I Worry About Cary Grant [Updated]

…and James Cagney. And Kirk Douglas. And Bette Davis. And Rita Hayworth.

Seeing Kirk Douglas at the Golden Globes revived the concern that every Christmas season intensifies for me, when I realize that it is only Christmas that keeps such giants of entertainment past as Gene Autry, Bing Crosby and Dean Martin from fading into permanent obscurity.  The cultural figures who we remember are mostly the beneficiaries of moral luck, not a fair merit-based calculation. It is a random process, and culture, which is significantly defined by who and what we remember and who and what we forget, should not be shaped by coincidence, chance, and random amnesia.

It should not be, but it is. A classic example outside the realm of entertainment is the strange case of  Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top in the Battle of Gettysburg, and by some assessments the savior of the Union itself. When the story of Gettysburg was assembled by the battlefield commission, plaques erected and statues placed. Chamberlain’s desperate stand protecting the Union army’s flanks on Day Two of the battle didn’t make the cut. Despite as remarkable a career as anyone from Maine could have, and more than one shining moment of distinction during the Civil War, he was forgotten for more than a century. Then a brilliant, best-selling historical novel, “The Killer Angels,” recounted his heroics leading the 20th Maine so vividly that Chamberlain memory was re-animated, and began receiving the attention from historians that it deserved from the start.

In popular culture, whether a performer’s unique talents and contributions are remembered after more than a generation is now almost entirely dependent on whether there is a film featuring them that is regularly presented on television. Only a handful of performers who have permanently entered iconic status avoid that standard: I’d include Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Shirley Temple and John Wayne in this category, with a few debatable others. (And even the Little Tramp, MM, Fred, Judy and The Duke aren’t necessarily  safe: once Rudolf Valentino, Laurel and Hardy, Lon Cheney, Greta Garbo, Boris Karloff and James Dean could be safely called icons. I doubt one Millennial in a hundred could identify any of them. Marlene Dietrich has a thumb-hold on her iconic status only because of  Madeline Kahn’s film-long send-up of her in “Blazing Saddles.”)

To an increasing extent, cultural survival  means color films, which in turn eliminates all of the great and unique stars whose best films were black and white. “The Wizard of Oz” guarantees that Judy Garland will continue to be remembered (though her unmatched singing should be the real reason), but the great James Cagney, whose best tough guy films are already rarely seen and who only survives in popular culture because “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” a completely atypical example of his work, is a July 4th staple, is on the bubble. So is Gary Cooper, one of the most honored and successful actors in history, whose only film that is generally known any more is the black and white “High Noon.” Cagney’s and Cooper’s current claim to fame are in black-and -white, and may soon be deemed unwatchable. James Stewart is still known by my son’s generation because of “It’s a Wonderful Life”—so far the Christmas link has trumped the anti-black and white bias– but “Mister Smith Goes To Washington”and “The Philadelphia Story” are unknown to most of them.  This has nothing to do with Stewart’s best work or talent. How often will future generations see “Rear Window”? Not often. Even Humphrey Bogart, a borderline icon, isn’t safe from obscurity. I have been repeatedly shocked at how few Millennials have seen “Casablanca,” much less “Key Largo” or “The Maltese Falcon.” Will “To Kill A Mockingbird” keep Gregory Peck in our cultural consciousness?

I wonder. And I worry.

Charlton Heston was lucky: he starred in two full-color block-busters that are a good bet to be shown 50 years hence, “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur.”  If “Gone With The Wind” doesn’t get banned by the political correctness mob, and it might, Clark Cable has a chance to be remembered, but that’s his only hold on immortality despite being regarded as the “King of Hollywood” for most of his career. “The Godfather” saved Marlon Brando, but the larger, more typical roles that made young Marlon an icon in  the Fifties and Sixties–“A Streetcar Named Desire” and “The Wild One”–are on TV rarely.

But what will preserve the memory of Cary Grant? In one end of the last century poll, Grant was chosen the #1 Hollywood star of all time, but none of his best films, or really any of them, are frequently seen on TV.  He is fading into oblivion, as are Spencer Tracy, Randolph Scott, John Garfield, Henry Fonda, Bob Hope, Kirk Douglas and Lawrence Olivier. The same is true of actresses Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, Rita Hayworth, Greer Garson, Irene Dunn, and Ava Gardner.

One would think YouTube would be the savior of our culture, but you have to know what to look for to know what you missed. This rich, varied, marvelous tapestry of talents and performances is fading away, leaving our culture poorer and our public cheated of perspective and wonder.  I don’t have any idea what to do about it.

Let me leave you with an  example of the kinds of unique performers whose talents have been effectively lost to our culture forever. Here (I know I’ve posted this before) is a major tragedy of cultural amnesia, the unmatched and unmatchable Nicholas Bothers:

77 thoughts on “I Worry About Cary Grant [Updated]

        • The best I could find was this:


          Graham cracker pie crust, or make a chocolate crust
          1 c. creamy peanut butter
          1 (8 oz.) pkg. cream cheese
          1 c. sugar
          2 tbsp. melted butter
          1 c. whipping cream
          1 tbsp. vanilla
          Hot fudge topping

          Cream together the peanut butter, cream cheese, sugar, and butter. Whip the whipping cream, add vanilla, and fold into creamed mixture. Pour into the pie shell. Leave overnight in the refrigerator. The next day melt and thin hot fudge topping. Pour over the pie and let set for 30 minutes.

      • IMHO, one of Grant’s best lines came during questioning while he was suing Chevy Chase.

        At the time soaring professionally, Chase said in response to a 1980 Tom Snyder interview statement that he was being touted (a compliment) as the next Cary Grant: “I understand he was a homo. He was brilliant. What a gal!”

        Surprisingly, Grant was not amused and filed a $10 million lawsuit, in 1980 $, mind you!

        Chase’s attorney: “Mr. Grant, how did you feel when you watched the tape and heard Mr. Chase say you were a ‘homo’?

        Grant: “I felt I wanted to sue.”

        fade to black…

        • First line that ever pops into my mind when I see Cary Grant. Didn’t make the connection to the principle though. My hat’s off, Paul. But it usually is when I’m inside.

        • My favorite line of Grant’s is from “Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House”, when Blandings is trying to come up with an ad slogan for a ham brand:

          “This little piggy went to market, as mild and as meek as a lamb; he smiled in his tracks, when they slipped him the axe, he knew he’d turn out to be ‘WHAM’!”

  1. I think we can write off Marlene Dietrich given that it would surprise me if one in a hundred millennials know who Madeline Kahn is. Or, for that matter, Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, or Teri Garr. Gene Wilder is safe because of Willy Wonka. When we were kids back in the seventies, my siblings and I would watch Family Classics on WGN on winter Sunday afternoons. Movies like Captains Courageous, Treasure Island, Sink the Bismark and many others were staples of this great program. We loved these movies even though they were all at least twenty years old even then. On a plus note, although I can’t recall the last time I saw one of Ms. Dietrich’s film on TV, I recall her work entertaining soldiers during WWII being talked about on a TV documentary I recently watched.

    • It’s so.

      Bob’s movies, except for the Road pictures with Bing (the best in black and white) , don’t play well any more. His humor has dated, and the dedication to the troops is hard to explain to those who weren’t around at the time..

      • ”His humor has dated”

        Then call me dated…

        IMHO, one of Hope’s best lines came while he was talking about Sean Connery/James Bond, and went something like this:

        “James Bond has a reputation as the world’s 2nd greatest lover, modesty prevents me from revealing the identity of the 1st.”

        • That’s why it’s dated. Sean Connery is in his late 80s, and there have been four Bonds since he hung up his gun, not counting poor George Lazenby and the four actors who played Bonds in the first “Casino Royale.”

    • Sorry. A few years ago, we were watching the Oscars and our son decided to look up a list of Oscar hosts. Halfway through the list, he looked up and asked, “Who is Bob Hope?”.

      I expressed my incredulity and he very pointedly asked me, “Why should I know who he is?”. He was right. Bob died when he was six. He never saw any of the movies and there were no more TV specials. How would he know who Hope was?

  2. I may have done something right raising my kids. We were all playing a trivia style game over the holidays (on the Ps4 in a silly game of course) when a question came up which Citizen Kane was the answer to. Not only did some know the answer (they are aged between 21 to 28 along with their fiances and my daughter’s boyfriend.) but went on to say “we really need to watch that, it’s considered a classic”. I was proud. In fairness, that movie came along well before I did too, but I still enjoy the classics. My kids know who James Dean is as I am a fan and own most of the movies from his short career. Of course, James Franco’s portrayal a few years back may not have hurt that either. They all seem to like Hitchcock a lot as well, so there may be some hope for Cary through North by Northwest. I’ve always convinced them to watch the classic horror movies before seeing the remakes too. They will easily admit that some of those people like Bella or Vincent just can’t be replaced.
    Incidentally, there is a YouTube channel “Timeless Classic Movies” that is full of black and white movies. Also a website Big Five Glories http://www.bigfiveglories.com/ to find maybe not the most known movies, but still some good ones.

  3. Cultural memory is short indeed, and likely to become shorter I think, as our cultural “campfires” that we all gather around become fewer, smaller and more niche. I won’t regret the demise of the NFL, but for this: It seems the last common cultural experience that is shared across status, wealth, racial, and political divides in the US.

  4. There does exist a subculture of Movie buffs like me, who are mostly in their 70’s. As a youth I spent lots of time in movie theaters and then again, wishing I could see the “classics” that weren’t cut by the TV channels to fit time space. VHS, then DVD & now vast Digital libraries make it much easier to both watch these movies and pass down the love of the characters. But you are right. My middle son is in a business related to the movie industry. He was in his early 30’s when he was being interviewed on radio & the host asked for his favorite movie. He responded “Rio Bravo” and this person, in the Industry did not recognize it. Recently one of my grandsons asked me if “Cowboys” were real and seemed to enjoy seeing a real “cowboy” movie. Had to search mightily to find a book suitable for youngsters about Cowboys & the West. I just hope one of my sons/grandsons appreciate all the old movie DVD’s that I’ll leave behind. But there is a whole period in US History that is being lost and with it valuable knowledge, entertainment and pure joy.

  5. Tremendous clip. I hadn’t seen that one before. My inner thigh muscles are strained from watching their atheletic prowess- and I am not a big song and dance fan. Just impressive.

    As long as entertainment pursues the themes of pushing the envelope of sexuality, violence and CGI fantasy, real talent will continue to fade into oblivion. The saving grace is that obscurity is an accelerating phenomenom among those who traffic in gratutous sex, violence, and language. As they fade the cream will rise to the top.

    • I think the reason I am not a big song and dance afficiando is that I came up in the Bob Fosse era. His choreography always seemed the same with an emphasis on many dancers who could not hold a candle to Cab Calloway or the Nicholas brothers.

  6. When there is a Cary Grant movie on TCM nothing else matters to my wife. The house could burn down around her before she moves away from the set. I like his comedic timing but I prefer Gary Cooper especially in Sgt. York and the Lou Gherig story. The messages of those films are timeless.

  7. I supposed this is dated but there are sure times when I wish humor and Hollywood actors had stayed in this time period:

    What a great gift to be able to tell a joke really well. A dying art. He could also pilot a bomber on combat missions. Two Distinguished Flying Crosses.

    • Dated…or lousy? You be the judge.

      Q-Why do milking stools only have three legs?
      A- The cow’s got the udder!

      If the U.S. were to switch from pounds to kilograms overnight, there’d be mass confusion today.

      I visit my family in December because my mom always make me Eggs Benedict…I go home for the hollandaise.

      Q- Why shouldn’t you try to write with a broken pencil?
      A- It’s pointless.

  8. Thank you for the Nicholas Brothers. I love the copacetic Mr. Cab Calloway but for some reason had never seen them. Fantastic.

    I think a lot of people saw some of the older movies in the past because there were only a few channels, people were more likely to stay tuned and just watch a movie being shown. Now with Netflix and all the other services people are choosing what is currently popular for the most part and if someone isn’t already familiar with the classics it is very unlikely they will choose a classic movie. I believe Netflix sounds the death knell of people being newly exposed to the classics even though good copies of the classics have never been more available. But as you said, “. . . you have to know what to look for to know what you missed.”

    The bias against black-and-white cinematography is a shame. There is something about a perfectly composed and lit scene in black-and-white that just cannot be achieved in color. “Psycho”, “The Best Years of our Lives”, “Sunset Boulevard”, “High Noon”, and many others just would not be the same movie in color. I am not against color and particularly enjoy “Robin Hood” and “The Wizard of Oz”, films that made very effective use of the saturated colors available with Technicolor.

  9. Random thoughts:
    Mentioning Brando, but not On the Waterfront.
    Mentioning Heston, but not Planet of the Apes.
    Harvey may be my favorite Jimmy Stewart film.

    • He did. To this day a somewhat squat memorial to them adorns Little Round Top, but no statue of Chamberlain graces the field. You have to go up to Maine to see his statue next to the bridge over the Penobscot that also bears his name – at least it will until someone decides its no longer politically correct and the bridge should be renamed for Charlie Howard.

  10. Some movies made primarily in the 30s and 40s that most people today are totally unaware of are the movies with an all black cast made to play in black movie theaters. “Cabin in the Sky” 1943 which starred Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and was directed by Vincente Minnelli is a good example. They were the only place many black actors were able to get work and they provide a unique glimpse into the culture of that time.

  11. I think this is pretty natural in general, though probably accelerated with the sheer number of alternate entertainment choices available with the birth of the internet. Most people know the eras they grew up in very well, have some basic understanding of their parents generation (because they’ve been subjected to it by their parents while growing up), but before that will only know the big name classics or noteworthy odd-ball cultural people from before that.

    I’m a Gen-X’er. I know all the stars of the late 70s, 80s and 90s. I know many of today as well of course, though a lot of current popular music I know from having a teenage daughter. I know many of the classic songs and movies of the 40s-60s from my parents, or from looking into them myself because I heard of them. (Some I’ve really enjoyed, like Casablanca, some I didn’t, like Citizen Kane) But even then there are surely a number of items I don’t know, or haven’t seen, or just know vague references about. Go earlier then the mid 30’s and I basically just know the really big names. There’s just too many things to see and do now to get back to them. Plus, as mentioned, a lot of is dated.

    I don’t think that’s a new thing with the new generation though. Most of the people I know in my parents generation listen to 50s-60s music, and love a lot of the old movies. But I’ve never once seen them watch films from the silent movie era, and doubt they could name any but the top ones and stars that I know as well. If I was to ask them to name more then 6-7 early big band era musicians, they would be stuck. Or how about turn of the century vaudeville performers. I’m sure there were tons that were thought of as the stars of their time, but I only know a few and bet the average baby boomer doesn’t know more then the few top names as well.

    Even at that, half of those names and items we know from being referenced in current cultural items, not because we’ve actually seen the performances. (I would say 2/3 of the 70s-80s music my daughter knows mainly comes from them being done on “Glee” or “Pitch Perfect” or things like that)

  12. I think there is a SLIVER of hope for our cultural heritage. I’m noticing a certain level of what I call “geek nostalgia”, with old stuff being brought back under a different skin, and millennials actually digging it. For example, a while ago a hit video-game called “Cuphead” came out with a design aesthetic patterned after 40s era cartoons. It was a huge success, and I noticed an increased interest, at least on YouTube, for the old cartoons it emulated. Ditto for when popular video games, movies, or TV shows use older songs that are before the target audience’s time. For another example, the latest Mickey Mouse cartoons maka tons of references to days of Disney past, with Disney geeks eagerly pointing them out in the comments. Call me overly optimistic, but I think there will always be the chance for content creators to blow the dust off old stuff and get new generations into it.

  13. Ah, an Audience Guide! How I miss them & The American Century Theater. Why not mount “The Philadelphia Story,” which you haven’t done, for a TACT one-run revival to keep Cary & that great age alive? Or even a staged reading?

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