Summer tumbles with Archie Leach

In the week of Marlon Brando's passing, it may sound especially outlandish to propose that Cary Grant was the best actor in movies.

Like Charlie Chaplin (another candidate many might suggest), the once and future matinee idol was low-born in England and won his show-business spurs in vaudeville under his birth name, Archie Leach. He got into films, in Hollywood, in the early '30s and, despite appearing in the exalted company of Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg ("Blonde Venus") and the authoritatively raunchy company of Mae West ("She Done Him Wrong," as the Salvation Army officer she famously invites to come up and see her sometime), gave scant sign of being or becoming anything but a remarkably pretty young man with a pleasant way about him. To some, perhaps, that template fits the older Grant as well, though anyone would admit that pretty turned to drop-dead elegant and pleasantness grew to incorporate a dead-cert sense of comic timing.

The six-film Seattle Art Museum series "Happy 100th Birthday, Cary Grant," which begins this Thursday, July 8, has been devised to showcase Grant the comedian and reliably yield light, summer's-eve entertainment. That's fine, and not at all inappropriate to the occasion. SAM film curator Greg Olson knows his onions, and if he'd wanted to showcase the dark brilliance, ambivalence and razor's-edge dangerousness that go such a long way toward validating my opening sally, he knows enough to have booked Howard Hawks' "His Girl Friday" and "Only Angels Have Wings," Hitchcock's "Suspicion" and "Notorious" and "North by Northwest," George Cukor's "The Philadelphia Story" (for which James Stewart won the best-actor Oscar and Grant, characteristically, wasn't even nominated), H.C. Potter's mixed-mood curio "Mr. Lucky" or even "Sylvia Scarlett," the still-more-wildly mixed-mood mega-flop-turned-cult movie in which di-rector Cukor vouchsafed the first glimpses of the real, endlessly mysterious Cary Grant - in the actor's 22nd film.

You can, and should, find most of those titles at the better videostores. Try to work a few of them into the weeks between Thursday evenings in Plestcheeff Auditorium. Compared to them, as movies and as excursions into the Grant mystique, most of the SAM films are second-tier. But that second tier is still higher than most other movie stars' penthouses.

"The Awful Truth" (July 8), though, is distinctly top-tier, and one of the most sheerly happy-making movies I know. Grant costars with Irene Dunne as a vivacious Manhattan couple caught out in something like simultaneous infidelity and pitched into a divorce neither really wants. Leo McCarey won that year's Oscar for best direction, less because of acute camera placement (though that department is well-served) than for fostering some of the most delicious comic improvisation that ever turned the screen silver. Moments to savor: Grant juggling an orange like the proverbial hot potato when he realizes the california stamped on its skin con-firms that he is not freshly returned from an innocent Florida vacation; the way Dunne tries to keep Grant from seeing a suitor's derby left in her apartment, as their "child" - a fox terrier named Mr. Smith (Asta) - does his best to insert it into the conversation; how Dunne's concert-worthy tremolo segues into an even more musical ha-ha-ha as her about-to-be-ex does a perfect slapstick fall in mid-recital; the genuine heartbreak in a champagne toast that calls up happier times; and the no-contest sexiest - while also funniest - reconciliation scene in romantic comedy. (Hawks stole a lot of this material for his comedy of divorce, "His Girl Friday"; he never stole better.)

"Holiday" (July 15), the series' other first-rate entry: a pre-"Philadelphia Story" pairing of Grant and Katharine Hepburn, like-wise via playwright Philip Barry, with Grant as suitor to the wrong high-society sister (Doris Nolan). The last third, a New Year's Eve interlude in an attic playroom, is magical, but the single image I always call to mind first comes early: Grant - reverting to Archie Leach vaudeville-acrobat mode - seeking to clear his head when confronted with the plutocratic vastness of his fiancée's family mansion by doing a head-first tumble and snap full erect.

"The Talk of the Town" (July 22): Grant's third film for director George Stevens, who had helmed the timeless Boy's Own adventure classic "Gunga Din" and the tearjerker, "Penny Sere-nade," that brought Grant the first of his only two Oscar nominations. "Talk" opens on a startlingly, and disturbingly, dark note, with Grant as a lifelong, proletarian troublemaker railroaded for murder, breaking jail in a rainstorm and hiding out in the home of the high-school sweetheart (Jean Arthur) whose favor he never won. Ronald Colman costars; what a heady trio. The cinematography is by Ted Tetzlaff, who would shoot Grant's black, back-turned intro in "Notorious" four years later.

"Arsenic and Old Lace" (July 29) - Grant in unaccustomed low-comic, high-whinny mode in Frank Capra's shamelessly laugh-grabbing film of the long-running Broadway hit about two old-maid sisters in Brooklyn who lull aging, down-and-out gentlemen to sleep with poisoned elderberry wine. The actor never liked himself in this movie (Capra had wanted Bob Hope), but there's no reason why audiences shouldn't lie back and drink it up.

"The Bachelor and the Bobby-soxer" (Aug. 5) - Talk about high and low: the impeccably classy Grant doing a turn in a story written by none other than future trashmeister Sidney Sheldon (who won an Oscar for it). Myrna Loy, soon to reteam with Grant in the stylish "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House," costars; as does the just-pubescent Shirley Temple.

"Monkey Business" (Aug. 12) - The last and nearly least of Grant's work with Howard Hawks (which began with the sublime "Bringing Up Baby" and also included "I Was a Male War Bride") is nevertheless indispensable, thanks chiefly to Grant's sharing a hilarious midlife crisis with wife Ginger Rogers. Their mutual regression to childhood after unknowingly partaking of a fountain-of-youth wonder drug is as graceful as, well, an Astaire-Rogers dance. Not to scorn the pleasures of airhead secretary Marilyn Monroe showing Grant her acetates.

Showtime each Thursday is 7:30 p.m. Series tickets are $33 ($29 for SAM members), 654-3121; individual tickets, $6 at the door, space permitting.

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