For many admirers of the late Cary Grant, the words to describe him are adjectives like suave and debonair, which stress the urbanity that was always at the heart of his screen image. Yet like other Hollywood masters of his generation, such as James Stewart and Henry Fonda, he was an actor of surprising depth and versatility - able to mug up a storm when the occasion arose, but also capable of fleshing out a role with subtle overtones of thought and feeling.
He proved this in more than 70 pictures, from the Mae West comedy that made him a leading man in the early '30s to a string of glamorous comic and dramatic vehicles in the middle '60s. Even following his retirement some 20 years ago, his persona lived on with uncommon vigor - not only through constant revivals and TV showings of his movies, but through the indelible impression stamped on millions of moviegoers by his impeccable combination of elegance and intelligence.
Grant, who passed on last week, came into the entertainment world through the same door - vaudeville - used by Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton, among other great performers whose physical grace and discipline weren't accidental acquisitions.
Typecast as a good guy in his first movies, he branched into nastiness with ``Sylvia Scarlett'' before cementing his top-star status (and flaunting his versatility) in vividly remembered films as diverse as ``Bringing Up Baby'' and ``Only Angels Have Wings.'' Although some of his subsequent efforts were more successful than others, his critical and commercial momentum rarely slowed for almost three decades to come.
So rare and respected were Grant's abilities that he worked repeatedly with some of the most brilliant American directors, further enhancing his image while collaborating on some of Hollywood's most memorable movies. Often he served a single filmmaker with different facets of his talent in different pictures.
Thus he played distinctly disturbing roles for Alfred Hitchcock in ``Suspicion'' and ``Notorious,'' but went lavishly glamorous in ``To Catch a Thief'' and extrovertedly comic in ``North by Northwest'' later on. He brought off similar feats for Howard Hawks and George Cukor, with whom he also had a number of happy filmmaking experiences. Other directorial giants who called on his special qualities ranged from arch-aesthete Josef von Sternberg to arch-populist Frank Capra.
Grant nodded once in a while. The frantic double takes he did for Capra in ``Arsenic and Old Lace,'' for example, had nothing to do with the nuanced wit of his more polished comic portrayals.
Conversely, though, he could bring a touch of dignity and insight to the most apparently trivial production - as when he and director Hawks tackled ``I Was a Male War Bride'' in 1949, turning it into a small but gleaming comic gem.
Grant was celebrated not only for his own gifts, but for an uncanny ability to make his co-stars shine almost as brightly as himself. He was one of the legendary ones. His films will be watched and cheered as long as the Hollywood classics are remembered.