From Pauline Kael’s “The Man From Dream City,” published in The New Yorker on 7.7.75. “Nearly all of Cary Grant’s seventy-two films have a certain amount of class and are well above the Hollywood average, but most of them, when you come right down to it, are not really very good.
“Grant could glide through a picture in a way that leaves one indifferent, as in the role of a quaint guardian angel named Dudley in the bland, musty Goldwyn production The Bishop’s Wife (1947), and he could be the standard put-upon male of burbling comedy, as in Every Girl Should Be Married (1948) and the pitifully punk Room for One More (1952) — the nice-nice pictures he made with Betsy Drake, who in 1949 became his third wife.
“[And] he could be fairly persuasive in astute, reflective parts, as in the Richard Brooks thriller Crisis (1950), in which he plays a brain surgeon forced to operate on a Latin-American dictator (José Ferrer). He’s a seasoned performer here, though his energy level isn’t as high as in the true Grant roles and he’s a little cold, staring absently when he means to indicate serious thought. What’s missing is probably that his own sense of humor isn’t allowed to come through; generally when he isn’t playing a man who laughs easily he isn’t all there.
“No doubt Grant was big enough at the box-office to have kept going indefinitely, surviving fables about caterpillars, and even such mournful mistakes as hauling a cannon through the Napoleonic period of The Pride and the Passion.
“But if Alfred Hitchcock, who had worked with him earlier on Suspicion, hadn’t rescued him with Notorious, in 1946, and again, in 1955, with To Catch a Thief (a flimsy script but with a show-off role for him) and in 1959 with North by Northwest, and if Grant hadn’t appeared in the Stanley Donen film Charade in 1963, his development as an actor would have essentially been over in 1940, when he was only thirty-six.
“In all four of those romantic suspense comedies, Grant played the glamorous, worldly figure that ‘Cary Grant’ had come to mean: he was cast as Cary Grant, and he gave a performance as Cary Grant. It was his one creation, and it had become the only role for him to play — the only role, finally, he could play.
“The special charm of Notorious, of the piffle To Catch a Thief, and of North by Northwest and Charade is that they give him his due. He is, after all, an immortal — an ideal of sophistication forever. He spins high in the sky, like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. He may not be able to do much, but what he can do no one else has ever done so well, and because of his civilized non-aggressiveness and his witty acceptance of his own foolishness we see ourselves idealized in him. He’s self-aware in a charming, non-egotistic way that appeals to the very people we’d want to appeal to.”
Also: Once Grant’s Paramount contract ended, there seemed no stopping him. As long as the screwball-comedy period lasted, he was king. After The Awful Truth, in 1937, he did two pictures with Katharine Hepburn in 1938 — Bringing Up Baby and Holiday. It was a true mating — they had the same high-energy level, the same physical absorption in acting. In 1939 he did Gunga Din and Only Angels Have Wings and in 1940 His Girl Friday, My Favorite Wife and The Philadelphia Story.
“During those peak years — 1937 to 1940 — he proved himself in romantic melodrama, high comedy, and low farce. He does uproarious mugging in the knockabout jamboree Gunga Din — a moviemakers’ prank, like Beat the Devil. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur stole the adolescent boys’ fantasy atmosphere from The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, then took the plot from their own The Front Page, mixed it with a slapstick The Three Musketeers, and set it in a Hollywood Kipling India. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., plays the Hildy Johnson role — he plans to leave the British Army to get married and go into the tea business — and Victor McLaglen, in the Walter Burns role, and Grant, as the Cockney bruiser Archibald Cutter, scheme to get him to re-enlist.
“When the three comrades fight off their enemies, they’re like three Fairbankses flying through the air. Grant looks so great in his helmet in the bright sunshine and seems to be having such a marvellous time that he becomes the picture’s romantic center, and his affection for the worshipful Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe) becomes the love story.
“The picture is both a stirring, beautifully photographed satiric colonial-adventure story and a walloping vaudeville show. Grant’s grimaces and cries when Annie the elephant tries to follow him and Sam Jaffe onto a rope bridge over a chasm are his broadest clowning. (The scene is right out of Laurel & Hardy.) And he’s never been more of a burlesque comic than when he arrives at the gold temple of the religious cult of thugs and whinnies with greedy delight at the very moment he’s being shot at. The thug guru is shaven-headed Eduardo Ciannelli (the original Diamond Louis of The Front Page), who wears a loincloth and chants “Kill! Kill! Kill for the love of killing!”
“Perhaps because the picture winds up with a bit of pop magic — an eye-moistening, Kiplingesque tribute to Gunga Din, shown in Heaven in the British Army uniform he longed to wear — the press treated it rather severely, and George Stevens, the director, was a little apologetic about it. He may have got in over his head. He had replaced Howard Hawks as director, and when he added his Stan Laurel specialties to the heroic flourishes Hawks had prepared, and after the various rewrite men (William Faulkner and Joel Sayre were among them) built on to the gags, the result was a great, bounding piece of camp. Grant has always claimed that he doesn’t like to exert himself, and that his ideal role would be a silent man in a wheelchair, but his performance here tells a different story. All his performances tell a different story.”