Cary Grant could still move pretty well for a guy his age in 1964.
He was 60 when he made Father Goose, this past weekend’s feature for Mannion Family Movie Night, and while the movie doesn’t require him to outrun strafing biplanes and hang from the cliffs of Mt Rushmore or climb drainpipes and creep across rooftops while eluding the gendarmes, as he was doing for Hitchcock a decade before when he could still move pretty well for a man in his 50s, he does have to dive for cover from strafing fighter planes, vault fallen trees, and catch a fish with his bare hands.
It’s not much, but because he could do it gracefully, fluidly, and with some agility and alacrity, and because he was in excellent shape, he gives the impression that he could do a lot more and if the script had called for it he wouldn’t have looked too ridiculous fighting it out hand to hand with a squad of Japanese soldiers.
He doesn’t look as though he’d have won with his flying fists and karate skills. Just as though he wouldn’t have won by causing the soldiers to die of laughter.
One thing he can’t do is carry a gun. In the several scenes in which he has to carry a rifle he holds it as if it’s an oversized rolled up newspaper he’s about to use to swat a very large fly, one-handed, at waist level, with no sign of its having any heft or that he expects any kickback if he has to fire it, which he’ll to do without aiming.
But then Grant never got much practice carrying a gun, or wielding any weapons, over the course of his long movie career. He probably has the lowest body count of any leading man in Hollywood history, if you don’t count ships he sunk in Destination Toyko, and he didn’t use a gun in that one, he did it with torpedoes.
Otherwise, he moves and acts like a younger and more active man, and you can almost believe he’s in his mid to late forties, instead of five years from collecting Social Security, which is helpful to enjoying the movie because his love interest’s played by Leslie Caron, who was nearly thirty years younger than he was.
Grant plays Walter Eckland, an expatriate ex-history professor hiding out from responsibility, civilization, and any demands on his time or sympathies in the South Pacific at the outbreak of World War II. Eckland is coerced into helping the war effort by an old friend, an officer in the British Navy, played by Trevor Howard, who puts him to work as a frontline spotter reporting back to headquarters on the movement of Japanese ships and planes.
Eckland’s job is to sit alone on an otherwise deserted island with a radio and a pair of binoculars and watch the skies and the ocean horizon and hope the Japanese don’t figure out he’s there.
The job would seem to suit him. Eckland is misanthropic, anti-social, and totally self-centered. At the start of the movie he seems to believe he can ignore the war entirely and that the war will ignore him. He’s also grown lazy and sloppy since he's left teaching and spending days on end in solitude with nothing to he has to do, nowhere he has to be, and nobody he has to impress should be a dream come true for him.
But, minimal as it is, it’s still a responsibility and it’s still a connection to a society he has rejected. Worse, it requires him to stay sober for longer stretches of time than he’s used to or can tolerate.
He has no choice, though, but to make the best of it. Which he does, grumpily and under protest, until his island’s invaded….
By Leslie Caron and a company of schoolgirls.
Caron, as Catherine Freneau, a teacher and daughter of a French diplomat, and her charges have been stranded along the way trying to escape the Japanese advance. Eckland comes to their rescue, reluctantly. Plot complications in the form of the war prevent the Navy from rescuing Eckland from those he’s rescued and he’s stuck with their care and feeding.
He resents the intrusion, he resents the responsibility, and he resents Catherine’s insistence that he act as a respectable father figure for the girls.
Catherine is as prim and proper, neat and tidy, and respectable and responsible as Eckland is none of those. Naturally, they fall in love.
After a period of hating each other during which Eckland, under the influence of Catherine’s example and the girls’ surprising affection for him, unconsciously grows back into someone more like his former self, responsible, caring, considerate, and sober.
Father Goose is a fun film and Grant and Caron make a plausible pair of potential lovers, as long as you accept that she’s playing a few years older than her real age so that she’s closer to forty than thirty and he’s playing a guy in his late forties, somewhat weathered by the tropical sun and rusting from the inside out thanks to his heavy drinking.
And you can accept this because, as I said, Grant moves so well.
But then Eckland shaves.
Removing Eckland’s beard was probably meant as a signifier that he had completely reformed. Cary Grant with two week’s worth of stubble is a drunken bum. Cary Grant clean-shaven is…Cary Grant.
At least, that’s how it was supposed to come across.
It’s not how it came across to me the other night.
Cary Grant unshaven looked like a character named Walter Eckland. Walter Eckland beardless looked like an old man who used to be Cary Grant.
I can’t swear to it but I’m pretty sure Father Goose was the first Cary Grant movie I ever saw. I don’t know exactly how old I was. I have a habit of thinking that everything important that happened to me as a kid happened when I was nine. And I might actually have been nine. Safe to say I was somewhere around nine but no younger than seven and no older than twelve. What I remember clearly is loving the movie. It was one of my favorites for a long time afterwards.
What I don’t remember is thinking of Cary Grant as old.
At whatever age I saw it I would have been looking at a Cary Grant who was right around the age of both my grandfathers but I sure didn’t think of Walter Eckland, or Cary Grant, as grandfatherly.
I don’t think it was the case that I was less of an ageist when I was nine…or ten or eleven or however old I was. I definitely thought of my grandfathers as looking grandfatherly.
I think it was partly that I just was more willing to accept whatever a movie required me to accept in order to enjoy it. If the movie required me to believe that Cary Grant could take on Japanese soldiers and sweep a woman young enough to be his daughter off her feet than that’s what I believed.
But it was also that Cary Grant was Cary Grant and even as young as I was I understood that Cary Grant was different.
Time and he had an understanding.
If Father Goose was the first Cary Grant movie I saw, Operation Petticoat was the second. I got to know Cary Grant as a somewhat gruff middle-aged (but not grandfatherly) man. Seeing him as a young man, seeing him as what he was for most of his career, which had to wait until I was in high school and college when our family got cable and then I was able to see his movies on a big screen at second run houses and college film festivals was a revelation.
And now, having seen all those movies, I can sort out his career chronologically in my memory, and understand that one of the great things about Grant was how gracefully he aged.
I don’t mean that he kept his looks and his hair and his figure longer and better than most normally mortal human beings are lucky enough to do. I mean that if you watch him get older from Gunga Din and Only Angels Have Wings, through Notorious and His Girl Friday, and on through It Takes a Thief and North By Northwest, and then on up to Charade and Father Goose, you can see the way he altered his acting style, his habits of speech, his whole screen persona to work in the fact that he was getting older.
He was careful about choosing his movies. There’s no Spirit of St Louis or Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in his filmography. But it’s not just that he never tried to play any characters ridiculously younger than himself. I see Eckland as in his late forties but the part could have been played as if he’s the same age as Catherine, and the reason I see him as older, although not as old as Grant was, is that Grant didn’t let himself try to make Eckland younger. Eckland comes off as ten or fifteen years younger than Grant because Grant could move as if he was ten or fifteen years younger. But he never slips up with an expression, a look, a phrasing of a line, or a gesture that reminds us of the truly young Cary Grant.
Other leading men and women have managed this, the ones who were good actors. I just can’t think of any others who did it as well or who made the transitions as seamlessly. Think of any of your favorites and odds are there’s a five or even ten year period when they were playing “young”---that is they were still playing parts as if they were still the hot young romantic leads they’d been---when they should have already moved on.
There’s nothing that does more to make actors look old than trying to play young when they’re not and this includes having their characters do things that the actors themselves are clearly too old and stiff to really do, so please, Mr Ford, Mr Speilberg, no more Indiana Jones movies!
Walter Eckland is in his late forties because he was played by Cary Grant but Grant himself did nothing to make Eckland that young. Grant just was that much younger than his real age.
Which I guess is why it came as such a shock to see him without the beard and realize that as slowly as it was coming upon him old age was coming.
Now of course I know that Cary Grant got old. Very old. He lived another twenty-two years and I saw him in his dignified, white-haired dotage on the Oscars and talk shows. But that was the real Cary Grant.
Cary Grant, the screen presence, aged but he did not get old.
Grant did Father Goose for the fun of playing against his image. He was looking for a part that would teach audiences to see him in a very different way so that he could start playing the kinds of character parts that formerly leading actors take on when they are closing out their careers. But then he made only one more movie after Father Goose, Walk Don’t Run, the one and only film in which he played a fatherly version of his former self.
A different thing from playing a father, by the way.
And he never played grandfatherly versions of his former self, as Clint Eastwood has been doing.
He never went on to play judges, generals, crime bosses, old college professors, or, well, fathers and grandfathers.
He aged gracefully and beautifully but he did not get old on screen.
As I said there are no embarrassments in his career like The Spirit of St Louis. But there’s no Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, no Road to Perdition, no On Golden Pond. Nothing like The Shootist or True Grit. Nothing like Atlantic City or Local Hero.
There’s only those few moments in Father Goose like the one on the beach just before the climactic Japanese attack when he looks over his arm at Leslie Caron and you can see it, around his eyes, along his jaw.
The fact that time catches up with all of us, even Cary Grant.