I must have been about seven when it happened. We were out for dinner in a restaurant in West London, when my dad went pale, put down his knife and fork, and whispered to my mum. I want to say that her mouth fell open and soup dribbled out of it, but I think that may have become exaggerated through the mists of time. Certainly the two of them were clearly overcome with excitement, and they murmured quietly to me and my sisters to take a subtle look at who was sitting at the next table.
It was a group of maybe seven or eight diners, but at its head was a man with glasses and white hair. I didn’t recognise him, but you’ve probably realised it was Cary Grant, seeing as you’ve clicked on an article about Cary Grant. It’d be weird if I opened with an anecdote about meeting Brian Blessed. Anyway, suffice to say I was unimpressed. At that age, if you weren’t in Star Wars or playing for QPR, you were dead to me.
But almost 40 years later, and having spent a great deal of my career interviewing celebs of one sort or another, it is the moment in my life when I feel I was closest to greatness – and I’ve interviewed members of the cast of Hollyoaks! Because Cary Grant wasn’t just a star, he represented the Golden Age of Hollyoaks. Sorry, Hollywood. In many respects, he WAS the Golden Age of Hollywood, the biggest star in the biggest and best years of cinema, before it began churning out endless streams of vacuous superhero movies.
The American Film Institute almost agrees with me. It named him second in its list of male screen legends, behind Humphrey Bogart and ahead of James Stewart. Boy, could they make superstars back then!
In tribute to perhaps the greatest screen icon of all time, here are a dozen things you (probably) never knew about Cary Grant, and a list of his top ten films, as scientifically calculated by, um, my own prejudices and preferences.
Cary Grant facts to wow your friends
1. Born Archibald Leach in Bristol in 1904, Grant had just about as miserable childhood as it’s possible to imagine. His father was an alcoholic, his mother a clinical depressive, exacerbated by the death of Grant’s elder brother from meningitis as a baby.
2. When Grant was nine, his father had his mother placed in a mental institution, and told her he had gone on holiday. Later, he was told that she had died. He didn’t find out the truth until he was 31, whereupon he made arrangements for her to be removed from the institution.
3. He travelled to the US with a panto/theatre troupe in 1920, and when they left to come home, he chose to remain.
4. At the start of his film career, execs at Paramount urged him to change his name to something more ‘manly’. He opted for Cary Lockwood, but the studio mandarins were still not content, and so Cary Grant was born.
5. Ever the canny businessman, Grant was the first actor to negotiate a percentage of box office takings as part of his fee.
6. He worked on four films with the notoriously difficult director Alfred Hitchcock, who declared him “the only actor I ever loved in my whole life.”
7. Perhaps as a result of his traumatic background, Grant found relationships with women difficult. He was married five times. You’ve gotta love a trier!
8. Grant was a famous advocate of using LSD for psychotherapeutic purposes, taking it around 100 times between 1958 and 1961.
9. He was invited to be the first James Bond, in Dr No, but wouldn’t commit to the franchise.
10. Remarkably, Grant never won either an Oscar or a Golden Globe. (He was awarded a lifetime achievement Oscar in 1970 but… meh…)
11. Grant’s image as a suave, witty, urbane charmer was impossible to live up to. When an interviewer once said to him “Everyone would like to be Cary Grant,” he answered “So would I.”
12. At the age of 62, Grant enjoyed what he considered his ‘finest production’ when he became a father for the first time. He promptly retired to concentrate on raising daughter Jennifer, to give her the stability his own upbringing had lacked.
Benjie's top ten Cary Grant films
10. Suspicion (1941)
Grant’s first film for Hitchcock saw him play Johnnie Aysgarth, a rakish gambler who meets, charms and marries Lina (Joan Fontaine) a shy heiress. After a honeymoon period that lasts about as long as their honeymoon, real life kicks in, and Johnnie appears to be something of an oeuf mauvais, losing his job and selling off family heirlooms to pay for gambling debts. But when Johnnie’s erstwhile business partner dies in mysterious circumstances, Lina begins to suspect her husband might be taking a little too much interest in her life insurance. While Fontaine won an Oscar for her performance, Grant is genuinely menacing in a thriller that keeps the audience guessing almost til the last frame.
9. Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
Written and directed by aviation enthusiast Howard Hughes, this nail-biter features genuinely stressful flying scenes that were considered revolutionary for the time. Grant stars as Geoff Carter, who runs a small local airline company which runs a hugely dangerous mail service in the South American port city of Barranca. Jean Arthur plays Bonnie Lee, a US showgirl whose passing visit becomes somewhat more permanent when she falls for a seemingly-disinterested Geoff. Things are complicated by the arrival of his former flame Judy (Rita Hayworth, in her first significant role) and her husband, an unpopular pilot called Bat McPherson (Richard Bathelmess) with a chequered past.
8. To Catch a Thief (1955)
Hitchcock persuaded Grant to come out of retirement to play John Robie, a retired cat burglar living the high life on the French Riviera. When a series of elaborate robberies are blamed on him, he resolves to catch the thief responsible to prove his own innocence. But spoilt socialite Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly) is just one of many who are convinced of his guilt. Grant and Kelly became firm friends during filming, and he must have enjoyed being back in front of the cameras: He did another 11 years.
7. Charade (1963)
Regina Lampert’s (Audrey Hepburn) plans to divorce her husband are cut short when he is murdered, having stolen gold from the wrong people. Now both the CIA and a criminal gang are after the gold, and Regina must find it to ensure her safety. She is aided in this endeavour by new acquaintance Peter Joshua (Grant), and the two embark on a romantic relationship. But is the ever-helpful Mr Joshua keeping secrets of his own? The film, co-starring Walter Matthau and James Coburn, was directed by Stanley Donen, has been described as “the best Hitchcock film Hitchcock never made.”
6. His Girl Friday (1940)
Walter Burns (Grant) is editor of the Morning Post, whose star reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) happens to be his ex-wife. One day she arrives in the office with news of her own – she is to marry her (not hugely interesting) insurance agent beau in two hours. Burns embarks on an increasingly desperate mission to sabotage their plans, eventually dangling in front of her a great big newsworthy carrot: the case of Earl Williams, a man on death row who might be innocent. The comedy is notable for its rapid-fire repartee, as director Howard Hawks was determined to break the record for the fastest film dialogue.
5. Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
Legend has it that Grant himself was initially displeased by this Frank Capra-directed screwball comedy, which he considered a bit OTT. Fortunately, the critics and paying public disagreed. Mortimer Brewster (Grant) pays a visit to his two maiden aunts in Brooklyn to inform them of his marriage to Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane).But Martha and Abby have a tiny secret: They’ve taken to murdering lonely old men. Suddenly aware that the two are entirely crackers, Brewster begins to suspect that insanity may run in the family (his brother thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt). Now he must work out what to do with his psychotic aunts, and how to break the news to his new wife. Grant donated his $100,000 salary to the US War Relief Fund.
4. Notorious (1946)
This tale of espionage and love was hailed as perhaps Hitchcock’s most romantic film, though it’s hardly short on tension as well. Ingrid Bergman plays Alicia Huberman, whose father is in prison as a Nazi spy. She is recruited by government agent TR Devlin (Grant) as someone who can trick pro-Nazi extremists into trusting her, and the pair are posted to Rio. Naturally, they fall in love. Equally naturally, things aren’t that simple, and Alicia is asked to enter into a relationship with Nazi-sympathiser Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains). Soon, she has infiltrated a Nazi plot… but at what cost? The film is notable for a screen kiss between Grant and Bergman that lasted two-and-a-half minutes (Hitchcock circumvented the ban on kisses of longer than three seconds by having the pair break apart momentarily every three seconds).
3. Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Another knockabout romantic comedy from Howard Hawks, this one co-starred Katherine Hepburn as heiress Susan Vance, described in the film’s publicity as “a flutter-brained vixen with love in her heart.” Grant plays palaeontologist David Huxley, a serious and sober man engaged to his assistant, the equally earnest Alice Swallow. He is predictably unimpressed with the flighty, eccentric Ms Vance when the pair meet on a golf course, and is even less impressed when he is somehow roped into helping her with her new houseguest – a tame leopard called Baby. But Vance has fixed her heart on the dour Mr Huxley, and nothing will get in her way. The film supposedly ran over time and over budget in no small part due to the frequent fits of giggles suffered by its two stars during shooting.
2. The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Extraordinarily, Bringing Up Baby was initially a flop, and Hepburn was labelled box-office poison. All of that changed with this classic, starring Hepburn, Grant, and the magnificent James Stewart (who won an Oscar for his role as tabloid reporter Mike). Hepburn plays socialite Tracy Lord, who is about to marry the pompous aspiring politician George Kittredge. On the eve of her wedding, her ex-husband CK Dexter Haven (Grant) turns up with two ‘friends’ in tow – Mike Connor and Liz Imbrie, who happen to be tabloid reporters intent on covering the wedding. But as the big day draws near, Tracy finds herself drawn not only towards Dexter, but also Mike. Hilarious and at times deeply touching, this is one of the greats (and was my dad’s favourite film). Grant donated his $100,000 fee to the British War Relief Fund.
1. North By Northwest (1959)
If Grant and Hitchcock’s partnership was one of the most enduring and successful in Hollywood history, this was without doubt its apogee. Grant played Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive mistaken for a government agent by a group of foreign spies (including James Mason and Martin Landau). As they pursue him across the country, intent on either killing him or framing him for murder, he is helped by Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) whom he meets in a chance encounter on a train. But is Eve Kendall too good to be true? With intrigue, romance, and more twists and turns than a plate of spaghetti, this is thrilling fare, heightened further by two of the iconic scenes of movie history: The crop-dusting bi-plane, and the unforgettable Mount Rushmore denouement.