One of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite movies, North By Northwest, is when protagonist Roger Thornhill, played by the immortal Cary Grant, is confronted by an obnoxious ticket seller at the train station. Grant is being pursued by spies who have misidentified him as a rival agent named Kaplan, as well as by the police who believe he murdered a United Nations diplomat. Wanted posters are everywhere, including the train station. Grant, attempting to flee aboard a train, has donned dark glasses to conceal his identity. The ticket seller is sufficiently suspicious to query Grant, “Is there something wrong with your eyes, mister?”
I will digress just a bit to mention that if you are not familiar with Grant’s films, I beseech you to familiarize yourselves. Grant is what is sometimes referred to as an essential persona actor. Whatever character he played he was always Cary Grant: quintessentially charming; effortlessly suave and reflexively witty. So when asked by the ticket seller if something is wrong with his eyes, he replies with droll sarcasm as only Cary Grant could, “Yes- they’re sensitive to questions.” After successfully entering the train, Grant encounters a radiantly beautiful blond, played by the radiantly beautiful Eva Marie Saint, who is in fact in collusion with the spies. An affair develops, and entire scenes are devoted to their sexy, sophisticated repartee, with Grant’s lines delivered with a style and class that he alone could deliver. Alas, romantic repartee has been abrogated by truncated words on text messages, embellished by some absurd emoji.
And so I beg the question: how would Cary Grant’s style and class be perceived today? Would the coarse and vulgar times in which we live render a latter day Cary Grant infinitely weird and inconceivable? Are wit and charm gone forever, permanently swiped from our stark barren world, gone with the wind along with love letters written in personalized cursive? Is it folly to yearn for another time? Do people drink Gibsons anymore, as did Cary Grant as he charmed Eva Marie Saint on the train? Would it even be legal today to offer an elegant lady a cigarette extracted from a platinum cigarette case? For that matter, is it acceptable to even refer to a woman as a lady, or is the very word deemed to be an archaic derogation imposed by a brutish patriarchy?
Is it possible that a new Cary Grant is now germinating, to emerge when the time is right? Could today’s high tech literalists even recognize sarcasm, wit, satire and irony in a neo-Cary Grant, or in an intelligent novel? For that matter, are intelligent novels still being written, and if so, who reads them?
How unfair and unrealistic you may ponder, for me to bemoan the extinction of styles and sensibilities from bygone days, especially when they may have been manifested more in celluloid than in reality. But I can’t help it. I yearn to see people today dance like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. I want there to be Noel Cowards and Cole Porters, uttering wit and playful wordplay.
I fantasize. Oh, if only once in my drab life I could don a top hat and tux and approach that glamorous and sophisticated lady who got caught in a storm, and with Cary Grant’s voice and elan, query, “Why don’t you get out of those wet clothes and into a dry Martini?”