January 18, 2012

A Birthday Meditation on Archie Leach, Cary Grant, and the City of Bristol

By Stuart Mitchner

Continuing toward February 7, which would be Charles Dickens’s 200th birthday, this second in a series of bicentenary meditations with an English accent appears on the birthday of Archie Leach (1904-1986), the creator of Cary Grant, and A.A. Milne (1882-1956), the creator of Winnie the Pooh. With apologies to Pooh, who was, after all, only a fictional character, the subject will be the real person who became, according to David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film, “the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema.”

That Cary Grant was real I can offer eyewitness proof, for my wife saw him once, her all-time favorite movie star, on a street corner in 1972 in his hometown, Bristol, where the picture shown here was taken, probably that same year. Though she was in shock, my wife did not faint, but she did stare in spite of having grown up in Hollywood, where children are taught not to stare, even if they find themselves sharing the same elevator with Audrey Hepburn.

In explaining why Cary Grant was the “the best,” David Thomson locates “the essence of his quality” in the ability to be “attractive and unattractive simultaneously; there is a light and dark side to him, but, whichever is dominant, the other creeps into view.”

Cary Grant hints at the same idea, if inadvertently, in the opening of the three-part magazine autobiography he titled “Archie Leach,” writing that he “first saw the light of day — or rather the dark of night” at around 1 a.m. “on a cold January morning.” True to the traditional Dickensian beginning, the house was humble, lacked “modern heating conveniences,” and “kept only one step ahead of freezing by means of small coal fires in small bedroom fireplaces.”

Archie Leach grew up in an area of Bristol called Montpelier, lived in a rowhouse on Picton Street, went to a nearby school, played goalkeeper on the football team, shivered in the damp cold English winters, hung his stockings on the mantel at Christmas, collected stamps, ran errands for his mother, took piano lessons, suffered a siege of puppy love for the butcher’s daughter, and wore his first pair of long trousers (white flannels made by his mother) to a church bazaar. The “high point” of his week was to escape parental supervision every Saturday at the local cinema watching and no doubt learning from favorites like Charles Chaplin, Ford Sterling, Roscoe Arbuckle, Mack Swain, and Bronco Billy Anderson, the cowboy star. As he grew older, he went with his mother to the Clare Street Cinema, “where one could take tea while watching the films,” but he preferred to go with his father to a larger cinema called the Metropole that “smelled of raincoats and galoshes.” His father would stop at a tobacconist’s shop and buy his favorite pipe tobacco, and at the next shop some apples, “an occasional small bag of white round peppermints,” or, if Archie was good, a bar of chocolate. Father and son shared a special fondness for a weekly serial called The Clutching Hand.

In case that sounds too ordinary for a Dickens novel, the plot thickens plenty when nine-year-old Archie comes home from school one day to find his mother has disappeared. No warning, no believable explanation. After a while it became clear that she  was not coming back, ever. Archie’s father, who told him she was on a “long holiday,” had placed her in a “care facility.” It would be 20 years before Archie saw her again. By then he had become Cary Grant.

While Dickens might well have conceived a minor music hall troubadour named Archie Leach searching for his lost mother on the byways of life, surely no novelist prophet on the planet could imagine Archie Leach coming to the U.S. at 16, playing the vaudeville circuit for 10 years as an acrobat, stilt-walker, juggler, and mime, signing a Paramount contract as “Cary Grant” and launching a moving picture career that led to worldwide renown as the paragon of Hollywood sophistication, the embodiment of “class.” And who could imagine that a stilt-walker from Bristol would be named named second only to Humphrey Bogart among “The 50 Greatest Male Stars of All Time” in 1999 by The American Film Institute and first among “The 50 Greatest Movie Stars of All Time” by Premiere magazine in 2005. Even so, he never won a Best Actor Oscar, unless you count the honorary one he was given in 1970.

A Wartime Gesture

One of the two films for which Grant did receive an Oscar nomination, None But the Lonely Heart (1944), was made, as James Agee points out in his Nation review, “under unusually unexpected auspices,” in that “its star, Cary Grant, asked that it be made, and plays its far from Cary Grantish hero so attentively and sympathetically” that Agee “all but overlooked the fact that he is not well constituted for the role.” There’s a poignant irony in such an assessment, since this was the one film (with the exception of his breakthrough role as a Cockney con artist in Sylvia Scarlett) where Cary Grant came consciously closest to playing Archie Leach; it was also his way of identifying with his homeland and mother during the devastating series of bombing raids that ravaged Bristol between 1940 and 1944. The film also evoked his star-crossed relationship with his mother, who communicated with him by cablegram during the war. Based on a Richard Llewellyn novel, the story is about a cockney drifter who comes home to his beleaguered family and ailing mother, and most of the details and the London East End setting were based on Grant’s recollections of his Bristol youth as poured forth in hours of conversation with his chosen director and script writer (and lifelong close friend), Clifford Odets.

According to Graham McCann’s Cary Grant: A Class Apart (Columbia 1996), Grant “gave careful instructions to the set designers, ensuring that the dimensions and décor matched those of the sitting-rooms and bedrooms he had once inhabited in Bristol.” His choice of a left-wing playwright like Odets to both write and direct was a gamble for the apolitical Grant; that, and the proletarian setting, led to the inevitable suspicions about communistic propaganda (in 1953 Grant publicly condemned McCarthyism).

None But the Lonely Heart was the last and least profitable of a wartime group of films that included some of Cary Grant’s darkest, strongest, most personal roles. The series began in 1941 with George Stevens’s Penny Serenade, his first Oscar nomination, for a deeply felt, “good to the point of surprise” performance; the surprised reviewer was Otis Ferguson, who is reacting to the dark/light Grant dynamic, “not only that easy swing and hint of the devil,” but the expression of “faith and passion.” Next was Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941), where the subtle ambiguity of Grant’s persona is brilliantly and definitively exploited, a combination that is also vividly at work in Grants’s virile, exciting performance as a suspected murderer and anarchist in 1942’s The Talk of the Town (another exemplary George Stevens film). Then there’s the charismatic, tough-talking, draft-dodging gangster in H.C. Potter’s Mr. Lucky (1944), where real-life implications come into play when Grant jumps all over the love interest (Laraine Day) for taking umbrage at his avoidance of military service: “Listen this isn’t my war! I had my war: crawling out of the gutter — the hard way. I won that war!” As McCann points out regarding another outburst, there’s a good deal more Archie Leach than Cary Grant in the references to being “awful poor” with “what-for to eat.”

The Blitz

None But the Lonely Heart reflects a wartime state of mind in addition to giving Grant a way of reaching out to his embattled Bristol. On November 24 1940, the Luftwaffe bombed the city for six hours, killing 207 people and leaving 1,400 homeless; two weeks later when the city center was pounded, 256 people died; a month later, on the night of January 3, 1941, while Grant was filming Penny Serenade, another raid took 149 lives and destroyed still more of the most historic part of the city he grew up in. The next and most demoralizing attack, on the night of March 16, 1941, which roughly coincided with the filming of Suspicion, killed 257, devastating the neighborhood where he went to school, experienced first love, and saw his first movies. The Mass Observation Unit noted that “People are getting worn out with the continual bombardment …. The irregular, sporadic, sudden switching of heavy raids here has a strongly disturbing effect.”

But the bombs kept coming, with another major attack, “the Good Friday raid” on April 11, as “wave after wave of bombs dropped incendiary devices and high explosives.” The total death toll for attacks was 1299, with 1303 seriously injured, and 81,830 houses destroyed. While Cary Grant was presumably spared the details of the devastation of Archie Leach’s Bristol, he was not spared the knowledge that his aunt and uncle and two cousins were among the dead.

You don’t need to read much about Cary Grant to know that for all the wit, comic style, and charm that brighten and energize films like Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, George Cukor’s Holiday and Philadelphia Story, and Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth, he would have found it unconscionable to be living a life of glamour, wealth and ease in La La Land (Aldous Huxley called L.A. “the city of dreadful joy”) while his home city was a blazing inferno. He tried to find a way to get over there to see his mother and do his part (she told him she was “a fire watcher” but wished she “could do more”), his numerous applications for a passport (he didn’t become an American citizen until June 26, 1942) and requests for permission to go abroad on an entertainment tour were denied. He had to settle for touring various camps and bases around the U.S.

Class, Classy, Classic

“Class” is as loaded a word in England as “race” is in the U.S.A. Besides showing the impact World War I had on the class system, Downton Abbey, like Cary Grant, has class. Script, actors, sets, cinematography, all exemplify the positive implications of the word for which “style” is a close relative. Graham McCann played on the nuances of “class” when he subtitled his biography A Class Apart. In his prologue, he sums up his subject, “Socially, he was a glorious enigma, eliding every pat classification. Artistically, he was, in his own particular field, without peers,” and “a master of the ‘high definition performance’ Kenneth Tynan defined as “the hypnotic saving grace of high and low art alike.” You can find both extremes in Cary Grant and Archie Leach, Charlie Chaplin and his tramp, and Charles Dickens and his England.

The 1972 photograph shows 68-year-old Cary Grant on a hotel balcony in Bristol. He is pointing to the 148-year-old Clifton Suspension Bridge, which spans the Avon Gorge. Grant’s birthday is being celebrated by Turner Classic Movies today, January 18, with the showing of seven of his films. Grant’s autobiography “Archie Leach” first appeared in three issues of The Ladies Home Journal, February, March, April 1963. You can read it on the Ultimate Cary Grant pages (www.carygrant.net/faq.html). On YouTube there are a number of sensitively made memorial montages showing both the light and dark sides of the ultimate Class Act. And if you want a glimpse of the neighborhood he grew up in, google earth can set you right down in front of No. 21 Picton Street in Bristol, which remains, in spite of the blitz, one of the most beautiful cities in the British Isles.