90 odd years ago a backstage school trip to the Hippodrome inspired a young Archie Leach to pursue the stage; last Sunday he returned as Cary Grant to the theatre’s silver screen. A double-bill gala screening of his best-loved films, rounded off the weekend-long celebration, ‘Cary Comes Home’. The festival included talks, cocktail parties and live performances. The event was co-produced by UWE lecturer and passionate Cary-fan, Dr Charlotte Crofts (BA Filmmaking).
Born as Archibald Leach in Horfield, an interest in performing took him from expelled schoolboy to an acrobat-theatre troupe, informing both his physical comedy and grace in action scenes. With the troupe, he left for America, touring for two years, graduating to vaudeville and eventually Hollywood. In 1931 he signed to Paramount and became: Cary Grant.
Throughout his years of success Archie didn’t forget his roots, regularly visiting his mother who resided in Clifton. Older Bristolians are always keen to tell stories of their encounters with the humble actor. Last weekend celebrated the man and his Bristol connection.
The event opened with insightful talks held at the Watershed, musing on Archie’s journey and career. Dr Kathrine Glitre (BA Film, UWE) – who’s students enjoy her ability to include Cary in most lectures – was part of a panel of experts.
Not only remembering old Bristol talent but also encouraging future filmmakers the festival included a 90 second film challenge inspired by North by Northwest. Among many entries playing with a Hitchcock theme , the winning film was the witty The Girl with the Compass Tattoo and was screened alongside its influence, at the Hippodrome. All the short films can be viewed on the Cary Comes Home website.
The local pride in Archie fostered a strong community feel at the festival. Preceding the matinee screening were performances from The Hippodrome Choir and children’s performing arts group, The Big Act. The festival aimed to bring Cary Grant to the attention of a younger generation. The involvement of The Big Act and UWE students, who volunteered to support the festival, are a testament to his appeal.
Cary Grant has an enduring status as a style icon; the festival celebrated this with a vintage, red carpet dress-code encouraged at the gala screening. Patrons were greeted to a red carpet, complete with ‘paparazzi’ (UWE students) outside the venue’s piano bar. Furs, suits, red lips and waves of victory rolls graced the red carpet with prizes awarded to the best dressed. Pictures can be found on the Festival’s Facebook.
With singing, dancing, shorts and a live pianist the gala screening achieved its goal in re-creating an early 20th century theatre-going experience; people would put on their best clothes for a night out and see the latest in entertainment of every form. The performances and costumes built up a sense of occasion and lead up to the main event, the opportunity to see these classic films on a large screen. The first in the double-bill was a matinee screening ofArsenic and Old Lace (1944).
Directed by Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life, 1945), Arsenic is a black comedy farce starring Cary Grant in an ensemble cast including Peter Lorre, Priscilla Lane and Raymond Massey doing his best Boris Karloff impersonation. Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) discovers his sweet maiden aunts (Josephine Hull, Jean Adair) are murderers when he stops by their house on his wedding day. In this comedy of errors there is no straight-man. While the madness does unfold around Mortimer, he is as crazy as any of them. Arsenic brilliantly showcases Cary’s timing and physicality as a comedian.
The evening film demonstrated Archie’s other onscreen persona as the idiosyncratic charmer. North by Northwest (1959) is the fourth collaboration between Hitchcock and his favourite leading man. Here he stars as Roger Thornhill, a New York Ad man, who falls victim to mistaken identity. He quickly becomes entangled in a spy-plot that finds him chased by a crop-duster in the desert and dangling over Mount Rushmore. Alongside well-staged set-pieces the Hitchcock signifiers are glorious on the big screen. The Saul Bass opening credits, lining the high-rise buildings which recur and dwarf the running figure of Cary Grant throughout the film. Bernard Hermann’s score swells and courses sinisterly. Females are present as intriguing blondes (a sizzling Eve Marie Saint) or mother figures (a droll Jessie Royce Landis). Yet the film is more than a Hitchcock checklist, but a cohesive masterpiece brought together in a tightly structured plot. At 136 minutes, not one of them is wasted: each serving a joke, flirtation or moment of suspense.
After the success of this year’s festival there are hopes to make the celebration an annual event. With such a prolific and consistent actor there is a rich filmography to sustain the festival for many years to come.
By Ellisha von Grunewald