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Hollywood and the Great DepressionAmerican Film, Politics and Society in the 1930s$

Iwan Morgan and Philip John Davies

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780748699926

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: January 2018

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748699926.001.0001

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The ‘Awful Truth’ about Cary Grant

The ‘Awful Truth’ about Cary Grant

(p.139) Chapter 7 The ‘Awful Truth’ about Cary Grant
Hollywood and the Great Depression

Mark Glancy

Edinburgh University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter considers the creation of Cary Grant’s star persona – the combination of image, the characters he played, and the publicity that came to form his screen identity – between his early 1930s movies and his breakthrough roles in two 1937 films, Topper, (MGM) and The Awful Truth (Columbia). Grant was neither convincing and comfortable in the ‘likeable rough guy’ roles, in which Paramount (his original studio) cast him in the early Depression years, notably in the 1933 Mae West vehicle, She Done Him Wrong. Going freelance in 1937 led to a change of fortune and a new identity in screwball comedy. By now, the worst of the Depression was over, even if full recovery was elusive. Grant epitomised a newly confident American male, a consumer who cares about fashion and appearance, a leisurely figure who enjoys urban life, and a husband worthy of an attractive wife, but one who was not perfect and often in danger of losing his dignity – thereby suggesting the strengths and weaknesses of American democracy.

Keywords:   Cary Grant, Screwball comedy, Star persona, Freelancing, Identity

Over the course of a screen career that spanned more than thirty years, Cary Grant made seventy-two feature films and established a reputation as one of Hollywood’s most glamorous stars. His image as an urbane, debonair man-about-town appealed to audiences across many decades, and he remains an icon of sophistication and elegance to twenty-first-century movie fans. In 1975, nearly ten years after Grant’s retirement from movies, film critic Pauline Kael wrote a lengthy and admiring essay on him for the New Yorker. ‘[T]he man from dream city’, in her assessment represented, ‘a subtle fantasy of worldly grace … so gallant and gentlemanly and charming that every woman longed to be his date’ and ‘men wanted to be him’.1 Another prominent critic, David Thomson, simultaneously declared Grant to have been ‘the best and most important actor in the history of cinema’.2 Praise of this order was particularly remarkable given the widespread assumption during the years that Grant was active in films that he simply ‘played himself’ on screen. This helps to explain why he never won the Academy Award for ‘best actor’, and only received an ‘honorary’ Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in retirement in 1970. Since then, Grant has been the subject of more than a dozen biographies, many scholarly studies and innumerable film seasons, retrospectives and DVD ‘boxed sets’. The continuing interest in him and praise for his performances mark him as one of the most admired and respected stars of Hollywood’s studio era.

This chapter is not concerned with the peak years of Cary Grant’s stardom from the late 1930s to the 1960s. Rather, it investigates his lesser-known early years in Hollywood, and how he finally made a breakthrough in two screwball comedies released in 1937, Topper (independently-made and distributed by MGM) and The Awful Truth (p.140) (Columbia). At issue is the creation of Grant’s star persona–the combination of his image, the characters he played, and the publicity surrounding him that came to form his public identity.3 Investigating this star persona therefore involves analysis of his film roles, the reams of publicity materials that promoted him to the cinema-going public, and, as far as possible, audience responses in the form of popularity rankings and box-office results.

This is not a biographical study, but some commentary on Grant’s actual identity is nonetheless important. A star’s persona inevitably corresponds to contemporaneous norms of class, gender and nationality, so Grant’s working-class English background made it particularly challenging for him to establish a persona that appealed to American audiences. It is important also to consider performance technique, especially in his breakthrough films, as this too has a bearing on audiences’ understanding and appreciation of the star. These lines of inquiry are pursued here primarily through analysis of Grant’s many early films, and documents found in Cary Grant’s collected papers, as well as other film industry archives.4

There was little in his youth and early career to indicate that he would ultimately become one of Hollywood’s most sophisticated stars. He was born Archibald Leach in Bristol, England, in 1904, to an unhappy, poor, working-class family.5 His father was employed as a factory worker, but the family’s struggles and instability are apparent in the fact that they moved rental abode five times by the time that he was fourteen years old. Following his mother’s commitment to a ‘lunatic asylum’ when he was eleven, Grant did not see or hear from her again until in his thirties. Expelled from school aged fourteen, he went to work with an acrobatic troupe, Bob Pender’s Nippy Nine, which was based in London and toured British music halls. In 1920, the troupe was engaged to play in a revue at New York City’s largest vaudeville theatre, the Hippodrome, and afterwards ‘Archie’ Leach (as he was billed) decided to remain in the United States. With other breakaway members of Pender’s troupe, he toured the American vaudeville circuit from coast to coast, and also performed as the ‘straight man’ in a comic duo. He spent at least five years in vaudeville without achieving fame, which makes it all the more remarkable that the Broadway producer Arthur Hammerstein signed him to a four-year contract in 1927.

This was a major career breakthrough for someone with no training as an actor or singer, and it was unusual for performers to make the leap from vaudeville to what was then termed ‘legitimate’ theatre. However, Archie Leach was an extraordinarily handsome young man. Standing six feet and two inches tall, with an athletic physique, wavy (p.141) black hair, a gleaming smile and a dimpled chin, he was the very image of a matinee idol. Hammerstein set out to make him one, casting him in co-starring roles in a succession of Broadway and touring musicals. Critics almost always commented on his appearance. Some likened him to John Barrymore, who was then considered the finest and most handsome of all actors. Others noted that he was an elegant dresser with, in the words of one, an ‘aristocratic way of wearing clothes’. Praise of this kind was usually accompanied by less enthusiastic appraisals of his ability as a performer, however.6

Recognising his new player’s limitations, Hammerstein made it a contractual requirement that he take lessons from a ‘vocal instructor’ during his first Broadway season (1927–8).7 It is not clear whether these were speech or singing lessons, but over the next two years Archie Leach received critical pannings on both counts. He moved away from musicals as soon as he could, but his speaking voice was another matter. It would eventually become one of the most distinctive voices ever heard in films: full of charm and nuance, but thoroughly transatlantic and almost impossible to place. During this phase of his career, by contrast, his voice was still a work in progress that drew disparaging references from the critics. Comments about his Cockney accent and a ‘vaudeville quality’ to his performance indicate that vestiges of his working-class background remained apparent.8 Certainly in his first screen appearance, in the short film Singapore Sue (1931), he demonstrated little of the vocal elegance and physical grace for which he would later be renowned. He was awkward and unconvincing in the role of a rough and ready, loud-mouthed American sailor. The film, shot at Paramount’s Astoria Studios in New York, was effectively a screen test that failed.

Many years later, Cary Grant recalled that he was aware of his limitations as a performer in these early years and struggled to develop a breezy, debonair manner that would suit the roles he played on stage. Near the end of his career, he cited Noel Coward, particularly in the role of Elyot in Private Lives that was staged on Broadway in 1931, as a key influence.9 Coward, too, was a self-made man. Born in London into a lower middle-class family, he assumed the speech and manners of the upper classes, and became an icon of so-called ‘café society’.10 As a playwright, he glamorised but also ridiculed the upper classes in comedies such as Private Lives. As an actor, his trademark combination of refined manners and an insouciant attitude represented a reinvention of the English gentleman as polished and self-assured but also playful and unstuffy. This offered a role model to Archie Leach–another English upstart striving to achieve sophistication and poise–and while neither (p.142) Archie Leach nor Cary Grant would ever be as clipped and brittle as Coward, imitating Coward brought Leach a step closer to becoming Cary Grant.

With the collapse of ticket sales on Broadway following the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the ensuing economic meltdown, Archie Leach set off for pastures new in Hollywood. The film industry was not immune to the Great Depression, but movie ticket sales did not fall off so quickly and each of the major film studios was still making fifty or so films per year. Through friendships forged on Broadway, Leach secured another screen test with Paramount, doing sufficiently well on this occasion to be signed up to a five-year contract in the autumn of 1931. Becoming a ‘featured player’ at one of Hollywood’s ‘Big Five’ studios was another significant career breakthrough, and a much needed one. Although many writers have claimed otherwise, his theatrical line of work was hardly on an upward trajectory, as evidenced by the decline in his weekly salary in 1930 and his having to spend two months of 1931 playing summer stock in St Louis.11 The fact that his stage career brought no fame or following is clear in Paramount’s insistence that he adopt a new name. His cinematic moniker suggests some of the uncertainty about his screen image. He chose ‘Cary’ himself–it was the name of the last character he played on Broadway and he liked it–but the studio insisted that this refined first name should be combined with the more masculine and solid-sounding surname of ‘Grant’.12 Eventually, the contrast between the two would work in his favour in signifying the different facets of his star persona, but there is little evidence from his early career at Paramount that the studio realised this, or that it was interested in developing a new and unique screen image for him.

Through both film roles and publicity materials, up-and-coming stars were situated in relation to established social types and to the top stars of the day. However, Grant was not easily placed within the masculine types popular in the films of the early 1930s. Despite his nationality, he did not fit with Hollywood’s idea of an Englishman. As represented by the likes of Clive Brook, Ronald Colman and Leslie Howard, Hollywood’s Englishmen spoke with refined accents and inhabited drawing rooms and gentlemen’s clubs. Grant’s working-class origins and the years he had spent in the USA meant that this persona did not suit him. Similarly, he was never likely to be a plainspoken, rugged, Western hero akin to Will Rogers or Paramount’s own Gary Cooper and Randolph Scott.

Grant’s dapper style meant that he was more suited to becoming one of the ‘art deco dandies’ who populated screwball comedies and (p.143) sophisticated musicals. As the film historian Drew Todd has argued, these characters were essentially classless but perfectly at home on ocean liners, in penthouses and in swanky nightclubs. In the depths of the Great Depression, their social mobility ‘made luxury and leisure seem accessible’ and ‘made modernity seem sophisticated and fun’.13 Despite Grant’s sense of style, however, he did not quite fit alongside leading Hollywood dandies such as Fred Astaire, Herbert Marshall and Robert Montgomery. They were sleeker and slighter, while his height and physique gave him a strong and solid screen presence. Accordingly, Paramount decided that he should belong to another new type: the gritty, tough ‘dangerous men’.14 This screen persona arose partly in response to the arrival of ‘talking pictures’ in the late 1920s and the ensuing need for men with forceful, masculine voices. The popularity of this type was also enhanced by the Depression. Stars such as James Cagney, Clark Gable, George Raft, Edward G. Robinson and Spencer Tracy played gangsters, lorry drivers, reporters, detectives and boxers who were determined to get ahead at any cost. Their rough and ready resoluteness seemed to reassure American audiences that the country could survive hard times.15

Clark Gable, who was under contract to MGM from 1930, quickly became the leading male star of the decade.16 Paramount was not subtle in defining Grant in Gable’s image. One of his earliest publicity profiles bluntly categorises him described as being ‘the same type as Clark Gable–another likeable rough guy of the screen’.17 Yet while Gable combined charm and virility with apparent ease, Grant at this point in his career had neither the confidence nor the performance skills to play a ‘likeable rough guy’. In his first feature film, This is the Night (1932), he has a co-starring role as a humourless American athlete who is forced to compete for his wife’s affections with an older, more worldly, dandyish suitor played by Roland Young. The more established star, Young has all the best lines in the film, but even taking this into account, Grant’s limited range as a screen actor is all too apparent. He speaks with little inflection, his facial expressions are rigid, and his body language is stiff. His discomfort in front of the camera is almost palpable, and not least because he repeatedly falls back on a single gesture, placing his hands in his trouser pockets in nearly every scene. This straining to appear casual was the hallmark of his early film career.

Paramount cast him in a succession of American ‘likeable rough guy’ roles, usually playing the love interest of a more established leading lady. Most notably, he was the gangster who makes a ‘fallen woman’ of Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus (1932), and the man Mae West (p.144) tries to lure into her bedroom in She Done Him Wrong (1933). ‘Why don’t you come up some time and see me?’, she famously asks him, but he is the one man in the film who can resist her. He co-starred with West again in I’m No Angel (1933), but in other films he was second-billed to lesser stars such as Joan Bennett, Kay Francis, Myrna Loy and Loretta Young. He is a naval officer who breaks the heart of a Japanese geisha in Madame Butterfly (1932); an attorney who horsewhips a man for blackmailing his fiancée in The Woman Accused (1933); a racketeer in Gambling Ship (1933); a daring aviator in Wings in the Dark (1935); and a streetwise detective in Big Brown Eyes (1936). Most of these films are unremarkable and his bland roles could have been played by almost any leading man. If Grant achieved some distinction at this point in his career, it was due to his transatlantic accent (which was not explained or referred to in these films) and his impeccable dress sense (it is notable that he was began appearing in print advertisements for men’s fashions in 1934).18 It is also apparent that making five or six films each year allowed him to develop his skills as a screen actor. Even if the films were routine, his ability and confidence as a performer steadily grew.

The ‘Awful Truth’ about Cary Grant

Figure 7.1 Cary Grant as a ‘likeable rough guy’ alongside Mae West in She Done Him Wrong (Paramount, 1933).

(p.145) By his own admission, Grant ‘begged’ Paramount to let him play light comedy–a genre that would allow his well-dressed, gentlemanly persona to come to the fore–but the studio was resistant to his pleas.19 One exception, the comedy Ladies Should Listen (1934), is weighed down by a weak script but nevertheless shows that Grant could be looser and more expressive in a comic mode. This movie’s brief running time of sixty-two minutes indicates that it was made for the bottom half of double bills. Another minor film, The Last Outpost (1935), is notable as the first film in which Grant plays an English character, a moustached army officer stationed in Kurdistan no less, but it was hastily made in the wake of Gary Cooper’s great success in the popular imperial adventure film, Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935). At this time, too, Paramount increasingly loaned Grant to other studios, a sure sign that it was losing interest in him. Nevertheless, this practice provided two of his most interesting early films. In The Amazing Adventure (1936) Grant gives a confident performance as a London millionaire who gives up his wealth for a year of ordinary living, but his accent and demeanour seem jarringly out of place in this independently made British film that was distributed in America by United Artists. He is much more at home in RKO’s Sylvia Scarlett (1936). Director George Cukor recalled casting Grant in the expectation that his experiences in music hall would inform his performance as ‘a rather shady character–a cheap theatrical fellow’.20 Playing a hard-bitten Cockney trickster brought out a new depth and range in Grant’s acting, and he received the best reviews of his career so far.21 However, the film itself was a disaster. Even the critics who admired his performance panned this charming, oddball comedy and poured scorn on its star, Katharine Hepburn, who was labelled ‘box office poison’ in its wake.22

A star persona is created as much through publicity as through films, and throughout this period, Paramount ensured that Grant received an ample amount, especially in the fan magazines. The 1930s were a ‘golden age’ for such publications with a dozen titles in the USA alone selling a combined total of over 4 million copies per month.23 These magazines were not about films as much as they were about film stars. They catered to film fans’ interest in the off-screen lives of stars, offering glamour portraits as well as supposedly candid photographs of them, along with interviews, biographies and gossip. Much of this was manufactured by studio publicists, and although it was not all untrue, it was made to fit with or enhance the star persona. Accordingly, while many of the articles about Grant acknowledged that his real name was Archie Leach and that he had been born in Bristol, his working-class origins were concealed, and information about his upbringing was changed (p.146) to suit an American interest in the English upper classes. For example, he was portrayed as belonging to a wealthy family with a long and distinguished theatrical tradition, having an elite public school education, and engaging in his family’s theatrical eccentricities to explain his career as an acrobat.24

Remarkably, many articles also highlighted Grant’s relationship with his fellow Paramount star, Randolph Scott. Grant and Scott really did live together for several years, sharing a beachfront home that served as an attractive backdrop for a succession of fan-magazine features. Proclaiming the stars to be ‘Hollywood’s most eligible bachelors’, these articles showed them lifting weights, swimming, running on the beach, eating meals and relaxing together.25 From a modern perspective, the images appear to represent a gay marriage, but in the 1930s this was not likely to have been so readily assumed. In film-fan culture, Hollywood was often represented as ‘the most racy, risqué and unconventional place in the country’, and magazine readers saw their fantasies projected and their desires reflected in the ‘bohemian’ lives of film stars, according to the film historian Brett L. Abrams.26 An array of different fantasies may have been on offer in the profiles of Grant and Scott. Some readers may have read between the lines to assume that the stars were gay. Some single women may have liked to imagine that Grant and Scott were eligible bachelors–still available to marry. Some men may have envied their independence and apparent life of leisure. Almost anyone could admire their friendship, wealth and health. This publicity did little to boost the standing of either star, however.

By 1937, after five years under contract to Paramount, audiences certainly would have been familiar with Grant, but evidently were not intrigued by him. Far from rising in the annual polls of Hollywood’s most popular stars, he languished at the bottom of a ranking that included over 100 names.27 Paramount had failed to mould a coherent image for him. He was an English actor who played American characters; a ‘rough guy’ akin to Clark Gable who was second-billed to glamorous leading ladies; an actor from a distinguished theatrical family who now made run-of-the-mill Hollywood films; and an ‘eligible bachelor’ whose highly publicised marriage to Virginia Cherrill, a minor star, in 1934 ended acrimoniously within a year. Richard Dyer has argued that the meaning and appeal of the most successful stars can be understood through the concept of ‘structured polysemy’; that is, the star embodies a multiplicity of meanings that appear to resolve contradictions within a society’s dominant ideology, or, exceptionally, that the star embodies meanings that expose contradictions within the dominant ideology and (p.147) are thereby subversive.28 In this period, however, Grant offers a case of unstructured polysemy–a star with many diverse characteristics which did not cohere or resonate with audiences in a compelling way. Indeed, he made so little impact, and so few memorable films, that if he had retired from the screen at this time, he would in all likelihood have been quickly and quietly forgotten.

Grant’s fortunes changed when his contract ended in 1937. Leaving Paramount, he chose not to sign an exclusive agreement with any other studio. This was a risky move. Although many stars complained about studio contracts, few were willing to give up the career backing and stability these provided. Grant, however, saw that at least a few other stars–including Ronald Colman, Irene Dunne and Barbara Stanwyck–had benefited from freelancing and he was determined to try it too.29 Hence, he became master of his own career, and chose a comedy as his first post-Paramount film. Topper concerns a carefree couple, George and Marion Kirby, who return as ghosts following a fatal automobile accident to haunt a repressed Wall Street banker in hopes of loosening him up. It proved to be a critical and commercial success.30 In several respects, though, it was not an ideal assignment for Grant. It was made by the independent producer Hal Roach, and no one could have imagined that going from Paramount to Hal Roach’s small studio represented a move up the career ladder. Constance Bennett, playing the female ghost, was top-billed in the credits and had far more screen time than Grant. The title of the film referred not to Grant’s male ghost character, but to the banker Cosmo Topper, played by Roland Young. Worse, Grant was again competing with Young for the affections of his wife. As in This Is the Night, the story suggests that the older, less dashing Young is somehow more attractive than his rival. If Topper was not a step forward for Grant in terms of prestige, billing or centrality, it nevertheless allowed him to demonstrate his propensity for comedy, and especially for the zany, chaotic, madcap humour of screwball.

Although set in the sophisticated, leisurely world of high society, screwball comedies centre on couples who kindle, or in some cases rekindle, their romance through verbal sparring as well as playful, childish adventures and gags. Hence, these films offered Grant the opportunity to bring together the two major strands of his career: his sophisticated appearance and the low comedy skills he had developed in his music hall and vaudeville days. The comic pratfalls, high jinks and double-takes he performed on stage for so many years fit well within the slapstick humour of the screwball world, but he (p.148) demonstrated a broader physical dexterity as well. Indeed, from the very first scene of Topper–in which Grant sits atop a gleaming convertible car and blithely steers it with his feet–there is a sense that, as a performer, screwball comedy has liberated him.

Playing the comic ‘straight man’, as he had in vaudeville, was a key aspect of Grant’s screwball persona. This was a genre that featured formidable leading ladies playing intelligent, outspoken, confident and somewhat eccentric women. Grant was their ‘straight man’ because he was the calmer, dignified, rational character, who struggles to maintain control as he becomes involved in the women’s schemes and misadventures. Ultimately, his sense of decorum and poise is pushed to the limits and beyond, and the denouement almost always involved him losing his dignity as well as his sartorial elegance. He would be robbed of his clothing, or have his clothes ruined, in film after film. In this respect, he was quite unlike the ‘art deco dandies’ who populated other screwball comedies. His social confidence and good dress sense were not merely appropriate to the film’s smart settings–they were mobilised (and undermined) for comic purposes.

If Topper does not represent the first full bloom of the Cary Grant star persona, it is partly because a significant portion of the film concerns Marion Kirby’s flirtation with Cosmo Topper. The implication that she is bored with husband George is inescapable. After Topper, Grant would be the object of desire for stars such as Irene Dunne, Katherine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell, and if there was any notion that they might be interested in someone else, it was clear that they were either trying to fool Grant or themselves. Another factor that marks Topper as a transitional film, rather than the film that established Grant’s star image, is George Kirby’s wealth. Like Grant’s later characters, Kirby is not enthralled by money. When he attends an early-morning meeting of a bank’s board of directors, he is clearly bored by the proceedings. Still wearing a tuxedo from the previous evening’s whirl of parties and nightclubs, he gradually sinks in his chair and allows one of his feet to rest on the table. He hums distractedly to himself and mocks the chairman’s recitation of a stream of financial figures. Bankers were an easy target for comedy during the Great Depression, and George Kirby’s playful childishness is a badge of egalitarianism that sets him apart from them. Nevertheless, his tuxedo, his louche lifestyle, his carefree ways and his place on the board of directors all suggest a life of privilege. In later films, Grant’s characters may be wealthy, but they are self-made men with a purpose (p.149) in life beyond nightclubs and parties. No trace of a privileged position in life would remain.

His next film, The Awful Truth, marked the arrival of Cary Grant as a distinctive screen personality.31 Now recognised as one of the finest screwball comedies ever made, it was based on a play that had been filmed twice before, in 1925 and 1929. The basic story remained the same across all versions.32 A wealthy husband accuses his wife of adultery and they divorce, but gradually they realise that they still love each other and reconcile in the end. In 1937 the film was made by Columbia Pictures, then one of the lesser Hollywood studios. Most of its films were made for neighbourhood cinemas, or the bottom half of double-bills, but each year the studio turned out a small number of prestige pictures.33 In February 1937 Cary Grant signed a non-exclusive contract to make four films over two years for Columbia, with stipulations that ensured these would be quality productions.34 He was eager to work with Columbia newcomer, the producer-director Leo McCarey, who had already put the script for The Awful Truth remake in development.

Grant agreed to star in the film unaware that McCarey, whose best work had been with the Marx Brothers, believed improvisation was the key to great comedy.35 McCarey paid little attention to the original play, and maintained only one element of Vina Delmar’s new script. Where previous versions of the story were concerned only with the wife’s faithfulness, the new version was more modern for placing equal emphasis on the issue of the husband’s fidelity to his wife.36 Grant’s co-stars on the film, Irene Dunne and Ralph Bellamy, later recalled that McCarey arrived on set each morning with story ideas or lines of dialogue written on scraps of paper. He would ask the cast to try these ideas out and build scenes by running through them over and over again, acting out lines himself and urging the actors to be creative, an approach entirely unfamiliar to Grant.37 In the factory-like atmosphere of Paramount, executives kept a close eye on shooting schedules and the amount of footage achieved each day, and actors were expected to arrive on set with their lines memorised. Very uncomfortable with McCarey’s freewheeling style, Grant vainly asked Columbia boss Harry Cohn to let him leave the production. Nor would the mogul rein in the offbeat director.38

Improvisation turned out to be good for Grant. In The Awful Truth, he is funnier, and his performance more subtle and nuanced, than ever before. Furthermore, McCarey’s influence proved crucial not only in terms of technique but also in establishing a comic (p.150) persona that Grant would develop for the rest of his career. It was often observed that the two looked alike: they were both tall, dark, good-looking men in their thirties, who dressed well and had an air of urbane sophistication. McCarey also had an ‘infectious zaniness’–a mischievous, light-hearted, flirtatious manner–that Grant mimicked for the role of Jerry Warriner in The Awful Truth. Attuned to the idea that his star was playing a version of him, the director identified strongly with this portrayal and later said that the film ‘told–in a way–the story of my life’.39

In McCarey’s hands, therefore, The Awful Truth became a celebration of the director’s own man-about-town good looks and debonair character, and, by extension, an on-screen celebration of Cary Grant. Although Irene Dunne is the film’s top-billed star, Grant’s Warriner is the film’s focal point. The first scene, set in a locker room in a New York City athletic club, shows him shirtless and worrying that his wife might not believe that he has spent the previous week in Florida if he does not return home with a tan. Hence, from the

The ‘Awful Truth’ about Cary Grant

Figure 7.2 The debonair image of Cary Grant in The Awful Truth (Columbia, 1937).

(p.151) outset, Grant’s appearance is established as a matter of interest and importance, and, in his shirtless state, the audience is encouraged to see him as the film’s sex symbol. He is subsequently seen in a succession of perfectly tailored suits, a tuxedo, and top hat and tails, always looking impeccably well presented. In keeping with this dashingly confident persona, his character has a wry, sly or witty retort for every occasion.

Adopting McCarey’s mannerisms, Grant suddenly seemed more American in manner. He still had a transatlantic accent, but his new air of casual, light-hearted informality was more modern and classless than any previous character he had played, British or American. His voice is best characterised from this point onward not in terms of nationality but of irony. He invests even the simplest dialogue with mischievous layers of meaning. For example, when Jerry finds that, while he was supposedly in Florida, wife Lucy has also been away overnight with her voice instructor, Armand Duvalle (Alexander D’Arcy), he maintains a façade of nonchalance as long as he can. As he politely pours a glass of eggnog for Duvalle, his wife insists on her innocence and says, ‘You can’t have a happy married life if you’re always suspicious of one another’. Grant then turns to Duvalle and offers him ‘a little nutmeg’ with such sharp emphasis on ‘nut’ that we know he finds their story absurd and is seething with jealousy. It is a small moment, early in the film, but one of many instances in which Grant’s delivery is perfectly pitched to add humour or meaning to otherwise routine dialogue.

There is also a new self-consciousness in Grant’s performance, seen through the playfulness of his eyes that encourages audiences to follow him and to read his thoughts as they are revealed through small but significant expressions and movements. This approach suited the performative nature of screwball comedy, with its emphasis on gags, disguises and deceits. Throughout The Awful Truth, Jerry and Lucy embarrass one another and themselves in attempts to convince each other that they are not in love and that they can be happy with the new partners they have chosen. Beneath Jerry’s politeness, smiles and sharp irony, however, there is occasionally a touch of menace. When Lucy wins custody of the couple’s dog, Mr Smith (Asta), he insists on visitation rights and on his first visit he finds Lucy flirting with her new neighbour, Daniel Leeson (Ralph Bellamy). Rather than retreating, Jerry insists on going ahead with the visit, taking the opportunity to play noisily with the dog. In a scene that was not in the original play or in Vina Delmar’s script, the two perform a kind of duet, with Jerry on piano and Mr Smith barking along in (p.152) time, while Lucy seethes and Leeson looks puzzled. This is a piece of pure vaudeville, and a delight to watch, but Jerry’s rictus-like grin throughout the raucous entertainment suggests some malice beneath it all. When Lucy suggests to Leeson that they leave for drinks elsewhere, he smiles at them as they depart, but as soon as their backs are turned his upper lip curls with hostility. Grant performs this as a very slight gesture, but it is unmistakable. It works here to register the depth of his feelings for Lucy, but it also signals a darker side to his star persona that would emerge in his later films (notably those with director Alfred Hitchcock).

Much of the film’s comedy is derived from the unsuitability of Jerry and Lucy’s prospective new partners. Delmar’s script indicates that Daniel Leeson was originally set to be a stuffy Englishman, with a mother who resembles ‘the dowager Queen Mary’.40 But it is likely that, when Grant was cast as Jerry, McCarey decided that his romantic rival should not be an exaggeratedly English character. With Ralph Bellamy cast in the role instead, Leeson became a nouveau riche oil man from Oklahoma, whose simpleminded boisterousness provided a much sharper contrast with Grant’s debonair Jerry. Similarly, Jerry’s fiancée is a socialite, Barbara Vance (Molly Lamont), whose humourless personality contrasts with Dunne’s vivacious Lucy. Desperate to sabotage the relationship, Lucy attends a drinks party at the Vance home. There, amid the socially prominent guests gathered in a formal parlour, she pretends to be her estranged husband’s sister. Her adoption of the accent and demeanour of a tacky nightclub performer cuts through the social pretensions of the highly embarrassed Jerry. Moreover, when Jerry claims that their ‘father’ was at Princeton University, Lucy chides him that ‘Dad’ was actually the college gardener who ‘kept the grounds looking great’, a revelation that produces scowls of disapproval from the Vances and their guests. While the new partners provide humorous contrasts, they are also useful for placing the Warriners in social terms. Jerry and Lucy may be wealthy, but they are neither the vulgar Leesons nor the snooty Vances. In occupying a middle ground between these two extremes, they are made to seem normal and to have an ordinary social ease. This ‘everyday’ quality was new for Grant, as was the suggestion that beneath his polish, his family background may have been a humble one, but both qualities became fixtures in his screen persona.

In the film, the ‘awful truth’ is of course that Jerry and Lucy still love one another, but cannot admit this. Their reconciliation finally occurs on the eve of their divorce becoming final. Lucy leads Jerry to a cabin in (p.153) Connecticut, knowing that they will have to spend the night in adjoining bedrooms and hoping that this will inspire romance. Yet Jerry is not quite in a position to be seductive. He wears a borrowed nightshirt, which makes him look boyish and unconfident for the first time in the film. He moves back and forth between his room and Lucy’s, trying to find the right excuse to join her in bed. As Andrew Klevan has pointed out, many of the shots in this scene are from the perspective of Lucy’s bedroom, looking at Jerry.41 The effect is to suggest that Jerry’s place is in Lucy’s bed, and also to see Jerry from her approximate (although not exact) point of view. This makes for a neat symmetry with the first scene in the athletic club, in which Jerry was presented shirtless for the audience’s pleasure. Now accompanied by shots of Dunne looking decidedly sultry in her double bed, the view of Jerry suggests that marriage–or at least marriage to Cary Grant–can include long-lasting sexual desire and fulfilment.

Critics and audiences loved The Awful Truth.42 Irene Dunne received an Academy Award nomination as ‘best actress in a leading role’, Ralph Bellamy was nominated for ‘best actor in a supporting role’, and Leo McCarey actually won the ‘best director’ award for 1937. Remarkably, Grant was the only of the film’s four principal players not to be nominated. Some speculate that this was because it was widely known in Hollywood that Grant tried to extricate himself from the production.43 However, critics also assumed that Grant was playing himself in The Awful Truth in a role ‘cut precisely to his measure’, as one put it.44 However frustrating this must have been for Grant, it was also a sign that the star persona created in The Awful Truth was a powerful one. Cary Grant now embodied a host of contradictory yet compelling traits. He was unlike Clark Gable and the other ‘dangerous men’ in being not only modern and masculine but also sophisticated and elegant. He was a gentleman but was too gregarious to be confined to drawing rooms. He was a sex symbol but one with an abiding love of his wife. He demonstrated a form of social confidence that was instructive to viewers who might want to emulate him, but his charm was also intriguingly superficial. In comedies, much of the humour derived from testing its limits and finding its breaking point, while later thrillers would explore what might lie beneath the charming surface.

In the late 1930s, when the economy was over the worst of the Great Depression but full recovery was not yet at hand, Cary Grant cut a reassuring figure. He affirmed a new ideal of the American male: a consumer who cares about fashion and appearance, a leisurely figure (p.154) who enjoys urban life, and a husband worthy of companionate marriage. He also reaffirmed older ideals of class mobility and the immigrant experience. Once he was free of Paramount’s publicity machine, Archie Leach’s childhood was no longer reinvented as wealthy and idyllic. He spoke more frankly about his youthful experiences as an acrobat, and his struggles to earn a living when he first came to the USA.45 He also used his films, and especially improvised moments in his films, to remind audiences of his true identity. In Holiday (1938), while attending a party at a swanky Park Avenue apartment, he suddenly puts on a Cockney accent and performs an acrobatic somersault with Katherine Hepburn. In His Girl Friday (1940), when confronted with a sheriff who threatens to put him in jail, he says, ‘the last person who said that to me was Archie Leach just before he cut his throat’. In Gunga Din (1940) he plays a Cockney soldier, and the character was renamed Archie at his request. This was unusual. Of course many of the studio era’s stars had adopted names–John Wayne was really Marion Morrison, Mickey Rooney was Joe Yule, Carole Lombard was Jane Peters–but none was so keen to remind audiences of their true origins.

  • To the chagrin of the many directors with whom Grant worked after McCarey, he always insisted on some measure of improvisation on the set. As his star power grew, he increasingly demanded script approval, and approval of his directors and his co-stars, before he would sign a contract.46 He read scripts not to memorise them, but to edit and rewrite them.47 The control he asserted over his career, and the success that this brought him, was surely an inspiration to other stars (freelancing increasingly became the norm in the 1940s and thereafter). He also took many risks. His star persona would not remain exactly the same but was moulded and reshaped to suit different genres and changing times. His biggest hit of the war years, for example, was the action-drama Destination Tokyo (Warner Bros, 1943), in which he plays a submarine captain characterised by devotion to his wife, calm professionalism in battle, and a perfectly pressed uniform. The uniform is of course nearly in tatters at the climax of the film and his calm could not withstand attack. In the post-war comedy Room for One More (Warner Bros, 1952) he is a happily married suburban family man, but find himself harried by the soon-to-be adopted children that his wife (Betsy Drake) brings home. It was in the thrillers that he made with Hitchcock, and especially North by Northwest (MGM, 1959), that he appeared most suave and was put through the most gruelling ordeals. Cary Grant (p.155) made sophistication and elegance more casual, and certainly more democratic, by revealing that his debonair persona was a façade that was put on and could be cast off. The awful truth about his star persona was that audiences loved him not just for his perfection but also for seeing him robbed of it.


(1.) Pauline Kael, ‘The Man from Dream City’, New Yorker, 14 July 1975, 52–9.

(2.) David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film (London: Secker and Warburg, 1975), 351–2.

(3.) Martin Shingler, Star Studies: A Critical Guide (London: Palgrave Macmillan/British Film Institute, 2012), 121–6.

(4.) The Cary Grant Papers are held as a special collection at the Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills, California [hereafter CGP/Herrick].

(5.) Grant himself characterises his family and childhood this way in the first of a three-part series of autobiographical articles he wrote for the Ladies Home Journal. See Cary Grant, ‘Archie Leach’, Ladies Home Journal, 80: 1 (January–February 1963), 50–3. The series continues in the March and April issues.

(6.) Among Grant’s collected papers are twenty-three oversized scrapbooks filled with critical reviews, news items and publicity. The reviews from his period on Broadway are in Scrapbook 1, CGP/Herrick.

(7.) Arthur Hammerstein to Archie Leach, 12 January 1928, file 108, CGP/Herrick.

(8.) Scrapbook 1, CGP/Herrick

(9.) Cary Grant, ‘Archie Leach’, Ladies Home Journal, 80: 3 (April 1963), 86–7.

(10.) This comparison is made in Alexander Walker, ‘It’s Only a Movie, Ingrid’: Encounters on and off Screen, (London: Headline, 1988), 73.

(11.) The pay cut, from $400 to $275 per week, is discussed in a letter from Schubert Theatre Corp. to Archie Leach, 6 November 1930, file 116; the information on St Louis is from the clippings in Scrapbook 1; both CGP/Herrick.

(12.) Grant discussed the name change in the one-man show he performed in the early 1980s. Articles reporting on these shows are held in ‘Clippings File’, file 116, CGP/Herrick.

(13.) Drew Todd, ‘Decadent Heroes: Dandyism and Masculinity in Art Deco Hollywood’, Journal of Popular Film and Television, 32 (Winter 2005), 168–81.

(14.) See Mick Lasalle, Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2002).

(15.) The popularity of these stars was discussed in these terms in a contemporaneous article in a fan magazine. See Charles Grayson, ‘They’ve Battled the Depression–That’s Why They’re Stars Now!’, Motion Picture, January 1933, 53, 80.

(16.) Christine Becker, ‘Clark Gable: The King of Hollywood’, in Adrienne L. McLean (ed.), Glamour in a Golden Age: Movie Stars of the 1930s (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012), 245–66.

(17.) John Paddy Carstairs, ‘He’s Grand–and He’s Grant’, Film Pictorial, December 1932, 20.

(p.156) (18.) See Photoplay, November 1934, 111.

(19.) Quoted in Roger Carroll, ‘Catching up with Cary (Grant)’, Motion Picture, February 1941, 21 and 53.

(20.) Cukor is quoted in Peter Bogdanovich, Who the Devil Made It? Conversations with Legendary Film Directors (New York: Ballantine, 1997), 448–9.

(21.) Reviews of Sylvia Scarlett are held in Scrapbook 5, CGP/Herrick.

(22.) Charles Keil, ‘Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn: Domesticated Mavericks’, in Sean Griffin (ed.), What Dreams Were Made of: Movie Stars of the 1940s (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011), 192–216 [quotation, 194].

(23.) Anthony Slide, Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine: A History of Star Makers, Fabricators and Gossip Mongers (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2010), 122.

(24.) See, for example, Harry B. Blair, ‘Once an Acrobat’, The New Movie Magazine, March 1934, 42 and 82. Many of the clippings from 1930s fan magazines in Cary Grant’s scrapbooks offer stories along these lines (see especially Scrapbook 6, CGP/Herrick).

(25.) See, for example, Ben Maddox, ‘They Keep Bachelor’s Hall’, Silver Screen, March 1933, 20–1; J. Eugene Chrisman, ‘We Can’t Afford a Hollywood Marriage!’, Hollywood, October 1933, 27; Esther Meade, ‘Still Pals’, Modern Screen, September 1934, 48; Maude Cheatham, ‘Movie Bachelors at Home’, Screenland, January 1936, 30–1; and [Anonymous], ‘Batching I’, Modern Screen, September 1937, 50–1. The first three articles appear in Scrapbook 2, while the last two are in Scrapbook 5, CGP/Herrick.

(26.) Brett L. Abrams, Hollywood Bohemians: Transgressive Sexuality and the Selling of the Movieland Dream (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008), 3–4.

(27.) The annual polls of ‘Money Making Stars’ are printed in the almanacs published by the Motion Picture Herald. See, for example, Terry Ramsaye (ed.), The 1938–39 International Motion Picture Herald Almanac (New York: Quigley, 1939), 812.

(28.) Richard Dyer, Stars (London: British Film Institute, 1979), 38.

(29.) Tom Kemper, Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 72, 125.

(30.) Topper clippings, Scrapbook 6, CGP/Herrick.

(31.) Writer-director Garson Kanin asserted this when interviewed for Nancy Nelson, Evenings With Cary Grant (New York: Kensington, 1991), 98.

(32.) Jane M. Greene, ‘The Road to Reno: The Awful Truth and the Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage’, Film History, 13: 4 (2001), 337–58.

(33.) Bernard F. Dick, ‘From the Brothers Cohn to Sony Corp.’, in Bernard F. Dick (ed.), Columbia Pictures: Portrait of a Studio (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1992), 2–64 [quotation, 3–4].

(34.) Contract between Columbia Pictures and Cary Grant, 4 February1937, Cary Grant legal file, Warner Bros Archives, University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, Los Angeles, California.

(35.) Wes D. Gehring, Leo McCarey: From Marx to McCarthy (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2005), 152.

(36.) Vina Delmar, The Awful Truth: Final Draft [script], is held in Collection 073, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles, California [hereafter Young/UCLA].

(37.) Ralph Bellamy, When the Smoke Hits the Fan (New York: Doubleday, 1979), 130. Dunne is quoted in Wes D. Gehring, Irene Dunne: First Lady of Hollywood (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2006), 82.

(p.157) (38.) Leo McCarey discusses this in Bogdanovich, Who the Devil Made It?, 413–14.

(40.) Vina Delmar, The Awful Truth: Final Draft, Young/UCLA.

(41.) Andrew Klevan, Film Performance: From Achievement to Appreciation (London and New York: Wallflower, 2005), 35.

(42.) The Awful Truth clippings, Scrapbook 8, CGP/Herrick.

(44.) Hollywood Reporter, 6 October 1937, The Awful Truth clippings, Scrapbook 8, CGP/Herrick.

(45.) See, for example, the interview Grant gave to Bosley Crowther, ‘Modesty and Mr Grant’, New York Times, 4 December 1938.

(46.) ‘Contracts and Agreements’, file 521, CGP/Herrick.

(47.) This statement is based on the scripts in Grant’s papers, which are heavily annotated. (p.158)