure: a movie version of “None but the Lonely Heart,” a best-selling social novel of 1943 by Richard Llewellyn, whose first book, “How Green Was My Valley,” had been the Academy Award-winning picture of 1941. Adapted and directed by playwright Clifford Odets, who had never directed a movie before, “Lonely Heart” may have been the most personal project of Mr. Grant’s career — one from the heart that turned into an artistic heartbreaker.

Having acquired the film rights, Mr. Grant also persuaded RKO that Mr. Odets, an experienced screenwriter, could be trusted as a novice director. The results — absorbing and haunting but undeniably inconsistent and heavy-hearted — commanded respect but fell decisively short of popular gratification and profitability.

Mr. Grant was a 1944 Oscar finalist as best actor (his second and last nomination). Playing his gallant, mortally ill cockney mother, Ethel Barrymore won the award for supporting actress. “Arsenic and Old Lace” and “None but the Lonely Heart” continue to resonate in Mr. Grant’s career for paradoxical reasons. The actor took a dislike to his performance in the Capra movie that evidently lasted a lifetime. He always alluded to it with regret, and it’s possible that the director misled him by promising an opportunity for retakes that never materialized.

A bit perversely, I’ve grown to cherish his performance as the frenzied nephew and ostensible theater critic Mortimer Brewster in “Old Lace.” It strikes me as a virtuoso example of farcical exaggeration for the camera. Moreover, as time goes by, it looks far more expert and nuanced than contemporary work that gets praised for veering “over the top,” often a dubious compliment.

There definitely are contours and cunning variations to Mr. Grant’s method of illustrating incredulity, anxiety and panic as they overwhelm Mortimer, who learns that his genteel spinster aunts are long-running serial killers. I want a few scenes to be better, but I don’t see much need for him to moderate his portrayal. Physically, he’s downright brilliant when trying to run interference and speak (or even shout) with only his eyes while bound and gagged. Exceptional prowess is required to carry an actress upright across the set while sustaining a kiss that will keep her character’s lips sealed. Mr. Grant often resembles a juggler who prevents a whole plot from falling in a heap.

Cary Grant achieved stellar distinction as a romantic-comedy lead in “The Awful Truth” in 1937, then promptly reinforced it with “Bringing Up Baby” and “Holiday” in 1938 and “The Philadelphia Story” and “His Girl Friday” in 1940. Similar credibility as a swashbuckler — either boisterous or hard-bitten — caught up with him in 1939 with “Gunga Din” and “Only Angels Have Wings.” Mortimer Brewster might have been less harassed than the scholar bedeviled by Katharine Hepburn in “Bringing Up Baby,” but the roles clearly have extreme farcical provocation in common. The actor might not have been pleased with “Arsenic and Old Lace,” but he possessed the slapstick professionalism necessary to keep it humming.

“None but the Lonely Heart” was another sort of challenge — one in which feeling and intuition needed to efface or transcend a familiar stellar image and set of heroic expectations. The cockney setting — London’s East End during the Depression — and idiom of the source material spoke to something authentic in Mr. Grant’s background and emotional susceptibilities. He began liberating himself from an impoverished cockney boyhood when apprenticed to a vaudeville acrobatic troupe at the age of 14.

Cast as a brash but ultimately weak-willed drifter named Ernie Mott, Mr. Grant shares remarkable interludes of tension and intimacy with Miss Barrymore, June Duprez and Jane Wyatt and George Colouris as a nihilistic nemesis. The movie is alert to undercurrents as ominous and compromising as any isolated by Billy Wilder in the year’s acknowledged film noir classic, “Double Indemnity.”

The enduring catch is that it takes some disillusioning effort to accept Cary Grant as a struggling proletarian by the time he’s an established star. He had acquired too much finesse and glamour to be readily convincing as a young man balanced on a knife edge between decency and criminality. Not that admirers and peers didn’t appreciate the effort. James Agee summarized a critical consensus when he wrote that the actor “plays a far from Cary Grantish hero so attentively and sympathetically that I all but overlooked the fact that he is not well constituted for the role.”

Who would have been? Maybe an unknown British actor who suggested John Garfield with a cockney heritage. Readers of the novel knew that Mr. Grant was a generation older than the Ernie envisioned by Mr. Llewellyn. Nevertheless, the miscasting had its compensations. Attempting to stretch his range at 40, the actor probably needed more than a split decision to persuade him that similar beaux gestes could prove rewarding in the future. He had won over the public as playful suitors and intrepid adventurers. Persuading the audience to accept him as a type that reflected his origins, a slum-bred diamond in the rough, might have been asking the impossible by the time he was a star.

TITLE: “Arsenic and Old Lace”

RATING: No MPAA rating (made in 1941 and released nationally in 1944, years before the advent of the rating system; sinister plot elements and characterizations)

CREDITS: Directed by Frank Capra. Produced by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Screenplay by Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein, based on the play by Joseph Kesselring. Cinematography by Sol Polito. Art direction by Max Parker. Costumes by Orry-Kelly.

RUNNING TIME 118 minutes

DVD EDTION: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.warnervideo.com

TITLE: “None but the Lonely Heart”

RATING:No MPAA rating (made in 1944; systematic ominous elements)

CREDITS: Directed by Clifford Odets. Screenplay by Mr. Odets, based on the novel by Richard Llewellyn. Cinematography by George Barnes. Production design by Mordecai Gorelick, with art direction by Albert S. D’Agostino and Jack Okey.

RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes

VHS EDITION: Turner Home Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.turner.com

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