Directed by Leo McCarey - 12/25
In 1945, Leo McCarey was the most celebrated and successful film director in America. Thanks to the overwhelming box-office success of Going My Way (1944) he was named "Employee of the Year" for having one of the highest salaries in the country - $1,113,035. More significantly, he also won the Best Director Oscar® for the same film. In that year he also formed an independent company to produce a sequel, The Bells of St. Mary's (1945), which was also a huge critical and popular hit. Yet for all this acclaim, Leo McCarey became an oft-neglected figure in the days of auteur film criticism, seldom receiving the level of adoration paid to such contemporaries as Frank Capra. Thankfully, McCarey's stock has risen in recent years due to essays by such devotees as critic Robin Wood and critic/filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich. Duly noted now among McCarey's qualities are his versatility, his humanity and his flair for distinctive film comedies.
Prior to becoming a film director, McCarey tried his hand at several other professions - he was a boxer, a lawyer, and a songwriter, though each endeavor was short lived. In 1919, he got a job as continuity assistant to director Tod Browning at Universal, and parlayed his experience into a feature directing assignment. Unfortunately, the film was unsuccessful and while McCarey continued to direct, he would not make another feature for several years. In 1923 he landed at Hal Roach Studios, where he began amassing an amazing track record as a comedy director. For Roach he directed dozens of two-reelers starring the likes of Charley Chase and Max Davidson. Even more significantly, he is the person most often credited with the idea of teaming Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and he was the director or supervisor for many of their very best silent shorts, such as Liberty (1929) and Big Business (1929). As a clear sign of his value to the studio, he rose from gag-man status to studio vice-president in just five years.
McCarey followed this highly successful stint in silent short comedy with a new phase of his career in the early sound era. As a freelancer, then a Paramount contractee, he moved into feature films and helmed several major studio productions headlined by top comedy stars. In addition to Duck Soup (1933), generally considered the best of the Paramount Marx Bros. movies, McCarey also directed Eddie Cantor (The Kid from Spain, 1932), Burns & Allen and W. C. Fields (Six of a Kind, 1934), and Mae West (Belle of the Nineties, 1934). While fine comedies, these served primarily as star vehicles and left little opportunity for McCarey's personal stamp. Ruggles of Red Gap(1935, with Charles Laughton) and The Milky Way (1936, starring Harold Lloyd) marked the beginning of the strongest and most personal phase of McCarey's career. Here he brought to bear many of the trademarks of his emerging style: behavioral comedy, heartfelt sentiment, and informal, naturalistic performances.
McCarey next took on a non-commercial subject - the displacement of an elderly couple - and the resulting bittersweet film, Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), was both his most personal film and his biggest box-office failure, costing him the Paramount contract. In a complete turnaround, he bounced back with The Awful Truth (1937) for Columbia Pictures, a film that is nothing less than one of the defining examples of Screwball Comedy. Bored by the script he was given, McCarey encouraged his actors (Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, and Ralph Bellamy) to improvise. The results were fast and funny as well as naturalistic. The film was a huge box-office hit and earned McCarey his first Academy Award for Best Director.
As his follow-up to The Awful Truth, McCarey wrote and directed the classic comedy romance, Love Affair(1939), starring Dunne and Charles Boyer. In this film McCarey skillfully balances sophisticated humor, breezy romance and heartfelt sentiment. Following the One-Two punch of the Father O'Malley films in the mid-1940s, McCarey's output was more sporadic and included the anti-Communist melodrama My Son John(1952), and the Love Affair re-make, An Affair to Remember (1957).
Many of the films from McCarey's mature period are not easily filed into any particular genre, as they could easily veer from romance to light comedy to drama to out-and-out slapstick, and even back again to tragedy. Sometimes the results were jarring and not wholly successful. Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942) was a rare misfire for McCarey. In it Ginger Rogers plays a former burlesque star who tries her hand at social climbing in Europe in 1938, marrying a Baron who turns out to be a Nazi spy. Cary Grant is a reporter trying to get the goods on the relationship - as they fall in love while on the road, they are in one scene mistaken for Jews in Poland and sent to a concentration camp. In this curious film, all scenes - even those involving peril at the hands of Nazis - are played with a sly comedic wink. The results are uncomfortable now and were even disconcerting to many critics at the time of release.
McCarey's style was relaxed and often sophisticated, though just as often punctuated by slapstick. The casualness so often in evidence in his films is the result of McCarey's fondness for on-set improvisation. In what was no doubt a holdover from his Hal Roach days, McCarey was known to arrive on a set in the morning and casually play ragtime piano until a new scene or bit of business would occur to him for that day's shooting. With a set of like-minded actors such as Grant, Dunne, or Bing Crosby, the results could often be sparkling. As a failed songwriter who considered himself a musician at heart, it should come as no surprise that music and songs also play an important role in many of McCarey's films. His characters do not break into song, they ease into them through conversation and circumstance, the music occurring naturally from dramatic and comedic situations. In Love Affair, the young couple visit with Boyer's grandmother (Maria Ouspenskaya) and their most meaningful bonding occurs around the piano as the grandmother plays "Plaisir d"Amour." Songs populate the Father O'Malley films, but the most engaging musical moments are those in which songs are taught to others. "Swinging on a Star" from Going My Way and the title song from The Bells of St. Mary's are such sequences that contribute greatly to the breezy spontaneity and warm appeal of McCarey's films.
Jean Renoir was once quoted as saying, "McCarey understands people - perhaps better than anyone else in Hollywood." That quote is oft-used, but with good reason. McCarey's later features all have moments of quiet and humanity, and the viewer can't help but feel engaged and welcome in the worlds McCarey creates.
by John Miller