My Photochemical Romance: The Nitrate Picture Show 2015

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“Love is a time machine up on the silver screen.”
—Noel Gallagher, “The Shock of the Lightning”

All the important things in life come down to questions of chemistry. 

What is love, in the end, but a felicitous cocktail of neurotransmitters? And what is classic cinema if not molecules rearranged by the kiss of light from bygone days—and conveyed on a strip of nitrocellulose, a substance so unstable and volatile that it can burn underwater? 

Our perceptions, no matter how lofty or spiritual, arise from chemical reactions, from formulae. The ethereal depends upon, and cannot be separated from, the material. There can be no mind without matter. Some people might recoil from that idea. Call it vulgar materialism if you’d like. Go right ahead. I call it transcendence. 

Last weekend, the inaugural Nitrate Picture Show stitched together dreams and reality, art and chemistry to produce a transcendent experience. Returned to the land of the living from their climate-controlled vaults, glorious 35mm nitrate prints, all struck between 1937 and 1949, conjured up the sights and sounds of classic films as audiences saw and heard them all those years ago.

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Unlike the dupes and digitizations of dupes that constitute just about everybody’s introduction to old movies, the cinema that blazed forth from the screen of the Dryden Theater returned to us in a startlingly undiluted form.

As my personal hero Kevin Brownlow pointed out, in studio-era Hollywood, “all those big cameramen had somebody in the lab who could do what they wanted… It’s very difficult for labs [today] to produce, even digitally, the effect of those original prints.” 

In other words, a nitrate original transmits the cinematographer’s vision—his actual intent—in a way that even an exquisite 35mm dupe or a pristine 8k restoration usually cannot replicate. Only a few venues in the world can project those visions caught on celluloid, and the Dryden Theater is one of them.

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“You’re going to have a unique experience,” Dr. Paolo Cherchi Usai, senior curator of motion pictures at the George Eastman House, told the intimate group of spectators. “You’re going to see very famous, iconic films in a way that most people in the world have never seen. And we hope that you will notice a difference, because there is a difference.”

Let me testify: yes, there is.

Imagine only ever seeing the sky filtered through sunglasses—then suddenly taking them off.

Movies I thought I knew, movies I’d seen dozens of times, appeared to me reborn, with fresh joys and terrors. And movies I’d never seen rushed at me with a force for which I was entirely unprepared. Nitrate is a fierce catalyst. Why, it can even turn back time. It can even raise the dead.

Nitrate Moments

They don’t make words vast enough to evoke nitrate black. There’s something eternal about it.

In Casablanca, Rick’s black bow-tie, gaping against the white of his crisp tropical tux, resembles a butterfly-shaped hole in his chest, a lyrical little void elegizing the man he once was, before his insides got kicked out. Similarly, as Ugarte begs him for help, a lattice of shadows crisscrosses the immaculate back of his dinner jacket—a detail that never caught my attention before—as though a net were holding him in the same trap as the sniveling parasite. 

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The surreal depth of nitrate noir chose some worthy objects of affection (worthy because I fancy them, too, that is). Pierre Fresnay’s sleek obsidian hair in The Man Who Knew Too Much crowns the secret agent with a dark halo as he wilts and gracefully expires on a dance floor, felled by a single bullet. In The Fallen Idol, Ralph Richardson’s onyx eyes glint with catch-light, sparkling like dying stars.

Movies invite viewers to collect moments and take souvenirs: an expression here, a movement there, a precious shot to hold on to like a rose pressed between book pages. The clarity of nitrate strengthened this mechanism of memory, searing certain images, certain touches of photogénie into my brain. The daisy in Rick’s buttonhole on that last day in Paris in Casablanca, the single man-tear of Wally’s that falls on Hazel’s hand in Nothing Sacred, or Ellen Berent’s cold teal eyes behind her tinted shades in Leave Her to Heaven. I’d never seen these things before, although they were there. Nitrate brought them out of hiding.

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Celluloid particularly seems to favor bodies of water, almost endowing them with personalities. The murky, acid-bath waves stretching for miles around a U-boat in Les Maudits churned and bubbled with malice. The dreamlike fishing spot that Sister Clodagh of Black Narcissus revisits in spirit blissfully glints—that’s Cardiff and the Archers reminding us, as they would do elsewhere, that heaven can be here on earth. 

The coppery sunset breakers, among which Norman Maine finds peace at last in A Star is Born, shimmered like the heat haze above a crucible. The crystalline surface of the lake at Back of the Moon in Leave Her to Heaven, a sunny witness to an unspeakable deed, sparkled like a sociopath’s smile.

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The Shock of the Lightning

At its best, cinema can fuse you into its fictions and unleash a torrent of emotions, so that you sit there in the dark and piously weep for strangers as you would for your own lost loves. Cinema can destroy you, as Portrait of Jennie destroyed me.

I cried three times, enough to erase my eyeliner and leave a permanent mark on my soul. Plenty of films have moved me to tears, but no movie has ever provoked the reaction Portrait did as I quietly sobbed in the third row of the Dryden Theater.

The silver nitrate hit me like Chartres blue, like Delacroix’s pigments, like the scent of apple blossoms in springtime. It affected me on a level beyond reason.

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As a matter of fact, in 1935, more than a decade before William Dieterle directed Jennie, he wrote, “What I have to say as a motion picture director, you can best read from the screen. There you find all that the subconscious force (the only real creator, in my opinion) has to tell.”

In the white-gloved hands of Herr Dieterle, fragile compounds formed into poetry. He tapped into that “subconscious force” as few others have. Dieterle inscribed a sense of melancholy and yearning into every shot of Jennie, whether she’s running out of the mist or skating towards the camera between silent sentinel skyscrapers or merely sitting curled up in Eben’s studio, her delicate features defined as a silhouette. 

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Even more impressive, during the film’s climactic tempest, the screen unfurled at both sides, widening into Magnascope. Toned an eerie shade of green, the silver-lined storm clouds suddenly swelled and expanded. The sky became a firmament. Images became incantations.

However, you have to open yourself up to a film before it opens up to you. The two young gentlemen (and I do use the term loosely) who sat a few seats down from me during Portrait of Jennie guffawed repeatedly. Sincerity spooks the insincere, I suppose, hence the nervous laughter. Like nonbelievers at a séance, they couldn’t feel the presence of the divine. They dammed themselves up against sentiment and, in so doing, perhaps damned themselves in another way. I pity them and were I the praying kind I’d pray for their enlightenment.

Many (most?) masterpieces flirt with silliness. Big ideas, artistic ambitions, and romantic gestures are all vaguely ridiculous. That absurdity is the price you pay for living in a world replete with marvels, not just snickering from the sidelines.

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David O. Selznick—no callow idealist by a long shot—prophetically gave himself over to sincerity and built a celluloid shrine to his future wife Jennifer Jones, keeping her forever young and enchanting as Jennie the struggling artist’s ghostly muse, forever vibrant and timeless as the Technicolor portrait that closes the film. The painter’s obsession parallels the producer’s adoration in a heady intermingling of art and life. 

Most of all, however, Portrait of Jennie is a ruminative, metaphysical valentine to cinema. Love and art alike can bestow immortality on mere mortals, but only film of all the arts sculpts time and space in their likeness. Only film preserves its beloved through what Bazin called “the mummification of change,” elevating certain chosen ones to surreal black-and-white demigods, photochemical archangels.

In the silvery shock of Jennie’s lightning, the triumphant power of the medium roars like thunder.

Time Without End

A book blocks the woman’s face.

Its title? Time Without End. Then she drops it, and the most beautiful creature in the world emerges from behind the drab book jacket. Her head droops onto her shoulder as the arid landscape continues to roll by outside the train compartment (which happens to be painted the exact same color as Gene Tierney’s eyes). 

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Like many apparently inconsequential details in Leave Her to Heaven, the book’s title subtly foreshadows the violent neurosis of the film’s protagonist. No boundaries, temporal or otherwise, exist for the morbidly jealous Ellen Berent. “I’ll never let you go, never, never, never,” she whispers from her deathbed. She wants to possess her beloved forever and fully expects to get whatever she wants.

However, as I sat in the Dryden, that title, Time Without End, took on another layer of significance. In a way, the nitrate had restored times past to those of us basking in its glow.

Reflecting on the festival, Dr. Cherchi Usai stressed the historical point of reference that nitrate brought to each screening. “I constantly had to remind myself: this is a nitrate print. This print has been screened many, many times since 1937, since 1945, and still is in such glorious shape.” 

So, when my eyes locked onto that screen, hungrily scrutinizing every frame of Leave Her to Heaven for the essence of nitrate, I saw what movie theater audiences saw in 1945—or as close as anyone will ever get to what they saw. I got to share the light, so to speak, that had washed over them.

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Every film viewing (or movie event, if I’m being pretentious) activates two levels of memory, one mechanical, one personal. First, even on a digital format, the “time machine” of cinema can transport us back to the era when a certain film was made. Second, each time I watch a movie, I watch with the memory of having watched it before; the effect is cumulative and subjective. The rhythm and flow of the film activates remembrance. It cannot be helped.

A vintage nitrate print, struck decades ago, endows the viewing experience with another stratum of time, a kind of phantom memory.

As I watch, I can say to myself, “I see now what they saw then.” That scratch, that hair, that grain. The original audiences must’ve seen it too. Some of them, at least. The print remembers.

Moreover, what they saw then harkened back to another then, both closer in relation to them (more recent) and just as faraway (fictional), a manipulated reality imprisoned on nitrate. Their then, what the film recorded, is years further from me than it was to them, yet it is paradoxically every bit as close: we are the same distance away from Gene Tierney, if you measure that distance by prints. 

All the thens stack up and overlap. Then is now, and now is then. The whole of time twists and coils upon itself, like a tangle of melting film stock.

Time without end indeed. 

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Flowers of Evil

On the final morning of the festival, Jared Case, head of motion picture collection information and access at the George Eastman House, remarked on an unintentional pattern in the programming. “There seems to be a theme throughout the weekend of twisted love,” he noted. “I don’t know what it says about us, hopefully nothing!” 

In particular, unhinged anti-heroines, from the eponymous temptress of Samson and Delilah to Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus to Mrs. Bains in The Fallen Idol, ruled the weekend. 

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The cataclysmic mix of rage and lust emanating from these she-devils hints at a quality inherent in the medium that conjured them. Danger and the thirst for danger. As Orson Welles once said, “Film has a personality, and that personality is self-destructive.”

On nitrate, cinema is a femme fatale. It is reality’s evil twin, beckoning to us with worldly beauty made otherworldly. It seduces us with lies and threatens to pull us into its self-destruction, its threatened immolation. It fools and taunts us with fragments of an exotic, unnatural past, a playlist of invented memories. It slays you. Gorgeously. 

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At the Nitrate Picture Show, Black Narcissus tormented me that way. I didn’t want it to end. Every cut, every dissolve filled me with despair. “Don’t take that shot away,” I wanted to cry out. “I wasn’t done looking at that!”

My mind tries in vain to recall the unholy intensity of the images, to summon the luminosity and saturation of the colors as I’d never seen them before. The giddy, vertiginous blues and greens of the cliff-sides. The countless shadings of Sister Clodagh’s habit. The enfolding darkness of the Christmas flashback. The baleful amber of Ruth’s jealousy. Her lipstick-daubed mouth, red as a raw nerve, confessing a lethal love.

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The Archers and Jack Cardiff managed to put Tantalus’s punishment on celluloid. Black Narcissus hurts even on DVD. On 35mm nitrate, it aches, it blisters, it writhes with light and shadow. It bleeds with hue.

The word “intoxicating” comes to mind, the root of course being “toxic.” Black Narcissus overwhelms me with a poisonous, venomous beauty. It allows the viewer to sympathize with the distraction of its characters, a distraction veering into madness. Who could bear such constant splendor? Who could endure a world so alive with pleasure and sensation and ephemeral joys and not lose her mind?

Dear reader, I came close.

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Coda: Diva Gone Nitrate

When I chose the name for this blog almost 3 years ago, I lighted upon “nitrate” because it held a faraway, almost mythic resonance for me. The very thought of the strange, combustible alchemy that once sustained motion pictures filled me with a sense of wonder.

Somehow it never occurred to me that I’d get to see a film projected from the storied substance. I didn’t think it was even done these days. 

I dreamt of nitrate. I wanted to fetishize and mystify it. In the end, however, the material truth, the photochemical reality turned out to be more mystical than anything I could have dreamed of.

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The 15 Greatest Roles Cary Grant Never Played (But Could Have)

cary_and_cigaretteIt’s easy to forget how many great films owe their greatness in large part to Cary Grant.

Today, however, I thought I’d ponder some of the movies that Grant didn’t make for various reasons at various stages in his development as an actor.

He would have made a delightful choice for some of these roles—and a disastrous one for others. But (almost) all of them are might-have-beens that I enjoy contemplating.

Gaston Monescu in Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Ernst Lubitsch considered Grant, then a recent arrival at Paramount, for the lead role in this cheeky comic masterpiece. Herbert Marshall (with whom Grant co-starred in Blonde Venus) ultimately won the role of suave swindler and jewel thief Gaston Monescu, so smooth he can steal Miriam Hopkins’s garters without her noticing.

I think that late 1930s Cary Grant would’ve carried off the role admirably. At age 28, though, he couldn’t have captured the note of worldliness—and world-weariness—that Marshall brought to the character.

Interestingly enough, Hitchcock admitted that To Catch a Thief borrowed heavily from Lubitsch’s comedy. In a way, Grant’s turn as retired master criminal John Robie gave him the chance to make up for arguably the best role he lost out on during his early career.

cary_grant_colorPhilip Marlowe

Bogie forever defined the onscreen image of everyone’s favorite wisecracking Los Angeles private eye with his performance in Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep.

Nevertheless, Raymond Chandler himself mentioned Cary Grant as his ideal Marlowe in a detailed character description he wrote to a fan in 1951:

“He is slightly over six feet tall and weighs about thirteen stone eight. He has dark brown hair, brown eyes, and the expression ‘passably good looks’ would not satisfy him in the least. I don’t think he looks tough. He can be tough. If I ever had an opportunity of selecting the movie actor who could best represent him to my mind, I think it would have been Cary Grant.” (The Raymond Chandler Papers, 157)

George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

It’s almost impossible for me to picture any actor other than Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, that humbly miraculous beacon of all that’s best in America. Indeed, the script that Capra supervised, pieced together by husband-and-wife team Goodrich and Hackett, fleshes out a character practically tailor-made for Stewart.

If you read “The Greatest Gift,” the basis for It’s a Wonderful Life, you’ll realize how much of George Bailey emerged during the screenwriting process.

Philip Van Doren Stern wrote the simple, moving tale of George Pratt (not Bailey), deterred from suicide by a vision of life without him. When the author mailed the story out to friends with his Christmas cards, his agent recognized its value and decided to pitch it to the studios.

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“Alright, Jimmy. If you want the part that badly, you can play George…”

Grant urged RKO to purchase the rights to the story with the intention of starring in a film version. Fortunately the project didn’t progress and Grant ended up playing a beloved holiday role more suited to his star image: Dudley the angel in The Bishop’s Wife.

Gulliver in a live-action Gulliver’s Travels

I personally have a hard time visualizing Grant being attacked by Lilliputians, but the actor loved Jonathan Swift’s satirical fantasy so much that he lobbied to star in an adaptation. In 1949, Grant asked Thornton Wilder to pen a screenplay for a film version to be helmed by Howard Hawks. According to Evenings with Cary Grant, Wilder brainstormed the concept before opting against it: “If I ever work on a movie again, it will be an ‘original.’”

Presumably the fact that the project never came to fruition disappointed Grant, who said in the 1950s, “Don’t laugh. I’d give a tasteful performance as Gulliver.”

Holly Martins in The Third Man (1949)

David O. Selznick suggested Grant for the part of Holly Martins, but, according to the BFI, “the financial terms he [Grant] was looking for were prohibitive.”

cary_noirLovable schmo Martins, as Joseph Cotten brilliantly played him, makes the audience feel sorry for him. How could this wannabe-Zane Gray buffoon keep up with sly lawman Calloway—much less remorseless outlaw Lime? As Calloway bluntly tells him, “You were born to be murdered.”

Cary Grant had a more versatile range than he’s generally given credit for, but onscreen he was nobody’s schmoe.

Orson Welles once described himself as a “king actor,” limited to imposing, authoritative figures, but Grant was, as Pauline Kael called him, the man from dream city. When Grant’s around, and I say this as a Welles fangirl, who’d believe a female character would look at anyone else?

The power dynamics between Holly and Harry, I suspect, would have shifted if Grant had joined the cast: the two ex-friends would have squared off on more equal terms. Alas, we are left to imagine what a Welles vs. Grant awesome contest would’ve been like.

Shooting for I Was a Male War Bride and the soundstage portions of The Third Man converged at Shepperton Studios, resulting in the picture of Grant, Cotten, Welles, and Ann Sheridan (taken at the studio restaurant) that you see below.

the_third_man_cary_grant“Say, we shouldn’t all stand here together for too long. The world might implode from the collective awesomeness.”

Hamlet in a modern-dress film adaptation

Alfred Hitchcock wanted to direct his version of Shakespeare’s revenge melodrama starring Cary Grant. Unfortunately, it was not to be (bad pun very much intended).

The project didn’t develop, but it remains a tantalizing thought experiment. How would the melancholy Dane’s soliloquies have sounded in Grant’s Midatlantic accent? Would audiences have accepted the screwball icon as the self-doubting, mortality-obsessed prince? Just imagine: the greatest ever screen actor (according to both David Thompson and myself) paired with the greatest role in the English language.

Cary Grant, 1958Joe Bradley in Roman Holiday (1953)

Yes, Grant was considered, but let us not dwell long on this possibility. Gregory Peck was perfection. That is all.

Norman Maine in A Star is Born (1954)

Had Cary Grant accepted the dark, demanding part of alcoholic matinee idol Norman Maine, he might’ve taken home the competitive Oscar that eluded him throughout his career. (And don’t get me started on that!)

On Turner Classic Movies, which featured Grant as its December 2014 Star of the Month, Robert Osborne shared George Cukor’s account of why Grant declined such a top-notch role.

When the actor read the script for A Star is Born at Cukor’s house, the director recalled, “Cary was absolutely magnificent, dramatic and vulnerable beyond anything I’d ever seen him do. I was astonished at the depth and range he was showing. But when we finished I was filled with great sadness because I knew Cary would never agree to play the role on film. He would never expose himself like that in public.”

As a viewer who likes laughing more than weeping, I respect Grant’s decision. I suppose he assumed a certain responsibility to maintain his dreamy image and bring joy, not sadness, to his fans. An Oscar might glitter, but Cary Grant is golden.

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“I can’t believe I had to wait until 1963 to touch Cary’s dimple. Seriously, why didn’t we work together in the 1950s?”

Frank Flannigan Love in the Afternoon (1957)

I mourn regularly for the lack of a collaboration between Billy Wilder and Cary Grant. Between Wilder’s sparkling dialogue and Grant’s sparkling delivery, the combination would have been nothing less than dazzling.

What makes this might-have-been teaming especially painful is that it nearly happened more than once. Wilder wrote the Linus Larrabee role in Sabrina (1954) with Grant in mind (although Bogie proved a more apt choice). In the case of Love in the Afternoon, Wilder tried to convince Grant to play Flannigan until 3 days before shooting when the star definitively bailed out. Gary Cooper replaced him.

Weathered Cooper infused Frank Flannigan with a welcome dose of vulnerability. Still, critics argued that he had no business playing a romantic figure opposite Audrey Hepburn in her 20s. Somehow I doubt that Grant would have raised any such objections. As Wilder pointed out, “He did not age one bit. His hair got gray. That’s it.”

Shears in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Grant starred in several war films over the course of his career—from the early 1930s aviation drama The Eagle and the Hawk to the military comedy Operation Petticoat—and nearly added David Lean’s taut WWII action drama to his resume.

He started preparing for the role of Shears and regretted that the opportunity slipped away: “I had to back out of The Bridge on the River Kwai because of another commitment. I slimmed down a lot to do the part, but you know you can’t do them all. I was sorry to have missed it… but Bill Holden was very happy. He got that one—and 10 percent of the gross.”

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James Bond in Dr. No (1962)

Probably the most famous role that Grant turned down, Bond was conceived with the actor in mind. His hardboiled yet debonair performance as secret agent Alex Devlin in Notorious inspired Ian Fleming to create James Bond. It was only natural, then, that Grant came up as strong choice to play 007 in Dr. No.

As Bond producer Cubby Broccoli wrote in his memoir When the Snow Melts, “I talked to Cary Grant who liked the project. He had the style, the sophistication and, in fact, had been born in Britain. He also happened to be a Bond aficionado. But he said no. As a very important actor and a world-class star, he didn’t feel he could lock himself into the Bond character.”

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Broccoli was relieved by Grant’s refusal, since he preferred the idea of selecting a less well-known actor, rather than a star with an established image, to inhabit the role. The closest Grant came to playing a part in the Bond franchise was serving as best man at Broccoli’s wedding (and, boy, do you have to be secure in your relationship before you invite Cary Grant to be your best man).

The Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera (1962)

It must be true! I heard it in a Universal horror featurette. Grant expressed a desire to star in the Hammer adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s chiller, but his agent advised against it, which is a shame.

Hidden behind a mask or grotesque makeup, the heartthrob could’ve efficiently proved to critics that his acting didn’t depend on his looks—an accusation that plagued him all too often. Perhaps that’s why he sought out the part in the first place?

Given his acrobatic physicality and hypnotic voice, he could have offered a fascinating update on Chaney’s definitive silent performance. Alas, Grant never appeared in a straight horror film.

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Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady (1964)

While vanity might have tempted other actors to accept such a plum part, Grant knew that the curmudgeonly professor belonged to someone else: Rex Harrison, who’d scored a hit in the stage musical. As Grant told producers, “Not only won’t I play Henry Higgins, but if Rex doesn’t I won’t even see it!”

Grant also questioned his right to give Miss Dolittle any elocution lessons: “You don’t understand. My accent is cockney! I sound the way ’Liza does at the beginning of the film.”

Andrew Wyke in Sleuth (1972)

Grant refused the part of a mystery novelist bent on exacting retribution on his wife’s lover, the role played by Laurence Olivier in Joseph Mankiewicz’s thriller. I don’t care much for this twisty mano a mano drama, but I would have liked to see Grant share the screen with his friend Michael Caine.

Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha (1972)

cary_grant_bobby_soxerThe first time audiences saw Cary Grant in a feature film, This Is the Night (1932), he was singing a recitative and carrying a javelin.

One can only imagine that such an experience, coupled with the trauma of appearing in Night and Day (1946), understandably soured Grant slightly on musicals.

When Warner Brothers reportedly offered him a million dollars to star in Man of La Mancha, Grant refused.

Then again, he’d already gotten to strut around in a suit of armor in 1947 for The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer

Which of these roles would you most have liked to see Grant play?