Cary Grant: 10 essential films

From thrillers to romantic comedies, British-born Cary Grant starred in some of the very finest films to have come out of Hollywood. Here are the 10 best places to seek him out.

18 January 2015

By Sam Wigley

Notorious (1946)

“How can anyone be ‘Cary Grant’?” asked critic David Thomson. “But how can anyone, ever after, not consider the attempt?” For Grant is the epitome of the urbane, sophisticated Hollywood actor, one whose charisma, comic persona and output have survived the passing of time better than many comparable, moustachioed icons of the industry’s golden age. No list of the greatest comedies and thrillers that we’ve ever known would look complete without at least one film with Grant at its centre, paradoxically flappable yet unflappable, coolly desirable yet often hilariously at the mercy of his female co-stars or a world spinning into physical chaos around him. He’s an actor that you could watch in almost anything, but the 10 films below represent ‘la crème de la crème’.

The Awful Truth (1937)

Director: Leo McCarey

The Awful Truth (1937)

Grant’s star had been rising throughout the 1930s, but it was with Leo McCarey’s delightful 1937 film The Awful Truth that his leading-man persona and gift for light comedy became established once and for all. Grant stars alongside Irene Dunne as a wealthy married couple who get divorced and try flings with other people, before realising that they really just want to be with each other. A classic of what critic Stanley Cavell called “comedies of remarriage”, it displays all the glimmer and finesse of Depression-era escapism, but made lastingly affecting by an underlying warmth and feeling. It’s also very funny.

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Director: Howard Hawks

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

The first of Grant’s five films with director Howard Hawks reteams him with his Sylvia Scarlett (1935) co-star Katharine Hepburn. Donning thick-rimmed specs, Grant plays a boffin paleontologist on the verge of completing a reconstructed brontosaurus skeleton when he crosses paths with whirlwind socialite Susan Vance (Hepburn). Abandon all hope, ye fusty brainiacs who are drawn into this madcap vortex of devil-may-care! Not for the last time in Grant’s career, he’s left fighting to grip on to his sense of the sensible as the world around him goes haywire. With Bringing Up Baby, Hawks found a willing accomplice in his inimitable brand of cinematic whoopee.

Holiday (1938)

Director: George Cukor

Holiday (1938)

Just four months after the release of Bringing Up Baby, the Grant-Hepburn double act was back in a gentler but no less essential comedy. Based on a Philip Barry play, Holiday stars Grant as Johnny Case, a self-made man who unknowingly enters into Park Avenue high society after proposing to a woman he met on vacation. It’s not long before his fiancée’s elder sister, Linda (Hepburn), has also fallen for his down-to-earth charms, a welcome tonic in this starchy world. For all its glittering surfaces, George Cukor’s film is a warning against what Linda calls “reverence for riches”, but one delivered with wit and humanity.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Director: Howard Hawks

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

The year 1939 found Grant appearing in two adventure films that became classics: George Stevens’ British India-set Gunga Din and this aviation drama set at a landing strip in an unnamed South American country. Grant plays one of a group of daredevil pilots whose job it is – rain, shine or thick fog – to fly mail over the surrounding mountains. This is Grant working with Howard Hawks again, this time revealing the director’s trademark fascination with groups under pressure and men defined by their professionalism. It’s a thrilling, sexy and tough-centred movie, with a career-making support turn from Rita Hayworth.

His Girl Friday (1939)

Director: Howard Hawks

His Girl Friday (1940)

Try watching His Girl Friday with subtitles and see how they bust a gut to keep up. One of the fastest-talking films ever made, Howard Hawks’ immortal comedy is a 90-minute crossfire of verbal barbs, as a newspaper editor (Grant) contrives to forestall his estranged wife (Rosalind Russell) from ditching journalism to wed an insurance-salesman dullard from Albany (Ralph Bellamy). Unlike in Bringing Up Baby, where Grant is the square swept up in a Hepburn-shaped tornado, here the central duo are more than a match for each other in their rat-tat-tat sparring. Authority, ordinariness and sentimentality are all laid waste in their path.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Director: George Cukor

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

The combination of Grant and Hepburn with director Cukor and a play by Philip Barry had yielded treasure with Holiday, so despite that film’s disappointing box office it was unsurprising they should reunite a couple of years later. James Stewart is added into the mix for a four-sided romance between Philadelphia socialite Tracy Lord (Hepburn), her ex-husband (Grant), her new fiancé (John Howard) and the photographer hired to cover their wedding (Stewart). Stewart won an Oscar for best actor, so Grant can consider himself unlucky not to have done the same. He never would, and to make up for its stupidity the Academy sheepishly gave him a lifetime achievement award in 1970.

Notorious (1946)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Notorious (1946)

Alfred Hitchcock found a darker side to the Grant persona in 1941’s Suspicion, in which the actor plays a husband who may or may not be a killer. That streak found subtler, more perverse expression in the pair’s second collaboration, in which Grant plays an American agent who falls for the woman (Ingrid Bergman) he sets up for a cloak-and-dagger marriage to a Nazi war criminal (Claude Rains). Doubling as an espionage thriller and a tortured love story, Notorious features record-breakingly long screen kisses along with several unforgettable suspense sequences (notably that scene in the wine cellar). Seductive cinema, shot in the velvetiest black and white.

I Was a Male War Bride (1949)

Director: Howard Hawks

I Was a Male War Bride (1949)

This is usually recalled as the film in which Grant dons female military uniform. In fact, that sequence accounts just for a few minutes of the film and is merely the final straw in Frenchman Henri Rochard’s (Grant) misadventures with an American driver (Ann Sheridan). First he bickers with her, then falls for her, and then jumps through all manner of bureaucratic hoops to be with her, even if it means pretending to be a woman to get that all-important visa. It’s another classic Hawksian battle of the sexes, but forsakes the glitzy worlds of 1930s screwball comedies for naturalistic location shooting in postwar Germany.

Monkey Business (1952)

Director: Howard Hawks

Monkey Business (1952)

No apologies for listing all five of the Grant-Hawks collaborations in a Grant top 10. Their last together, 1952’s Monkey Business is the silliest of the lot and features Grant as Dr Barnaby Fulton, an absent-minded professor whose newly invented elixir of youth ends up being mixed inside the water cooler by a lab chimpanzee. One-by-one Fulton, his wife (Ginger Rogers) and his secretary (Marilyn Monroe) are reverted to the state of immature, prank-pulling children. Echoes of Bringing Up Baby abound in the showdown between fusty expertise and unfettered animal instinct, and if Rogers is little match for Hepburn, Monroe positively sparkles in this early role. 

North by Northwest (1959)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

North by Northwest (1959)

If Vertigo (1958) is the greatest film ever made, then what do we call Hitchcock’s following film, North by Northwest? Hitchcock served sunnier side up, this lighter, cross-country chase film is in many ways even more dizzyingly perfect, from its pulse-quickening score by Bernard Herrmann down to Ernest Lehman’s innuendo-strewn dialogue. Once again, Grant plays a character whose ordered life is turned upside down: this time he’s Madison Avenue ad man Roger O. Thornhill (the ‘O’ stands for “nothing”), who is pursued across America by the police and traitorous spies alike after he is mistaken for another man.

Your suggestions

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

To our list above, you voted to add these Cary Grant gems…

  1. Arsenic and Old Lace (Frank Capra, 1944)
  2. Charade (Stanley Donen, 1963)
  3. Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock, 1941)
  4. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (H.C. Potter, 1948)
  5. An Affair to Remember (Leo McCarey, 1957)
  6. Penny Serenade (George Stevens, 1941)
  7. Indiscreet (Stanley Donen, 1958)
  8. To Catch a Thief (Alfred Hitchcock, 1955)
  9. My Favorite Wife (Garson Kanin, 1940)
  10. The Talk of the Town (George Stevens, 1942)

Two clear favourites emerged when we asked you what you thought deserved a place in our top 10. Coming late in his career, the comic spy thriller Charade was a glaring omission many of you thought, valuable for its twisty-turny plot and the magical chemistry between Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Most popular of all, however, was Frank Capra’s black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace, in which Grant goes up against his two homicidal aunts. But what, oh what, could we have left off??

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