The Friday arts section of the New York Times was bait on a hook for Old Movie fans with a layout built around a large and lovely photo portrait of Cary Grant.
No, not the one above, but this one here:
I don't know what's with the sepia tones -- as opposed to b&w -- but there you have it.
So, I picked up the story by Mike Hale, preparing to enjoy a bit of time travel -- a considered look back over Grant's movie career pegged to a festival of his films opening at BAMcinematek, which, despite the Mittel Europa overtones, is the Brooklyn Art Museum's repertory film theatre. The headline promised a deservedly, if routinely, appreciative, critically cogent appraisal -- "Once Upon a Time a Real Leading Man."
For a movie critic (which, speaking of once upon a time, I once was), a Grant retrospective is kind of like a vacation: a string of first-class, top drawer movies, a number of lesser entertainments, some real clunkers, but all in all, a dazzlingly memorable career created by a dazzlingly memorable actor -- a heroically designed leading man whose sense of style we can now appreciate as an early form of performance art, who happened also to have a genius for romantic, even screwball comedy --- not easy at all. And not common at all. He was unique. Grant has a tremendous run of movies in the late 1930s including The Awful Truth (1937), Bringing up Baby (1938), Gunga Din (1939), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), and, to top it off, The Philadelphia Story (1940).
For the Times critic, however, it seemed that this was work. Here was a critic in crisis. He didn't know what he was looking at.
He writes (links from the original):
Old movies — I’m talking about those made before the 1970s — come to us in packages these days. The producers of DVDs and the programmers of repertory theaters look for themes and contexts that will help to make sense of these films for the several generations of culture consumers who are likely to find them utterly strange. Or if not to make sense of them, put them in a framework where their assumptions and devices can be sold to younger moviegoers as hip or camp rather than laughably archaic. Hence the weeks or boxes of film noirs or screwball comedies, or of the careers of directors with distinctive, easily cataloged styles.
Was he attempting to draw in the uninitiated? Or was he uninitiated as well?
To put on a Cary Grant series — as the BAMcinématek is doing from Monday through Aug. 20 with 17 films, and a second batch to follow in 2010 — presents some special challenges.
Really? In the age of the DVD, I can imagine the challenge of luring in an audience with easy access to most (not all) of the movies BAM might show. But that's not what Hale has in mind.
Grant made more than 50 movies as a leading man, but the only thing that ties them together is that they starred Cary Grant, playing some version of his man-of-the-world persona, or of himself, which seemed to amount to the same thing.
Isn't that exactly the point of a Cary Grant festival? Anyway:
He had his screwball period and his Hitchcock period, each of which produced several great, giddy entertainments (like “The Philadelphia Story” and “North by Northwest”). But he avoided entire genres that didn’t suit him, like noir or the western, and much of his output consists of the sort of mainstream light comedy or melodrama that seems most dated today.
Here's where we discover that our critic is seriously floundering. Grant did not have a "screwball period" or a "Hitchcock period," which implies an uninterupted succession of genre movies. For example, the four Hitchcock-directed movies Grant made (personally not my faves) were spread out over 18 years -- '41, '46, '51, '59. Nor is The Philadelphia Story a "screwball" comedy. That's a fact. Subjectively speaking, I would never call it a "great, giddy entertainment." It's a flawless romantic comedy, and if you haven't ever seen it you would do yourself a favor to screen it sometime soon. (It's not for children; show them Bringing Up Baby, which is a screwball comedy.) This is not to say that its social mores are in sync with our times. But so what? Are we really so provincial as to be unable to view a comedy of manners without tagging it with that reject word, "dated"?
Then the fellow hones in on "Penny Serenade" and, weirdly, pays more attention to it than any of the other Grant movies.
It’s brave of the Brooklyn Academy of Music to be showing the 1941 weeper “Penny Serenade,” a hit at the time and an important moment in Grant’s career. But when Grant and Irene Dunne smile as their adopted child says she wants to be an angel before next year’s Christmas pageant, the howls will be heard across Fort Greene.
To be sure, Penny Serenade is a weeper, a hugely sentimental picture that may have surprised audiences who had just seen Grant and co-star Irene Dunne spark and sparkle in the endlessly witty The Awful Truth (another must-see, not for children). But isn't there some place in the world of drama for sentiment on its own terms without the cool-affirming "howls"? Follow the link on Penny Serenade above and read the Times' review by Bosley Crowther from 1941. It is a finely written review that allows for both the manipulation the critic knows is going on, and his falling for it despite himself. Hale, on the other hand, seems to need to note the cool-affirming "howls" as a way of immunizing himself before daring to make the grudging compliment:
And yet Grant is worth watching, even in something as preposterous as “Penny Serenade,” and he makes the film worth watching too. (Well, almost. It helps that Edgar Buchanan is around to play the crusty older friend.) As Pauline Kael pointed out in her famous essay “The Man From Dream City” in 1975, most of Grant’s movies were mediocre or worse, safe choices made by a powerful but cautious actor who exercised an iron control over his own image. In putting together a Grant program of any size, it would be impossible to avoid some of these clunkers, and the academy’s series has its share, including the plodding 1942 comedy of ideas “The Talk of the Town” and “That Touch of Mink” (1962), in which he was the aging playboy to Doris Day’s aging virgin.
Oscar Levant's quip "I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin" notwithstanding, this trope is so old. Poor Doris Day. I wonder who first stuck her with that nasty label.
But the winners and Grant’s performances in them are such an important constituent of our feelings about American movies and about an entire style of American life in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s that we forgive any number of failures...
Behold the condescension of the critic. A string of A-list perfect movies doesn't cut it for posterity. We have to forgive "any number of failures." Oh, brother.
But none of those films would have been as charming or as satisfyingly adult, and none of the actresses as witty or desirable, without Grant’s presence. His in-on-the-joke sincerity, his not-quite-throwaway lines, the bits of physical business — the dancing way in which he kicks a door in “Holiday” or his graceful glide across the terrace as the gendarmes approach at the beginning of “To Catch a Thief” — serve less to glorify him than to flatter the intelligence of the women who can’t do without him.
That might be the best reason to watch Grant today. Kael noted in 1975, during his lifetime, that it was impossible to imagine Grant in the macho action and crime films that were beginning to dominate Hollywood. It’s equally impossible to imagine him in the soggy, misogynistic, stealth-macho geekfests that pass for romantic comedy now. Watching him is to be reminded of a time when intelligence, grace and self-containment were their own rewards. The 21st century, so far, hasn’t deserved him.
It took him a while, didn't it? Bottom line -- literally -- he's right.