Not that Cary Grant comes off as a narcissist in his movies, because he doesn’t. Part of his perfection is that ever-so-slight hint of self-deprecation. After all, you know, he had a terrible – I mean a terrible – childhood. Then, at the age of fourteen, he was kicked out of school. He ran away and basically joined the circus. He spent his teens with a vaudeville act as an acrobat. Can you imagine? The youth who became that elegant man, dressed in whatever shabby acrobat outfit he had to wear, all big brown eyes, flying through the air with the greatest of ease . . . before he shed his ugly name and pretty accent. He must have been the prince of the Ephebes. Can’t you just hear the cougars roaring?
Like all circus runaways, he made himself up out of broken pieces, and when he put himself together, he put himself together just a little bit wrong. A little bit (perfectly) askew. That made-up (perfect) accent (remember Tony Curtis lampooning Grant: “Nobody talks like that!”). That unbelievable handsomeness, a beauty that could crack heaven’s dome, put to the task of (perfect) slapstick hilarity. It’s irresistible. It’s immortal.
Here’s my question, though. It’s irresistible, it’s immortal . . . but is it sexy?
On the one hand, that’s a stupid question. Let’s say that Cary Grant knocks on your door and says “Hell-ow, how about it, you and me?” Would you say, “no thank you?” Obviously not. You would say, “Come right in, Mr. Grant, and make yourself comfortable while I kick my true love out the back door with instructions to not come back for an hour and half.” And your true love, if they have a soul, would wish you luck and check your breath and straighten your collar and be proud as punch of you. Because come on: Cary Grant.
But still. The question lingers. Cary Grant. Sexy . . . or is part of the secret of his manifold, fractal perfections the fact that . . . not so much?
Let’s pull back and look at the big picture. Cary Grant made movies between the years of 1932 and 1966. In those first two years of his career you could put a whole lot of sex in your movies, and actors and directors ladled it on. Grant appears in ’32 and ’33 as the hunky young man whose dark good looks attract the attention of such smokingly sexy women as Marlene Dietrich and Mae West. Those films – Blonde Venus, She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel are amazing and they are hot as hell. And Cary Grant’s in them (third billing). But is it Grant who stokes the flames? Nope. These movies are sexy because of Dietrich and West. Grant is a pretty face. You almost don’t recognize him, he’s so placidly gorgeous.
Then, in 1934, a thing called “The Code” – short for “The Motion Picture Production Code” – changed everything. It radically curtailed how sex could be represented in the movies. Overnight, movies changed. They got lighter, they got frothier, more flirty, less smoldering. It was in the early days of the Code-era that Cary Grant went from being handsome decoration to being the sparkling, antic faun we know and love. His early hits, where we suddenly see that he’s a screaming comic genius – His Girl Friday, Topper, The Awful Truth – were all made immediately post-Code.
So yeah. Cary Grant the living, breathing man was married five times to women, and may or may not have also been lovers with men, most famously his best friend, the super gorgeous Randolph Scott. Be that as it may, Grant, in his private life, was a sexual person. The persona of Cary Grant, on the other hand, the genius, the enthralling perfection of Cary Grant the movie star . . . that Cary Grant came to flower in precisely the years of the film industry’s greatest prudery.
He left films long before he died, claiming that he wanted to spend time with his daughter. He was also getting along in years. There is something a bit disturbing about seeing Grant opposite Audrey Hepburn in Charade, when he’s 59 and she’s 34. But whatever the reason, Grant left filmmaking as the Code was crumbling, just when sex was on its way back in.
This is interesting to me for lots of reasons, but mostly because I am an inveterate reader of “vintage” romance novels, in which there isn’t any sex. And I write genre mash-up novels that draw some inspiration from the Code-era screwball comedies I love, and from that old-timey romance reading I enjoy. But my books have sex in them and my heroes and heroines need to be the kind of people who might get down to it at any point. It’s funny how difficult it is to blend froth and steam. In fiction as in cooking, they don’t really get along.
All of which is to say -- can we imagine Cary Grant sans his high-waisted, pleated culottes? Do we want to?
Last night the answer to that question slapped me in the face like a cold, dead salmon. And I’m still in shock. I watched a Grant movie I’d never seen before. It’s not one of his best known, but it isn’t exactly obscure. Maybe you’ve seen it. It’s called I Was a Male War Bride.
If you haven’t seen it, you should: I Was a Male War Bride is uproarious. Sort of like Some Like it Hot (an amazing film) if Some Like it Hot actually had Cary Grant in it, instead of Tony Curtis pretending to be Cary Grant. It’s got this great leading lady, Ann Sheridan, who is totally bad-assed and she and Cary Grant get into all sorts of ridiculous scrapes, careening across Europe in the months after the end of the Second World War. They’re just married and they can’t find anywhere to spend the night alone. It’s an amazing portrait of women in the war, too – just at that moment when women were still Rosie the Riveter and not yet June Cleaver. Fantastic stuff. What could be better?
Except you will have to steel yourself for one particular scene. In spite of the Code, this film manages to slip in a bedroom encounter that is obviously a stand-in for a sex scene. And I’m warning you. It isn’t pretty. In fact, it creates a jagged rip in the magical silver screen, revealing the hairy-knuckled possibility that Cary Grant was . . .
It’s hard to type it . . .
Cary Grant was potentially – just potentially, mind you -- bad in bed.
Now I watched this film as a streaming video and no one has decided to post it on the internet, so I cannot share the trauma with you here. I’m grateful. I am simply warning you that, when you get around to watching I Was a Male War Bride, you will be subjected to the sight of Cary Grant straddling a woman in bed and giving her a “massage.”
I put “massage” in quotes because what we actually see him doing is awkwardly sitting on her as if she were a tree stump, and grasping fistfuls of her flesh as if she were made of play dough. He squeezes, quick and fierce, then moves on to another fistful. He isn’t even symmetrical in his movements, but just sort of clutches at her randomly. You can see that she’s in agony – her body stiff even as she sighs and says “that feels so good.” Meanwhile he is staring down at his hands as if in shock at his own ineptitude. For a brief moment before the scene mercifully ends and the film leaves the horror genre behind and gets back to being hilarious, you look at his hands too and you think – or at least I thought – monkey paws.
This morning I woke up and thought, “I must be wrong.” I remembered that there’s another massage scene in the Grant oeuvre, but I couldn’t remember where. I Googled it and, lo and behold, he gives Audrey Hepburn a foot massage in Charade. That scene has been put up on the intertubes, and it’s interesting – you can hardly see him massaging her feet and my bet is that it’s because Stanley Donen, the director, decided to chop the film off and spare his audience the sight. It’s been fourteen years since I Was a Male War Bride, and Cary Grant still can’t give a massage. He clutches at Hepburn’s feet with quick, hard squeezes, as if they are a rope he is climbing.
Perhaps he was repelled by Ann Sheridan, and perhaps by Hepburn too. Perhaps he couldn’t stand to touch them. But even if that were true, he was an actor. Pretending was his job. And Cary Grant was certainly familiar with massage: look how comfy-wumfy he looks here, receiving rather than giving. That’s Doris Day, by the way, another superstar of Code-era films. Doris Day, whom Oscar Levant knew “before she was a virgin.”
One final piece of evidence. Grant’s third wife, Betsy Drake, tried to deny that her ex-husband was gay by offering up the following piece of information: “When we were married,” she said, “we were fucking like rabbits.”
Of course she meant that they had sex all the time, and I’m happy for them. But as an English professor and a prurient so-and-so, I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a deeper meaning to the metaphor. I will spare you any of the many videos available online that reveal how lepus curpaeums has sex. Suffice it to say, there is no foreplay, there is a quick piston-like action, and the lady bunny can quite easily continue doing whatever it was she was doing before the gentleman bunny got on board. Chew lettuce, etc. You don’t really want rabbit sex to be your high-water mark for fun in the sack.
OK. So. Three pieces of evidence. That’s what we need, isn’t it, to make an historical truth claim? 1. Grant’s career was strongest at the height of the Code; he made a great asexual hero. 2. He gave horrible massages. 3. His ex-wife compared him to a rabbit.
But truth schmuth, right? Who cares. I don’t actually want to time travel back and jump Cary Grant’s lovely bones. We don’t watch movies or read novels or have daydreams because we care about that miserly little thing called truth. Not even one little tiny bit. Cary Grant is still my fave. He’s still the most handsome, the most hilarious, the most brokenly perfect. In fact, I feel a Cary Grant film festival coming on. Arsenic and Old Lace? Amazing. The Philadelphia Story? Maybe even better than His Girl Friday. North by Northwest . . . oh my God. I mean, the man was incredible.
I just wish I hadn’t watched I Was a Male War Bride last night. I wish I didn’t have that sneaking suspicion. I wish I could get those paws out of my mind.