Well, this being the anniversary of the birth of the man everyone including Cary Grant wanted to be, I decided to listen to a Lux Radio Theater production of “The Awful Truth,” originally broadcast on the actor’s 51st birthday in 1955. By that time, the program was transcribed (that is, recorded), so that Grant did not have to spend this special evening (previously commemorated here) behind the microphone entertaining a vastly diminished crowd of far-flung radio listeners. Not that the early to mid-1950s had been a particularly busy period in the actor’s career. Aside from its felicitous air date (unacknowledged by the host of the program), the 1955 version constitutes the first reteaming of Grant with his original co-star, Irene Dunne, even though both had shared the Lux soundstage for “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House” (10 October 1949), which would serve as the premise for Grant’s own radio sitcom, co-starring wife Betsy Drake (who also wrote some of the scripts for the series).
Prior to their Awful reunion, Grant and Dunne reprised their roles in the mascara hazard Penny Serenade (16 November 1941) for the Screen Guild Theater, appeared together in a Screen Directors Playhouse production of My Favorite Wife (7 December 1950), as well as the Screen Guild’s original radio play “Alone in Paris” (30 April 1939).
Nearly two decades of Grant’s life in picture are echoed on the air, in radio dramatizations ranging from Lux’s 8 March 1937 broadcast of ”Madame Butterfly” (adapted from the 1932 film) and the comparatively obscure (if recent DVD release) Wings in the Dark (1935), reworked for the aforementioned Silver Theater to classics like His Girl Friday (1940) and Suspicion (1941). Radio also invites speculations as to what a difference Grant might had made in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and I Confess.
Equally at home in melodrama and comedy, Grant guested on a comedy-variety programs like Pepsodent Show, starring Bob Hope (much to the delight of hundreds of screaming WAVES and nurses in the all-female studio audience), and the drama anthology Suspense (in which he was cast in a number of memorable thrillers, including two plays—“The Black Curtain” and “The Black Path of Fear”— based on stories by Cornell Woolrich). On the big screen, in turn, Grant was given the opportunity to star in an adaptation one of the best comedies written for radio, Norman Corwin’s “My Client Curley” (previously discussed here), even though the sentimental film, titled Once Upon a Time (1944), does not manage to capture the magic and wit of the original.
Listening to the actor’s radio performances through the years, it was interesting to hear the changes in Grant’s voice—a voice as distinctive as the cleft in his chin—divorced as it is on the air from the features that became rather more distinguished with age. Truth is that Grant, never known for passionate emoting, sounded awful staid in the 1955 rematch with Dunne, his next to last performance in radio drama. He had been heard once before in a Lux presentation of Leo McCarey’s raucous romance; but his sparring mate that night—the opener of the program’s fifth season on 11 September 1939—was Claudette Colbert, whose character in Without Reservations would write a role assigned to Grant (for the 10 March 1941 Lux broadcast, the role of Jerry Warriner was tailored to Bob Hope, with second fiddle Ralph Bellamy as the only original cast member in that production).
Back in 1939, there was zap and brio in his voice, which, in the sound-only medium, had to make up for the loss of some wonderful slapstick. Nearly sixteen years later, in a reading of the same if somewhat condensed script, what had once come across as carefree and devil-may-care sounded an awful lot like “who cares.” The by then all but defunct genre of screwball with its unsentimental take on love as war (from courting to court case) demanded more energy than either Dunne or Grant were willing (or able) to bring to their connubial tussles. Indeed, the loudest laughs in the studio audience are generated by the less than convincing barks of Mr. Smith, the couple’s pooch (granted, somewhat of a scene-stealer in the film as well).
After experiencing episodes of puerile madcap in Howard Hawks’s Monkey Business (1952), which did little to rejuvenate his career, Grant was finally slowing down. Unfortunately, he appeared to be rehearsing for An Affair to Remember with material not designed to make us forget that his days of cheeky indiscretion lay in a livelier past. Perhaps it is just as well that adaptor George Wells cut Jerry’s final speech in The Awful Truth. It might have sounded too much like an aging actor’s apology, his plea to an audience expecting lively antics: “So, as long as I’m different, don’t you think things could be the same again? Only a little different?”
In the 1930s and ’40s, Grant’s vocal chords were as elastic as his vaudeville-tested sinews. A few day’s after his 35th birthday (on 22 January 1939, to be exact), the lad from Bristol surprised those tuning in to the Ronald Colman hosted Circle with a spirited rendition of “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.” What’s more, the tune is followed later in the program by Grant’s tuneful delivery of . . . the FCC’s regulations regarding station identification. Something different, all right.
“No cackling,” Grant told Colman a few years later on the Command Performance (22 July 1944); but he could be persuaded, nonetheless, to sing a few notes. With the exception of his performance of Cole Porter in the disingenuous Night and Day (1946), there was nary a false one in Grant’s long and varied career on screen and radio.