Most of Cary Grant's pre-Code output, and for him a little beyond that era, ranges from underwhelming to disappointing. I'm always happy to watch either of the Mae West movies he's in (She Done Him Wrong and I'm No Angel, both 1932 releases) or Josef von Sternberg's Blonde Venus (1932) with Marlene Dietrich, but I do so for reasons other than Cary Grant.
He's in other movies I like during the period too: Merrily We Go to Hell, Devil and the Deep, and Hot Saturday (all 1932), are the three I remember best, but he's just not Cary Grant yet. Nor would I expect him to be. As recently as late 1931 he had still been Archie Leach.In Graham McCann's highly recommended Grant biography, A Class Apart, he writes that Grant "was born, in effect, on 7 December 1931, the day that he signed his Paramount contract and consigned 'Archie Leach' to relative -- but by no means complete -- obscurity" (54). McCann also directly defined the purpose of Grant at Paramount, at least at his start: "a cut-price, younger, dark-haired substitute for Gary Cooper" (55).
Leach was Grant, but Grant didn't become the star we celebrate today as one of our all-time greatest until he got away from Paramount.Like so many stars under the studio system Grant wound up a commodity on loan. This led to Sylvia Scarlett (1935) for RKO which Grant told Nancy Kelly, author of the equally enjoyable Evenings With Cary Grant, "was my breakthrough" (83). More to the point Katharine Hepburn told Kelly, "He was the only reason to see Sylvia Scarlett. It was a terrible picture, but he was wonderful in it" (84).
So after a few more uninspiring titles at Paramount (though 1934's Thirty Day Princess has become a favorite) and a loan-out to MGM that saw him billed third behind Franchot Tone in Suzy (1936), Grant took the daring step of going free agent. He turned down Paramount's offer of $3,500 a week and struck out on his own (McCann 79).
While neither When You're in Love (1937) from Columbia, which starred him opposite popular opera star Grace Moore, or The Toast of New York (1937), a favorite of mine despite Grant's being cast as second banana to Edward Arnold, brought him the offers he desired, Hal Roach's Topper that same year would.
Off of Topper's success Grant signed hefty deals with Columbia and RKO which allowed him to alternate between the two studios and start cranking out the classics.
Our Cary Grant had arrived. And he stuck for about another 30 years until walking away on his own terms.
- McCann, Graham. Cary Grant: A Class Apart New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.
- Nelson, Nancy. Evenings With Cary Grant: Recollections in His Own Words and by Those Who Knew Him Best New York: William Morrow and Company, 1991.