Cary Grant was coming off a commercial career peak, comedy Houseboat (1958) with Sophia Loren, Hitchcock thriller North by Northwest (1959) and war comedy Operation Petticoat (1959) all among the top box office hits of their years. He was in enormous demand. In 1960 Jerry Wald wooed him for Tender Is the Night, eventually made in 1962 with Jason Robards. He went so far along considering Can-Can (1960) that he began working with a voice coach and passed on Let’s Make Love (1960).
The prospect of Lawrence of Arabia – he had been lined up to play the lead over two decades before – reared his head with producer Sam Spiegel eyeing him up for Allenby (played in the 1962 picture by Jack Hawkins). He turned down Lolita and a remake of The Letter. The biggest letdown was John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King which would have teamed him with Clark Gable. Of the screenplay, Grant commented: “I’ve read it twice and am still uncertain whether it’s fair, good, or perhaps, even excellent.” (It would not be filmed until 1975.)
Also in the pipeline was an intriguing original screenplay in which he and Ingrid Bergman would essay dual roles and his alternative company, Granart, also purchased The Day They Robbed the Bank. (Neither project was made.)
In the face of such indecision it’s not surprising he decided to play safe. The Grass Is Greener would be made by his own company, Grandon, a production outfit set up with director Stanley Donen – they had previously made Indiscreet (1957) – at that point still best known for musicals including Singin’ in the Rain (1951), though he had also directed Grant in the comedy Kiss Them for Me (1957).
Initially Grant cast himself as the American, with Rex Harrison (The Honey Pot, 1967) and his real-life wife Kay Kendall (Once More with Feeling, 1960, also directed by Donen) the titled British couple. Harrison would certainly have brought more natural acidity to the part but he pulled out after his wife died prematurely. Deborah Kerr, the most English of actresses, was ideal for the Earl’s wife.
Robert Mitchum, with whom Kerr had just appeared in The Sundowners (1960), was a late addition as the Yank even though it meant him dropping to third billing for the first time in over a decade. For The Sundowners he had ceded top billing to Kerr on the basis it would be better for the poster, not realizing he would be viewed as the male lead rather than the acknowledged star (not quite as subtle a difference as you might imagine in the cut-throat credits business). Kerr was at an artistic peak, winning her sixth Oscar nomination for The Sundowners. Mitchum, by contrast, nominated in a supporting role for The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) had nary a sniff of peer recognition since.
Jean Simmons (Spartacus, 1960) was a surprise choice for Grant’s character’s ex-lover but was willing to accept lower billing because she was desperate to extend her range by doing comedy. The foursome already had considerable experience working with each other, Mitchum paired with Simmons for Angel Face (1952) and She Couldn’t Say No (1953) while Kerr and Grant had dallied in Dream Wife (1953) and An Affair to Remember (1957). To round things off Kerr had played opposite Mitchum in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) and, as mentioned, The Sundowners.
Although the picture was financed by Universal, director Donen was more of a Columbia favorite. On top of Once More with Feeling and Surprise Package for the latter studio, he was contracted to make another four, all to be filmed abroad, the director having set up home in London. Deborah Kerr was involved in Cakes and Ale, based on the Somerset Maugham novel, with George Cukor and was announced as starring in Behind the Mirror (neither film made). Mitchum was also diversifying, the first of a three-picture deal between United Artists and his company being North from Rome (never made), based on the Helen MacInnes thriller.
Shooting began at Shepperton in London on April 4, 1860, but this time round, the personalities did not quite gel. Simmons complained that Grant was “a fuss-budget, everything must be just so.” Although she did admit that his preparation worked wonders. “He’d come forth with the most amusing, polished take, everything so effortless.” Mitchum complained Grant lacked a sense of humor. “He’s very light and pleasant but his humor is sort of old music-hall jokes.”
Despite the high-class cast, Grant had very definite ideas about his star status. In one scene that called for both actresses to be bedecked in expensive jewelry, he instructed the jewels be removed in case the audience was distracted from him.
Grant and Mitchum had one thing in common, a liking for experimenting with drugs. Mitchum’s preference for marijuana was well-known. Although he had been previously jailed for his “addiction,” Mitchum still grew his own. Grant’s drug of choice, on the other hand, was LSD. He had been on a course of LSD treatment since 1958 and was in the middle of coming off the drug. “He was a little weird,” noted Mitchum.
Fittingly, their personality clash was very English, “a mild, undeclared, rivalry.” The battleground was costume, Grant perturbed that Mitchum’s laid-back style was making him look over-dressed while Mitchum complained that he was a glorified feed, employed simply to make non-committal comments in the middle of a Grant monologue.
Grant’s parsimony was also a bit extreme. As part of his invoice for doing publicity on the picture, “not only did he turn in his hotel bills and meal receipts for those four extra days but also the costs of the suits” he had had made in Hong Kong. In other words, he billed his own company. Money paid for these expenses would be deducted from any potential profit he would receive.
Kerr, however, had no complaints. “Between Cary’s superb timing and Bob’s instinctive awareness of what you’re trying to do, this was a very happy film.” But there was one other source of contention. The British media were barred from the set on by Stanley Donen on the grounds that journalists of the more sensation-seeking newspaper were apt to needle actors. Grant softened the blow by arranging to be interviewed once filming was complete.
However, Variety was able to give the picture a publicity boost by hailing stately home tourism as “a new type of British show business,” reckoning the 400 operations raked in $4 million a year. Average admission prices of 35 cents meant over 10 million visitors a year.
Ironically, the infidelity theme cost The Grass Is Greener a lucrative Xmas launch at the prestigious Radio City Music Hall in New York. The cinema felt the content was not in keeping with Yuletide and opted for The Sundowners instead, the Donen picture shifting to the much smaller and semi-arthouse Astor. Just how important the Hall was to a movie’s public reception could be judged by the takings the previous year for Operation Petticoat (a Granart release), a whopping $175,000 opener. The point was made when The Sundowners grossed $200,000 in its first week, three times as much as The Grass Is Greener.
SOURCES: Scott Eyman, Cary Grant, A Brilliant Disguise (Simon & Schuster, 2020) p339-343,363-368; Lee Server, Robert Mitchum, Baby I Don’t Care (Faber and Faber, 2002) p204-207, 429; Eric Braun, Deborah Kerr (WH Allen, 1977) p176-177; “Deborah’s Cakes & Ale,” Variety, July 15, 1959, p3; “Grant in Original, with Himself and Bergman in Dual Roles,” Variety, September 30, 1959, p10; “Nativity and Grant Combo at Hall,” Variety, December 9, 1959, p9; “Maugham-Hurst Film Location in Tangier,” Variety, January 6, 1960, p167; “Col Extending Donen,” Variety, May 25, 1960, p20; “400 Stately Homes of England,” Variety, June 1, 1960, p2; “Needling and Smartalec British Interviewers Not Allowed In By Donen,” Variety, June 22, 1960, p2; “Infidelity Theme Cancels Grant’s Comedy at Hall,” Variety, September 21, 1960, p7; “Cary Grant’s,” Variety, November 9, 1960, p20; “B’Way soars,” Variety, December 28, 1960, p9.