Sunday, December 13, 2009


The double feature at Film Forum yesterday was The Awful Truth and Holiday, two Cary Grant films from 1937 and 1938. They show him in all his beauty, good humor, and versatility. Most of all, they illustrate how utterly alive he was. Even more than his perfect tan, tall, slim build, piercing eyes, and inimitable cleft chin, his vivacity is irresistible. David Thomson, that critic you love to hate, but who also sometimes says extraordinary things that you come to believe might be true, asserts that Cary Grant "was the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema." Wow! Kind of takes your breath away, doesn't it? Cary Grant? I mean he's clever and funny and charming and handsome, but the "best and most important actor," how can that be?

I'm not going to make a case for Thomson's claim, at least not here and now, but I do want to suggest that it is easy to lose sight of how brilliant Cary Grant was in some films from the 1930s when he was just emerging as a movie star, because that Grant is overshadowed by our stronger recollection of the more stable and predictable Grant from the 1950s. In my humble opinion, one of the most underappreciated films of the 1930s is Holiday, and part of the secret of its greatness is the performance of Cary Grant.

I have never quite figured out why I love Holiday so much. It partly relates to a theory I have that every time we watch a film we have seen before, we are not only watching the film, but also reliving previous viewings. I have a fond and strong memory of seeing Holiday for the first time on TV with my mother. She loved this movie and her affection for it definitely rubbed off on me. But I do also love its theme, of wanting early on in one's life to take time to figure out what work is for and take stock of the purpose of one's life. In Holiday, Cary Grant is Johnny Case, a young man who has been working hard since he was ten and is on the verge of accumulating a small fortune. If his investments pay off, he wants to use them to take some time off, to go on an extended holiday so that he can figure out who he is. As the film begins, he is visiting his fiancee's family for the first time and does not know that she is a member of one of New York's first families, because he only met her ten days earlier. They are not only very rich, they have a "reverence for riches" which means that they never talk about having money but that they get a special thrill from continually adding to their pile of dough. Cary seems to be in love with one beautiful sister, but she loves money most of all, whereas what he loves most is his freedom. The other sister, played incomparably by Katherine Hepburn, doesn't quite understand Cary's penchant for a holiday, but nevertheless has total faith in him. If he wants it, it must be worthwhile.

I think what strikes me especially about Mr. Grant's performance is his ability to be entirely convincing while mugging and joking, and to be just as persuasive as a confused, struggling young man who cannot hide his excitement about this quest for the meaning of life but who grows weary and unsure the more he encounters resistance from his fiancee and her father. He is alternately fun loving, acrobatic, diligent, polite, just a bit sassy, compassionate, a wonderful listener, a riveting talker, a dreamer, a realist, comely, and yet unconcerned about how he looks or comes across to others. When the film opens, he is happy and utterly unself-conscious, that is, until he encounters his fiancee's family, a crew that seems to love making money more than making a life. He comes to feel there is a conspiracy against him. It weighs him down, changes him for a time from his fun-loving ways to someone solemn and obedient, until finally, in the end, he realizes he must live his life for himself and frees himself forever from this acquisitive family. One of the things that must be emphasized about Grant is how revealing he is physically. The way he holds his body or gestures with his hands depending on his mood or situation is remarkable. As the film proceeds, you can see how he is weighed down by worry and doubt, even as he tries, superficially, to stand up straighter as a proud, prospective member of this distinguished family. The way he uses his face, his hands, his torso is a key part of his performance here. Interestingly, too. his experience as an acrobat is much on display here, and, in fact, the film makes much of the point that he expresses himself best when he is doing a somersault or a back flip flop.

Of course, the other sister, played by Katherine Hepburn, is entirely different. She is the black sheep and has never gone along with the family's ways. She recognizes Johnny Case for what he is, life itself. And his life force cannot be denied, at least not by her. It is one of her greatest performances, and even as I finish this little paean to Cary Grant and Holiday, I must add, strangely enough, that if Holiday works as well as I think it does, it probably has at least as much to do with Hepburn as it does with Grant. But we'll leave that subject for another post.

Here is the beginning of a short list of movies that I think are very good but vastly underappreciated. Please feel free to add to this list, if you are so inclined.

1. Holiday - 1938 (there is also a 1930 version)
2. I am a fugitive from a chain gang - 1932
3. Shadow of a doubt - 1943
4. Sweet smell of success - 1957
5. The wrong man - 1956
6. Ox-bow Incident - 1943
7. Gentleman's Agreement - 1947
8. Advise and Consent - 1961
9. Seven Days in May - 1964

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