Hollywood Legends: Cary Grant and Marilyn

Cary Grant is one of the few stars from Hollywood’s golden era whose enduring popularity comes close to Marilyn’s – and because his career was much longer than hers, he was arguably more successful in achieving his full potential. Grant’s rich legacy is reflected in two new biographies published over the last few months.

In Cary Grant: The Making of a Hollywood Legend, Mark Glancy looks back on the making of Monkey Business, Howard Hawks’ zany 1952 comedy in which Grant co-starred with Ginger Rogers, and Marilyn in a supporting role.

“Like Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth before her, Rogers was treated with icy condescension by the director. Marilyn Monroe was another actress who felt diminished by him. He recognised that Monroe had a strong presence on-screen, but thought that she was ‘goddamn dumb’ and treated her accordingly. Her unease on the set was compounded by illness, and it was only at the end of the shoot that she discovered she needed to have an appendectomy.

This was Cary’s second film with Ginger Rogers, and they enjoyed working together. He found Marilyn Monroe ‘rather shy and quiet’ and he did not get to know her well. She was not yet a major star, and her role in Monkey Business, playing a ‘dumb blonde,’ did not give her much room to shine. Cary later admitted that he did not see her potential. He admitted, too, that he was not attracted to her because her overly sexualised persona reminded him of Mae West. Yet he felt sorry for Marilyn when he saw the crew whistling at her and making crude remarks, observing that the attention was unwanted and embarrassing for her. He also came to her defence when nude photographs, which she posed for in her hungry years before stardom, came to light during the making of Monkey Business. They were published in Playboy, causing a sensation as well as a scandal for the more puritanical guardians of the public. Pressed on the subject, Cary refused to give an inch to the puritans. ‘There wouldn’t be any great art if girls hadn’t posed in the nude,’ he told the press, comparing Marilyn to the models who posed for Dali, Renoir, and Titian.

Marilyn’s rapidly ascending stardom gave the film additional prominence, and her figure dominated in some of the advertising when the film was released in September 1952. Critics, however, took a surprisingly curmudgeonly view on Monkey Business. Sophisticated and mainstream critics alike commented disapprovingly on the ‘thin, familiar slapstick’ … Variety speculated that these reviews, and many more like them, dampened the box-office takings. Monkey Business earned just $2 million in North America, placing it at the bottom end of a ranking of the fifty top-earning films of the year.”

It’s interesting to hear that Monkey Business was poorly received initially, as it’s now quite well-regarded – Peter Bradshaw, film critic for The Guardian, is among its latter-day champions (see here.) After making his next film, Cary took an 18-month break from acting, following a path that Marilyn would later take herself.

“Just a month after finishing Dream Wife, he and Betsy [Drake] sailed on a cargo freighter from Los Angeles to Manila, where they started a two-month tour of the Far East, visiting military bases and hospitals over the holidays and into the New Year. In the midst of the Korean War, this was a patriotic endeavour, and one that they embarked on for purely altruistic reasons … He was characteristically self-deprecating when he spoke about the tour. The men he met were disappointed that he was not Marilyn Monroe, he said, but they made him ‘mighty welcome’ nonetheless.”

This adds context to the affectionate letter Cary wrote to Marilyn in early 1953, noting her special place in the hearts of U.S. troops which spurred her own tour of Japan and Korea a year later. (The letter was found among Marilyn’s personal files after her death in 1962 – click on the image below to enlarge.)

In Operation Petticoat (1959), Cary’s co-star was Tony Curtis, fresh from filming Some Like It Hot, in which his character imitates Grant’s suave persona to impress Marilyn. Curtis, who had long admired Grant, was “relieved” that he did not take offence at the impersonation, but was “amused and flattered.”

Glancy’s biography goes on to note that screenwriter Stanley Shapiro had Marilyn in mind for Cary’s leading lady in That Touch of Mink (1962.) The role was instead played by Doris Day, who would also follow in Marilyn’s footsteps with Move Over Darling (1963), a remake of her unfinished last movie, Something’s Got to Give.

Also recently published, Scott Eyman’s Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise offers a different perspective on his acquaintance with Marilyn, quoting Maureen Donaldson, who dated Cary in the 1970s. “Marilyn was a very calculating girl,” he told her. “She was never late on our set, I’ll tell you that. She was trying to get me into bed with her while she was trying to get Howard to do the same thing … Plus, I never believed all those stories about her childhood … She’d tell them to strangers at the drop of a hat. The girl had no subtlety, no distinction. She was much too blatant for me.”

If Grant’s comments are to be taken at face value – and really, we only have Donaldson’s account to go by – it’s worth remembering that he said it long after briefly knowing Marilyn. It’s possible that like other stars from Hollywood’s golden era, he resented the almost mythical status she attained posthumously. Regarding the claim about Marilyn trying to get him into bed, she had just begun dating Joe DiMaggio while filming Monkey Business, and no other record exists of her supposed advances towards either Grant or Hawks.

And on the subject of unhappy childhoods, Cary spoke frankly in a 1964 interview with Gentleman’s Quarterly magazine. “Marilyn was abandoned when she was two,” he said. “Her ego was destroyed. All the psychiatrists in the world can’t save the orphan.” In fact, his own mother, like Marilyn’s, suffered from mental illness. “It was a subject he knew from the inside,” Eyman reflects.

Cary’s friend Walt Odets (son of playwright Clifford Odets) made observations about him to the author which Marilyn could well have understood.

“Speaking as a psychologist, in retrospect I think Cary was one of those people who felt perpetually unlovable. It came out in his pursuit of other people … Attachment was so important to him. He had a kind of longing about him … When you’re famous on that level, when you’re Cary Grant or Marilyn Monroe, you can’t make connections. People see Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe, but that’s not who you are, not really. Why did he feel unlovable? I think he carried a lot of shame … Shame about his background, perhaps about things he’d done early in his life.

It always felt to me that he was looking for himself. That’s where all the wives came in. It’s very difficult for a person to sustain a relationship when they feel unlovable. There’s nothing another person can do to make you feel lovable. Cary would be more and more demanding because he was either determined to get love, or, failing that, determined to get confirmation that he was unlovable. And then he would simply withdraw, to hide his unlovability from being seen. I just don’t think he ever found himself.

Being famous when you’re young obstructs self-discovery. The same thing happened to my father. Cary was an actor, not being himself, and then he invented Cary Grant and everything was completely obstructed by that. When we were out together in Beverly Hills, people didn’t usually approach him, or interfere. He was an object of awe.

Being famous, visibly famous, is a terrible fate.”

On a lighter note, Eyman writes that Cary “wisely” turned down the chance to be Marilyn’s leading man in her penultimate movie, Let’s Make Love (1960.) By this stage of her career, Marilyn was becoming  unpredictable – and her subsequent affair with Yves Montand was more newsworthy than the film itself. In Conversations With Classic Film Stars, James Bawden and Ron Miller’s 2017 compendium of past interviews, Cary Grant shared his final thoughts on Marilyn.

“Howard Hawks says it’s wonderful we knew and worked with Marilyn before she got difficult. Because she was so winning and adorable in Monkey Business. When I drink that youth serum and am acting like a teenager, Marilyn really got into it. I’m diving off the high board and she’s giggling and waving me on. Years later she asked me to co-star in something called The Billionaire. It was a comedy and she said her husband Arthur Miller was reworking it. Arthur Miller a comedy writer? I ran away and so did Greg Peck, and the completed film, Let’s Make Love, showed she’d become all blurry and distant. It was sad.”