McCann's 'Cary Grant': way up from Bristol

February 23, 1997|By Paul Moore | Paul Moore,SUN STAFF

"Cary Grant: A Class Apart," by Graham McCann. Columbia University Press. 352 pages. $24.95.

The most familiar screen image of Cary Grant is masculine glamor and sophistication, formed by characters in "The Philadelphia Story," "To Catch a Thief" and "North by Northwest." A less familiar image came from "None But the Lonely Heart," in which Grant played a restless Cockney drifter living in London's East End.

But as Graham McCann's engrossing and serious biography proves, the second image is essential to understanding how the movie star Cary Grant emerged from Archie Leach, the product of an English working-class environment. Although the enduringly popular Grant has become synonymous with class and professional polish, Archie Leach remained his ultimate point of reference.

The future star was born in January 1904 in Bristol, England, the only son of a tailor's presser. The adolescent Archie Leach was restless and lonely, looking for a way out of Bristol. He escaped by joining a traveling music-hall troupe, in which he trained as an acrobat. He arrived in New York in 1920 and never returned to England again permanently. For the next decade he worked in vaudeville and in Broadway musicals with modest success. He arrived in Hollywood in 1931, and his good looks and genuine charm impressed a number of producers and directors.

When Paramount offered him a contract, the studio wanted him to change his name, and Cary Grant was born. But if Grant's future was American, his lineage was English. He developed an accent that was between English and American, between working-class and upper-class, and combined it with unique physical skills.

Frustrated by the Hollywood system, He took the unprecedented position of refusing to commit exclusively to any one studio.

This freedom led him to a remarkable run of movies - "The Awful Truth," "Bringing Up Baby," "Holiday," "Gunga Din" and "Only Angels Have Wings" - that established him as a major movie star. McCann describes this as Grant's most creative period. With "His Girl Friday" and "The Philadelphia Story" right behind, Grant became the star who appealed to all classes.

Off the screen, Grant refused to conform to expectations about how a star should behave. Gossip columnists whom Grant ignored started rumors that he was a homosexual (he had shared a house with friend Randolph Scott between marriages. The rumors persisted until Grant retired in 1966, but McCann maintains that there's no real evidence that Grant was gay. The author dutifully documents Grant's mostly unsuccessful marriages and his experiments with LSD therapy in the 1950s. But thankfully, McCann primarily focuses on Grant's achievements as an artist.

Through the 1950s and 1960s, especially in his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock, Grant's popularity and stature only increased. His innate reserve and professional assurance enabled him to age gracefully on and off the screen. He died in 1986.

McCann's analysis of Grant's acting technique and skill relies too heavily on critic Pauline Kael's 1980 book. Nonetheless, his overall assessment, scholarship and writing make "Cary Grant" a first-rate biography, not a superficial show-business memoir.

Paul Moore is the supervising editor of the Sunday and Monday editions of The Sun and is a serious fan of movies from the 1930s and 1940s.

Pub Date: 2/23/97

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