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15 August 2018

The Class of Cary Grant: High and Low in Hollywood

Cary Grant in a snazzy suit


In Michael Curtiz' great Mildred Pierce, there's a tense moment where Mildred's selfish daughter, Vida, disparages her mother, her lip curling in contempt.

"You never speak of your people," she says.

To our ears, this seems like an odd sort of insult. American culture has largely discarded the convention of "breeding," or gentility derived from one's forbears' gentility. We don't know or care about the family background of cultural role models like Ellen Degeneres or LeBron James or Tom Hanks. When important people research their ancestry on "Who Do You Think You Are" or "Finding Your Roots," they're more embarrassed by long ago slaveholders than out of wedlock births, criminals or pauperg

Mildred and Vida in a happier time

Vida is accusing Mildred of being what in modern terms would be called "trailer-park trash." Today, it seems quite ridiculous to scorn people for circumstances beyond their control, especially when they work hard to better themselves, But for most of the twentieth century it could be held against you. It was not so long ago that Americans still judged each other by their family background, or lack of it. An alcoholic uncle or jailbird grandfather could actually affect whether one would be invited to a church social or to join a country club. This seems unimportant today, but such social gatherings could mean business success or failure.

One exception, however, was an important industrial city that grew up like a mushroom with the growth of its industry -- Hollywood. Important people -- stars, directors, and the large contingent of artists, composers, couturiers, lighting engineers, cinematographers, even carpenters, painters, seamstresses, and groundsmen -- arrived in Hollywood from all parts of the country, in fact all parts of the world. In many ways, Hollywood, as it became established as an economic powerhouse, resembled the ad-hoc, stateless communities that have arisen from time to time throughout history. The pirate democracy in Barbados, the multi-cultural Louisiana community of Barataria, and the Meti community in Canada are examples. Obviously, this is an exaggeration.

Hollywood's economic system was uniquely merit-based. You didn't get to be a movie star, director, or producer because your parents were rich or had connections. There was a structure to help you if a studio thought you looked promising, but no one could guarantee success. Time and again "star-making" was attempted, and it never worked unless the subject would have made it anyway. Whatever it is that makes a performer connect with the audience cannot be learned or given by another; it doesn't depend on education, intelligence, experience, youth, or beauty. Of course many stars were young and beautiful, and many of them were well-educated and intelligent. But looks alone wouldn't do it. Experience wouldn't do it. Talent wouldn't do it. The fact is, nobody knew then or knows now what makes a star. The same goes for all the less publicly visible but wonderfully talented people who were so necessary to film making behind the scenes.

Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, and Errol Flynn dressed to the nines for a party

Having established an industry base in Hollywood, these people, being people, had to come some kind of social structures. "Important" people like to socialize with other important people; but the social markers they were brought up with would not help them identify an important person in the multi-cultural stew that was Hollywood. People from wildly different backgrounds were thrown together daily. Social standards had to be created; qualities that would lead to exclusion in middle America, like extra-marital relationships or heavy drinking, were tolerated -- because they had to be.
I was struck by this strange social difficulty when I read Joan Crawford's description of her marriage to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. She was convinced that Mary Pickford, Doug Jr.'s stepmother, hated her, and she felt very uncomfortable moving in their social circle -- she didn't know which fork to use at a formal dinner. Crawford frankly said that her education was so sketchy that as she became more successful, she used to read scripts with a dictionary by her side because she didn't  understand so many of the words used.

Joan Crawford, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Mary Pickford

Denizens of the movie community could be divided along certain lines. A large number of performers had been onstage since childhood, so naturally they missed out on formal education and the finer points of formal dining. These included most of the great comedians. Of course, they could learn "proper" behavior, and it was very important to some of them to do so. Conversely, a pretty sizeable number of stars did in fact come from privately schooled, privileged backgrounds, and were perfectly comfortable chatting with a duchess. As you might expect, Robert Taylor, Franchot Tone, and Robert Montgomery were among these, as were Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis. and Norma Shearer.

Cary Grant and Randolph Scott play checkers at home
What does this have to do with Cary Grant? To add to the confusion, a person's actual social background in their place of origin had no bearing on their position in the Hollywood hierarchy. I've always wondered, for example, if Cary Grant felt uneasy (at first, anyway) being the model of all things suave and classy, since his background was lower class. This meant less than nothing to Americans, but probably quite a lot to a newly arrived Brit. And I also wonder if that might have been part of the advantage of sharing a house for a while with fellow bachelor Randolph Scott, who came from a very old, genteel Virginia family, and attended an exclusive prep school. I know a more scandalous (or, it would have been scandalous at the time) reason for their living together is often put forth, but social correctness was very much more important in those days. Cary Grant, born Archie Leach to a working class couple in Bristol, England, left school early to go into music halls, a rough equivalent to vaudeville. He was very intelligent, and apparently had great natural taste, but he was not born knowing how to make small talk with a wealthy dowager or wear white tie and tails. He sure learned fast, though. By the mid-1930's he was our ideal of a perfect gentleman.

Cary Grant with Ethel Barrymore in None But the Lonely Heart
Grant made a couple of films in which he portrayed a man of his own original class.  Most important was None But the Lonely Heart, which he really put a lot of himself into. It was a self American audiences didn't recognize. To us, the composed, suave, perfectly dressed man about town was the Cary Grant we knew. And eventually he became that in real life. Like so many Americans (he became a citizen in 1942), especially in Hollywood, he invented a brave new self. The flat cap and corduroy jacket, symbols of class in the Britain of his youth, vanished forever, never to be seen again. But I wonder -- did he think of them sometimes? Did a feeling of unreality sweep over him when the saw himself dressed in tails or squiring the most elegant of ladies?