In the years that followed, Grant would establish himself as an actor who was as comfortable with comedy as he was with action or serious drama," Patricia Eliot Tobias once wrote of Cary Grant. I'm not so sure; like many, I fancied Grant more in comedies, mainly because it's almost impossible to take so much charm, beauty and wit seriously. Just like the notion that Grant invented his persona (and not just his name) from Archibald Leach, it was almost as if Cary Grant's characters were meta-fictional. He transcended his roles to the point where you'd invariably forget the character's name. It was always Cary Grant. How can you take that seriously?
And he always knew. You could see it in the grin, where, if you looked really close, you could see it in part of the twinkle in his eye, or maybe if his grin widened just a millimeter more than usual. His famous quote, after all, was, "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant." Now, is that Cary Grant talking, or Archibald Leach talking? Was he speaking from outside himself, or had Cary Grant become so charming he could come up with that about himself? Identity is more elusive in Hollywood than anywhere else, and Grant pushed that notion further still. That Grant's two lone Oscar nominations came from dramatic roles speaks more to Hollywood's time-honored aversion to honoring comedic performances than Grant's versatility. Why doesn't sublime ever rate?
All of this is quite evident in Warner Home Video's Cary Grant: The Signature Collection, which features five films from the 1940s: My Favorite Wife (1940), Destination Tokyo (1943), Night and Day (1946), The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947) and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948). (We'll forget, for a moment, that any collection that doesn't include anything from his Hitchcock collaborations, or even Topper, Bringing Up Baby or The Philadelphia Story should be called a "signature collection.") Here we see Grant slipping as comfortably into the prime of his career as he would a silk smoking jacket.
Though Mr. Blandings is the only film of this collection that ranks on the American Film Institute's list of the Top 100 comedies of all time (No. 72), My Favorite Wife and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer are clearly funnier, and superior, works. (It's no coincidence they're also the three comedies in this batch, but more on that later.) Mr. Blandings is a bit of a downward spiral comedy, the The Money Pit of its generation. And while its charm seems rather elusive more than half a century later, there's no denying Grant's charm. Even as a married and domesticated New York City advertising exec (how many films feature Grant as a man whose vocation is essentially seduction?), Grant still can make flustered seem sophisticated. It's as if Grant proves that only forces of nature like the Murphy's Law world of home-building could even remotely knock him off his game.
But it is My Favorite Wife and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer that more deftly play to Grant's strengths. Wife is considered the lesser of three quite successful pictures he made to kick off the decade, including His Girl Friday and The Philadelphia Story. (The less said of The Howards of Virginia, the better.) But it's hilarious nevertheless, involving, what else, a romantic triangle with Grant's Nick trying to marry Gail Patrick's Bianca when previous wife Ellen -- thought dead for seven years -- resurfaces just in time for the honeymoon. In real life, we can only imagine Cary Grant deftly juggling more than his share of lovers (he actually was an over-possessive husband, five times over), so naturally he makes this exercise in exasperation delightful. In fact, the scenario plays into one of the notions about the Cary Grant mystique, that of the man too magnetic for his own good but in no way content to gloat over the situation. He really wants everything to work out for the best. But as the CIA type tells him in North by Northwest, if he wasn't so damned attractive .
That same notion works, more or less, into the plot behind The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, which earned Sidney Sheldon an Oscar for his screenplay. You wouldn't know it from the premise: Grant's artist Richard Nugent is sentenced by an ice-cold judge (Myrna Loy) to date her younger sister (Shirley Temple) in order to erase a charge and rid the sister of her crush on him. And, of course, Grant warms up to Loy. Huh? The charge against him, basically, is that he's too charming to be seen in public social settings because violence invariably ensues.
Destination Tokyo, incredibly, earned an Oscar nomination for Best Story, despite sketching a laundry list of stock characters, and even Grant seems as uncomfortable inside this Tokyo-bound sub as any Hollywood star would. But it's more from his need to be seen as a paternal figure for a rag-tag bunch of lovable sailors -- and nary a woman in sight -- that keeps Grant from doing anything memorable. You could even argue the same thing about his portrayal of Cole Porter in Night and Day, which feels even more dated with the recent release of De-Lovely, with Kevin Kline bringing Porter's homosexuality out into the open. Here it's white-washed, though, as are more of Porter's other artistic impulses. When he hears a clock ticking and is inspired to pen the song of the title, you can't help but cringe. The music is great, of course, but Grant clearly feels like he's coasting through this standard biopic with very little nuance. No, it's the ease and grace that we most often want to see in Cary Grant, and in this collection.