Friday, 21 March 2014

Leo McCarey

There are two sides to Leo McCarey. The first one is him being one of the most important comic filmmaker of all time. He made shorts with Charley Chase. He put Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy together and was the, to use a contemporary term, show runner for most of their silent films as Laurel & Hardy (he wrote and directed many of them as well). He directed Duck Soup (1933), the best of the Marx brothers' films, and it was he who devised some of their most memorable scenes such as the fake mirror sequence (a routine with a long history). In addition he directed Mae West in Belle of the Nineties (1934) and Harold Lloyd in the fine The Milky Way (1936). Some claim that with The Awful Truth (1937), which McCarey wrote, directed and produced, he "created" the persona of Cary Grant that is known today but although The Awful Truth was important Grant had been building himself up over time, and in Topper (Norman Z. McLeod, 1937) the Cary Grant who combines wackiness and elegance was more or less in place. So The Awful Truth was important, and Grant is much better in it, but not groundbreaking. Besides his filmmaking McCarey also had an encyclopedic knowledge of humour (if you mentioned a joke he could say when it first was made and by whom) and a theoretical view on how humour works, ideas which he put forward in articles and essays.

The second side is as a profound humanist, a maker of some of the most moving films ever made, such as Make Way For Tomorrow (1937) and Love Affair (1939). The McCarey of whom Jean Renoir said that he "understands people - better perhaps than anyone else in Hollywood." He was loved by most people, and Ernst Lubitsch, Frank Capra, George Bernard Shaw, Orson Welles and Charlie Chaplin were among those who praised him and his work. He was Irene Dunne's favourite director and even Maria Ouspenskaya spoke kindly of him.


McCarey lost his way somewhat after the Second World War. The causes were several, including suspected alcoholism, addiction to painkillers (after a car accident that nearly killed him), and a sense of writer's block after winning a remarkable number of awards and being the most highly paid man in the whole of the United States in 1944. After having made at least a film a year until 1945 he made only five more films after the war. Of those five films one succeeds, and very much so: An Affair to Remember (1957). But it is significant that it is a remake of his earlier Love Affair. The other four films are the decent but dull Good Sam (1948), an amiable comedy called Rally 'Round the Flag Boys (1958) and two films on which McCarey had severe problems. On the first one, My Son John (1952), the leading man Robert Walker died during the shooting and McCarey had to borrow scenes from Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951), in which Walker also starred, to fill out the gaps. Walker's character is killed in the film but only because the actor had died, not because that was McCarey's intention. On the second problematic film, Satan Never Sleeps (1962), he got into a fight with William Holden, who played the lead, and when the studio took Holden's side McCarey walked away. Somebody else finished the film and McCarey never directed another film. An ignoble end to a once brilliant career.

But those final years cannot undo what had gone before. When he was at his most inspired he had few equals. His style of filmmaking was rather unique. He would come up with a general idea for the film, often based on his personal life, and then during the making of the film he would improvise constantly and making it up as he went along, together with his cast and crew. He would always have a piano on set and he would play on it whilst thinking up ideas, and then when he had a good one he would get back to filming. Often he would just say to the actors how a scene would begin, and then let them do whatever came natural to them. He would film it all, often in one take, and being as curious as anybody else as to what would happen. He would also tell one actor or two to do something, but not tell the others, and so let them improvise a response. This means that when a character looks surprised in a film by McCarey in all likelihood the actor playing that character is just as surprised. This is one of the true wonders of his films, these unguarded moments of genuine emotions.


McCarey was not shy of having the actors look into the camera, at the audience. The example above might be the most devastating of them. The old couple in Make Way For Tomorrow, one of the saddest of films, are having a special evening on the town, a few precious moments alone. Or almost alone. Just as he is about to kiss her she turns and looks at us, as if to say "Kindly go away and let us have this moment for ourselves." I do not know if it was her idea, or McCarey's, but it does not matter. The weird feeling of shame, for intruding upon them, is there.

McCarey's way of filmmaking also affected the structure and pacing of his films, in that they are often a progression of what I call emotional set-pieces rather than a more conventional narrative. The films do have a forward motion but it is not the story that is the main concern but the emotions of the characters. The sequences in which these emotions are expressed are often so rich and nuanced they become like short movies in themselves of either hilarious comedy or heartbreaking sadness and/or tenderness. Examples of this are plenty but perhaps the best is the visit to the old grandmother in Love Affair or the scene in Going My Way (1944) when Father Fitzgibbon, the old priest, tells the new priest Father O'Malley that he has understood that O'Malley has been sent to replace him. Or rather, he does not tell him, he let it be understood in a roundabout way, because he cannot bring himself to say out loud the truth; that he is too old to remain in his post and is not wanted anymore. Then he starts to cry and walks away, out of the room and out of his beloved church.

This way of making the films led James Agee to make the observation, when writing about The Bells of St Mary's (1945), that a film by McCarey is "distinguished for leisure and spaciousness, for delight in character and atmosphere, for it use of scenes which are inserted not to advance the story but for their own intrinsic charm." This scene for example, from Bells of St Mary's, where McCarey just told them to try and box.



The old priest in Going My Way, Father Fitzgibbon, was based on a priest that McCarey had known well. In the next film, The Bells of St Mary's, the nun played by Ingrid Bergman is based on McCarey's own aunt, also a nun. The Awful Truth is based on McCarey's own marriage. Make Way For Tomorrow, a film about loneliness and generational conflict that was an inspiration for Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953), McCarey made after the death of his father. These are some examples of how personal the films were, and how McCarey used his art to deal with his own life. Allegedly his wife used to asked him, when she saw the films, what the different scenes were meant to represent. ("When was that, darling?" she would ask.) If you want to know what McCarey was like you can look closely at Jerry Warriner, the character Cary Grant plays in The Awful Truth, because he based him on McCarey. What should also be mentioned is the sense of religiosity and spirituality that imbues several of his films.

McCarey was once one of the most honoured and celebrated of any filmmaker, and an internal auteur. The trio of films he made between 1937 and 1939, Make Way For TomorrowThe Awful Truth and Love Affair, constitute the pinnacle of his achievements. Although he is not a household name anymore among cinephiles he is not forgotten and in the history of film his position is secure. Here, finally, is a scene from Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), where an English butler finds himself in the Wild West. There is no gunplay or fistfights here, but something much more spellbinding.



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I have never been able to watch My Son John, which is usually considered a disaster. But it has its defenders, for example Jonathan Rosenbaum who has called it "great but deranged". Some have suggested that it is the result of a conflict between McCarey's natural artistic sensibilities and the forced anti-communist theme. I have not mentioned Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942), McCarey's anti-Nazi film, because it has been so long since I saw it but I think it might very well be classified as "great but deranged" as well. It certainly takes black humour to some surreal extremes. As for Satan Never Sleeps, while McCarey hated the finished film it has its moments. The three people it is about, played by Holden, Clifton Webb and France Nuyen, are treated with warmth and humour, and there are several fine scenes. But as a whole it is rather weak, muddled and obvious, especially the last 15 minutes or so.

For a deeper analysis of The Awful Truth see Stanley Cavell's book The Pursuit of Happiness. For a book about the life and career of McCarey see Wes D.Gehring's Leo McCarey: From Marx to McCarthy (which is not as good as one would have wanted). The quote from Rosenbaum about My Son John is from his book Essential Cinema. The quote from Agee is to be found in Agee on Film Volume 1.

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