In today’s The Toast, we celebrate the birthday of Hollywood’s ultimate leading man, Cary Grant. He starred in some of cinema’s most beloved and acclaimed films from the 1930s to the 1960s, and his star power is still felt today.
Way off in the land of Hollywood, in that fairytale place of big screen dreams and ritzy glamor, it seems that some movie stars were always movie stars. They were somehow hatched from a shimmering diamond egg on Hollywood Boulevard long ago, emerging fully formed, upright, and ready to step into their glittery, god-given fame. If a male, they’re handsome, charismatic, capable of reading their lines, hitting their marks, signing their autographs, and above all, being the ultimate in human envy.
Cary Grant is definitely one of those movie stars. But little does the world know that Cary Grant, born Archibald Alec Leach on January 18, 1904, in Horfield, England, was just a regular person hailing from a working-class background and was self-admittedly not well-educated. He had a rough ‘n tumble upbringing which left him with emotional scars into adulthood. Even enter the notorious Hollywood speculation, and later substantiation, that Cary Grant became an LSD-psychedelic aficionado during the 1950s, where he worked with his doctor to uncover and heal childhood trauma through the use of this highly controversial drug.
Wait, the biggest, most sophisticated, debonair, gorgeous, etc. Hollywood icon ever was a so-called hippie drug user?! This fact is still wowing cinephiles today. Cut to the new 2021 musical Flying Over Sunset which opened in New York City just this past December. It proves that people still can’t get enough of Cary Grant, whether through his vast, magnificent 30+ years filmography, or his enthralling off-screen persona. Which brings us back to the speculation that Cary Grant was the ultimate movie star – who must’ve been hatched from a special Hollywood egg or something. There’s simply no other alternative.
Hollywood’s Greatest Leading Man
After landing on American soil in 1920, Cary Grant eventually made his Hollywood film debut in 1932’s This Is the Night. Over the next decades, he would be nominated for two Oscars (1941’s Penny Serenade and 1944’s None but the Lonely Heart), would win one Oscar for Lifetime Achievement (1970), and would become a quintessential movie star known globally for being “tall, dark, and handsome” and “Hollywood’s greatest leading man.”
Ranked #2 on the AFI’s (American Film Institute’s) list of 50 Greatest American Screen Legends compiled in 1999 (only behind Humphrey Bogart), Cary Grant has left an indelible footprint on Hollywood cinema. His death on November 29, 1986, at age 82, was sorely felt. But what’s so magical about Cary Grant anyway?
For starters, like nearly all the acting greats, he was imbued with spectacular “genre” versatility and skill. He could drum a masterful beat in romances, comedies, adventures, thrillers, and even black comedy horrors like Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). Cue that poisonous wine and creepy “gentleman in the window seat!” Cary Grant had an ease to his acting that automatically put him in the ranks of screen legends like Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart, Ingrid Bergman and Henry Fonda. He gave off “pro” vibes from day #1. (Building off Arsenic and Old Lace above, catch him in 1941’s delectably dark Suspicion. Shivers!)
Cary Grant’s Irresistible Mystique
But perhaps the biggest asset Cary Grant had was his ability to successfully merge his on-screen and off-screen personas. Actors like Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart never became “products” of Hollywood, preferring to focus most prominently on their craft. But Cary Grant? Perhaps due to his tough “no looking back” start to life, he enthusiastically became that “product” of Hollywood, even helping to cultivate his personal brand. He was once quoted as saying,
“Everyone wants to be Cary Grant – even I want to be Cary Grant.”
He ensured that audiences would go to watch his movies, as they’d be captivated with the superstar behind the screen. Smart move! It was a winning formula.
All told, Cary Grant was what Hollywood is all about. He was both immensely talented and appealing. Everyone either wanted to be him, or marry him – including one screen goddess, Sophia Loren! His cinematic treasures live on, and here are 5 classic films that celebrate the dashing, dazzling leading man, Cary Grant, on his birthday.
5 Classic Cary Grant Films
1. Bringing Up Baby (1938)
A first-rate screwball comedy, which was the “genre du jour” in 1930s Old Hollywood, Bringing Up Baby is one of four movies boasting the dynamic Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn duo. These two are just so good together. The premise? A ditzy heiress (Katharine Hepburn’s Susan) dupes a stuffy paleontologist (Cary Grant’s David) into helping her transport a leopard from New York City up to Connecticut. But that’s not all. The ditzy heiress falls in love with the scientist and tries to stop him from getting married the next day. Shenanigans ensue, and Bringing Up Baby stands as one of Old Hollywood’s most beloved films. It bombed at the box office when released, but became adored years later. The kooky premise, the physical comedy (in addition to sparkling-hot verbal comedy), and the perfect Grant-Hepburn chemistry, cannot be denied. Awesome Susan line:
“I’ve got my head. I’ve lost my leopard!”
2. Penny Serenade (1941)
Bring the tissues for this one. Cary Grant rightfully received his first Oscar nomination for the emotional Penny Serenade. This movie is dusty black and white Old Hollywood at its poignant best. Some movies don’t transcend their time. They remain as obscure gems, celluloid relics, and ancient artifacts that a modern millennial audience might not ever view. This is one of those movies. But if you love Old Hollywood, it’s a must-see. Watch the debonair Cary Grant in a “non-debonair” role. He’s a struggling newspaper publisher with a new wife and daughter. Co-starring the brilliant Irene Dunne, who was dubbed “Queen of the Weepies” in Old Hollywood (aka the Millennial version of “Queen of the Chick Flicks”), Penny Serenade is a treasure.
Cary Grant’s judge scene during the custody/adoption process of his sweet daughter will make any cynical Cary Grant viewer (is he only a handsome face who can read lines?) convinced of his solid acting chops. Grant is positively heartbreaking.
3. An Affair to Remember (1957)
Calling all romance movie fanatics. This one is LEGENDARY in all capital letters. Ranked #5 on the AFI’s (American Film Institute’s) list of 100 Passions, An Affair to Remember is a powerhouse. Cary Grant plays a naughty but lovable playboy who falls in love with Deborah Kerr’s character on a Trans-Atlantic ship journey. But will these two reunite atop the Empire State Building in New York City six months later – to officially proclaim their love and get married? Some say this movie is too syrupy-sweet, but legions of fans think otherwise. Even filmmaker Nora Ephron based an entire movie around An Affair to Remember with 1993’s hugely successful Sleepless in Seattle. “The proof is in the pudding,” as the saying goes, or in millions of ardent fans.
An Affair to Remember is a colorfully “mid-century modern, old-school romantic, and Saturday night couch-worthy.” Cary Grant shows his wonderfully light, debonair, and suave side, meanwhile shines with vulnerability. Classic Deborah Kerr lines:
“Oh it was nobody’s fault but my own! I was looking up. It was the nearest thing to heaven. You were there.”
4. North by Northwest (1959)
Legendary director Alfred Hitchcock had his share of fave actors, and lucky Cary Grant was one of them. Grant starred in four “Master of Suspense” Hitchcock films, and North by Northwest is quite possibly Grant’s most critically acclaimed Hitchcock outing. Grant plays an advertising exec in a case of mistaken identity. The result? He’s kidnapped, drugged, followed, almost murdered, and is neck-deep in one of cinema’s greatest spy thrillers. Watch, in particular, the crop duster scene which unofficially ranks as one of the most spellbinding cinematic action scenes ever. North by Northwest is slick, high-caliber, has an excellent supporting cast, and its famous final scene atop Mt. Rushmore (with all those chiseled American presidents’ faces) is a tribute to masterful cinematography. You don’t get much better Hitchcock or Grant than North by Northwest. It stands at the pinnacle.
5. Charade (1963)
Flashback to #4 on this list, Charade is often dubbed “the best Hitchcock film Hitchcock never made.” Wait, Charade isn’t Hitchcock? Indeed, it isn’t. Think the immensely talented Stanley Donen of Singin’ in the Rain (1952) fame. Charade is another superb suspense film that keeps us white-knuckled and with our sleuth caps on right until the very end. This time, Cary Grant is paired up with sophisticated starlet Audrey Hepburn. They sizzle together, and in the magical “City of Lights” Paris. Hepburn’s character Regina is dragged into a money scandal after the death of her husband, and she’s not sure who to trust, including Cary Grant’s character of Brian Cruikshank – or is he really Peter Joshua, Alexander Dyle, Adam Canfield, etc.? You get the idea. Nefarious characters abound, and you don’t know who anyone really is.
A 59-year-old Cary Grant shows his silver-haired age in Charade, but some might say he was never sexier, more at ease on camera, and more intriguing. Charade was one of Cary Grant’s final films, and he left Hollywood on that highly-coveted high note. Classic Audrey Hepburn line that we can all say to movie star Cary Grant:
“We love you, Adam, Alex, Peter, Brian, whatever your name is”.
Thank you for all the movie memories, the one and only ultimate movie star, Mr. Cary Grant.
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I was once an exec for The Economist magazine. Nowadays, I'm a published poet, travel writer, and "vintage" pop culture blogger from the New York City area. I love movies, and especially those dusty old classics. I "heart" the rich history of film.