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Cute Versus Charm

March 10, 2013

Debbie ReynoldsDorisDayCaryGrant

20th century Americans tended to favor, in each other, cute over charm.

Perhaps cute was our innocent small-town rebuke to charm, that smart city-slicker sparkle of snake-oil salesmen. Cute was as natural as the countryside. Charm, suspiciously Big City.

Cute is one-sided and unselfconscious, a helpless demand to be found adorable. Cute, in musicals, were equally-virginal Debbie Reynolds and Doris Day, peppy as puppies, all gee-wiz, aw shucks, and oh let’s! You, the guy, finally break down and marry cute.

Charm, on the other hand, is intimately mutual, a special someone’s open invitation to love and be loved, renewed from moment to enchanting moment, for as long as you two are together. Charm might be Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy swapping Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer repartee in a sophisticated “white telephone” comedy. Charm conjures up delicious romance.

Now the greatest charmers are often not the best-lookers. Consider Cary Grant.

More than just cute or charming, Cary Grant was admirably handsome, and that indelible yet somehow unresentable male beauty focused his personality. His charm was in not taking being Cary Grant too seriously. So, uniquely, his charm was for himself, and this self-distancing gave his personality depth and made the audience’s reaction to Grant more complex than stunning good-looks alone usually requires.

Of course, neither of these two happy qualities is a be-all and end-all. Incessant cuteness eventually makes us feel used. And what exactly is at the bottom of charm? Charm is always elusive and half-mysterious, especially to the degree it seems frank and open. Certainly, styles of allure are as perishable as actors’ careers. What beguiles us one year, bores us the next and, at a third showing, may even bang on our anger.

But ever-changing fashions in what is charming ought never overshadow charm’s original wonder. This fascinating grace blossoms among a handful of blessed characters in every generation. Not all are actors, by any means. The two greatest charmers of the 20th century were also writers. Neither was American-born. We over here were too busy being cute to perfect infinite charm.

A French woman and an English man. This pair of choicest European spirits have somehow never lost their power, across time and space, beyond languages and customs, to make us love them.

Cherchez la femme. Next time, we meet the 20th century’s most charming woman.

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