This year - January 18, to be exact - marks the centenary of Cary Grant. (If that sounds somewhat hard to believe, give credit to the actor, who took himself out of circulation at the dignified age of 62 and thus kept our image of him youthful.) Two studios have taken the occasion to release on DVD most of the remaining highlights of the legend's career. (Not all, mind you. Bringing Up Baby, where are you?!)
Fox also presents the Darryl Zanuck production of People Will Talk, an adaptation of a stage play in which Grant is the subject of a witch hunt. But the most entertaining of the bunch is Howard Hawks' I Was a Male War Bride. While most folks remember this as the movie that put Cary Grant in drag, that actually represents a tiny piece of the story's screen time - and it's just one in a series of humiliating trials facing Grant, a French officer who marries an American lieutenant and wants to follow her back to the U.S., but is continually told that he "can't sleep here" and "can't board this ship" since he's not an American. At least he didn't have Dubya and Freedom Fries to contend with.
The Warner Bros. batch also includes one wartime tale, the straightforward action pic Destination Tokyo, in which Grant pilots a submarine from San Francisco to Japan, paving the way for air strikes on the eponymous city. The only other drama in the bunch is Night and Day, a biopic that is laughably untrue to the life of its star, Cole Porter, but works in a whopping number of the master composer's sophisticated tunes. Warner's disc contains a bonus Bugs Bunny cartoon, and arrives in time for comparison with De-lovely, the new version of the story starring Kevin Kline.
A pair of late-'40s delights team Grant up with Thin Man star Myrna Loy. The storyline of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House was a lot fresher at the time: Citified exec Grant moves out to Connecticut to become a homeowner, only to encounter every one of the nightmares that plague do-it-yourselfers. How you make a movie about amateur carpentry without a liberal dose of "&^%*%$!!!" is beyond me, but Grant and Loy make it work.
The relative innocence of the era also shows in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, a story that would be radically different if it were re-made today: Carefree artist Grant unwittingly makes underage cutie Shirley Temple fall in love with him, and through a complicated series of legal twists, he's forced to play boyfriend to her until her crush fades. Imagine a movie today in which George Clooney is forced to feign lust for one of the Olsen twins, and you get an idea of the sick territory that is completely skirted by this slight, but charming comedy.
Finally, we have an undisputed highlight in Grant's career: My Favorite Wife. The actor meets his match in the sly, sexy Irene Dunne (they also made The Awful Truth and the melodramatic Penny Serenade together), who plays the wife that Grant thought died at sea seven years ago. She returns out of the blue, only to find that her husband has just remarried. (And Grant has the nerve to be suspicious about Dunne's relationship with Randolph Scott, the good-natured fella who was stranded on the island with her!) Grant is understandably flabbergasted, which was one of his better modes; the situation is so ripe with comic possibilities that it was remade with Doris Day and James Garner as Move Over Darling - and would have been remade again in 1962 as Something's Got to Give, if co-star Marilyn Monroe hadn't died while shooting it. But no remake could come close to replicating the chemistry of Grant and Dunne, which is what makes Wife so delightful. Cary Grant was charismatic enough to save a lot of so-so movies, but in material worth his talents - and fortunately, he was given lots of it in his career - he was unmatchable. •