There’s so much that could be said about the extraordinary career of Cary Grant, arguably the greatest of all movie stars and one of the most important actors in cinema history. Today I delve into the part of his career that led him to meet and subsequently work with one of the greatest directors who ever lived, Alfred Hitchcock.
While most classic film fans are familiar with Cary Grant’s extraordinary range, the fact that he excelled at screwball comedy, drama, and action before he and Hitchcock ever met, a large majority of people know him best from the films they made together, it seems to me. That’s particularly true of North by Northwest, the one many consider their best. Following is the story of part of a career – the path that led a romantic leading man with an incredible gift for comedy to be embroiled in murder.
It’s October of 1937 and Cary Grant’s first bona-fide smash hit has just been released by Columbia Pictures. The film is Leo McCarey’s, The Awful Truth where Cary got second billing to Irene Dunne in a glorious romantic comedy. Cary Grant had been in pictures since 1932, that’s only a mere seven years in today’s terms but a lifetime of movies in the studio era when films were made at an extraordinarily rapid pace. Consider that of an eventual seventy-plus films he’d make during his entire career, he’d already been in thirty by this point. And Cary Grant had not yet achieved superstardom by Golden Age standards. His name was still not recognized for selling tickets, so the success of The Awful Truth seemed like a fluke to Mr. Grant. As unbelievable as it may seem, the Cary Grant was insecure about his acting abilities or whether he’d ever make it to compete as one of the silver screen’s leading players. Still, he’d enjoyed the experience of making The Awful Truth and working with Irene Dunne who became his favorite costar.
His next film, playing David to Katharine Hepburn‘s, Susan in Howard Hawks’, Bringing up Baby did nothing to reassure the by now veteran actor. Despite the following review, which appeared in Variety in February 1938,
“This harum-scarum farce comedy is Katharine Hepburn’s first of this type. Opposite her is Cary Grant, who is perfectly at home as a farceur after his work in “The Awful Truth.” Picture is moulded along same lines and is definite box office.”
Bringing Up Baby got mixed reviews and did not perform well at the box office. Something else that’s unbelievable given it is such a beloved film today.
Grant and Hepburn costarred again that same year in George Cukor’s, Holiday, which was an even bigger box-office flop. Grant preferred his character and performance in the latter over that of Bringing up Baby and he enjoyed working with Hepburn. But the failure of his films to draw audiences caused him concern over his career and his likeability. While he was steadily getting rich from the numerous films and his popularity with audiences was rising – he was receiving thousands of fan letters a week – the truth was he had co-starred in two consecutive flops. And his first two films with RKO and Columbia (respectively) had lost money. That’s not a good place to be in an industry where the bottom line is what matters most.
Meanwhile – In 1938, producer David O. Selznick was actively trying to woo Alfred Hitchcock into signing an exclusive contract. Actually, Selznick had had his eye on the British director for several years. Hitchcock was one of the few foreign filmmakers whose films had made significant money in American theaters – Murder! (1930), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), and Sabotage (1936) had all been hits. In fact, the director was already better known
to American audiences than were the British stars who appeared in his films. So, when Alfred Hitchcock requested an audience with the one Hollywood star he most wanted to meet during his first visit to America, Selznick complied. While on break from shooting his next picture, an adventure titled Gunga Din with director, George Stevens, Cary Grant was invited by David O. Selznick to a private party at “21” to meet Alfred Hitchcock.
Hitchcock’s Interest in Cary Grant had a lot to do with the actor’s looks. The thought of using an incredibly handsome man in films that delved into murder was an exciting one. Hitchcock’s point of view was that the handsome Grant was not being used in films in a way that took full advantage of his looks and talents. While it made sense to cast Grant as a romantic lead, Hitchcock didn’t feel lighthearted fare was the only option. To him, casting a man with the looks of Cary Grant as a dark figure, possibly even a murderer would be very exciting. Nonetheless, as much as both men looked forward to it, the meeting at ’21’ yielded no immediate results on the collaboration front due to film obligations the two had to fulfill.
Gunga Din was released on February 17, 1939 and was a box office winner from the get-go and became the highest grossing picture RKO had released to date. In fact, it out-grossed all other major Hollywood films released in Hollywood’s golden year except one, Henry King’s, Jesse James starring Henry Fonda.
Grant’s next film was Only Angels Have Wings in which he was paired with Jean Arthur right after her success in Frank Capra’s, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Popular leading lady aside, Grant would have preferred to star in Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent and Hitchcock wanted him for the film as well but Columbia’s Harry Cohn refused to delay the production of Only Angels Have Wings, which would allow Grant the time to work with Hitchcock.
Wings finished shooting in April 1939 and Cohn rushed production into theaters within two weeks because he needed the money. This film was another hit for Grant proving to everyone, including himself that the name “Cary Grant” alone was now selling enough tickets for big openings. Two films later Mr. Grant had another smash hit on his hands, the biggest since The Awful Truth, Howard Hawks’, His Girl Friday – the wonderfully funny film in which he costars with Rosalind Russell. Friday was a critical success as well. Cary Grant was now the biggest star in Hollywood and no one could doubt it. Not even Cary Grant.
Ripe for a Hitchcock pairing, the time still wasn’t right. Building upon his already enviable career, by my estimation anyway, Grant had to complete such classics as Garson Kanin’s, My Favorite Wife, George Cukor’s, The Philadelphia Story
and George Steven’s, Penny Serenade before he would step before a Hitchcock camera.
Despite the fact he’d enjoyed working with Irene Dunne again on Penny Serenade and the positive reviews he and the film received, including recognition from the Academy with a Best Actor nomination, the shoot had been a difficult one for Grant for several reasons. For one, he’d learned of the death of family members in the war raging in Europe while shooting the film and two, he’d been snubbed by the Academy Awards for The Philadelphia Story. The snub renewed his self-doubt, which is understandable given all the other major players in the film received nominations. By the way it always occurs to me as I watch this movie that the memorable opening scene where we see Hepburn breaking his golf clubs in half and his retaliating by covering her face with his hand and shoving her to the ground is testament to the Cary Grant mystique. That scene and actions by any other actor would not have been as funny or as charming. In any case, Cary Grant was seriously reconsidering his career as an actor at that point in his life. By many accounts it was his looking forward to finally working with Alfred Hitchcock, which was finally coming to fruition, that renewed his interest in acting.
Suspicion, Alfred Hitchcock’s fourth American film shows a different kind of Cary Grant. Still romantic somehow, he now has a killer instinct. Or, we suspect he might have. Production on Suspicion began on February 10, 1941, only a few weeks after Grant finished Penny Serenade but the production dragged for months. Hitchcock fought constantly with David O. Selznick over the portrayal of Johnnie Aysgarth, Cary Grant’s character. The clash had to do with whether audiences would buy into Grant in the role. As Hitchcock later said, “The consensus was that audiences would not want to be told in the last few frames of film that as popular a personality as Cary Grant was a murderer, doomed to exposure.”
By the time he began shooting Suspicion, Alfred Hitchcock deeply regretted ever having signed on with the powerful David O. Selznick who fought him on scripts at every turn. Hitchcock had fought tooth and nail over the script for Rebecca and lost. That film won the Academy Award for Best Picture, but Hitchcock always considered it Selznick’s picture. He’d noted his discontent with how the studio system worked, “Hollywood regarded the director as a minor figure in a fast film industry made up of entrepreneurs who headed the studios.” He was right, needless to say. In the case of Suspicion Hitchcock wanted the film to stay true to the novel it was based on, “Before the Fact” by Anthony Berkeley Cox (under the pseudonym of Francis Iles).
Alfred Hitchcock had found “Before the Fact” at RKO after it had been shelved since the studio bought the rights in 1935. The book is about a rich woman who is abnormally attached to her husband. She accepts him the way he is despite knowing he’s a womanizer, an embezzler and a murderer and knows he intends on murdering her. In the book’s climactic scene, the wife calmly accepts a glass of milk from her husband that she knows is poisoned and dies. Alfred Hitchcock loved the idea of making a movie about a woman so attached to her husband that she would actually allow him to kill her. But we’ll never know if that was his original intent for Suspicion. What he ended up doing was to add twists and turns so that the audience is guessing until the very end as to whether Johnnie Aysgarth is a murderer or whether the wife, played by Joan Fontaine, suffers from severe paranoia.
Hitchcock thought about how to end the film for quite some time and as he filmed his wife, Alma worked on different possibilities. One she worked on had Johnnie join the Royal Air Force to atone for his past sins. All I can say is thank goodness that idea was thrown out. Ultimately Hitchcock decided that Aysgarth should, in fact, be a murderer. But his studio-assigned producer, Harry Edington, would have none of it because he strongly believed audiences would never buy Cary Grant as a murderer. Two months into production all ceased except the back-and-forth between the director and the producer. Filming resumed when Hitchcock reluctantly changed the script to make the wife the victim only of her own paranoid delusions. I must add that there is some disagreement as to whether things actually happened this way because according to Donald Spoto, author of the 1999 biography, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, the stories of Hitchcock being forced to change his intended ending were told by Hitchcock himself after the fact. Spoto states that in truth notes made during the production show that the director always intended to spotlight the wife’s paranoia.
Regardless of the stories and the ending, Suspicion helped Cary Grant’s career. Hitchcock’s plot, which involves having audiences guess all the way through as to his character’s true intentions, gave the actor new opportunities to showcase an inner darkness, rather than his outer beauty. A brilliant move by Hitchcock because there’s no doubt audiences used to seeing only the charm and romance of Mr. Grant must have been thrown for a loop even beyond what we may experience in the film today. This was a new Cary Grant. A Hitchcockian Grant…
“Cary Grant finds a new field for himself, the field of crime, the smiling villain, without heart or conscience. Crime lends color to his amiability.” – John Mosher, The New Yorker
Despite the changes Hitchcock had to make to the script against his better judgment (if his stories are true), Suspicion is a very effective and enjoyable thriller, mostly due to Grant’s performance and Hitchcock’s outstanding visuals, both key elements in making the journey, in this case, what is worthy of viewing rather than what turned out to be a strange ending, in my opinion. One must recognize only the talent of a Hitchcock and presence of a Grant could have made this happen. And audiences at the time of the film’s release thought so too. Suspicion was a big box office success and critical reviews were mixed about the ending but very positive for the film.
“The ending is not up to Mr. Hitchcock’s usual style…Still, he has managed to bring through a tense and exciting tale, a psychological thriller which is packed with lively suspense.” – Bosley Crowther, The New York Times
Suspicion, along with the two other films Cary Grant made in 1941, The Philadelphia Story and Penny Serenade are on the list of the top five highest grossing films of that year. The release of Suspicion on Thanksgiving weekend at Radio City Music Hall broke attendance records. Everyone in the business thought there was no way the Academy could deny Cary Grant his long-overdo Oscar after his blatant snubs for The Awful Truth and The Philadelphia Story. But, Cary Grant once again failed to get a nominated for his great work in Suspicion. I shall not give my two cents about that because in the long run the most important thing about Suspicion is the fact that it launched one of the greatest of all director-star collaborations in cinema history and the most important work of Cary Grant’s career. Although I state the latter with some caution as I love so many of his films beyond the Hitchcock films. It’s worth noting Grant would later receive a second Best Actor nod for Clifford Odetts’, None but the Lonely Heart (1944).
Grant and Hitchcock would join forces again three more times after Suspicion – the spectacular, Notorious in 1946, the gorgeous, To Catch a Thief in 1955 and in what many consider the definitive Cary Grant film, the brilliant, North by Northwest in 1959. For the record and for no reason other than my own indulgence, for my money North by Northwest trumps Vertigo any day of the week and twice on Sunday. I truly wish Grant and Hitchcock had made more films together but am grateful for the ones we got.
Alfred Hitchcock, who was famously disdainful of actors, once said Cary Grant was “The only actor I ever loved in my whole life.” Well, I must say his taste was impeccable – they didn’t call him “the master” for nothing. Proof of his feelings for Grant is noted when one sees images of the night Hitchcock received his AFI Lifetime Achievement Award. The director sat with his wife, Alma on one side and Cary Grant on the other.
“My father used to say, ‘Let them see you and not the suit. That should be secondary.” – Cary Grant
We’ve seen him and can’t stop doing so. When screwball comedies reigned supreme, Cary Grant was the screwball comedy king. When romance was the order of the day, Grant supplied it in spades. And class is present in all manner of ways in every genre and every scene Cary Grant is in. A layered, gifted performer and actor is what he was in every film I’ve seen him in. But, I remember reading an article on Grant written by The New Yorker film critic, Pauline Kael some time ago who said (paraphrasing) that it was the suspense that made him an immortal. I love that and must say I agree. This post is dedicated to that immortality, which began with Cary Grant’s road to Suspicion.
Happy birthday to the movie star of movie stars. Cary Grant would have turned 111 years old today.
Eliot, Marc. Cary Grant: A Biography. Three Rivers Press; 1 edition (September 27, 2005)
And other readings.