BY R. EMMET SWEENEY
Jean Renoir famously said, "Leo McCarey understood people better than any other director in Hollywood." With many of his movies finally reaching home video, including the recent Blu-ray release of An Affair to Remember (1957), it's easier than ever to investigate this grand claim. Using a loose improvisatory style, McCarey built up minutely detailed performances, guiding Laurel and Hardy, Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Bing Crosby, and many others to their most inventive and affecting work, for which McCarey earned five Oscar nominations and three wins. Lacking the visual bravura of Hitchcock or John Ford, the greatness of McCarey's films has inevitably been attributed to their charismatic stars over the years, with his name usually hidden in the eye-straining credit block on the back cover of DVDs. It does not even appear on the front of the DVD of his biggest hit, Going My Way (1944). Yet McCarey is one of the unsung masters of American film comedy, reinvigorating and deepening slapstick, screwball, and romantic comedies over the course of his 40-year career in Hollywood.
McCarey was born in Los Angeles in 1898, and entered the movie business in 1918, when he became an assistant to director Tod Browning. Trained as a lawyer, he was good at thinking on his feet, but his improvisatory talents weren't discovered until he started cranking out gag-filled one-reelers for Hal Roach Studios in 1923. His first success for Roach was with the silent comedian Charley Chase, a spindly specimen whom McCarey deployed in slowly paced domestic comedies of humiliation. Director and star would sit around a piano, playing melodies and pitching story ideas before shooting, a practice McCarey would continue for the rest of his career. Roach remembered watching them fiddling at the keys, working out ideas, and remarked that "it looked as though they were almost dreaming." The dream continued with Max Davidson, a German Jew who played a put-upon father in a series of shorts directed by McCarey.
As with the Chase films, these are behavioral comedies, with the humor coming more from Davidson observing chaos rather than the chaos itself, channeling emotional calamities into expressive reaction shots, a bit of underplaying that McCarey would frequently demand of his actors. He was promoted to supervising director in 1926, and began to perfect the slow-burn style of Laurel and Hardy. The trio elaborated a comedy of reciprocal destruction, in which a series of small indignities are multiplied until the duo decimates a location.
After leaving the Roach studios, McCarey directed a number of comedy star vehicles, which were essentially filmed versions of their stage acts. Among these features, for which McCarey had little creative input, the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup (1933) remains the standout. McCarey's main contribution was to its physical comedy, including the mirror gag, in which Harpo pretends to be Groucho's reflection. McCarey had already done a similar bit with Charley Chase in their short film Sittin' Pretty (1924), and it still works beautifully nine years later.
It wasn't until Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) that McCarey was able to use his improvisatory style in features, and it was thanks to Charles Laughton, who requested that Paramount appoint McCarey as director. Laughton plays Ruggles, a prim British butler whose lifelong employer (Roland Young) bets and loses him in a poker game to a family of yokels from Red Gap, Washington. It mines the reactive comedy of the Davidson shorts for even bigger laughs, with Laughton's astonishingly expressive face registering every embarrassment foisted upon him. McCarey gives him plenty of room to exploit this physical interpretation of the role, and Laughton was ecstatic. In The Saturday Evening Post Laughton recounted the genesis of a scene with his love interest Prunella (Zasu Pitts): "Once, when a prop man was making me a cup of tea on the set, I objected because he took the kettle of hot water to the tea. 'Always bring the pot to the kettle,' I told him. 'Never bring the kettle to the pot.' McCarey sat right down at the piano and started working out the little score about that, which you may have seen in the film." Ruggles ends up flirting with Prunella using those lines in a singsong voice, the first inkling of his emerging individuality, and his eroding belief in hereditary servitude, a revelation that culminates in his impromptu declaiming of the Gettysburg Address in a local watering hole.
This dream of an idyllic American community is questioned in McCarey's first masterpiece of 1937, Make Way for Tomorrow (Criterion). Lucy and Bark Cooper (Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore) are an aging couple who are no longer able to afford their mortgage, hoping to move in together with one of their five children. Instead, they are separated and traded among their offspring, treated as useless antiques that would be better off scrapped (a scenario that inspired Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story). The communitarian spirit of Ruggles' America appears briefly, in the Coopers' last day together, as they revisit the sites of their honeymoon in New York. The world opens up to them as if in a dream, with car salesmen and hotel managers offering them every courtesy. They then part, and their compromised reality returns, with Bondi staring off-screen, as if into a void. Produced after the death of McCarey's father, it is a heartbreaking film that, as Orson Welles said, "Could make a stone cry." It was McCarey's favorite of his features, but it failed at the box office, precipitating his departure from Paramount.
A free agent, McCarey moved to Columbia to make his other great picture of 1937, The Awful Truth, a return to comedy and audience favor, for which he won the best director Oscar. It's a screwball farce showcasing Cary Grant and Irene Dunne as the warring Warriners, whose divorce is nothing compared to their reconciliation. Almost entirely improvised, McCarey later said that "a lot of times we'd go into a scene with nothing." Given such freedom by McCarey, Grant and Dunne built ingenious performances, each scene a puzzle to be solved by different comic styles. It's as if McCarey is cycling through his own comedy progression, from the humiliation of Charley Chase to the reciprocal destruction of Laurel and Hardy, as the Warriners try to torpedo each other's love life.
McCarey followed that up with his first unabashed romance, Love Affair (1939), which acts as a flawless union of Make Way for Tomorrow's dark romanticism and The Awful Truth's loose acting style. This time Dunne plays a wife-to-be who falls for playboy Charles Boyer, as they sail on a cruise from Europe back to America. The intricate choreography of hand movements indicates their shift from flirts to lovers. McCarey, in one of his most impressively visual films, repeatedly frames Dunne in windows, introducing her first in a porthole, her face like a photo in a cameo necklace. She is nothing more than an ideal image to Boyer, who over the course of the film has to accept her complicated reality, and does so in one of the most moving reaction shots of McCarey's career.
McCarey later remade the film as An Affair to Remember (1957), which is an object lesson in how important actors were to the director's work. Although he uses the exact same script, almost to the word, the movie has a much lighter, more capricious tone than the original. This difference is all a result of the casting, with Cary Grant stepping into the Boyer role, and Deborah Kerr replacing Dunne. Grant is naturally funny, his sly smile turning even the most passionate clinch into farce. The doomed romanticism of Boyer's eroticized glare is replaced by Grant's more playful sexuality, a roll in the hay rather than a movement of the earth.
A similar contrast emerges between the two huge hits McCarey made with Bing Crosby: Going My Way (1944) and its sequel The Bells of St. Mary's (1945). The first is a blithely sentimental comedy about the ups and downs of an Irish Catholic church in New York City, anchored by the coolly empathetic performance of Crosby as the progressive-minded priest, Father O'Malley. Its gentle evocation of American immigrant (and religious) life struck a chord with a war-weary audience, and became Paramount's highest-grossing film to date. The Bells of St. Mary's is something else entirely, channeling Love Affair's vision of transcendental love rather than any of the director's knockabout comedies. Father O'Malley returns to another struggling enterprise, this time a Catholic school run by Sister Mary (Ingrid Bergman), which will be condemned unless it gets expensive renovations. It starts as another series of humorous sketches, including a clearly improvised Christmas pageant put on by nervous school children, a brilliantly funny nod to McCarey's working methods. As the narrative proceeds, though, Crosby and Bergman's screwball sparring builds into a repressed attraction expressed in glances of deferred longing.
McCarey tackled another touchy subject in My Son John (1952), his most notorious and derided feature (forthcoming on DVD from Olive Films). This explicitly anti-Communist melodrama uncovers a Red spy hiding out with a small-town American family. Robert Walker is the treasonous intellectual who betrays his devoutly religious mother (Helen Hayes) and hotheaded conservative father (Dean Jagger). It is dismissed because of its politics (McCarey was a friendly witness for HUAC), and its checkered production history: Robert Walker died during filming, and the ending was cobbled together from existing audio and clips featuring Walker from the finale of Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train. But to reduce the film to a kitschy Red Scare product ignores the complex dynamics occurring in the family unit. Jagger plays the father as a buffoon, who can't see a world beyond his local right wing newspaper. Hayes is pinned in between these ideological poles, attempting and failing to adapt her Catholic faith to either view, stranded inside her own family. McCarey's art could not help but undercut his politics, his emphasis on improvisation creating multifaceted personalities that refuse to be reduced to an ideology.
McCarey understood people, as Renoir said, and was able to convey this knowledge through his rapport with actors. His training in the pantomime of the silent era and method of spontaneous scene-building pushed his performers to physically expressive heights unmatched in classical Hollywood. He could compress a lifetime of repressed emotion into one delicate close-up of Bergman's incandescent face, or indicate a priest's mild subversiveness by having Crosby take a hop over a hedgerow. These little gestures over the course of his career constructed entire inner worlds, so each character is recognizably human, recognizably flawed. This made McCarey's comedies sad and his tragedies funny; that is, they contained the world in all its frustrating contradictions.