Sister Celluloid

Where old movies go to live

MoMA Presents “Leo McCarey: Seriously Funny,” Covering the Undersung Director from the Silents Onward

“I only know I like my characters to walk in clouds, I like a little bit of the fairy tale. As long as I’m there behind the camera lens, I’ll let somebody else photograph the ugliness of the world.”
—Leo McCarey

If you’re anywhere near New York this month, prepare to walk in the clouds. On July 15, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) launches “Leo McCarey: Seriously Funny,” a retrospective that runs from his roots at Hal Roach Studios to near the end of his storied career.

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“My entry drug to movies was Laurel and Hardy, so I always responded to McCarey’s work,” said MoMA assistant curator Dave Kehr, who pulled the series together with film historian Steve Massa. “His heart, the wonderful slowness of gag development, and the sense of what a complete worldview the man had—starting out with a couple, then widening to community, then country, then world, then God.”

The son of a fight promoter, McCarey took a few turns in the ring himself before settling down to study the law. But after making it all the way through USC law school, he came to his senses. Unable to resist the call of the industry bubbling up all around him in Los Angeles, he signed on as Tod Browning’s assistant in 1919, and joined Roach as a gagman a few years later—after keeping him in stitches during an early-morning game of handball.

McCarey eventually rose to head of production, promoting a distinctly humanist, story-driven style of comedy. Even his most outrageous movies have a certain logic to them—it’s like a game of Mouse Trap, where the boot innocently tips the ball… setting everything else into crazy motion. McCarey’s vision meshed nicely with actors like Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy—whom he paired for the first time—as well as then-cameraman George Stevens, who fought so hard against mindless slapstick that Roach eventually fired him.

“I have a theory—the ineluctability of incidents,” McCarey once explained. “If something happens, some other thing inevitably flows from it. Like night and day follow each other, events are linked together, and I always develop my story in this way, in a series of incidents, of events which succeed each other and provoke each other. I never really have intrigue.”

With the dawn of sound, McCarey moved into features, turning out classics like Duck Soup and Ruggles of Red Gap. But true to his roots in the silents—where scenes were mostly roughed out and then filled in on the fly—his films retained a certain seat-of-the-pants quality. If his characters often seem to be making things up as they go along, perhaps it’s because the director—who often doubled as the writer—did just that.

“I think probably seventy-five per cent of each day’s shooting was made up on the set by Leo,” Bing Crosby recalled of Going My Way.  A sometime songwriter, McCarey would dream up scenes and bits of business as he noodled away on the piano. While it occasionally drove the crew crazy, it gave his films a lively spontaneity often missing from more formulaic fare.

“There was a lot of improvisation, and trust, between McCarey and his actors,” said Kehr. Even studio executives took his freewheeling style on faith, as seen in this extraordinary inter-office memo from RKO’s Milton Howe in 1948. It’s hard to imagine a studio giving a director this kind of leeway today:

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In 1937, McCarey’s string of hits was broken in dramatic fashion with what is now considered one of his finest films,  Make Way For Tomorrow, the story of an elderly couple (Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore) who lose their home during the Great Depression.

And here’s a spoiler alert/public service: the relentlessly depressing film ends with none of the five no-good-bastard children rescuing their parents—forcing them to spend their final years apart. It’s a great film, but best viewed with a fistful of Zoloft. (TCM once aired it on Christmas Eve. No really. “Gee, Dad, thanks for the tie! And hey, Aunt Sue, that was some great pumpkin pie! Now let’s all hang ourselves!”)

Make Way for Tomorrow got him fired from Paramount,” noted Kehr. “He went long, and the marketing department had no idea how to sell this incredibly sad movie.

“Every great artist has that moment where they have to contemplate, ‘What if everything I believe is wrong?” he added. “For McCarey it was, ‘What if there is no protection in family and community, and what if God isn’t there?'”

After his ouster, McCarey bounced back with a vengeance, winning an Oscar for his first outing with Columbia, the screwball classic The Awful Truth. But when he accepted the award, he still had Make Way for Tomorrow on his mind—saying he’d won for the wrong movie.

“He pretty much invented the situation comedy with The Awful Truth,” said Kehr. And he semi-invented Cary Grant—who fine-tuned the comic persona that would serve him for the rest of his career by mimicking some of the director’s expressions and even his speech patterns.

And despite his deep Catholic faith, McCarey never shied away from good old-fashioned lust. “Attraction is the initial driver and then it deepens from there, but sex is still always important,” noted Kehr. Take the final scene of The Awful Truth: sure, after talking things over, Jerry (Grant) and Lucy (Irene Dunne) could get a good night’s sleep and rekindle their romance at a later date, when all the legal issues have resolved themselves—but why not fling open that stubborn door, banish the pesky cat and do it right now?

McCarey followed up with another of the most grown-up romances ever set to film: the pitch-perfect Love Affair, which both Dunne and Charles Boyer called the highlight of their Hollywood careers.

During the 1940s, McCarey’s two best films brought his faith front and center. In Going My Way, the charismatic young Father O’Malley (Crosby) Toora-Loora-Looras his way into the good graces of the older, more traditional Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) and into the hearts of pretty much everyone: 1944’s highest-grossing film snagged seven Oscars, including Best Actor, Best Director and Best Picture—and McCarey’s share of the profits gave him the highest reported income in the country that year. Crosby reprised his role for The Bells of St. Mary’s, where he matched wills with the gentle, luminous Ingrid Bergman as Sister Mary Benedict. (And if you don’t cry at the end, please don’t even speak to me.)

The MoMA series kicks off with a bang—or maybe a smoosh: an evening of silents accompanied by Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks. Topping the bill is Laurel and Hardy’s The Battle of the Century—once thought to be lost but for a few fragments, but discovered last year almost in its entirety and lovingly restored by Serge Bromberg. Directed by Clyde Bruckman and supervised by McCarey—with Stevens behind the camera—the two-reeler features the mother of all pie fights, with more than 3,000 creamy confections flung before the soggy credits roll.

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Pie fights had already become a slapstick cliché—Buster Keaton forbade them in his films—but The Battle of the Century was something epic. This was pie nihilism. (Pie-hilism?) And typical of Laurel and Hardy, as well as McCarey and Stevens, it was somehow rooted in realism.

“It wasn’t just that we threw hundreds of pies,” Laurel once recalled. “That wouldn’t have been very funny… We went at it, strange as it may sound, psychologically. We made every one of the pies count. A well-dressed man strolling casually down the avenue, struck squarely in the face by a large pastry, would not proceed at once to gnash his teeth, wave his arms in the air and leap up and down. His first reaction… would be of numb disbelief, then embarrassment and a quick survey of the damage done to his person. Then indignation and a desire for revenge would possess him. If he saw another pie at hand, still unspoiled, he would grab it up and let it fly.”

Before disappearing for decades, the film became a favorite of John Ford, Harold Lloyd and James Agee. Even Henry Miller was moved to marvel, “There was nothing but pie throwing in it, nothing but pies, thousands and thousands of pies and everybody throwing them right and left.”  Rounding out the opening-night bill are the silent shorts Mighty Like a Moose starring Charley Chase, Should Men Walk Home? with Mabel Normand, and Putting Pants on Philip, which marked Laurel and Hardy’s first official pairing. (That one and The Battle of the Century also feature a baby-faced Eugene Pallette, before sound films let his frog flag fly.) The next day, film composer and historian Ben Model steps in to do the musical honors for the same program.
The series also includes a second program of Laurel and Hardy; another featuring McCarey’s last four films at Roach; and two bills showcasing the comedies of Max Davidson and Chase, who was a mentor to the director.

 

Feature films include favorites such as Duck Soup, Ruggles of Red Gap and The Awful TruthThe Bells of St. Mary’s, Going My Way, Love Affair and that rarest of all birds, its successful remake, An Affair to Remember. But MoMA also tosses in a few off-speed pitches, such as Let’s Go Native, with fashion designer Jeanette MacDonald and cab driver Jack Oakie stranded on a tropical isle with the entire cast of a Broadway musical (oh, that old chestnut), and Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys, McCarey’s penultimate film, where Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward find their quiet suburban lives upended by the arrival of an army missile base. And in a gorgeous restoration from the UCLA Film & Television Archive, the director returns to his boxing roots and teams with fellow Roach graduate Lloyd for The Milky Way.

Also airing is the Library of Congress’s new scan of the rarely seen 130-minute cut of Good Sam, which differs quite a bit from the 112-minute version in wider circulation. But Gary Cooper’s saintliness and wife Ann Sheridan’s exasperation are still pushed to their limits as every freeloader in town takes advantage of his kindness and generosity—giving the film a bit of a subversive “no good deed unpunished” edge.

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Good Sam is another great portrait of marriage,” said Kehr. “With the brother and the kids and the house falling apart, they’re trying to get one night together. The unmistakable desire they have for each other, it’s not very 1948.”

But it’s very McCarey. Other directors may serve up more self-important film school fodder, but his unpretentious, deeply personal movies are the ones you live with. Is there anyone who’s seen The Awful Truth or The Bells of St. Mary’s just once?

“He had an amazing ability to communicate emotion, which is what other artists like Renoir admired about him,” Kehr said. “But it seems as if everything he represents has vanished from contemporary film.” For 17 glorious days this month, MoMA’s bringing it all back.

“I love when people laugh, I love when they cry, I like a story to say something, and I hope the audience feels happier leaving the theatre than when it came in,”McCarey once said. “It’s larceny to remind people of how lousy things are and call it entertainment.”

(For the complete series schedule click here.)

6 Comments

  1. Oh, boy, what a terrific retrospective. Lucky New Yorkers.

  2. Thanks for writing that. I thought I knew a lot about McCarey, but I’m happy to say you proved me wrong. I wish I could be at the Battle of the Century screening.

    One thing I like about Bells of St. Mary’s: one of the supporting players is Martha Sleeper, who did a lot of funny and charming work in Hal Roach silents, including at least some that were supervised by McCarey. She was especially good when paired with Charley Chase.

    Sleeper had been out of the movie business for many years when McCarey persuaded her to come back, one last time, for Bells of St. Mary’s. I’ve always thought that was really neat — not to mention that she’s very good in it, playing a single mother who is estranged from her husband, played by William Gargan. (Bing, of course, gets them together again.)

    • She was fabulous in that role!! And I love stories like that. The whole storyline with that family was so honest and really kind of gutsy to drop into the middle of a movie like “Bells”. Good for him for luring Martha out of retirement and addressing that whole issue!!

  3. Brava! I know I’ll be returning to your article again and again. Such a pleasure to read. When I watch a McCarey feature I always look for what I call his “eloquent silences”, the little moments which bring the characters close to your heart.

    • Thank you so much, Patricia! This is the second time we’ve discussed those silences, the first being your wonderful piece on Ford and The Searchers…<3

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