Cary Grant came into the studio wrapped in an aura of fame that was almost tangible. The smile, radiant; the eyes, tingling; the demeanour, certain. All you would expect from a renowned international screen star. Those clustered around the entrance – cast and carpenters, make-up and hair, wardrobe and whingers – watched in jaw-dropped silence as the unexpected visitor, led by an assistant director, strode purposefully towards me.
“Mr. Grant” I said, “it is an honour to welcome you…”
“Cary, please” he replied as we shook hands. “I had to come. Had to. I love the book so much, Love it.Read it two, three times. Reminds me of me. And my many friends. Those early years. In this town.”
The book was The Comedy Man by Douglas Hayes, a story of young actors in London struggling to reach the doors of success. And particularly about the actor lucky enough to get the leading role with all the ha-ha lines, the comedy man.
We were filming in Shepperton Studios. Grant was in the studios doing post-production work on Charade, mainly re-voicing, when he heard about us and insisted on visiting.
“Who’s playing the lead?” asked Grant.
I pointed to Kenneth More, one of the most likeable stars ever.
Kenny was on the set surrounded as usual by smiling others, both actors and crew.
“Could I say hello?” said Grant. And waited for the assistant director to lead him onto the set. Even at a distance I could see the two men hail each other warmly. And soon become engrossed in deep conversation.
Then the studio doors banged open again . Bustling towards me came the film’s producer, Jon Penington.
“Is it true? Is he here?” asked Jon, breathless “Cary Grant? is he here?”
My head nodded towards the set.
“O m’ god! O m’ god!” said Jon, speaking in gulps. “Cary Grant! Here! On my set. What’s he doing here?
What’s he want?
I told him what Grant had told me of his high regard of the novel. Jon’s eyes went wide. “Use it! Can you use that? Cary Grant, get him into our film! Somehow. Something. Oh my god! Can you think of something? Write something?”
That afternoon we were scheduled to shoot the climactic and biggest scene in the film. A party scene. In which the actors in the story celebrate the fact that one of them has made it big in Hollywood. While in contrast the leading character has decided to forego London and return to a small repertory theatre in the North.
“Easy peasy,” I replied.
“What? What? What would he do?”
“Well,” I said, “the guests at the party would go around saying things like, ‘Have y’heard, Cary Grant, is coming here tonight.’ Others would say ‘Nah, Cary Grant why would he bother? Just a rumour.’ Then in walks the real Cary Grant.”
“That’s brilliant! Brilliant!” said Jon. “Dialogue? Can you write the dialogue? For the party-goers and for Cary”
I shrugged. “No need, the guys can ad lib the words. Improv. They’d like that. And Grant wouldn’t really need any dialogue. Just his usual smile.”
“How long would it take to shoot” asked Jon.
“Half an hour” I guessed.
“That long, eh? But, but!…We could afford that! Thirty minutes on the budget. Not cheap. But to have Cary Grant in my movie. It’s worth it. Worth it!” said Jon.
At that moment Grant appeared alongside us. I was about to start introductions when Jon interrupted.
“Hi, Cary. Cary, it’s great you’re here. Great Cary. Great!” Grant was smiling. “I’m the producer of this film. Jon Penington, producer.”
“What a cast you two have assembled” said Grant. “Congratulations. Just as any reader would imagine them. Him….”
He pointed to Dennis Price …“playing the agent. And him…” pointing to Frank Finlay…“ Perfect casting.” He turned to explain to Jon. “I know the book well….”
“How would you like to appear in my film?” Jon blurted out.
The smile on Grant’s face diminished but did not disappear.
“Alvin says he can write you into this scene. Just need you for a few minutes. And you’d be in The Comedy Man. Wha’d’ya say Cary? Eh, Cary, wha’d’ya say?”
Cary Grant committed what is called in film scripts a dramatic pause. “I say I would love to be in your
film, Mr, uh – ”
“Penington,” prompted Jon.
“Penington,” repeated Grant. He spoke slowly and with sincerity pouring out of every syllable . “Yes, I would love to do this film.”
I thought Jon Penington would explode. Others half-listening around us gasped.
“Only one thing, I need you first to speak to my agent.” Grant looked at his watch. “Allowing for the Los Angeles time difference , he’ll be getting to his office about now. You can chat. But I must
tell you Mr Penington that my fee for a film these days is in excess of two million dollars, plus a percentage.”
Stunned, Jon did manage to speak “But I can guarantee,” said Jon “it would only take a few minutes of your time. Fifteen minutes…”
“Well maybe a bit more,” said John. ” No words to learn. I can guarantee” he emphasised the repeated word “you’d be in and out in half an hour.”
“But” asked Grant ,still smiling, “can you also guarantee that when the film is released
it won’t say ‘Cary Grant in’….? Can you do that?”
“Well,” said Jon, “I would speak to the distributors. Tell them not to….”
“Can you guarantee they would not be exploiting my name?” asked Grant. “They wouldn’t put it on the billing, say, ‘Cary Grant in The Comedy Man’? Or starring Cary Grant?”
After a moment Jon lowered his head, reluctantly shook it from side to side. No producer could make any such guarantee.
A kerfuffle behind the flat walls of the studio set. Kenneth More wanted to continue his curtailed conversation with Grant.
“Ah, here’s Kenny,” said Grant before heading off.
Jon and I watched him go. “I thought he was going to do it,” said Jon, “didn’t you?”
“Cary Grant is reputed to be one of the shrewdest financial guys in show business” I replied. ” Those blockbuster films he made with Alfred Hitchcock – North By Northwest, Suspicion,To Catch A Thief – he made more money out of them than Hitchcock. That’s a startling fact. He’s not just a handsome face.”
My memories of The Comedy Man are pride mixed with regret. The editing of the film mutilated some of my intentions. For instance the bedroom scene with Kenny and Angela Douglas – later to become Mrs More – started with the soles of two naked feet filling the screen, then she lifts her big toe to slide down the sole of his foot. After that the camera circles round the bed. The censor cut the foot scraping. “Too sensuous” he said.
So the shot now begins with the camera moving needlessly. Ugh. A year later censorship rules changed and Alan Bates was allowed to wrestle with Oliver Reed naked.
And in the party scene, I carefully orchestrated the bartender – not in the script – getting more and more drunk as a sequential framework for the action. British Lion, the distributors, thought differently.
Also the film was released as a double bill with The Lord of the Flies. A mixture of audiences that didn’t mix. Helping neither picture to be a commercial success. Both films have gone on to earn critical respect.
At the time directors in the UK had little or no power to oppose such executive decisions made of their work.. Some unnecessary restrictions persist to this day. Ken Russell’s version of The Devils has never been screened publicly.
Grant stayed in the studio watching several takes from the party sequence – mainly with the drunken bartender. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him cheer silently, laugh silently, raise a fist triumphantly for me to see, before approaching to say goodbye.
“You understand, don’t you?” he said. “Maybe some day you and I…”
“I shall live with that hope,” I replied.
We shook hands. Then with the discretion of one who knows better than to disturb a busy working movie set, he made his way to each and every actor and crew member, shaking hands, saying goodbye, always smiling, always effusive, always the famous film star. He did not say goodbye to Jon Penington.
Years later I was on location on King Street, Chelsea, in London, making a film called ‘Say Hello To Yesterday’ – originally titled ‘Whatever Happened To Happy Endings, but that’s another story – starring Jean Simmons and Leonard Whiting when Rod Steiger passed by.
“Want me to walk through the shot?” asked Rod.
“Sure. Why not? See if anyone recognises you” I replied
Rod was on screen for two, maximum three, seconds.
In Italy three actors got billing above the title on that film. Rod Steiger being the third one.
Cary Grant was no fool.
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