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Our Five Favorite Movies from Leo McCarey

Born in Los Angeles, California, Leo McCarey attended St. Joseph’s Catholic school and Los Angeles High School. His father was Thomas J. McCarey, whom the Los Angeles Times called “the greatest fight promoter in the world”. Leo McCarey would later make a boxing comedy with Harold Lloyd called The Milky Way (1936).

Leo McCarey graduated from the University of Southern California law school and besides the law tried mining, boxing, and songwriting before becoming an assistant director to Tod Browning in 1919. It was McCarey’s boyhood friend, the actor and future fellow director David Butler, who referred him to Browning. Browning convinced McCarey, despite his photogenic looks, to work on the creative side as a writer rather than as an actor. McCarey then honed his skills at the Hal Roach Studios. Roach had hired him as a gagman in 1923, after McCarey had impressed him with his sense of humor, following a game of handball together at a sports club. McCarey initially wrote gags for the Our Gang series and other studio stars, then produced and directed shorts, including two-reelers with Charley Chase. Chase would in fact become McCarey’s mentor. The two men were especially compatible, as they both enjoyed a hobby on the side trying to write popular songs. While at Roach, McCarey, according to later interviews, cast Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy together and guided development of their onscreen characters, thus creating one of the most enduring comedy teams of all time. He only officially appeared as director of the duo’s shorts We Faw Down (1928), Liberty (1929) and Wrong Again (1929), but wrote many screenplays and supervised the direction by others. By 1929, he was vice-president of production for the studio. Less well known from this period are the shorts he directed with Max Davidson when Roach put together the Irish-American McCarey with the Jewish-American actor for a series of “dialect comedies.” These shorts have been rediscovered and Pass The Gravy was added to the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress in 1999.

In the sound era McCarey focused on feature-film direction, working with many of the biggest stars of the era, including Gloria Swanson (Indiscreet, 1931), Eddie Cantor (The Kid From Spain, 1932), the Marx Brothers (Duck Soup, 1933), W.C. Fields (Six of a Kind, 1934), and Mae West (Belle of the Nineties, 1934). A series of six films at Paramount came to a crashing halt with his production of Make Way for Tomorrow in 1937. While the story of an elderly couple who must be separated for economic and family reasons during the Depression was not without humor in its treatment, the results were too unpopular at the box office and the director was let go. Nonetheless the film was recognized early on for its importance by being selected for the permanent collection of the recently formed Museum Of Modern Art in New York City. In later years it became considered by some as McCarey’s masterpiece, due to perceptive champions such as Bertrand Tavernier, Charles Silver, and Robin Wood. Later in 1937, invited to Columbia, McCarey earned his first Academy Award for Directing for The Awful Truth, with Irene Dunne and Cary Grant, a screwball comedy that launched Cary Grant‘s unique screen persona, largely concocted by McCarey (Grant copied many of McCarey’s mannerisms). Along with the similarity in their names, McCarey and Cary Grant shared an eerie physical resemblance, making mimicking McCarey’s intonations and expressions even easier for Grant.

After the success of The Awful Truth McCarey could have become, like Frank Capra, a Columbia contract director with a certain independence, but went his own way, selling the story that would become The Cowboy And The Lady to Sam Goldwyn and moving to RKO for three films. A car accident in 1940 prevented him from directing his production of My Favorite Wife, a kind of follow up to The Awful Truth with the same two stars, so it was turned over to Garson Kanin though McCarey worked on some of the editing. McCarey was a devout Roman Catholic and deeply concerned with social issues. During the 1940s, his work became more serious and his politics more conservative. In 1944 he directed Going My Way, a story about an enterprising priest, the youthful Father Chuck O’Malley, played by Bing Crosby, for which he won his second Best Director Oscar and Crosby won a Best Actor Oscar. His share in the profits of this smash hit gave McCarey the highest reported income in the U.S. for 1944, and its follow-up, The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), which paired Crosby with Ingrid Bergman and made by McCarey’s newly formed production company, was similarly successful.

The public reacted negatively to some of his films after World War II. For instance, his anti-communist film My Son John (1952) failed at the box office. But five years later, he co-wrote, produced, and directed An Affair to Remember starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, a remake (with precisely the same script) of his 1939 film Love Affair with Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer.

He followed this hit with Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys! (1958), a comedy starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Some years later he directed his last picture, the poorly received Satan Never Sleeps (1962), like My Son John a somewhat strident critique of Communism. Through most of his career, McCarey’s filming method, rooted in the silents, was to drastically alter the story ideas, bits of business, and dialogue in the scripts previously provided to the studios and the actors. He would usually sit at a piano and doodle as the sometimes-exasperated crew waited for inspiration. While this technique was responsible for a certain awkwardness and some rough edges in the finished works, many of McCarey’s scenes had a freshness and spontaneity lacking in the typical mainstream Hollywood cinema. He was not the only director of his time to work this way: fellow comedy directors Gregory La Cava, Howard Hawks and George Stevens – the last also a Roach graduate – were known for their use of improvisation on the set.

Leo McCarey died on July 5, 1969, aged 70, from emphysema. He was interred in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California. In 1978, Leo McCarey’s production records, including scripts, budgets and correspondence were donated to the Charles Feldman Library at the American Film Institute in Beverly Hills.

Our Five Favorite From Leo McCarey

Poster for the movie "Duck Soup"

© 1933 Paramount Pictures − All right reserved.

Duck Soup (1933)

An anarchistic, satirical, zany, anti-war film, and one of the Marx Brothers’ finest. Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), wealthy millionaire supporter of the financially strapped, tiny country of Freedonia, decides to appoint a new president, dictatorial Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho). War clouds threaten almost immediately when Firefly insults neighboring Sylvania’s ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern). Chicolini (Chico) and Brownie (Harpo) were hired as incompetent spies sent to get war plans. With classic diplomatic blunders, terrific one-liners, slapstick gags, and great political humor.

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Poster for the movie "The Awful Truth"

© 1937 Columbia Pictures Corporation − All right reserved.

The Awful Truth (1937)

A classic screwball comedy of the 1930s and the first on-screen pairing of Irene Dunne and Cary Grant. After an argument and a series of false accusations, married couple Jerry (Cary Grant) and socialite Lucy Warriner (Irene Dunne) agree to a 90 day interlocutory divorce. He pursues singer Dixie Belle Lee (Joyce Compton) and socialite Barbara Vance (Molly Lamont), while she sees both her handsome voice teacher Armand Duvalle (Alex D’Arcy) and wealthy oil heir Daniel Leeson (Ralph Bellamy). With rapid-fire, witty and sophisticated dialogue, they each try their best to thwart or sabotage each other’s romances and marriage plans with others, and bicker over who gets custody of their pet terrier Mr. Smith (Asta of The Thin Man). By the end, they both discovered the awful truth that they still loved each other.

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Poster for the movie "My Favorite Wife"

© − All right reserved.

My Favorite Wife (1940)

One of the classic marital screwball comedies of all time – an attempt to repeat the success of director Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937) (featuring the same two stars and producer McCarey). It was the second of three films which paired Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, followed by Penny Serenade (1941).

Taglined: “The funniest, fastest honeymoon ever screened!” with all the characteristics of screwball comedy – fast paced dialogue, absurd and wacky circumstances, and some slapstick. Ellen Arden (Irene Dunne), the wife of a young attorney was shipwrecked on a South Seas voyage during a typhoon and presumed lost. In reality she was alive, marooned on a desert island with another survivor, a handsome young scientist Stephen Burkett (Randolph Scott). Declared legally dead after seven years, she happens to arrive back on the day of her husband Nick Arden’s (Cary Grant) remarriage to Bianca (Gail Patrick) and their honeymoon night. He is stunned by her reappearance – what will he to do, and what about the other man who may have compromised her?

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Poster for the movie "Going My Way"

© − All right reserved.

Going My Way (1944)

A classic Bing Crosby film and a major box-office hit (the top-grossing film of the year) – and a Best Picture winner. It was followed by the sequel, The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945). A heartwarming, sentimental story of a young, personable, progressive, down-to-earth priest Father Chuck O’Malley (Bing Crosby) who works in a poor New York City slum Catholic parish – the financially-struggling St. Dominic’s Church. He seeks to win over his strict, loveable, but crusty, conservative old parish priest Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald, uniquely nominated for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, winning the latter) and to teach a group of street kids responsibility and respect by organizing a boys choir. Crosby’s songs included the incomparable “Swinging on a Star” (Oscar-winning), “Ave Maria,” “Three Blind Mice” (sung with the boys’ choir) and the Irish lullaby “Too-ra-Loo-ra-Loo-ra.”

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Poster for the movie "An Affair to Remember"

© 1957 20th Century Fox − All right reserved.

An Affair to Remember (1957)

Nickie Ferrante’s (Cary Grant) return to New York to marry a rich heiress is well publicized as are his many antics and affairs. He meets a nightclub singer Terry McKay (Deborah Kerr) who is also on her way home to her longtime boyfriend. She sees him as just another playboy and he sees her as stand-offish but over several days they soon find they’ve fallen in love. Nickie has never really worked in his life so they agree that they will meet again in six months time atop the Empire State building. This will give them time to deal with their current relationships and for Nickie to see if he can actually earn a living. He returns to painting and is reasonably successful. On the agreed date, Nickie is waiting patiently for Terry who is racing to join him. Fate intervenes however resulting in misunderstanding and heartbreak and only fate can save their relationship.

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Each one of these films made our Greatest Films lists for it’s respective year. Do you have a favorite Leo McCarey film that didn’t make our list?