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Cary Grant: More than meets the eye

This year’s Cary Grant Comes Home For The Weekend seeks to showcase the brilliance and range of the actor’s performances – from the screwball comedies with which he made his name in the 1930s and early 1940s to his four Hitchcock collaborations – and his enduring love of Bristol. Festival director Charlotte Crofts sets out the attractions…

Film critic David Thompson once described Cary Grant as the “best and most important actor in the history of cinema” but today he’s often dismissed as eye-candy – a good looking leading man who is not even acting at all, just being ‘Cary Grant’. But of course, he wasn’t ever wholly Cary Grant; beginning, as many of us know, as Archibald Leach, born in Horfield in 1904 into circumstances which may have given him early insight into the deceits, identity faking and reinvention which helped him to create the Cary Grant character he played both on and off screen for the rest of his life.

One goal of this year’s festival, then, is to underscore how the Bristol beginnings of Archie Leach impacted on him and his later persona, while another is a celebration of Cary Grant as a skilled and adaptable actor – one not claimed often or fully enough in the UK as British because he made his name in Hollywood.

The festival opens on Friday 23 November with a screening of the award-winning documentary Becoming Cary Grant at UWE’s Glenside Campus – previously Bristol Lunatic Asylum, where the actor’s mother Elsie Kingdon Leach spent around 20 years without his knowledge. It examines Cary Grant’s life through his LSD therapy sessions, using them as a lens through which to explore the childhood trauma of losing his mother and its effect on his five marriages and his mental health.

“…The actor’s mother spent around 20 years at Bristol Lunatic Asylum, without his knowledge…”

Although he probably didn’t know it, the disappearance of his mother from his life was, perhaps, his first encounter with deception and assumed identity. She wasn’t dead; he wasn’t a motherless child. Elsie was alive but unspoken about in an institution. This conjures all sorts of questions. Why was she hidden away? How was it that it took more than 20 years for her son to find her again? What anxieties did the actor hide behind his debonair front?

A walking tour and an afternoon tea plus talks at the Avon Gorge Hotel (née Grand Spa) on Saturday 24 November take in Bristol places with happier associations but sometimes with the same undercurrent of role playing.

It was as a backstage Hippodrome ‘gofer’, for instance, that Archie discovered theatre – once forging a letter and faking his age in an effort to join a touring troupe of knockabout comedians. And what leap of reinvention did it take to be a fêted guest in the exclusive Gorge hotel, way beyond the means of Archie Leach or his family?

The festival’s main attractions, of course, are the films – a mix of thrillers and comedies all introduced by expert fans, among them the actor Paul McGann, IMDb founder Col Needham and broadcaster/author Matthew Sweet.

Sometimes I think I suspect I started Cary Comes Home simply so I could watch his films as they were meant to be seen – on the big screen, with an audience. North by Northwest (at the Planetarium on Saturday 24 November) is both scarier and funnier when seen up large with other people. And it’s got to cause a frisson, watching this and the other Hitchcock/Grant collaborations that we’re showing (Suspicion, Notorious and To Catch A Thief) knowing that Cary got his spectacles from an optician on the Centre and that Alfred Hitchcock ordered wines from Avery’s.

Being able to tie events to significant locations adds a special quality to the festival – and means new information about Cary Grant’s local links is still coming to light. For example, when we first ran the Looking for Archie walking tour of Cary Grant’s Bristol, we united two branches of Elsie Kingdon’s family who’d never met before, and learned that Cary Grant used to get his hair cut at a barber’s in Westbury-on-Trym.

In all, the programme offers 10 different ways to connect with Cary Grant and the Golden Age of Hollywood and we very much hope Bristol will join us in celebrating and saluting the local lad who became the toast of Tinseltown, yet never forgot where it all began.

A star is born: Horfield to Hollywood timeline

Cary enjoyed a six decade-spanning career as a Hollywood film star and style icon that earned him numerous accolades, including a special Oscar; the title of world’s best dressed man and a place on a US postage stamp; connected him to many of the best-known figures of the 20th century (among them, Mae West, Elvis, Sinatra, Sophia Loren, Louis Mountbatten, Ronald Reagan and the Kennedys) and made him a millionaire many times over. But he always remembered the city of his birth, a place to which he returned time and time again…

1904: A boy is born on 18 January at 15 Hughenden Road, Horfield, and named Archibald Alexander Leach. He’s the second but only surviving child of Elsie Maria and Elias James Leach, his older brother having died in infancy. Elsie suffers deep depression after the death of her first-born and is considered over-protective of her new baby. By contrast, Archie’s father, a tailors’ presser, is rumoured to be a drinker and womaniser, possibly with illegitimate off-spring.

1908: Young Archie starts at Bishop Road Primary, Bishopston, later moving on briefly to North Street Wesleyan Primary, Stokes Croft and then Fairfield Grammar School. At Fairfield, he meets the teacher who will eventually take him on a life-changing trip into central Bristol.

1915: Archie, aged 11, is told that his mother has gone away on holiday and, later, that she is dead. In fact, Elsie has been committed.

1917: A part-time Fairfield science teacher takes Archie to see the lighting system he’s just installed at the newly opened Bristol Hippodrome. Archie is captivated and begins working at the theatre after school. There, he meets Bob Pender who runs a travelling troupe of knockabout comedians and decides that’s the life he wants. He forges a letter from his father permitting him to join the troupe but is rumbled and brought back to Bristol. But the dream persists and, at 14, Archie becomes a Pender boy officially.

1920: At 16, Archie travels with the Pender company to the USA for what turns out to be a two-year tour. When the tour ends, Archie chooses to stay in the States and his name soon starts appearing on vaudeville bills and in the cast lists of Broadway plays and musicals.

1931: With these credits on his CV, Archie heads for Hollywood and is signed by Paramount Pictures. But the studio insists on a change of name. Archie’s first suggestion is Cary Lockwood – a character he’d played on Broadway – but the studio asks for a different surname: enter, Cary Grant. Later, his birth name will crop up in the dialogue of His Girl Friday and on a gravestone in Arsenic and Old Lace.

“…He may have become a British spy reporting on Nazi sympathisers in Hollywood and perhaps recruited by Noël Coward and Ian Fleming…”

1932: Cary Grant gets his first major screen credit as co-star to Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus. His performance is enjoyed by Mae West who casts him in her 1933 film She Done Him Wrong. The film is a box-office smash, gets nominated for an Academy Award and sets Cary Grant on his way to becoming a Hollywood favourite. It also attaches him to one of Hollywood’s best-known misquotes; Mae West’s invitation: “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?”

1935: Archie’s father Elias dies in Bristol and the lie that has held since 1914 is shattered when Archie discovers that his mother remains alive in a local hospital for the mentally ill. A reunion swiftly follows; Archie arranges for his mother’s release and when she declines to join him in the States, he buys her a house in Westbury Park and visits her often from then until her death in 1973, aged 96.

1939: Following the outbreak of the Second World War, Archie tries to join the British Navy but is ruled too old. He may, however, have become a British spy – possibly reporting on Nazi sympathisers in Hollywood and perhaps recruited by his friends Noël Coward and/or Ian Fleming, both of whom did work for the British Intelligence service.

1942: Archie becomes a US citizen and adopts Cary Grant as his legal name. He marries one of the world’s richest women, Barbara Hutton, earning the couple the nickname ‘Cash & Cary’. Hutton is the second of his five eventual wives; Grant the fourth of her eight husbands!

1947: King George VI presents Cary with the King’s Medal for services to the British war effort and for his gifts to war relief funds. Grant’s donations include his entire earnings from The Philadephia Story.

1962: After his performance in Notorious reportedly inspires Ian Fleming to create his debonair spy James Bond, Grant is the first actor asked to portray 007 on screen. But he turns the role down, saying he is too old to commit, as required, to a series. The Bond films franchise goes on to exceed all expectations and by coincidence benefits at least three other former Bristol residents: the locally trained actors Caroline Bliss, Samantha Bond and Naomie Harris who all appear in different Bond films as Miss Moneypenny.

1965: Now aged 61, and with more than 70 film credits, Grant gains his fourth wife: 28-year-old Dyan Cannon (later to earn an Oscar nomination for her role in Bob & Carol, Ted & Alice) and brings her to Bristol on honeymoon, staying at what is now the Bristol Royal Marriot Hotel, College Green. In 1966, Cannon makes Grant a father for the first and only time when she gives birth to a daughter, Jennifer. Grant then announces his retirement from film to concentrate on parenthood. Fan sites claim that a photo on a desk in his farewell film Walk, Don’t Run is of Grant’s own parents, Elsie and Elias Leach.

1966: Luxury goods and cosmetics firm Faberge appoints Grant as a director and brand ambassador, with access to the company’s private jet which Grant uses to drop in on his mum and visit favourite places around Bristol. His Faberge work keeps him in the public eye, as does support for various good causes and attendances at high-profile funerals including that of his long-time friend Princess Grace of Monaco.

1970: After decades of failing to bestow a main prize on Grant’s many nominated films and roles, the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finally gives Grant a special Oscar for ‘his mastery of the art of screen acting’.

1974: Arriving in a British-style double-decker bus, Grant unveils a plaque in New York’s Bristol Basin commemorating that the foundations of the city’s East River Drive are built from the remnants of buildings destroyed in WWII bombing raids on Bristol – the Bristol Blitz – which were later taken to New York as ballast for ships. A duplicate plaque stands near the Bristol Harbourmaster’s office.

1986: Grant embarks on an international tour of a one-man show. Would it have come to Bristol; perhaps to the Hippodrome? No-one will ever know because just before the show’s 37th performance, in Iowa on 29 November, the 82-year-old suffers a cerebral haemorrhage and dies.

2001: A life-size bronze statue of Grant, by Graham Ibbeson, is unveiled in Millennium Square by Grant’s fifth wife and widow, Barbara.

2014: The first Cary Grant Comes Home festival takes place, attracting visitors from as far as Australia and the USA. It is now a biennial event.

• With thanks to sources: BBC, carygrant.net, commanderbond.net, IMDb, New York Times, oscars.org, Wikipedia, Yahoo, Bristol Post. Visit carycomeshome.co.uk for details of this year’s festival events.

Featured image: Being able to tie events to significant local locations certainly adds a special quality to the festival; Charlotte feels a frisson, watching the films and knowing Cary got his spectacles from an optician on the Centre in Bristol and that Alfred Hitchcock ordered wines from Avery’s