It’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.
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.
“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.”
Lovable 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.
“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.
Joe 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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
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)
The 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?