Oscars Film Friday: Cary Grant in 'None But The Lonely Heart' directed by Clifford Odets

By Daniel S Levine,
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The battle against typecasting is as old as the movies are. As the most popular actor of his time, Cary Grant constantly faced it. During his early career, he struggled to get away from Mae West at Paramount. Then, he made a unique move at the time, taking a non-exclusive contract with RKO, which gave him the flexibility to work at whichever studio he wanted and pick his projects. Even then, he picked eclectic roles, from outrageous comedies like The Awful Truth to heroic adventure films like Gunga Din. However, he still had that image of the romantic leading man.

By 1944, he was still trying to prove his skills and he took on RKO's None But The Lonely Heart, written and directed by playwright Clifford Odets and based on Richard Llwellyn's novel. It features the most unique performance in Grant's career as Londoner Ernie Mott, a man hoping to escape from his dull life. Like many similar characters in film history, he finds far too many things to keep him at home – a sick mother, lack of funds and friends in the wrong places.

At the beginning of the film, the audience is introduced to the moody, dark and dreary London where we will spend the next two hours. Ernie's life is filled with interesting characters, including his mother (Ethel Barrymore) and Henry Twite (Barry Fitzgerald), who Ernie often looks to for advice. He also has two women in his life. Aggie Hunter (Jane Wyatt) is deeply in love with him and will do anything, but he's more interested in Ada Brantline (June Duprez), the ex-wife of a gangster.

When Ernie hears the shocking news that his mother has cancer, he decides that he's going to get his life in order and stay home. He dutifully runs the family store, but money isn't coming in fast enough. Against Ada's suggestions, he decides to get in work for Jim Mordinoy (George Colouris), Ada's ex-husband.

None But The Lonely Heart isn't just an odd film on Grant's resume, but it's a strange film period. Coming during the middle of World War II, this isn't exactly a film with an overwhelmingly positive message. Its open-ended ending leaves the audience wondering if Ernie really chooses to do the right thing. Odets only implies that he might join the army to become a hero during the war. Still, that's the genius of the movie. Ernie is a man under extreme circumstances and, rather than running from them, goes at them head on, even if his choices may be questionable and the results aren't often what he hopes for. Since the audience of 1944 knew what happened to London, this is a film that shows what life was like before the war, stressing that even that isn't pretty.

It is also more of a film that captures just one period of a man's life, giving the audience a snapshot. But this snapshot helps us completely understand the troubled man inside the mind of Ernie. That's mostly because of the absolutely stunning performance by Grant. Unfortunately for him, the film was released during the same year as Going My Way, so his complex portrayal of a poor Londoner had almost no chance of beating Bing Crosby. Grant would never receive another Oscar nomination for the rest of his career, mostly thanks to the fact that he wasn't tied to a single studio. Still, his peers could not ignore his role in None But The Lonely Heart. It remains too good to be shut down by Hollywood politics of the day.

While Grant didn't come away with the Oscar, Ethel Barrymore won Best Supporting Actress. The sister of John and Lionel Barrymore (and the great-aunt of Drew Barrymore), Miss Ethel Barrymore (as she's credited in the film) hadn't been in a film in over a decade, but she came back to play Ernie's mother. It's a fantastic performance as the real heart propelling the story. Aside from Grant's nomination and Barrymore's win, None But The Lonely Heart also earned nominations for Best Editing and Best Music.

Cary Grant remains best known for his romantic comedy roles, meaning that he'll forever be fighting that stigma. Help out the fight by enjoying None But The Lonely Heart, a touching, engaging portrait of a troubled man battling everyday fights.

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