It always seemed Leo McCarey and Frank Capra were joined at the hip for much of their careers in Hollywood. Both men were conservatives of Catholic faith and had filmmaking baptisms at the Hal Roach Studios. The two novices learned their craft directing comedy shorts and nondescript programmers before becoming major Hollywood players in the early 1930s. As A-List directors McCarey and Capra made revered and reviled pictures about small people and big sentiment. Haven risen to the top of their field, the two men were regularly pitted against each other for Oscar honors throughout the 1930s and 1940s.
But, alas, the veteran filmmakers suffered from public and critical fallout in the post-war years by making old-fashioned movies that didn’t keep up with the changing times. The happy-go-lucky McCarey hasn’t been remembered as fondly as his Sicilian-born friend which is a shame since his mellow and mature body of work has actually aged quite well.
After earning his stripes directing a Hall of Fame list of comedic icons (Charley Chase, Laurel & Hardy, Eddie Cantor, The Marx Brothers, Harold Lloyd, W.C. Fields and Mae West), McCarey went on to film, arguably, the greatest screwball comedy (The Awful Truth), the best American film about aging (Make Way for Tomorrow), an elegant and shimmering romance which permanently raised the bar for the genre (Love Affair), and two charming films of faith that remain as fresh today as when they were made (Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary). Yet at this late date, Capra is still championed as one of the great American filmmakers and the McCarey trademark has slipped into celluloid purgatory.
Like Capra, McCarey was the son of a working class man and matriculated at a fine California University (USC). Leo graduated with a law degree at the age of twenty, but before he got much chance to practice his trade he was hit with the movie bug and took a job in the burgeoning Los Angeles film industry. By the time McCarey was twenty-six he working with the legendary Hal Roach and directing shorts starring the producer’s biggest icon, Charley Chase.
A veteran of nearly ten years in the movie business, Chase was a dapper, if slightly bland, personality whose knockabout style fit the Roach comic profile to a T. Packed with plenty of energy and invention the best Chase-McCarey shorts often rivaled those of Keaton and Lloyd in quality, if not popularity. The collaboration proved and financially fruitful and the much impressed Roach installed McCarey as the new Vice-President of production.
During the mid- 1920s McCarey kept busy directing other splendid shorts including Jewish Prudence an unabashedly racial comedy whose gentle demeanor was a precursor to Make Way for Tomorrow.
Around this time McCarey created the studio’s new prize comedy team Laurel & Hardy, writing stories and even directing several of their more ambitious shorts. The British-born Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy had been long-time players at Roach Studios before McCarey got the inspiration to put this Mutt and Jeff pair together and create the sort of slow-burn, drawing room comedy style the director would later perfect in The Awful Truth.
Although Laurel & Hardy would remain popular well into the 1940s, it could be argued they did their best work while directed, or supervised, by McCarey and many of the resulting shorts (We Faw Down, Liberty, Big Business) remain the pinnacle of their art.
With the arrival of sound McCarey set out on his own, catching on as a director of features at Paramount. It seemed like a perfect marriage of big studio commerce and blossoming talent. McCarey had an abundance of experience in comedy and the major studios were desperately searching for light entertainment to bridge the difficult gap to sound.
McCarey suffered growing pains at Paramount and the hodge-podge of melodramas, musicals and comedies he was assigned were evidence the studio didn’t know what to do with him. Yet, most of these films still managed to turn a profit and with Paramount struggling to keep its head above water their director’s stock rose accordingly.
A major turning point of McCarey’s career would come at the Goldwyn Studios where he shot the bizarre musical The Kid from Spain starring the immensely popular, bug-eyed song and dance man, Eddie Cantor. At this late date, it’s not easy to grasp Cantor’s appeal. The energized vaudevillian specialized in a scattershot, low-brow brand of humor that often misses the mark. Still, taking into consideration the number of dreadful, static musicals made at the advent of sound film, Cantor at least had the charisma and chops to carry a big budget production, no matter how slipshod the material.
And indeed, plenty of money and talent were invested into the delightfully chaotic The Kid from Spain. Here, Cantor and Robert Young are college students (?!) tossed out of school for raiding the women’s dormitory. As they drive back to Mexico, Cantor witnesses a bank robbery and when the thieves pursue Eddie, he sneaks across the border. His trouble doesn’t end there, though, as he has to enlist the help of a charming senorita (Lyda Roberti) to impersonate a famous bullfighter and avoid a nosy American detective.
From thereon in the plot goes out the door and the film rushes towards its extravagant climax (choreographed by Busby Berkeley). Taken with a huge grain of salt, The Kid from Spain can be a lot of fun and its zany influence spread to McCarey’s next project, a comic masterpiece created with the help of four anarchistic brothers from Manhattan’s East Side.
The edgy Marx Brothers were the darlings of the Broadway critics during the late 1920s and their first four films Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, and Horse Feathers were minor classics of rough and tumble vaudeville shtick polished into inspired sketch comedy. For what would be their final project at Paramount the brothers found a kindred spirit in McCarey and the result of their collaboration would be a surrealist romp for the ages.
In Duck Soup, the unlikely rise to power of the quasi-fascist Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) ruler of Freedonia was the merest thread of a plot to hang an onslaught of quips, puns and outrageous sight gags upon. The brilliant and briskly paced satire catches fire in the glorious finale where Firefly brazenly leads Freedonia into war against its hostile neighbor, Sylvania. Depression-era audiences found Duck Soup too abrasive and stayed away in droves, effectively ending the Marx Brothers’ brief career at the studio.
McCarey’s aesthetic success with the Marx Brothers makes his less than sparkling collaborations with three other comic giants of the era (W.C. Fields, Mae West and Harold Lloyd) curious, indeed.
In the run of the mill road film Six of a Kind (co-starring Wesley Ruggles and the tiresome Burns and Allen) Fields reprises his infamous pool shark pyrotechnics in an all too brief appearance as Sheriff “Honest John” Hoxley. McCarey’s lone film with West, Belle of the Nineties, is an amiable vehicle for the stage and screen icon, but the saucy sexuality that gave wings to her first two starring roles (I’m No Angel and She Done Him Wrong) was neutered by the recently implanted production code. At the very least, West’s flamboyant torch singing to the jungle rhythms of the Duke Ellington Orchestra makes Belle a must-see.
McCarey had to have relished working with the manic genius Harold Lloyd in The Milky Way, but by the mid-thirties the charm and poetry of Lloyd’s great silent films was merely a memory. At turns strained and inspired, this fast-paced comedy about a meek milkman’s rise to fame as a phony contender for the middleweight boxing crown still managed to be one of Lloyd’s better sound films.
The best and most personal McCarey film of this transitional period is the sweet-tempered Ruggles of Red Gap, an overlooked Charles Laughton vehicle. A butler to the hard-living Earl of Bumstead (Roland Young), Marmaduke Ruggles (Laughton) is horrified to learn his master has wagered and lost him in a poker game wager to an American cattle baron, Egbert Floud (Charles Ruggles). Before being transported to the Wild West, Ruggles and Floud enjoy a boy’s night out in gay Paris cementing a bond between the two improbable friends.
Once in America the proper manservant is finally able to spread his wings, as he is called upon to impersonate Army officers and quell saloon brawls, all the while gently chiding his shy lord and master Floud and cultivating a lady friend (Zasu Pitts). The warm and winning comedy anticipated many of the humanistic themes in the mature, mellow masterworks to come.
An unsentimental take on senior citizenry, Make Way for Tomorrow finds McCarey at his most relaxed and expansive and the result is a masterpiece. The elderly Pa and Lucy Cooper (Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi) gather their children together to announce their family home is being foreclosed upon and they will have will have to move within days.
The children hem and haw before reluctantly taking their parents in, though Pa will have to stay with his daughter in the country and Lucy will move in with her son George (Thomas Mitchell) in his Manhattan apartment. Pa finds he is unwanted and passes from daughter to daughter while Lucy’s innocent meddling causes a strain between George’s uptight wife and restless daughter.
Pa’s penchant for catching colds is reason for him to be packed off to live with an unseen daughter in California. But there will be no room there for Lucy, so she will live out her days in a grim nursing home.
On the day of Pa’s departure, the resigned old couple spends a glorious day in Manhattan visiting the hotel where they had their honeymoon, fifty years ago. There, they are treated like royalty by the hotel employees, who pick up their tab and arrange for them to waltz to Let Me Call You Sweetheart before the clock strikes twelve (well nine, actually), and Pa has to take leave forever.
Make Way for Tomorrow is one of Hollywood’s true miracles and taking into consideration its downbeat fare and the guilt it inflicts upon its audience, it is a wonder it ever got made. McCarey’s maturing direction is exquisitely sensitive to the chilly, yet oddly indulging world around the helpless Pa and Lucy.
Filmed at Capra’s home studio Columbia and written by Make Way for Tomorrow screenwriter Vina Delmar, The Awful Truth ranks as the most low-key and sexually sophisticated screwball comedy. There are no dizzy dames, overt class conflicts, or social commentary in McCarey’s sole entry into the genre, but the suggestive interplay between the leads and some pitch-perfect comic timing from people, dogs and cats help turn this tasty truffle into a gourmet delight.
Due to a silly misunderstanding and some wounded pride, Jerry and Lucy Warriner, an erstwhile fun-loving New York couple, decide to divorce even though they still love one another. While waiting for the final decree Lucy (Irene Dunne) begins dating an earnest but dopey Oklahoma oil tycoon Daniel Leeson (Ralph Bellamy). Jerry can’t bring himself to be jealous of the rich rube and instead he turns his ire towards the debonair voice teacher Armand (Alexander D’Arcy) who escorts Lucy about town.
Lucy is secretly relieved when Jerry’s meddling wrecks her engagement with Daniel but when she finds he has taken up with the heiress Barbara Vance (Molly Lamont) she gets sweet revenge by masquerading as a black sheep sister and humiliates him in front of the stuffy Vance tribe. The tipsy Lucy sabotages Jerry’s car, so they hitch a ride from two motorcycle cops to her aunt’s romantic lodge where fate (and a creaky door) leads him back into her lair.
McCarey had few peers in making films about the games people play and in The Awful Truth the passive aggressive Irene plays impish Cary like a finely-tuned Stradivarius.
Dunne re-teamed with McCarey two years later in the luminous romance Love Affair. International playboy and frustrated artist Michel Marnet (Charles Boyer) meets the lovely and witty Terry McKay (Irene Dunne) aboard an ocean liner heading to New York City. Try as she may, Terry cannot avoid Michel’s charming manner and when on a short layover in Madeira she meets this man’s adoring grandmother (Maria Ouspenskaya), the die is cast.
Though both Michel and Terry are bound to others, Michel asks Terry to wait for him to make something substantial out of his life. If she feels the same way towards him in six months they will meet at the observation deck of the Empire State building to get married.
Michel and Terry leave their spouses and set out to make good on their sacred promise but when the big day finally arrives Terry is struck down by a car and paralyzed. Unwilling to contact Michel until she can walk again, Terry finds solace through her work with children at a city orphanage. Of course, Terry’s nobility will not go unheeded and Michel discovers the awful truth in the revealing and transcendent finale.
Of all the major leading ladies McCarey worked with it is Dunne who turned out to be the best acquitted to improvise at the turn of a dime and create smart, spontaneous woman while working at the director’s leisurely pace.
At this high peak of his career, McCarey set out to make his most ambitious film to date in Once upon a Honeymoon. Set in Europe on the eve of WWII, Kathie O’Hara (Ginger Rogers), a New York girl from the tenements masquerading as a Philadelphia debutante, marries Austrian aristocrat Baron Franz Von Luber (Walter Slezak). The new Baroness is blissfully unaware of her new husband’s affiliation with the Nazis until she is confronted by a pesky journalist Pat O’Toole (Cary Grant) who has taken a fancy to her.
When Kathie learns the awful truth she lets Pat stage her death then escapes with him across the continent. Just as they are about to embark on a ship back to the state Kathie disappears, leaving Pat to believe she has returned to her pampered life as an aristocrat of the Third Reich.
An unwieldy mix of entertainment and propaganda, Once Upon a Honeymoon proved a disappointment in the romance department as the chemistry between Grant and Rogers never really jells. The McCarey method of slow-burn flirtation, which works so wonderfully in The Awful Truth and Love Affair, is awkward here due to the posh accents the leads are forced to assume and Rogers’ discomfort with the pace of the comedy.
Having failed in his stab at making a big film with a message, McCarey went back to doing what he did best and found gold in the most unlikely of places.
For better or worse, McCarey is probably best known for the two family classics he directed about a mellow priest who sets out to re-energize a struggling Manhattan parish.
In the leisurely Going My Way the 30something Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby) is sent to New York’s St. Dominic’s Church to aid the elderly Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) and dig the parish out of deep debt. Though Father O’Malley is given free reign by the Bishop to take whatever measures necessary to get St. Dominic’s back on its feet he must tread softly around the man who founded the church and has been its curate for forty-five years.
McCarey eschews plot almost completely for a series of charming vignettes—Crosby’s teaching a crew of ragamuffins how to sing in chorus and his cooing Tura-Lura-Lura to Fitzgerald over a shared Irish whiskey being among the most winning.
McCarey and Crosby reprised the adventures of Father O’Malley for The Bells of St. Mary’s in which he is sent to help a parochial school in need but he soon butts heads with a stubborn young nun (Ingrid Bergman). This genial and entertaining sequel is filled to the brim with several more finely-etched character studies and good music.
Appearing in American movie houses just as the war was winding down the ambling and reassuring Father O’Malley flicks may indeed be the quintessential McCarey films. It’s easy to take these films to task for their old-fashioned virtues but the director is careful not to wallow in too much sentiment.
There is little of the saccharine slickness which mucks up even the best of Capra’s work. McCarey’s children are earthy little cherubs full of spunk and vinegar and his elderly citizens aren’t twee ornaments to be shuffled in and out of scenes. They, like the children, are part of a continuum of life so rarely touched upon in commercial American cinema.
But, little did the acclaimed filmmaker know his droll, gentle take on little people would soon seem old hat to a new generation of cinema-goers who had survived Hitler and Hirohito and were looking for edgier brands of entertainment.
Riding the momentum from his second best director Oscar for Going My Way and the box office successes of both Father O’Malley films, McCarey tapped the perennially popular Gary Cooper to play Sam Clayton, a suburban department store manager who can’t say “no” to people in need, in Good Sam.
Playing host to a myriad of deadbeat relatives and neighbors Sam has taken pity on his long-suffering wife Lu (Ann Sheridan) is ready to pull the plug on her marriage but doesn’t have the heart to confront her saintly man. The doo-doo finally hits the fan when Sam gives away their nest egg to a young couple in need. Just as it looks like Lu is ready to quit Sam he receives an unexpected windfall only to lose the money in a mugging on the street.
His faith in human nature shattered, Sam goes on a bender but he gets unexpected bailout from the president of the local bank and his friends in the community who rally to the cause.
Coming on the heels of Capra’s box office flop It’s a Wonderful Life, it was curious McCarey would want to make a similar film. After a promising opening in which Sheridan is forced to grin and bear her idiot husband’s penchant for performing good deeds Good Sam never really takes off and, indeed, the film almost excruciating as Lu’s frustrations almost turn her into a pariah in her own home.
This sweet and sour mix might have worked if McCarey had Capra’s talent for directing with sweep but the low key pacing only makes Sam look borderline stupid and Lu seem insensitive for wanting more out of life.
Not surprisingly, Good Sam did poor business sending McCarey to the sidelines to find a property more palatable for hardened, cold war audiences.
Made at the height of the McCarthy era My Son John is at turns sincere and reactionary, but despite its notoriety the film contains some of the director’s finest work since Make Way for Tomorrow.
Visiting his family after a long absence, idealistic federal worker John Jefferson (Robert Walker) locks horns with his father (Dean Jagger) in a series of eloquent arguments and broadminded conversations. John grows increasingly strident and takes his family to task for their prejudices leaving his mother Lucille (Helen Hayes) concerned over her Black Sheep boy.
The story takes on an incomprehensibly menacing tone when an FBI agent (Van Heflin) visits the Jeffersons to inform them their son is actually an enemy spy. Frantic, Lucille pursues her son to Washington DC and convinces John to go straight, but just as he is ready to redeem himself he is gunned down by his Red constituents.
The troubled Walker died late in production and the sad event forced the filmmakers to tack on a slapdash ending, but this peculiar film already torn by divisive convictions was savaged left-leaning critics and largely ignored by baffled audiences.
Having recently turned in one of the truly great film acting performances in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, Walker is similarly inspired here as the son who marches to the beat of a different drummer. In one of her infrequent film roles, Hayes is extraordinary as the mother who stands by her troubled boy even as he breaks her heart.
Taking into consideration the massive personal and professional damage done by the Hollywood witch-hunt, it’s impossible to make a case for My Son John on any ideological grounds, but for such a seemingly benign director McCarey to tackle such a controversial subject was a hopeful sign his creative fire hadn’t gone out just yet. Unfortunately, critical and public rejection of the film helped sour McCarey on the new Hollywood and he would spend the next few years in limbo.
Like his friend Capra McCarey was unable to sell any new ideas to the new Hollywood studio producers of the 1950s, so he polished and updated an old property (Love Affair) to make it palatable for modern audiences. In An Affair To Remember McCarey favorite Cary Grant was enlisted to take on the role of Nickie Ferrante, the scandalous playboy who and wins Terry McKay (Deborah Kerr) on a ship bound for America.
Outside of a few tweaks and nods to the television age, the Love Affair plot remained largely unaltered but the pace here is much slower giving the romance more resonance than its brilliant predecessor. Much credit should be given to Grant who since he had last worked with McCarey had cut back on his manic affectations and grown into an unusually complex actor. Grant’s impeccable sheen and newfound gravity almost throws the second half of the film out of kilter since it’s nearly impossible to believe him as a struggling artist painting advertising signs just to make ends meet.
As with Love Affair the emotional wallop is delivered early on at the seaside chateau of Grandmother Janou (Cathleen Nesbitt) where in the calming presence of a well-lived life Nickie and Terry truly find one another.
Like his Japanese contemporary Yasujiro Ozu, McCarey populated his films with the very old and very young, symbols of dying and rebirth which give his busy romantics pause to stop and smell the roses. Given the onscreen chemistry between the two leads it was no surprise the film was a hit.
Unfortunately, McCarey’s final two attempts to resurrect his career Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys!, a strained comedy about a band of suburbanites who stand up to the army, and Satan Never Sleeps, a righteous drama about two priests who try to keep Communist influence out of a missionary in China, were embarrassing misfires.
These days, McCarey is mostly remembered as the director of the Marx Brothers’ best film and as the man who inspired Sleepless in Seattle. Yet, those brave souls willing to visit a quiet and gentler time may find McCarey’s films remarkable for their spontaneity, naturalness, and the humanity.
Feature Films by McCarey:
1930 Wild Company ***
1930 Let’s Go Native ***
1931 Indiscreet ***
1932 The Kid From Spain ***1/2
1933 Duck Soup ****
1934 Six of a Kind ***1/2
1934 Belle of the Nineties ***1/2
1935 Ruggles of Red Gap ****
1936 The Milky Way ***1/2
1937 Make Way for Tomorrow *****
1937 The Awful Truth ****1/2
1939 Love Affair ****
1942 Once Upon a Honeymoon ***1/2
1944 Going My Way ****
1945 The Bells of St. Mary ***1/2
1948 Good Sam ***
1952 My Son John ****
1957 An Affair to Remember ****
1958 Rally ‘Round the Flag Boys ***
1962 Satan Never Sleeps ***
Shorts Directed & Supervised by McCarey
1924 All Wet ***1/2 (Charley Chase)
1925 Isn’t Life Terrible? ***1/2 (Charley Chase)
1925 Innocent Husbands ***1/2 (Charley Chase)
1925 His Wooden Wedding ***1/2 (Charley Chase)
1926 Dog Shy ***1/2 (Charley Chase)
1926 Mum’s the Word ***1/2 (Charley Chase)
1926 Long Fliv the King ***1/2 (Charley Chase)
1926 Mighty Like a Moose ***1/2 (Charley Chase)
1926 Crazy Like a Fox ***1/2 (Charley Chase)
1926 Bromo and Juliet ***1/2 (Charley Chase)
1927 Jewish Prudence ****
1927 Eve’s Love Letters *** 1/2 (Stan Laurel)
1927 Sugar Daddies ***1/2 (Laurel and Hardy; supervising Fred Guiol)
1928 The Finishing Touch ***1/2 (Laurel and Hardy; supervising Clyde Bruckman)
1928 Should Married Men Go Home? ***1/2 (Laurel and Hardy; supervising James Parrott)
1928 Habeas Corpus ***1/2 (Laurel and Hardy; supervising James Parrott)
1928 We Faw Down ***1/2 (Laurel and Hardy)
1929 Liberty ***1/2 (Laurel and Hardy)
1929 Wrong Again ***1/2 (Laurel and Hardy)
1929 Big Business ***1/2 (Laurel and Hardy; supervising James W. Horne)