July 31, 2009
Film Once Upon a Time, a Real Leading Man
By MIKE HALE
Old movies — I’m talking about those made before the 1970s — come to us in packages these days. The producers of DVDs and the programmers of repertory theaters look for themes and contexts that will help to make sense of these films for the several generations of culture consumers who are likely to find them utterly strange. Or if not to make sense of them, put them in a framework where their assumptions and devices can be sold to younger moviegoers as hip or camp rather than laughably archaic. Hence the weeks or boxes of film noirs or screwball comedies, or of the careers of directors with distinctive, easily cataloged styles.
To put on a Cary Grant series — as the BAMcinématek is doing from Monday through Aug. 20 with 17 films, and a second batch to follow in 2010 — presents some special challenges. Grant made more than 50 movies as a leading man, but the only thing that ties them together is that they starred Cary Grant, playing some version of his man-of-the-world persona, or of himself, which seemed to amount to the same thing.
He had his screwball period and his Hitchcock period, each of which produced several great, giddy entertainments (like “The Philadelphia Story” and “North by Northwest”). But he avoided entire genres that didn’t suit him, like noir or the western, and much of his output consists of the sort of mainstream light comedy or melodrama that seems most dated today.
It’s brave of the Brooklyn Academy of Music to be showing the 1941 weeper “Penny Serenade,” a hit at the time and an important moment in Grant’s career. But when Grant and Irene Dunne smile as their adopted child says she wants to be an angel before next year’s Christmas pageant, the howls will be heard across Fort Greene.
And yet Grant is worth watching, even in something as preposterous as “Penny Serenade,” and he makes the film worth watching too. (Well, almost. It helps that Edgar Buchanan is around to play the crusty older friend.) As Pauline Kael pointed out in her famous essay “The Man From Dream City” in 1975, most of Grant’s movies were mediocre or worse, safe choices made by a powerful but cautious actor who exercised an iron control over his own image. In putting together a Grant program of any size, it would be impossible to avoid some of these clunkers, and the academy’s series has its share, including the plodding 1942 comedy of ideas “The Talk of the Town” and “That Touch of Mink” (1962), in which he was the aging playboy to Doris Day’s aging virgin.
But the winners and Grant’s performances in them are such an important constituent of our feelings about American movies and about an entire style of American life in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s that we forgive any number of failures. The character he created and then lived in for decades, a seemingly effortless production that was actually the result of years of practice and refinement and discipline, was an ideal of the ascendant American male (as observed by a young immigrant Cockney vaudevillian): urbane but athletic, absurdly handsome but self-effacing, a joker who could be a bit of a cad, even a little cruel, but would always do the right thing in the end. As Kael formulated it, he was the man women wanted and men wanted to be.
It was a magic act that he would perform across four decades, which is the most startling fact of his career. The academy’s series covers that evolution, from screwball classics like “The Awful Truth” (1937) and the splendid “Holiday” (1938) to his romance with a 25-year-old Grace Kelly in “To Catch a Thief” (1955), when he was 51. (It also includes two of his earlier appearances as a slightly thuggish male ingénue, in the 1932 “Blonde Venus” with Marlene Dietrich and the 1933 “I’m No Angel” with Mae West.)
In our time much has been said about the ability of men like Jack Nicholson and Robert Redford to play romantic leads long past the expiration dates faced by their female counterparts. Grant, who died in 1986 at 82, not only pioneered the practice; in movies like “To Catch a Thief” and “North by Northwest” (1959), which the BAMcinématek will show next year, he also made it believable in a way that no one has since approached.
Being an object of desire does not necessarily mean being the center of attention, and Grant was willing (or smart enough) throughout his career to register almost as a supporting player in his films, to cede the stage to his female co-stars in a way that contemporaries like Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable did not.
It’s another reason that a Grant series can seem amorphous: in the academy’s lineup, “Holiday” and “The Philadelphia Story” (1940) are Katharine Hepburn films; “The Awful Truth” and “Penny Serenade” are Irene Dunne films; “Only Angels Have Wings” (1939) is remembered primarily for Rita Hayworth and Jean Arthur; “To Catch a Thief” for Kelly.
But none of those films would have been as charming or as satisfyingly adult, and none of the actresses as witty or desirable, without Grant’s presence. His in-on-the-joke sincerity, his not-quite-throwaway lines, the bits of physical business — the dancing way in which he kicks a door in “Holiday” or his graceful glide across the terrace as the gendarmes approach at the beginning of “To Catch a Thief” — serve less to glorify him than to flatter the intelligence of the women who can’t do without him.
That might be the best reason to watch Grant today. Kael noted in 1975, during his lifetime, that it was impossible to imagine Grant in the macho action and crime films that were beginning to dominate Hollywood. It’s equally impossible to imagine him in the soggy, misogynistic, stealth-macho geekfests that pass for romantic comedy now. Watching him is to be reminded of a time when intelligence, grace and self-containment were their own rewards. The 21st century, so far, hasn’t deserved him.
"In putting together a Grant program of any size, it would be impossible to avoid some of these clunkers, and the BAM series has its share, including the plodding 1942 comedy-of-ideas, 'The Talk of the Town.'"