It’s hard to nail down precisely when Cary Grant became Cary Grant. Smarter women than me have tackled this question and nailed down a range (1937-1940 and then Hitchcock years, according to Pauline Kael). To disagree with her would be very bold because, of course, she’s right. But it’s just as interesting to watch his pre-1937 movies and find the crumbs that would eventually coalesce to form the Cary Grant of Only Angels Have Wings (1938) and Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940) and Notorious (1946).

One year before the Mae West double-whammies of I’m No Angel and She Done Him Wrong (1933), where Grant perfected the art of staring adoringly at a capital-w Woman, Paramount took a stab at making him a leading man in 1932’s Hot Saturday. That is, Grant is the leading man by default. No one could rightly call this a “Cary Grant movie” when his screen time constitutes such a small portion of its 73 minutes. As an early Grant picture, though, it does offer something of a test run for the key component of Grant-ness that Kael so skillfully explains — the man who willingly plays second-fiddle to his female partner and quietly loves not to seduce but to be seduced.

Seduction comes in many forms, not just the eyebrow-wagging kind. It works best in the Cary Grant formula when it comes by way of on-the-level connection. Hot Saturday tells the story of Ruth Brock, a small-town girl (Nancy Carroll) who gets caught up in small-town gossip that ruins her life overnight. The gossip? She spent a few hours alone at night — not even the whole night, just a few hours — with Grant’s wealthy libertine, Romer Sheffield. Men, particularly rich men, are shielded from scandal in a way most women never are. His carefree reputation is enough to forever taint Ruth’s, costing her a job, a home and a sweetheart (Randolph Scott, Grant’s long-time “roommate”). 

Make no mistake: This pre-Code melodrama never shifts from Ruth’s plight. The romance between Romer and Ruth is charming and sweet, as Romer finds he can shed his public persona around a girl who sees right through it. But it’s almost an afterthought compared to the tribulations Ruth faces once her community turns against her. All the more infuriating is the fact that the rumors started because she had the good sense to run from Conny (Edward Woods), another so-called suitor, before he could assault her. Everything that happens to Ruth afterward is Conny’s petulant revenge. 

It’s strange to say that pre-Code films feel so ahead of their time when it was the Hays Code that prevented movies from staying with the times. Pre-Code films like this one (which, one should note, was co-written by a woman, Josephine Lovett) spoke to women’s experiences with the kind of frank empathy that maddeningly still feels novel in movies made today, almost 100 years later. It’s a shame that so many have been forgotten over time or even in their time; Hot Saturday was a flop. But then, that makes it all the more special when one of them finds new life in a physical release from historically minded distributors like Kino Lorber. 

Hot Saturday hits the sweet spot — a pre-Code film with a modern, relevant message and a fascinating early look at Cary Grant before he was Cary Grant. A nearly forgotten 91-year-old movie has never felt fresher. 

Hot Saturday is now available on DVD from Kino Lorber.