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The TCM Vault Collection is making available a wealth of great films and performances from the Universal and Paramount libraries. The three-disc Cary Grant: The Early Years set samples the actor's work from the early 1930s, showcasing several other important 1930s performers in the bargain. All three films cast Grant as dashing and romantic military men.
1932's Devil and the Deep is an over-boiled melodrama set at a British sub base in North Africa. Commander Charles Sturm (Charles Laughton) suspects that his bored wife Diana (Tallulah Bankhead) is having an affair with Lt. Jaeckel (Cary Grant, in just his fifth film). When Sturm transfers Jaeckel out of his command Diana becomes delirious and dashes into the streets, where she is picked up and seduced by a mysterious stranger (Gary Cooper). To Diana's shock, the stranger turns out to be Sturm's new second-in-command, Lt. Sempter. Sturm deduces what's up, goes insane and contrives to wreck his submarine with both Sempter and Diana on board.
Cary Grant exits less than halfway into Paramount's Devil and the Deep, giving way to the film's leading man, Gary Cooper. The two actors have no scenes together and take turns quietly admiring top-billed Tallulah Bankhead. Ms. Bankhead slouches and suffers as the frustrated and misunderstood wife who oversteps the line of decency and never quite recovers. Stealing most every scene is the sly Charles Laughton in his American film debut. A special title introduces him as "The Eminent British Character Actor". Laughton's jealous misanthrope makes little character sense yet has more wattage than anybody else on screen.
The first half of director Marion Gering's picture reaches for the exotic look of a Dietrich film. Bankhead wanders through a crowded Casbah setting wearing only a slinky evening gown, unaccountably ignored by the teeming mobs of Arabs. Credibility suffers another blow when the background changes from Whirling Dervishes to Laughton's submarine. The plump actor seems more like a fugitive from the H.M.S. Pinafore than a navy commander; and we have a difficult time picturing him climbing through the narrow hatches. The latter scenes on the bright and roomy sub become even more absurd when Ms. Bankhead demonstrates the proper way to escape underwater wearing yet another evening dress and heels. Laughton makes a wonderfully loony madman, attacking Cooper with a hatchet while the sub fills with water.
Devil and the Deep shows its Pre-Code vintage when the adulterous Diana is afforded a happy finale with her handsome new beau. The navy is also quite forgiving considering that Sempter's romance with his commander's wife has sunk a million dollar ship of the line. Looking for prurient content in Pre-Code movies can become a bad habit, but we're still intrigued by the last scene, in which the now man-less Tallulah purchases a billiard cue stick. Cooper returns to her side almost immediately, so she apparently no longer needs it.
1933's WW1 aviation picture The Eagle and the Hawk gives Cary Grant a major role subordinated to a bigger Paramount star, Fredric March. Having won his acting Oscar for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, first-billed March had become fond of "big" acting opportunities. This show gives him a rather overstated speech about the futility of war. Directed by Stuart Walker, The Eagle and the Hawk can hold its own with other flying films of the time.
Americans Jerry Young and Henry Crocker (Fredric March & Cary Grant) enlist in the RAF, but weak flying skills cause expert gunner Crocker to be left behind. Young is soon disillusioned by the grim slaughter of air combat, and when the embittered Crocker arrives to become Young's gunner, their temperaments clash. The passed-over pilot defies the rules of flying gallantry by shooting a helpless German in a parachute. Young goes on furlough to London to clear his head but is instead bombarded with civilians eager for bloody details of his exploits. He spends a romantic evening with a sympathetic young woman (Carole Lombard) but is soon back at the airfield in France.
The picture certainly has balance: Fredric March for sober social comment, handsome Cary Grant as a he-man best buddy and the always-funny Jack Oakie for comedy relief. The misty cinematography is good, as are the flying scenes, some of which were borrowed from Paramount's silent Oscar-winner, Wings. Despite a brief scene with the stunning Carol Lombard the film now seems light on romance. Her character is given a big introduction, and then disappears.
The movie may originally have featured more of Ms. Lombard. When The Eagle and the Hawk was reissued several years later, it was unfortunately edited to elimintate racy Pre-Code content. The March and Lombard dalliance is so abbreviated, it isn't difficult to imagine a missing scene that implies that the two are cohabiting for the rest of March's furlough. A telltale jump cut at the end of their last shot together may have originally contained dialogue to the effect of, "Your place or mine?" In interviews Mitchell Leisen asserted that he had directed much of the original film. He oversaw the later revision, which added his name to the title card as associate director.
Unfortunately, when MCA acquired the Paramount library in the late 1950s it abandoned the un-cut versions of many Pre-Code titles later tamed for reissue. The original The Eagle and the Hawk may have been one of the victims.
Cary Grant's star did not begin its ascent until the second half of the decade. But he's finally given first billing in his next rugged adventure for Paramount, 1935's The Last Outpost.
Back in WW1 on the Kurdistan front, British officer Michael Andrews (Grant) is taken prisoner by locals allied with Germany. Andrews is rescued by one of his captors, who reveals his identity as "Smith", an English double agent (Claude Rains). To keep the enemy from advancing to the South, Andrews helps the determined Smith relocate an entire Balkari village across un-passable mountain terrain. Andrews breaks his leg and is sent to Cairo, where he falls in love with nurse Rosemary (Gertrude Michael). Only later does Rosemary tell Michael that she is married. Her husband John Stevenson has been gone three years on a secret mission and she no longer feels married to him. Andrews exits to fight in the Sudan, just as John returns to Cairo. He is of course the secret operative "Smith". Furious that his marriage has been ruined, Stevenson asks for a Sudan assignment -- for the express purpose of killing Andrews.
The Last Outpost is a weak adventure that does little for the fine actors involved, in particular wasting the talents of Claude Rains. The scattered story relies on the same romantic triangle just seen in Devil and the Deep and pays off with the ancient cliché of rivals one-upping each other with noble gestures. The heathen Fuzzy-Wuzzies are attacking! Who will stay to die and who will return alive to Rosemary? This is one of those movies in which the handsome military hero is the lone survivor of an enemy assault -- twice.
Cary Grant acquits himself well but none of the players seems comfortable with the creaky script, which telegraphs every plot complication at least ten minutes in advance. Claude Rains is a ruthless spy one moment and unhinged with romantic despair the next. The sensible-looking Gertrude Michael must wade through the story's soapy extremes as the nurse torn between two men. The main achievement of the screenwriters seems to be finding flimsy excuses to slip disallowed illicit content past the noses of the Production Code. Because Rosemary and her absent husband both use false names, Cary Grant's character is a completely innocent wife-stealer.
The disc's production notes tell us that two directors (Charles Barton & Louis J. Gasnier) are credited because the film was rewritten in the middle of production, with much footage re-shot. An original ending in which Rosemary dies in an auto accident was dropped, but Rosemary is still absent at the conclusion. Also mentioned is the fact that the action scenes were augmented with stock shots. The disc notes apparently aren't aware that the entire episode showing the Balkari tribe crossing a raging river is clearly from Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack's silent documentary Grass. Not only that, but later footage with jungle animals could very well be taken from the same filmmakers' Chang, and a Sudanese assault on a desert fort seems a match for Merian Cooper's 1929 The Four Feathers. At least a reel of The Last Outpost seems to have been sourced in a one-stop stock footage shopping visit.
Sultry Kathleen Burke, the Panther Woman of the classic Island of Lost Souls, makes a pleasant impression as a tribal beauty who serves Andrews a drink of goat's milk. Silent comedian Billy Bevan has a few bright lines as a British soldier, and Akim Tamiroff is a standout as an un-billed Russian executed by the "barbaric" Kurds.
The TCM Vault DVD of Universal's Cary Grant: The Early Years disc set contains excellent B&W transfers with few flaws. Devil and the Deep and The Last Outpost bear light scratches that aren't particularly distracting. No subtitles are offered.
Each film comes with galleries of stills and samples of original poster art. Trivia notes and informative essays have been culled from the Turner Classic Movies website. Robert Osborne appears as an on-screen host, positioning each show in terms of Cary Grant's career. Good looks and natural charm kept Grant's career in motion until the actor gained enough experience to take on the light comedies that made him one of Hollywood's top personalities.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Cary Grant: The Early Years rates:
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