Universal Export

He was born in Bristol as plain old Archibald Leach, probably the least-sounding Hollywood name ever heard. But after he signed with Paramount in 1932, Leach adopted the moniker “Cary Grant.” It was more than just a name change; on screen, he morphed into the debonair, suave star of such films as North By Northwest, Charade and His Girl Friday. By the 1940s, he was the consummate Hollywood leading man.

Now you can revisit some of his finest hours (and there are a lot of them) in the BFI Southbank’s two-month Grant season, spanning August and September. This series of films impressively goes right back to his early days, with films like 1933’s I’m No Angel, when he played a rich playboy opposite Mae West, just a few months after they’d appeared together in She Done Him Wrong.

What this rich selection clearly shows is his ability to move effortlessly between comedy and drama. Often working with top-tier directors on multiple occasions, the season includes two collaborations with George Cukor – 1938’s screwball comedy Holiday and 1940’s classic socialite tale The Philadelphia Story, both with Katharine Hepburn, the perfect raspy foil for Grant’s lightness of touch.

Between the two, he also made 1938’s masterful Bringing Up Baby with Hepburn, directed by Howard Hawks. It’s one of five of Hawks collaborations featured in the season, alongside aviation tale Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and His Girl Friday (1940), containing one of the great early Grant performances as a newspaper editor who tries to win back his wife and best reporter, Rosalind Russell, by sending her on a death row story. The lesser-known I Was A Male War Bride (1949) and Monkey Business (1952) also play.

More famously, the season also includes Grant’s stunning work with Alfred Hitchcock. Suspicion (1941) sees him as the charmer who may or may not have murderous plans for his new wife, played by Joan Fontaine, while Notorious – given an extended re-release – sees him play a spy tracking down Nazis post World War II (the sort of film that makes you wish Grant had played James Bond).

In September, you can see Hitchcock’s light confection To Catch a Thief (1955), which cast him opposite the ever-luminous Grace Kelly as a cat burglar. And then if you’ve never seen it on the big screen, North By Northwest – with Grant as the executive wrongly suspected of murder – is a must. The crop-duster scene remains one of the great moments in Hollywood history.

Other intriguing films? The George Stevens-directed melodrama Penny Serenade (1941), which saw Grant receive the first of two Oscar nominations (he never won, shockingly). And then the great Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), Grant’s only film with the masterful Frank Capra – a dark comedy about, you guessed it, murder. A remarkable body of work, never to be repeated.

The Cary Grant Season runs at the BFI Southbank until 1 October. For more details, visit the BFI Southbank.

James Mottram

1. Still from
His Girl Friday.