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The Cary Grant Box Set

No movie star has ever given great pleasure more consistently than Cary Grant. The funniest, most intelligent, best-looking, and least self-conscious of actors, Grant was capable of everything: knockabout slapstick, heart-piercing romance, roiling drama. The Cary Grant Box Set summarizes just one phase of Grant’s career, containing five pictures he made for Columbia between 1937 and 1942. They range from the screwball classics His Girl Friday and The Awful Truth, to the tropical adventure Only Angels Have Wings, to the comedy of manners The Talk of the Town, to the anthology’s prize — the first DVD release of 1938’s Holiday, a masterpiece of comic poignance, pairing Grant with Katharine Hepburn.

Based on the Philip Barry play, Holiday finds Grant as Johnny Case, a high-spirited, self-made young businessman in the midst of a whirlwind romance with Julia Seton, a rich young woman played by Doris Nolan. Director George Cukor starts right in the thick of things: Julia brings Johnny to the Seton clan’s vast home to introduce him to her family, including her sister, Linda (Hepburn). Johnny is charmingly direct, but upon close questioning, first by Linda and then by the girls’ stern banker father (Henry Kolker), it turns out that Johnny doesn’t have ambitions toward Seton-style wealth and power; he wants to make just enough money to chuck it all and dash off on round-the-world adventures, to — in a phrase presaging the ’60s counterculture — ”try to find out who I am.”

This doesn’t sit well with either Julia or her father, but it’s downright inspirational for Linda, long smothered by the family’s stuffy propriety. The movie is cracklingly funny (watch Grant do somersaults to the amusement of Linda and the shock of the rest of the family) with a deep undercurrent of sadness: Linda can’t express her feelings for Johnny because she’s a noble egg who’d never hurt her sister, while Johnny is touchingly confused?how can he commit to Julia after meeting her sister, who’s so much more clever, quick-tongued, and ravishing?

It’s hard to believe that at the time, Hepburn was commonly referred to as ”box office poison.” Grant — a confidently generous actor — gave Hepburn center stage, letting Holiday (which proved a big hit) become the story of Linda’s awakening to love and her moral tussle over finding it with her sister’s fiancé. Holiday makes the cliché ”You’ll laugh, you’ll cry” suddenly profound.

As for the rest: Director Howard Hawks’ newspaper caper His Girl Friday, with Rosalind Russell, is merely one of the fastest, wittiest comedies in history. (Only Preston Sturges made more frantically funny movies.) Hawks’ Angels is pokier, and even Grant can’t outact the ridiculous white sombrero he must wear. Leo McCarey’s Awful Truth, with Irene Dunne, boasts adroit marital high jinks, and George Stevens’ Talk of the Town puts Grant in an unusual spot — as a dirt-smudged fugitive falsely accused of murder and arson, yet obliged to get laughs with sight gags and Jean Arthur. The set includes six new featurettes, each less than 10 minutes long but offering shrewd observations from critic/historians David Thomson and Molly Haskell, and one good sustained commentary: Variety ‘s Todd McCarthy guiding us enlighteningly through His Girl Friday.

Soon after these films, Grant would enter his Hitchcock phase, and become more debonair and even wittily neurotic, but this collection contains much of his finest light labor, which means some of the greatest performances ever filmed.

The Cary Grant Box Set
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