Ed Driscoll

You're The Top: New DVDs Showcase Cary Grant

Audrey Hepburn: Do you know what’s wrong with you?
Cary Grant: No, what?
Audrey Hepburn: Nothing!
Charade, 1963

From the late 1930s to the mid-1960s, Cary Grant had the face that was the very definition of Movie Star Handsome; his voice the definition of suave sophistication.

Two new DVD releases, one a box set (whose titles are also available individually) show the man in his prime, and at the end of his career, which concluded at in 1966 at age 62, when he was afraid he was past his prime as a matinee star. (These days of course, Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery continue to be superstars in their sixties and seventies.)

Warner Brothers’ recent box set, The Cary Grant Signature Collection, contains several of Grant’s films from World War II and the immediate post-war years. (Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, Destination Tokyo, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, My Favorite Wife, and Night and Day are included in the set.) These aren’t necessarily Grant’s best films, but he brings something memorable to each of them.

1943’s Destination Tokyo places Grant in the role of a US submarine commander whose boat is on a secret mission (guess where). In a way, the film is a bookend to Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, since one concerns Jimmy Doolittle’s air raid, and the other concerns the preparation of it.

As a film, Destination Tokyo creaks–it really shows its age. The subplot has the same cast of seemingly every war film prior to Full Metal Jacket: the virgin, the grizzled veteran, the musician and the older wizened veteran for comic relief (played memorably here by Alan Hale, whose son would command his own memorable nautical journey, as captain of the SS Minnow in TV’s Gilligan’s Island.)

The All-American Englishman

Sean Connery has often been called Cary Grant’s successor. Whenever he appears in an American production, modern Hollywood seems obliged to build some sort of back story to tell us what the heck he’s doing with that accent playing a US military officer (The Presidio), the last survivor of Alcatraz (The Rock), or as a Chicago cop (The Untouchables). That last one must have seemed easy to the producers: we’ll explain his Scottish burr by making him an Irish immigrant! But Connery both won the Oscar for his performance and topped a recent poll for having the worst accent in his performance, which seems oddly fair in a way.

In fascinating contrast, a running theme throughout Grant’s career is that golden-era Hollywood had no reservations casting him as an American despite his thick cockney brogue, and never bothered to build a back story to explain it. He’s a midwestern Navy officer in Destination Tokyo, and that theme holds true in other films in the Cary Grant collection: In Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, Grant is a Madison Avenue advertising man (a profession he’d take up again in Hitchcock’s great thriller North By Northwest). And in Night And Day, Grant plays Indiana-born composer Cole Porter.

Night And Day is one of the more curious films in the Warner collection: Grant plays Cole Porter in a heavily whitewashed and Hollywoodized biography. Grant sort of talk-sings, but like Fred Astaire’s singing, who cares? He certainly gets bonus points for being game to try. And I love this bit, from a recent Wall Street Journal article:

Take Cary Grant. Engaged to star in the Cole Porter biopic “Night and Day,” the actor soon realized the script was a stinker. And so he focused his attention on what really mattered, nearly driving the director to quit with punctilious costume demands. At one point Grant brought production to a halt, standing on his God-given right to expose exactly one-eighth of an inch of shirt cuff beyond his tuxedo sleeve, not the sloppy quarter-inch the bumpkins over in wardrobe had given him. The movie may have been a disaster, but Cary Grant looked good.

I wouldn’t call the film a disaster–in fact watching it, it’s a real surprise. It’s certainly not the reality of Porter’s life: for one thing, Monty Woolley, born in 1888, was Porter’s classmate at Yale, when the two graduated in 1913. But since he’s playing himself as Grant’s co-star in the 1946 movie, the writers made him Porter’s professor, to account for the difference in the two actors’ ages. More significantly, but understandably for Hays-era Hollywood, Night And Day omits Porter’s bisexuality, something a Porter biopic being released this year with Kevin Kline is planning to remedy.

The Lion In Winter

If the Warner Brothers box set shows Grant at his physical peak, Criterion’s recent re-release of 1963’s Charade (now with a snazzy 16X9 anamorphic picture) shows the lion in winter. Grant looks older and heavier than he did just three years prior in North By Northwest, his peak role. But how can you beat a film that combines Grant with Audrey Hepburn?

In a way, it’s almost a post-modern movie. We’re not watching a film with actors playing beleaguered American citizens trapped in a dark conspiring Paris. At every point in the film, we’re aware that we’re watching Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn as superstar actors clearly enjoying starring in a film together. (And that the only way that the dialogue at the beginning of this post works: at the point in the film she says it, Hepburn’s character doesn’t know Cary Grant’s character well enough to say anything like that. But it makes perfect sense coming from Audrey Hepburn to Cary Grant.)

Cary Grant retired from movies after 1966’s Walk, Don’t Run. He passed away at age 82 in 1986. But he can live on-both in his prime and his final performances–thanks to your DVD player and home theater.

(Originally posted July, 2004 at Blogcritics.org.)