Hitchcock thought of James Stewart as a cinematic image of the best possible version of his own self; he saw in Jimmy his greatest qualities, and related enormously to the American actor, so the story goes. But Cary Grant, the man whom the words urbane and debonair could’ve been invented to capture, Cary Grant was what Hitchcock (and every man since) dreamed of becoming.
By the early 1930s, Hollywood seemed to be on the brink of something big; the advent of sound technology and the strengthening of the star system practically promised a new dawn of popular entertainment just around the corner. And arguably at the heart of it all was a charming and very handsome newcomer: the young Cary Grant, who almost instantaneously swept Tinseltown off its flourishing feet. Although an enigmatic character throughout the rest of his life, it was in these first years the young man established an endearing little mystery concerning his origins. For the truth was that Grant’s humble beginnings were a far cry from the extravagant luxury he so often portrayed on the silver screen.
Cary Grant was born Archibald Alexander Leach in January, 1904. Upon arriving home from school one day, the little boy was told that his mother had left for a “holiday” and would return some time soon. She never did. It was only as a grown man that Leach finally discovered his mother had been sent to a mental institution, and was still alive.The disappearance of his mother affected the young Archie deeply, and it was something he carried with him for the rest of his life. As for the father of Archie, Elias Leach grew increasingly distant from his child, and practically abandoned the youngster when he married another woman.
The little Archie Leach often sought refuge in the world of theatre; a world in which life was Archie Leach signed with Paramount Pictures in the winter of 1931. In particular, he adored “Bob Pender and the Knock-About Comediennes”, a comedy/acrobatic troupe that he ultimately joined as a young man. It was from these years with Pender which Leach derived the immense physicality of his humour, and it was this stint with the company that brought the young Archie to America, and eventually paved the golden road to Hollywood.
In the winter of 1931, Archie Leach signed with Paramount Pictures. His name was quickly deemed quite unsuitable and after much mulling and various list-presenting, Leach chose the name “Cary Grant”. As for his speech, that blatantly cockney accent of Archie’s was to be smoothed out and replaced with a people-pleasingly generic Mid-Atlantic one. The result of this was a voice a thousand worlds away, something which seemed not only perfectly natural to this distinctive leading man, but also beautifully exotic to the outside world.
The outcome of the painstaking reworking of Leach was, of course, the Cary Grant we know and love today. Yet, it is obvious that Grant was not a manufactured star, at least not in the sense that we have come to associate the term with today. To me, the character of “Cary Grant” was a vibrant blend of the reality and the illusions of his creator: the outwardly ordinary Archie Leach. He was a suave gentleman with a fascinating ambiguity, a contradiction to the poor little boy from the docks of Bristol. He was hopelessly comical, something which Leach, with his unhappy past and his uncertain future, could never hope to emulate. And within this delightful hero, there also lay something a little sinister; Cary Grant, especially in the films of Hitchcock, possessed a certain darkness, an unrest that came with the loss of his mother at such an early age.
Grant has often been accused of being a subpar actor, capable of playing only Cary Grant in each role he’s ever encountered. The truth of the situation though is that Cary Grant was a movie star, possibly the greatest movie star the world has ever seen. To be a film star, as I have often said, is to have a distinctive style, a personal stamp on each film that you play in. We see that time and time again in the movies of Cary Grant; despite the obvious similarities between every one of his characters, we can also always see variation and subtle differences —and therein lies the genius of Grant.
Cary Grant never deviated from that essential hero we’ve all come to be so familiar with; instead we saw him in different lights, sometimes different shades of different lights, throughout the years. We knew Cary Grant, in all his glory, like a lifelong friend we came to love. His style, his distinctive way of being in front of the camera, gave us all something to strive for, or maybe something wonderful just to dream up on a rainy day.