Charade (1963)

True confession: I’ve seen some dogs with Cary Grant, but I never saw Charade. Maybe I was saving it for this past weekend, to cheer me up while I recovered from my second COVID booster. A little jaunt to Paris with the lovely Audrey Hepburn modeling a succession of elegant coat dresses and pillbox hats, and those oversized sunglasses that helped define the Holly Golightly look (along with the little black dress), capped off by the mature Cary in a playful mood, turned out to be just the ticket.

I settled down on the sofa with a cup of tea and was instantly drawn in, what with the jazzy, syncopated Henri Mancini score playing behind the titles designed by the great Maurice Binder, of James Bond fame. But then I got distracted. Walter Mathau’s, James Coburn’s and George Kennedy’s names spun by. I didn’t know those guys were in Charade!

Kennedy had only recently left the service, having enlisted in 1943, served under Patton in the infantry, earned two Bronze Stars in the Battle of the Bulge, then up and reenlisted when the war ended.Herman Scobie,” a ruthless guy with a short fuse who had a hook instead of a right hand was an early role for him. 1967 would be his big year: The Dirty Dozen and Cool Hand Luke both came out. He won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as “Dragline” in the latter. (Little-know others in that movie, since we’re playing the game: Dennis Hopper as “Babalugats,” Wayne Rogers as “Gambler”, Harry Dean Stanton as “Tramp”).

Mathau seemed to be in a bad-guy phase, movie-wise. He used a whip on Burt Lancaster in The Kentuckian (1955) and got beaten up by Elvis Presley in King Creole (1958). Knowing him as Oscar Madison, though, I wouldn’t have believed he was a fake spy—I mean agent—were it not for the suspicious mustache. He had yet to grow into a loveable curmudgeon.

Coburn was close to the peak of his career, coming off The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963) when he made Charade. But for a bad decision, he could have kept riding that wave; Sergio Leone wanted him for Fistful of Dollars, but Coburn asked for too much money and the role went to a lesser-known actor, Clint Eastwood.

But who’s that balding little guy with him? The name Ned Glass meant nothing to me, but “Leopold W. Gideon” sure looked familiar. Turns out he was a character actor who played in a number of shows and movies I watched growing up, including Get Smart, Hogan’s Heroes, The Monkees and Julia (he was nominated for an Emmy for one episode of that show). His big breakthrough came with West Side Story (1961), where he played “Doc.” Before that, he played a series of uncredited parts in movies with titles like I’m from Missouri (1939), Callaway went Thataway (1951) and Stop, You’re Killing Me (1952). North by Northwest (1959) where he played the uncredited role of the ticket collector, broke that streak.

Grant and Hepburn were entertaining enough, I enjoyed the costumes and the scenery, but it’s the minor characters who kept me watching.


I have nothing against “My Fair Lady”—except Rex Harrison.  His Henry Higgins is not only smug, he’s a bore, especially when he “sings.” There’s something mean about him, too.  It goes beyond the garden-variety misogyny that Shaw wrote into the character.  This is a Higgins you don’t want to cross.

Not so with Lesley Howard in “Pygmalion.” Those adorable round glasses, his genuine fascination with his subject, the careless aristocratic air. You don’t hold it against him, his insensitivity toward Eliza. Poor dear has other things on his mind.  And he’s not entirely devoid of affection. He calls his mother “dear,” is truly fond of her, clearly wishes that all women could be as sensible and tolerant of his foibles.

He does care about Eliza. Well, who wouldn’t? Wendy Hiller’s transformation from cockney flower girl into a lady is nothing short of miraculous. With Audrey Hepburn, it was largely a matter of clothing (same goes with Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman”). Here you see the process unfold before your very eyes.

Watch the afternoon tea party at Higgins’s mother’s place.

You can tell how hard Eliza’s trying to be good, to please Higgins, but her natural ebullience shines through.  So much richer than the horse race in “My Fair Lady.”  And in 1938, the word “bloody” was still shocking.

Still, I have to admit that the soundtrack of the Lerner and Lowe musical did emerge at times, despite my best efforts to repress it.  When Hiller’s Eliza succeeded in pronouncing the phrase, “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain,” I found myself humming the tune, and was disappointed when Howard didn’t say, “By George, she’s got it!”  And I so wanted Eliza’s father, Alfred Dolittle, to break into a chorus of “Get me to the Church on Time” when he came to announce his wedding. “Middle-class morality claims its victim,” he laments to Higgins, who understands perfectly.

Here’s my favorite scene:  Howard and Hiller are alone together at the end of the film.  She’s just told him she can do perfectly well without him.

“You never asked, I suppose, if I can do without you,” he says.

“You’ll have to do without me.”

The two spar a bit, and Higgins gets into a bit of a sulk.  “I can do without anybody.  I have my own soul, my own spark of divine fire.  But I shall miss you Eliza.  I confess that humbly and gratefully.”

Rex Harrison never admitted as much, and he certainly couldn’t have brought himself to acknowledge Eliza’s victory, when she made it clear that she could beat Higgins at his own game and support herself by becoming a tutor.  “By George, Eliza!  I said I’d make a woman of you and I have.  I like you like this.”

I like him so much for saying it.

(6 November 2011)