Some comic actors make you feel that you’re secretly watching a tragedy. Take Peter Sellers – he could make you laugh even as you believed that his characters took the situations they found themselves in absolutely seriously. You feel his burning desire to be an impressive detective as Clouseau even when he’s got face cream on his nose or is walking around in a nudist colony with a carefully placed guitar.
Other comic actors give you that ironic detachment, only one step back from winking to camera, so you feel safe in their laughter from the outset. There’s no moment in any Monty Python film when you’re not aware that they’re enjoying the joke too, and pushing that knowledge to the limits of absurdity.
And then there’s Cary Grant. His comic films work both ways. He’s both deadly serious and couched in irony. He could change what you felt about him and the situation in a moment, just by altering his expression. You start off feeling included, encouraged to laugh along, and then suddenly he projects an intense emotion, and you know this is for real after all. So few actors can play with the distance they keep from the viewer in this way – and it helped to create some of the best comic films ever made.
1940 was a year in which Grant used his talents in three classic screwball comedies. He was in the middle of a spectacular run of films that established him as the king of light comedy – from The Awful Truth (1937), Holiday (1938), and Bringing Up Baby (1938) he had become a star, and then he began to challenge the persona of light charm he had built by teaming up with Hitchcock for the first time in Suspicion (1941). So in 1940 he was at the pinnacle of the kind of marital comedy that he did better than anybody else. He cut a charming and seductive figure, but there was always that hint of danger and dishonorability – you could never tell how low he would stoop to get the girl.
These three films – His Girl Friday, My Favorite Wife, and Philadelphia Story – are all about marriage. Not romance, so much, as what happens after the wedding bells, when life interferes with love. Clever, fast-talking heroes and heroines pretend to care about not so clever people, who are pawns in the games they are playing. Often the films are cruel, but when the costumes and the dialogue sparkles we go along with it, and by the end it all seems to come together, if not happily, at least satisfactorily.
Here’s a look at each film in the order that they were released in the US:
His Girl Friday (January 1940)
The Front Page was a 1928 play written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, in which a newspaper editor tried to stop his star reporter from quitting in order to get married. Then Howard Hawks decided he’d like to make a version in which the star reporter is a woman – and the ex-wife of the editor.
Hawks was one of the great American directors, working with John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, and many others. He’s also credited with the invention of the film archetype known as “Hawksian Woman” – a hard-nosed fast-talking female character who gives as good as she gets. Rosalind Russell plays her in His Girl Friday in the role of reporter Hildy Johnson, and she is driven by her love of reporting and wisecracking and getting to the bottom of things. She drives the action as her ex-husband, Walter (Cary Grant) looks on with a strange mixture of pride and jealousy. Hildy is a heck of a woman and a better reporter than he ever was.
So into their cluttered divorce comes good-natured Bruce (Ralph Bellamy) – he’s an insurance salesman who wants to give Hildy a proper home and a quiet life. Except we know and Walter knows that she doesn’t want that at all. But Hildy’s not the kind of person who you can tell that to, so he comes up with some very devious tricks to get her to realise it.
This is a film in which everyone talks fast, and talks over each other. It’s often described as having the quickest dialogue ever put on film, but because of that the few moments of silence really stay with you. When Hildy announces, after a round of cracking banter with her ex, that she’s going to remarry, there’s a pause. Walter is speechless; his face says everything we need to know. And that’s how we find out that he really still loves Hildy after all. But then the look fades and the insults start flying again, and we’re back in that ironic, glib, dialogue through which Grant pokes fun at everyone, even himself. “I haven’t had so much fun since Archie Leach died,” he says at one point. Archie Leach was Cary Grant’s real name.
My Favorite Wife (May 1940)
It’s a big day for Nick Arden (Grant). He’s gone to court to have his first wife declared legally dead after a shipwreck that took place seven years ago. And he’s also going to marry his second wife, who is beautiful and sensible and has no sense of humour, and is all the things that screwball comedies like to relentlessly poke fun at. The first wife is declared dead and the second wife is installed, when on the very same day – guess what? Wife one walks back through the door.
It’s a gift of a concept for Grant, who gets such mileage out of double-takes and sudden rants and looking like the happiest and most unlucky man in the world at the same time. He still loves his first wife, Ellen (played so brilliantly by Irene Dunne) and we’re never really sure why he married wife two. He just looks uncomfortable whenever the subject comes up. And so Ellen tries to push him into telling wife two to go away, but it’s not going to be that easy. Particularly when Nick finds out that Ellen wasn’t alone on a desert island for seven years…
The best thing about My Favorite Wife is that nobody (except poor wife number two, played absolutely straight by Gail Patrick) takes any of it that seriously. Ellen in particular seems to find the situation hilarious, and she’s got a point. What are the chances? Instead of pretending this isn’t a flimsy bit of coincidental filmic nonsense, she revels in it, and so we can revel too. There are a few touching romantic moments just to pull on the heartstrings for the sake of appearances, but nothing to make you really feel bad for the kids or the husband who got left behind, and the film is not so good at those moments. The strength of it is the fact that everyone looks silly, even the Judge who has to decide the outcome.
I should just mention that Randolph Scott has a great role. It’s impossible to even write his name without thinking of Blazing Saddles, and the townsfolk clutching their hats to their chests – “You’d do it for Randolph Scott!” He was a very impressive figure of a man. Cary Grant looks upon him with horror when he first spies him as a rival for wife number one’s affections. But in real life, they shared a beach house in Malibu for eleven years, and there are great photos of the two of them lounging by the pool, or cooking dinner together. Hollywood always did love a good scandal, and there was talk of an affair between them, but whether they were friends or lovers, they look so happy in those photos that you can’t help but smile too. Grant always did put across the idea that being alive was, first and foremost, fun.
The Philadelphia Story (December 1940)
So here’s my favourite of the three films; I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the fact that Grant’s character is called CK Dexter Haven, which is a great name. Or maybe it’s Dinah, the young girl who is an antidote to sweet little sisters everywhere and can play rude songs on the piano. No, it’s probably because it’s got Katharine Hepburn in it. All over it. Two leading men of Cary Grant and James Stewart, and she is definitely the one wearing the trousers.
The legend goes that Katharine Hepburn was labelled box office poison in 1938. I always wondered what this meant. Did everyone suddenly get the same memo and stop going to see her films, all at once? No, apparently, she was still very popular, but The Independent Film Journal ran an article in May 1938 that listed ten stars who were, it said, expensive to hire but didn’t bring an audience to the cinema. Hepburn was tenth on that list, the others being actors such as Greta Garbo, Fred Astaire, and James Cagney (hardly bad company) but for some reason it only seemed to stick to her. So she did something about it. She acquired the rights to a play called The Philadelphia Story and persuaded Louis B Mayer to make a film version. She thought the character of lofty socialite Tracy Lord would suit her perfectly, and it did.
Tracy Lord is about to get married again to dependable, boring rich guy George Kitteredge, another classic screwball comedy stool pigeon, after a disastrous first marriage to CK Dexter Haven. But through a series of plot contrivances, Haven and two journalist acquaintances of his (Mike, played with passionate sincerity by James Stewart, and Liz, his world-weary girlfriend, played by Ruth Hussey) will be coming to the pre-wedding party. And Tracy will realise that she’s not so lofty and unaffected after all. We all know within the first five minutes that she’s not going to end up with George – but will it be Mike or Haven who takes her fancy?
I love the first scene in The Philadelphia Story. It’s a silent portrait of a marriage gone really wrong, so when the fast talking and the quick quips start flying, you’re still left with a bitter taste in your mouth, and it treads that line between the veneer of comedy and the hint of real pain very well. It also has poetry, and passion; magic that you either fall for or you don’t. It might all seem a bit silly at times, but then CK Dexter Haven punctures it with his sardonic look and brings it back down to earth. He’s a recovering alcoholic, and when Tracy really gets stuck into him you do wonder if he’s going to pick up one of those glasses of champagne, knock it back, and never stop. But no, this is a comedy, not a tragedy – but only Grant could make you buy it either way.
Apparently John Cleese decided to name his character in A Fish Called Wanda Archie Leach because that was the closest he would get to ever being Cary Grant. He’s not alone in that desire. “Everybody wants to be Cary Grant,” said Cary Grant. “Even I want to be Cary Grant.” When you watch the three films he made in 1940 alone, you wish you lived in that world too, where marriages come stuck and unstuck on witty barbs, and there’s always something happening, whether it’s a party or a deadline. Life moves faster in screwball-comedy-world, and it takes the like of Grant and his amazing co-stars (Dunne, Russell, Hepburn) to keep up with it all.
This works because we know it could never be real. Grant is perhaps the only film star who could make you believe in the world he inhabits and dismiss it as fantasy at the same time. You trust in his persona, and yet see that even he is smirking at the ridiculousness of that suavity and charm. His smile always hinted at the idea that he was in on the joke, but his eyes suggested that he just might be serious after all. It was a unique acting talent, and it’s worth watching these films just to enjoy seeing it in action.