Adapted from a story by Pete Martin in the February 19, 1949, issue of The Saturday Evening Post.
This article and other features about the stars of Tinseltown can be found in the Post’s Special Collector’s Edition, The Golden Age of Hollywood. This edition can be ordered here.
There’s a Hollywood legend that proves Cary Grant’s appeal in the lm industry. e story goes that Charlie Koerner, then RKO’s general manager, was aprowl for a story to use as bait in luring Grant into making a picture for him.
Grant happened to speak favorably to someone of a book called NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART. Koerner heard of it, rushed out and bought the story. Selecting a phone from among the nest of those clustered on his desk, he called producer David Hempstead.
“I want you to get set to make a picture, Dave,” he said.
“What is this picture I’m to make?” Hempstead asked.
Koerner replied, “NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART. Grant likes it. I’ve just paid $60,000 dollars for it.”
Hempstead, a normally cautious man, inquired with mild irony, “I don’t want to seem the prying type, but just what is the story all about?”
Koerner confessed that he didn’t know, that he hadn’t read it. He suggested that they get together, call Grant and ask him to give them a quick take on the plot.
Once they had Grant on the phone, Koerner said, “Well, Cary, we’ve bought that story for you, but I’m a little vague about the story line, and I want you to give Dave here a brief résumé of it.”
“What story?” Grant asked.
“NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART,” Koerner replied.
“I haven’t read it,” Grant told him. “A friend of mine told me he thought it good. at’s all I know about it.”
So, as if to prove that Hollywood is— in fact as well as in fiction—a blend of Aladdin’s wonderful lamp and Stephen Leacock’s Nonsense Novels come true, Grant played in this story, bought for him without anyone at RKO having read it. To compound the miracle further, it scored a critical success.
One RKO employee said, “It just goes to show you how far a studio will go to land a name that spells box o ce on a marquee.”
Hollywood gives another story, also bought under similar strange circumstances, credit for bringing RKO back from the brink of bankruptcy. The yarn was purchased from a tennis pro who had scribbled it down and had described it to Grant in the few seconds it had taken that actor to climb into his car outside the studio. But with Hempstead once more at the helm, the picture grossed more than $4,000,000.
It’s hard to think of this movie, MR. LUCKY, without concluding that Grant’s own life story could easily bear the same title.
It was a generous fairy godmother who hovered over the cradle in Bristol, England, on January 18, 1904, when Archibald Alexander Leach, afterward to be known as Cary Grant, was born. Upon the infant she bestowed a quality that was afterward to stand him in good stead in his chosen profession. Now, in the midst of Hollywood’s present panics and alarms, it is a quality that bids fair to keep him from joining those stars who are tumbling downward with a falling box office.
That quality is being able to climb down from the screen, get inside of a fan’s skin, walk out into the street inside of him and stay there for a while after the lights have flickered on in a palace of the cinema.
Those who work this special kind of screen magic have a thing in common. They meet the frustrations, misadventures and worriments of life as shown in the flickers, jauntily and with an amusing air of superiority. They counter the low blows the plot concocters deal them as if slapping away gadflies.
But the trick behind the aforementioned quality does not necessarily depend upon acting ability or losing oneself in a role. Those who possess it are usually first of all themselves. The character they portray comes second.
While his fairy godmother’s gift is the keystone of Grant’s screen appeal, it is more complex than that gift alone indicates. Queried about the Grant appeal, a studio messenger girl offered this slant: “He’s got finesse. And he’s sophisticated. His charm is boyish, only it’s kind of mature. Of course, the fact that he’s tall, good-looking and has a cleft chin doesn’t hurt any.”
The truth is that a large part of Grant’s success as a comedian is due to his ability to coordinate physically. is ability was born of the fact that he was at one time a tumbler and stilt walker. Coordination breeds timing, and timing is the most important element of comedy. Grant’s particular brand of light comedy amounts to a kind of stylized buoyancy.
In essence, he has taken the baggy-pants comic’s slow burn and double take and has lifted them to a high plane. It’s the same brand of clowning, but it’s done with tall, dark and handsome overtones. Raising his eyebrows and looking straight at his audience, Grant seems to say, “Well, whaddaya know? I’m being bopped by Fate’s inflated pig bladder again!”
When most stars hit the heights, they think they’re magic. They have a notion that anything they do is right. Not Grant. It’s his conviction that it’s up to him to find out what people like in Grant; what they expect of him, then do it. Many Hollywood stars don’t see their own pictures. If they do, it’s usually in the plush-insulated solitude of a studio projection room. Grant sees each of his films in the regular-run movie houses. He studies the reactions of different audiences. If one of his pieces of stage business or one of his gestures rings the bell, it’s apt to be in his next picture two or three times.
Grant’s reaction to the annoyances that a star must endure is explosive. It is his conviction that hounding movie stars for their autographs is ridiculous.
“Actors,” he says with some justice, “should be judged by their talent, not by their penmanship.”
The Man and the Actor
Grant has been known to tell the gangs who clot the doors of New York hotels, ready to jump a star when he emerges and tongue-whip him into giving them his autograph, that they are “morons.” “I don’t mind autograph hounds, but I don’t like rude ones,” he says. “Fifteen kids descend upon you. It would be nice if they just said, ‘How are you?’ or ‘It’s good to see you,’ but they say, ‘If you don’t sign our books, we won’t go to see your lousy pictures.’ My reaction is to say, ‘Fine. Don’t go!’”
He has even had women come up to him and say, “I’ve made a bet I can kiss you.” It may not be the best kind of public relations, but he tells them gravely, “Madam, you’ve lost your bet!”
But while all the available evidence suggests that while early vicissitudes may have taught him canniness, he is not stingy. When he hears that a friend is dropping in at a vaudeville actors’ club, he asks him to find out if anybody there is broke, and when the friend reports back, Grant gives him money for them. ere is only one string attached to such gifts. He insists that no one know where the dough comes from. Prior to, and during, World War II he contributed $200,000 to the British Red Cross. He gave an equal amount to the American Red Cross. But he is inclined to belittle such beneficences. When asked about them, he says, “There’s nothing to generosity… if you can afford it.”
An analogy he has worked out between Hollywood and a streetcar fascinates Grant. The analogy had its genesis in a Charlie Chaplin comedy. In that comedy Chaplin was a part of a queue waiting to board a streetcar. He got into the car first alright, but there were so many in line that they pushed him on through the car and he fell out the other end. Getting to his feet, he ran around, climbed on again and hung on as best he could.
As Grant sees it, Hollywood is that streetcar. “The car just goes around in circles, not going anywhere,” he says. “ ere is room on it for just so many, and every once in a while, if you look back, you’ll see that someone has fallen o to let a new passenger on. When Ty Power got on, it meant we left someone sprawled out on the street; and somebody had to fall o to make room for Greg Peck. Some fellows who get pushed o run around and climb back on as character actors. Adolphe Menjou is one. Ronald Colman sits up with the motorman. And Gary Cooper is smart. He never gets up to give anybody his seat. After much confusion and waiting, I finally got a seat. But I lost it temporarily when I got up to make room for a young lady named Joan Fontaine, who costarred with me in SUSPICION and won an Oscar in that movie. So there I am, just standing up, hanging onto a strap and being jostled around.”