The Miracle of Cary Grant

His father was a bristol drunk. His mother was confined to the local lunatic asylum. So how did the child known as archie leach transform himself into one of the most important actors in the history of cinema?

David Thomson
Tuesday 28 August 2001 00:00 BST

There isn't much need or point now to waste time saying that Cary Grant was a great actor. Go back to 1975, say, and it was deemed reckless and ridiculous when one maverick critic (by the name of Thomson) called Grant "the most important actor in the history of the cinema". Now, on the eve of a long season of his films at the National Film Theatre (the second they have given him since 1975), it seems an entirely reasonable proposition. Out of the 72 pictures he made, you could try such classics as Blonde Venus, She Done Him Wrong, Topper, The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, Suspicion, Notorious, I Was a Male War Bride, People Will Talk, Monkey Business, To Catch a Thief or North by Northwest.

Do I mean the others are not as good? Well, certainly some of them aren't – such as The Pride and the Passion. But it would take solemn idiots to let this epic folly pass by without hoots of delight. And if people full of the new orthodoxy might murmur, "What a silly picture for the great Cary Grant to be doing!" – putting aside his profound love for one co-star (Sophia Loren) and his giddy admiration for the other (Frank Sinatra) – still The Pride and the Passion is the kind of raw melodrama that made him.

In March 1918, a bright, naughty boy named Archie Leach was expelled from Fairfield Secondary School in Bristol. At that time, he lived with his father, Elias Leach, in the grandmother's house. Father and son shared a room, but the father was often away: he was a drunk who sometimes worked as a tailor's presser, and spent time with a woman who lived on the other side of Bristol. Archie didn't get on with his grandmother, who was a cold woman. His mother, Elsie, had left home when he was nine. He had no idea where she was.

It was Archie's habit to find entertainment in the music halls. He even got a part-time job working for an electrician who did repairs to their lights. That's how Archie met Bob Pender, who led a troupe of comic acrobats. At 14, he joined the Pender troupe, lived with their family in Brixton, and learned the tough trade of knockabout comedy. He could do all manner of tricky leaps and stunts, and he could make people laugh. In 1920, still only 16, he went with the Penders to New York.

For the next 12 years, he did what he could to advance in American vaudeville and theatre. The best book on Grant so far (Cary Grant: A Class Apart by Graham McCann) spends about 10 pages on those years. I'm sure that grieved McCann as much as his readers. It means, simply, that we don't know much about that time – the roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age, the most exciting of legendary eras – except that this increasingly tall, dark, handsome guy was on the loose all over the country, learning how to fall, how to time visual jokes, making his way, surviving, and, somehow, having his Bristol accent turn trans-Atlantic. If ever there was a subject fit for a movie it's Archie Leach in those years, finding a new self and sorting out the mix of what a reviewer at the time called "John Barrymore and cockney".

Cut to 1931. By now, Archie has had some speaking parts in legitimate theatre – he can talk. There is a new play, Nikki, written by John Monk Saunders, and set to star Mrs Saunders, an actress named Fay Wray. There was a reading of the play, in which she worked with this young English actor as the male lead, a character named Cary Lockwood. "There are some people," Ms Wray would write later, "who seem to have an incandescent light behind their eyes that turns on to the switch of their interest. The eyes have to be dark. Picasso's eyes seemed always to be on. His bodily electric bill would have been enormous. Cary's eyes flashed as a moment excited him. 'Oh interesting. I love what you have to say. I like you. Say what you just said again: I love hearing it. That is fascinating.' All these things he said without speaking. And after a while, I thought it wasn't because of what I said, it was just because of me. That's what the look of his eyes made me feel. So the tall, dark one was like a source of light: caring."

Nikki wasn't a hit, but still Leach went out to California and got a screen test at Paramount. They offered him a contract, but they said that "Archie Leach" wasn't going to cut it. So he sat down with Fay Wray. "Cary" had suited him, she thought. OK, he said, with something short and American: "Cary Grant?" By the end of 1935, he had made 20 pictures, and he had starred with Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombard, Tallulah Bankhead and Mae West in scenes where they certainly got the look in his eyes.

But in the autumn of 1935, Grant went back to England to make a film there (it would be called The Amazing Quest of Ernest Bliss). He may have taken the job because of bad news about his father. It was in December that Elias Leach died of alcohol poisoning. But that was not the worst of it. For solicitors then presented the question of what should be done with his mother? At the age of 31, Grant learned the truth: that his father had had his mother confined in a Bristol lunatic asylum – the cheapest and worst of the two in town – and had never told Archie.

Elsie Leach had had bouts of depression as a young woman (an earlier son had died two days short of his first birthday), but no one who knew her thought she was crazy. In the asylum she had asked steadily to be let out. Her absence probably assisted Elias's love affairs. Once freed (immediately after her husband's death), Elsie lived a quiet life in Bristol until her death in 1973 at the age of 95. Grant had persistently urged her to live with him in America. She declined – perhaps any notion of going away again made her afraid. He visited her in Bristol often. They kept up a close, loving correspondence.

But this is not an ordinary history. Some people close to Grant in the Thirties reported that he was devastated by the discovery, and hugely guilty because of it. He worked very hard with his mother, but some observers reported that she was timid and in shock from more than 20 years shut away. It's very hard to be sure of what Grant felt. But that leaves all the more reason to pursue one film, not included in my earlier list.

None But the Lonely Heart was a novel by Richard Llewellyn about a cockney drifter named Ernie Mott and his elderly, invalid mother. Grant persuaded RKO to make a movie of the dark, unhappy story, and he was effectively the project's producer – a role he never took before or after. He prevailed upon a friend, the playwright Clifford Odets, to write the script, and was so moved by it that he then urged Odets to direct the film. Grant cast Ethel Barrymore as the mother. The film is not well known. This was 1944, after all, when the general tenor of movies was uplifting. Indeed, the picture was a box-office failure. But Barrymore won the Oscar for best supporting actress, and Grant himself was nominated as best actor. It was the only nomination he would ever receive, and he was defeated by Bing Crosby playing a priest in Going My Way (which tells you something about 1944).

By then, Cary Grant was "Cary Grant", a universal ideal of mid-Atlantic sophistication, and a paragon that rather intimidated the real man and made him extra conscious of human failure. Grant would marry five times – to Virginia Cherrill (1933-35), the actress who plays the blind girl in Chaplin's City Lights; to Barbara Hutton (1942-45), one of the richest women in the world; to Betsy Drake (1945-49), an actress, with whom he played in a couple of films; the actress Dyan Cannon (1965-68), mother to his only child, Jennifer; and Barbara Harris (1981 until his death in 1986).

Yes, there were other love affairs, and maybe some of them were with men – he was a famous chum to the actor Randolph Scott. I don't offer this as a secret answer – and Grant was as far from self-pity and the need to be explained as anyone could be – but I think a very insecure heart hid behind the urbane image, and envied it. Rumours always clung to him – there is another that he was Jewish. But in part, I think, that was the natural consequence of those sympathetic eyes, that special attention he gave people. I would add that I have never known an actor or actress who was not possessed by the kind of insecurity that is eager to be whatever you want them to be. Our magic is often their elasticity, or instability.

In the end, the importance of Grant is not in having rivalled great actors (like Olivier and Brando), but because his subtle screen presence helps us see how far we are all acting most of the time. And why. Just try him – you will see.

The Cary Grant retrospective begins this Saturday at the National Film Theatre, London SE1, and continues throughout September and October. For details, call 020-7928 3232

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