It’s late night. Infomercial time. You’re half asleep and Johnny Carson is on your television screen in all his pre-HD glory, a solid string of his best bits working to worm their way into your wallet. If you’ve been there, you know the scene: George Goebel taking the guest seat with Bob Hope and Dean Martin already on the couch, the crewcut comedian following two of the biggest stars of the day, and Goebel killing it with his plaintive, “Did you ever get the feeling that the whole world was a tuxedo and you were a pair of brown shoes?”
Relive it on Youtube:
I, too, am a brown shoe, but let’s set that aside for the moment to concentrate on the bigger issue: Why do I even know who George Goebel is? His television show ended in 1960, when I was only three years old. I was a child of the 60s, that psychedelic decade of free love and flower power, and a teen of the 70s, when disco spread polyester all over the dance floor and Jaws chewed up the box office. My cultural icons should be John Travolta and The Rolling Stones and the Fonz. Oh, the Fonz—talk about a brown shoe. Henry Winkler was a 5 ft 6 dyslexic underdog whose parents actually called him a dog, although it was dumm hund, German for dumb dog. I read that in an interview with The Telegraph. The poor thing. Yet as the Fonz, underdog Winkler became uber-cool, the smoothest cat of the 70s. Maybe that’s the secret to upgrading from brown shoe to tuxedo: change your species.
Shouldn’t cultural icons have some romance though? They should be the antithesis of the brown shoe: bigger than life, able to leap tall buildings, imbued with mystery. They should be different from us. But the existence of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and all the other talk shows and the movie magazines and an unrelenting 6 am to 2 am programming schedule whittled them down to merely mortal size. They were too immediate, too real, as easily accessed as turning on my television. They were always there, and who can idolize someone who won’t go away? I’ve never bought the idiom that familiarity breeds contempt, but if God Himself came by every evening for a good long visit, eventually I’d turn the porch light off and opt for an early night instead.
Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but here’s my idea of the perfect icon: Cary Grant. I dare you to tell me I’m wrong. He was gorgeous. He was charming. Have you seen him in “Walk, Don’t Run”? Here he was at the end of his career, a 62 year-old man playing match-maker to a young Samantha Eggar and Jim Hutton, and if Eggar had dragged Grant to her bed instead of Hutton all would have seemed right with the world. Sure, Grant must have appeared on his share of late night talk shows, but there was something elusive about him, a suave façade that was too perfect to be real and wasn’t real but in the pre-Twitter days of studio contracts and high-powered publicists this façade became true.
As Archibald Leach, Grant was anything but charmed: his mother was institutionalized in a mental hospital when he was nine; his father abandoned him when he was ten. At an age when most of today’s kids are perfecting their video game skills, Leach was practicing the circus skill of stilt walking and taking to the stage. He was learning to be something he was not, to change his species from unwanted child to movie star. He may not have been happy—he was married five times and may (or may not) have been bi-sexual—but when did Hollywood ever promise happiness? All it ever promised was that as Cary Grant, no one would ever again call Archibald Leach unwanted.
Give me the gauzy glamour of the 30s and 40s, and, when a star is as self-effacing as Goebel, I’ll take the 50s as well. I’ll even suspend disbelief long enough to believe the world back then truly was black-and-white, the lighting was always balanced, and Cary Grant was exactly the man he pretended to be. It’s a lovely thing to believe. Grant himself was once asked about his impossibly debonair image and is said to have answered, “We all wish we were Cary Grant. Sometimes I wish I was Cary Grant.” I’ll suspend disbelief long enough to believe that story is true too.
Sometimes I wish I was a tuxedo, but I just checked Netflix and “His Girl Friday” is available to stream, so this brown shoe will be happily soaking in some Cary Grant this evening. And I’ll leave the porch light on just in case God wants to join my husband and me on the couch.