Leo McCarey

Thomas Leo McCarey
b. October 3, 1898, Los Angeles, California, USA
d. July 5, 1969, Santa Monica, California, USA

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Of the greatest directors of the Classic Hollywood era, Leo McCarey’s work and reputation are today among the most popularly and critically neglected. McCarey was a giant in his time. His films were often hugely successful with audiences, and his colleagues admired his work (three Oscars and 36 nominations for his films, fan letters reportedly from Chaplin and Capra, etc). Jean Renoir expressed a once widely held sentiment when he remarked, “McCarey understands people better perhaps than anyone else in Hollywood.” (1)

Yet today, thirty-three years after his death, while Frank Capra, John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock’s legends have only grown and, thanks to auteurism, reputations have been securely established for Howard Hawks, Douglas Sirk, and Nicholas Ray (among others), McCarey is ignored by virtually all but diehard cinephiles. When a McCarey film is popularly discussed (or revived) these days, more often than not, the film is Duck Soup (1933) or An Affair to Remember (1957), two works that have their merits but which are a far cry from McCarey’s strongest or most personal work.

Part of the neglect results from a problem of access to the movies themselves. Of the twenty-three sound features McCarey directed, eleven (including possibly his greatest masterpiece, Make Way for Tomorrow [1937]) are either out of print or have never been released on video in his home country. At least two more, Good Sam (1948) and Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942), exist in compromised video versions. Likewise, his films are only sporadically shown on television. Is it any wonder that there is no book-length McCarey biography, and the last extended studies of his work were published in 1980? (2) It seems less excusable that important surveys of film history – including David Cook’s voluminous A History of Narrative Film – virtually ignore him. (3)

For a director who made a film (The Bells of St. Mary’s [1945]) seen, at one time, by more moviegoers in the USA than any other to that point in history, (4) McCarey has, oddly enough, become something of a cult figure. Among his most perceptive and vocal supporters are David Kehr, Jonathan Rosenbaum and, especially, Robin Wood. Though Wood’s essays and Kehr and Rosenbaum’s reviews have championed him on multiple occasions, virtually every extended biographical or critical essay about Leo McCarey written since the advent of auteurism either questions whether he was more than a serviceable metteur-en-scène or, alternatively, discusses his neglect and defends his career as an auteur. (5) This essay very much follows the latter approach.

* * *

Leo McCarey was the first son of Irish-Catholic Thomas McCarey, a well-known boxing promoter, and French-born Leona [Mistrol] McCarey, for whom he is named. He attended St. Joseph’s Catholic school and Los Angeles High School growing up. Though he tried prize-fighting as an amateur middleweight, he eventually obeyed his father’s wishes and studied law at USC. With $5000 in damages from an accident where he fell down an elevator shaft, McCarey invested the money in a copper mine, which soon went bust. He continued in mining for a short while, and then practiced law. As a lawyer he was a failure: he lost cases quickly and he didn’t have the heart to defend people he knew to be guilty. A talented pianist, McCarey decided to try to make it as a songwriter. Despite writing song after song – some accounts put the number he authored over the course of his life at nearly 1000 – he never made enough money at it to make a living. (6) After he had become a successful filmmaker, his failure as a songwriter remained “his major frustration.” (7) In 1919, deciding to pursue a career in motion pictures, he got a break as an assistant to Tod Browning at Universal.

After his apprenticeship at Universal, McCarey worked for Hal Roach studios from 1923 through 1929. This period, which I won’t deal with here, deserves its own extended study. (8) He worked his way from being a gag-man to vice-president of the studio and during that time supervised hundreds of comedy shorts. (9) His single greatest contribution at Roach was pairing Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, though McCarey was only given credit for this much later in his life.

The Awful Truth

Such details of McCarey’s life are worth mentioning because he repeatedly used his personal history as source material from his days at Hal Roach Studios through his last works. One of the first known instances is the bow tie gag that recurs through the early films (McCarey could not tie a bow tie), (10) but almost every film has autobiographical allusions. A brief, incomplete cataloging starts to prove the point: Boxing is central to The Milky Way (1936) and is the basis for an extended sequence in The Bells of St. Mary’s, in which Ingrid Bergman teaches a boy to fight. The Milky Way also includes a manipulative boxing promoter, a gentle jab no doubt, at his father, who pushed him into law. The Awful Truth (1937) and Going My Way (1944) feature other allusions to McCarey’s past failures. The former has Cary Grant discussing a worthless mine he’s trying to sell, while the latter casts Bing Crosby’s priest as a failed songwriter. Going My Way obviously draws on McCarey’s Irish Catholic heritage, but The Bells of St. Mary’s is even more specific in its familial inspiration: McCarey has acknowledged that the film is largely based on his aunt, Sister Mary Benedict, who died of typhoid. (11) McCarey’s aunt was not a teacher (as is Ingrid Bergman’s nun), but his sister was, and one supposes that she inspired McCarey as well. Good Sam‘s plot mirrors McCarey’s own life – his income was reported the highest in the USA for 1945 and since such reports were made widely, he had to choose which, among hundreds of incoming requests for donations and charity, he could support. Love Affair‘s (1939) shipboard romance plot came to McCarey while at sea with his wife. And so on.

The fact that McCarey alluded to his life in his films does not necessarily, of course, make him a great director. It does show, however, how deeply he thought of cinema as an avenue for personal expression. McCarey may have liked, as was often quoted, “a little bit of the fairy tale” in his films, but this inclusion of his real world shows there’s something more complicated and nuanced going on than that seemingly innocent phrase initially suggests. He clearly thought that, in the cinema, even fantasies needed to be anchored in the actual and the specific in order for them to be convincing.

In near coincidence with the advent of sound, McCarey became a director of features. (12) Over the next eight years he directed a series of features (most while under contract at Paramount) that mainly paired him with star comedians. Among these works: 1932’s The Kid from Spain (Eddie Cantor), 1934’s Belle of the Nineties (Mae West), Six of a Kind (starring W.C. Fields, George Burns and Gracie Allen) from that same year, and The Milky Way (Harold Lloyd).

The most widely known film of this bunch is the Marx Brothers’ classic Duck Soup, a film almost universally agreed upon as being their best. McCarey didn’t much care for it. The film has its moments – its justifiably famous final sequence is a bitter satire on the absurdities of war – but the film at large suffers from the same drawbacks of the other Marx Brothers comedies. The humor largely revolves around one-liners, and often the surrounding cast does little but stand and listen as Groucho delivers punchline after punchline. This is uncharacteristic for McCarey’s humanistic work, where it seems all his characters have something to do. Its favorable comparison with other Marx Brothers vehicles (no harp solos, for example) leads one to suppose that McCarey was responsible for keeping things moving, something that gives the film such staying power. Beyond that, within the rubric of a McCarey study, it is at best a transitional work and, at worst, nearly faceless.

Other films from this “transitional period,” however, do show greater flashes of McCarey’s later concerns. For instance, it’s hard to not see Charles Ruggles and Mary Boland’s reminiscences of the earlier, less strained days of their marriage in Six of a Kind as a precursor to the lovers of both Make Way for Tomorrow and The Awful Truth. And music, which we’ll later see is essential to McCarey’s universe, figures significantly in Belle of the Nineties, Duck Soup, and even The Milky Way, where Harold Lloyd learns to box to music.

Ruggles of Red Gap

Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) is McCarey’s watershed – simultaneously a culmination of over a decade’s worth of comic training, but also a confident expression of a new, more personal direction producing films with deeper emotional resonance and greater sensitivity to human behavior. The film tells the story of a British servant (Charles Laughton) who must move to Red Gap, Washington, to serve two nouveau riche American bumpkins when he is “lost” by his master in a poker game. A wholly successful picture, the film is funny, genuinely touching, and may well be one of the best films ever made – including those by Capra – about the idea of America.

McCarey’s detractors (and sometimes even his supporters) argue that he is a director of great moments rather than great films. Up until Ruggles of Red Gap, this is a fair assessment: McCarey trained as a gag-man and grew, some would say slowly, into a director of features. But while Ruggles contains some of his finest set pieces – including the justifiably famous scene where Ruggles the Brit is the only person in a bar of clueless, speechless Americans that can recite the Gettysburg Address – the film also coheres as a narrative.

One reason it coheres, and one thing that marks Ruggles as McCarey’s first mature feature, is that here he begins to deal spiritual themes, something that runs through virtually all of the remainder of his work for the next twenty-two years. Ruggles is a very funny movie, but McCarey is dead serious about what lies at its core: it is a film about a man’s spiritual transformation. After Ruggles recites the Gettysburg Address in the bar, all the patrons share a beer together. It is a moment of informal, but real, communion – a ceremony celebrating Ruggles’ “baptism,” not just as an American, (13) but more importantly, as a human being with fully developed hopes and desires of his own.

Bing Crosby in Going My Way

From 1935 to 1945 McCarey worked with much greater control over his films, (14) and what films they are! Besides Ruggles of Red Gap, there is The Awful Truth (one of the very best screwball comedies), Love Affair (one of the best romances), Going My Way (a popular and critical success that revealed Bing Crosby as a surprisingly gifted actor), and The Bells of St. Mary’s, a sequel to Going My Way, that David Kehr argues is “so subtle in its romantic exposition that it’s halfway over before you realize what it’s about: a priest in love with a nun. Seldom has a sequel so completely transcended its predecessor.” (15)

Despite all of these, possibly the best is Make Way for Tomorrow, a heartbreaking film concerned with the fate of an elderly couple whose money problems force them to split up and stay with their children, who are too busy to care for them. It has to be one of the most bittersweet movies ever produced by an American studio, and the fact that it is not mawkish despite its subject is a testament of McCarey’s substantial talent. Scandalously, the film is unavailable on video and rarely shown on TV, presumably, because it is a “difficult” subject; it has probably been seen by fewer people than any other Hollywood masterpiece. The film was ignored upon its release as well. Paramount was so disappointed with its box office that McCarey was fired. McCarey, for his part, was devastated by the film’s popular rejection. When he accepted his Best Director Oscar for The Awful Truth (his other film from 1937) he did so somewhat bitterly, telling anyone who would listen that he had won for the wrong film. Late in his life, he said, “If I really have talent, this is where it appears.” (16)

From this period, only The Milky Way and Once Upon a Honeymoon are comparatively minor successes. The former was completed by an assistant when McCarey fell ill to milk poisoning; the latter was compromised, at least a little, by studio tampering. (Robin Wood, nevertheless, has argued convincingly that this curious film’s strengths are many.) (17) Slowed only by a near-death car wreck (1940) and a failed contract with Howard Hughes (1940-1942) that put him out of commission for roughly three years, McCarey defines, refines, and redefines his style and themes over these ten years, and he forges a vision that is truly unique in the Hollywood cinema of the Classic era.

One factor that has made it difficult to champion McCarey as an auteur is that he lacks a “visual style” that is as identifiable as, say, a Hitchcock, Welles, or Sirk. Some critics, like George Morris, have argued that McCarey does have one, but to my mind the case can only be made in a limited fashion. For the most part McCarey’s visual style is one that is barely distinguishable from numerous other Hollywood filmmakers of the same era, especially those directors that started at the bottom of the Hollywood ladder (in McCarey’s case, as a script supervisor) and apprenticed in silent shorts and early sound features. To his credit, his mise-en-scène shows sensitivity to the meaning of objects (the graduation dresses in The Bells of St. Mary’s, for instance). His cinematography is restrained, and he clearly has a fondness for using off-screen space. (Sometimes McCarey places the most important moments of his films just beyond the frame – the killing of the Nazi husband in Once Upon a Honeymoon, for example, or perhaps best of all, the lovers’ first kiss in An Affair to Remember.) Beyond that, I believe the questions of McCarey’s visual style – whether he has one, and if so, what it is – are not easily answerable, and this is one reason why McCarey’s status as an auteur is insecure. But, more to the point, why must a director have a visual style to be an auteur? Cinema is more than a visual medium, it’s a medium that exists in time, and few Hollywood filmmakers had more command over rhythm and structure than Leo McCarey.

From at least 1925, there are accounts that McCarey, while working on Charley Chase shorts for Hal Roach, would play the piano on set while dreaming up new scenes to shoot. McCarey certainly continued to improvise his films late into his career: according to Bing Crosby, “probably 75 per cent of each day’s shooting [on Going My Way] was made up on the set by Leo … He would go immediately to the piano [when he came on set in the morning] and play some ragtime for an hour or two, while he thought up a few scenes.” (18) Similar accounts exist for many other McCarey films, especially The Awful Truth.

To see just one place where improvisation is found, a survey of McCarey’s work shows a fondness for scenes where one person teaches another. In The Milky Way, Harold Lloyd is taught to box and, later, he gives a society woman lessons on how to avoid a punch. Roland Young’s drumming lesson in Ruggles of Red Gap leads him to true love. In Going My Way, Bing Crosby teaches Carol the street girl and, later, a group of tough kids how to sing. In The Bells of St. Mary’s, Ingrid Bergman teaches a kid to box. Nazis coach Cary Grant, in Once Upon a Honeymoon, on how to deliver a radio address with “shpontanuity.” Almost all of his mature films (and some of the earlier ones) have teaching scenes.

Though it’s impossible to confirm, most of these scenes are likely improvised, and it’s not hard to see why McCarey, as a fan of improvisation, returns to this device. Lesson-giving has a fantastic structure for improvisation: one person leads, the other follows, each has flexibility in what they do and say, and there’s a reactive nature to the enterprise. In McCarey’s universe these scenes produce gently comic results – we see someone make mistakes, which we can laugh at, but it is within the safe environment of a lesson instead of “real life.” The moments are funny without being cruel. Indeed, that mistakes and failure are allowed and forgiven is a concept that, no doubt, McCarey had personal sympathy for. He was, after all, someone that attempted careers in boxing, law, mining, and songwriting before becoming a filmmaker. That he’s able to create scenes where we can laugh at someone without resorting to ridicule points at McCarey’s characteristic generosity.

More than just a unique working method, the improvisational method created films with relaxed scenes and relaxed structures. As Jonathan Rosenbaum so succinctly puts it, “the major lesson of Leo McCarey [is] that people and their tragicomic behavior matter much more than plot.” (19) That does not mean that McCarey is a director of great moments instead of great films, nor does it mean his films are digressive. His improvised scenes, like these moments of teaching, are great not just because they feel real, but also because they advance the story by revealing character and human relationships. What could be less digressive?

Music offers an even more important way to see how McCarey’s films, more than just stringing together great digressive moments, are instead unified, relaxed, and subtle. We shouldn’t be surprised that music is one of the keys defining and understanding McCarey’s work. After all, this failed songwriter who would come to set and play piano, was a man who readily confessed that he was “at heart, a musician.” (20)

McCarey’s diegetic music is more important than his non-diegetic music. Music-in-the-world abounds in almost all of McCarey’s sound films. Jazz orchestras, children’s choirs, opera stars, music instructors, failed songwriters, and nightclub entertainers populate his films. There’s a place for amateurs, too: country boys that can’t stay on key while singing “Home on the Range”, bartenders that serenade their drunk customers, dogs that are encouraged to bark along to the piano, weaklings that learn to box while dancing, British noblemen that learn to play the drums while falling in love (or is it the reverse?). Despite (or because of) this obsession, McCarey only directed one film that could rightfully be labeled a musical, 1929’s Red Hot Rhythm. McCarey even (correctly) considered Going My Way, which features at least nine instances of diegetic music, as a “dramatic comedy.” (21) Indeed, because music emerges in realistic ways and serves dramatic functions (unlike musicals, whose plots often stop while someone performs a number), the effect, ultimately, is that the music simultaneously relaxes and advances the plot.

That the films are not musicals, but simply musical, gets at the crux of McCarey’s worldview. His comments about his films being “fairy tales” notwithstanding, music exists for him in a real world. Because McCarey’s characters do not spring into song and dance, but surround their lives with “real” music – not just with songs, but nostalgic music boxes, chiming clocks that bring lovers together, etc – the cinematic world is more convincing. The cumulative effect is that music is a cosmic principle not just of most of his films, but of his universe.

The Awful Truth

That said, music isn’t the only sonic principle to which McCarey is sensitive. Certainly, in the apprentice years, when McCarey wants to get funnier, he often takes it farther, or makes it louder, but as he matured as an artist, McCarey gets quieter and quieter. Who else would make the final scene of such a loud screwball comedy as The Awful Truth end as quietly as it does? Compare the film with Bringing Up Baby (1938) or Twentieth Century (1934) – Hawks’ strategy is to go faster, louder, zanier. McCarey, by contrast, slows down The Awful Truth at its climax, startlingly so. The ending, suddenly, is not screwball. This is something deeper, more realistically romantic, than “sophisticated comedy.”

Likewise, in Going My Way, most filmmakers would end the film at its moment of climactic melodrama (literally, melodrama – a children’s choir sings an Irish tune in the background) when Barry Fitzgerald’s priest is reunited with his mother. Not McCarey. Instead, the camera follows Crosby outside, as he leaves the reunion, and his parish for good, in the snow. As he walks alone, his back to the camera, the music can be heard only faintly. Its now diminished volume becomes a way of underscoring, with characteristic restraint, the silence that is symbolic of Crosby’s Christian selflessness and the resulting isolation that brings.

The impact of these quiet moments (and others) found in McCarey’s mature sound work stems at least in part from the fact that music is so omnipresent in his films. It makes the silence more noticeable. It reminds one of another Catholic filmmaker, Robert Bresson, who once wrote “The sound film invented silence.” (22) The comparison is not unjust. Indeed, in The Awful Truth and Going My Way, which have so many moments of music-based (but not “musical”) comedy, McCarey’s uses of near-silent endings approach the kind stasis that Paul Schrader defines as the Transcendental Style. I would not want to have to argue that McCarey is a “Transcendental Stylist,” but he is undeniably a religious filmmaker. (23)

The phrase “religious cinema” often conjures up one of two things: we may think of the facile Biblical epics that were so prominent in American films of the 1950s or, alternatively, of the spiritual searching of directors like Robert Bresson, Roberto Rossellini, or Andrei Tarkovsky (among others). McCarey’s films fall into neither category: He never made a Biblical epic (though it was his long-stated desire to make a film about Adam and Eve), nor are his films formally rigorous like those of Bresson, Rossellini, et al. Nevertheless McCarey’s mature work is deeply informed by his Catholicism. On a simply superficial level, this is seen in the churches and priests that figure prominently in his films. Beginning with Love Affair, seven of McCarey’s nine remaining films have, at the very least, a scene in a church or chapel. Four of them (plus his teleplay “Tom and Jerry” [1955]) feature Catholic priests as central characters. (24)

More importantly, there are recurring thematic motifs, not all of them church-bound. While non-violence and a deep skepticism about money (both part of Christian teachings) are recurring thematic concerns, the most important theme is the intersection of romance with the spiritual life. Love Affair, for example, is more than a romance between any man and a woman – as its advertising campaign proclaimed, it concerns “a man of the world and a lady of leisure.” From the moment that Dunne and Boyer share an intimate, and unplanned, meditation in a chapel during their ship’s stopover, we understand why this is no longer just any “love affair” for McCarey; the religious element of the encounter spiritually transforms his “loose” characters, and by extension, their behavior in the world. They become selfless, devoted to one another, instead of to their own selfish desires. Love Affair, then, is first and foremost a tale of spiritual (and moral) redemption.

McCarey’s investigation of spiritual themes began with the tale of a British butler discovering he had human desires of his own, but McCarey would reverse the trajectory of such transformation: by the time of Going My Way, The Bells of St. Mary’s and Good Sam, liberated individuals serve others before themselves. As Jean-Pierre Coursodon has forcefully argued, denial is one of the keystones in McCarey’s work. (25) That’s certainly the case of the romances: the denial often comes about through selfish pride (The Awful Truth, Love Affair and An Affair to Remember), or through religious devotion (Going My Way, The Bells of St. Mary’s, and Satan Never Sleeps [1962]). Tellingly, in McCarey’s Catholic universe, when pride is the issue, the lovers ultimately realize their selfishness and unite; when a previously made devotion to God holds the lovers back, their desire remains unconsummated.

This tension between helping oneself and serving others is, in fact, the central tension of Good Sam, the film that marks the beginning of McCarey’s decline. In his last twenty years, McCarey’s health declined, and his work followed. From 1948 until his death in 1969, McCarey made only five features, a short film, and two teleplays. (26) According to Peter Bogdanovich, McCarey’s productivity was stalled and eventually stopped by drink, drugs, and illness. (27) Details on what Bogdanovich is referring to are elusive, and one hesitates to speculate on such claims without more details, but whatever the reasons, besides An Affair to Remember, a fine (though inferior) remake of his Love Affair, the films are generally less successful as films.

This is not to say that they are uninteresting. In fact, they are often more fascinating than the earlier work, and part of the reason why is that beginning with 1952’s Anti-Communist family melodrama My Son John, McCarey’s vision grows much darker. (28) Critically destroyed upon release (McCarey went so far as to travel to New York to defend it against its critics), My Son John has started to grow in stature as deconstructive readings of the film have shown how the film’s seemingly rabid pro-HUAC (29) stance also critiques the very thing that was supposed to “save” America from Communism: the family. (30) Indeed, My Son John‘s resonance deepens when compared alongside his previous family drama, Make Way for Tomorrow; the intermittent pessimism of the earlier work overtakes the latter’s drama to a point of hysteria.

Formally, My Son John is also noteworthy for how it provides insights into McCarey’s style. When star Robert Walker died suddenly in the middle of production, McCarey had to thoroughly reconfigure the film. His solution to the film’s final scene is revealing: an empty dais is shown as a PA system plays Walker’s commencement address. The speech is Walker’s confession, not just in a legal sense, but also in a spiritual one. (Indeed, not unlike the Catholic confession of sin, he is unseen to us. Even more, he’s dead, and if he isn’t speaking from “the afterlife” at the very least he does so after life.) McCarey’s decision to solve his dramatic dilemma by moving the film toward a moment of formal stasis invites comparison with the endings of radically lighter films like The Awful Truth and Going My Way, suggesting that even as his vision grew darker, he was still pursuing a singular stylistic vision that could accommodate his obsession with spiritual matters.

Satan Never Sleeps, McCarey’s final picture, deals with Catholic priests in Communist China. McCarey grew frustrated with the studio’s tampering and he quit the set with five days of filming left. One wonders what the film would have been without the interference, particularly if he had supervised its editing, for if Satan Never Sleeps is not a very good film (its humor is forced, and the acting is uneven) for those familiar with McCarey’s career it can be an often-compelling compendium of seemingly irreconcilable elements from his other movies: absurd screwball romance, generational conflicts between Catholic priests, parent-child conflicts, and anti-Communist commentary. The film is also noteworthy in the McCarey oeuvre for a rape scene that is the single darkest moment he committed to film. McCarey had never attempted to make a film with such a radical spectrum of elements, and the fact that parts of it actually come off makes it worthwhile, if sometimes difficult, viewing.

The Bells of St. Mary's

Here, again, are themes of romantic denial as well as questions about what it means to have a spiritual life in a political world. Of particular interest in Satan Never Sleeps is that, in a departure from Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s, neither of the film’s two priests is spared sharp critique. While the two earlier Catholic dramas merely feature moments of light satire, here Clifton Webb’s priest, in particular, is often seen as selfish and, at times, foolish. His blindness to the very real threats of his parishioners is impossible to ignore when, oblivious to the fact that France Nuyen’s Siu Lan has recently been raped, he says to her, “Everything happens for the best.” It’s probably the most bitterly ironic moment in a McCarey film, and it is a compelling argument against Georges Sadoul’s simplistic claim that McCarey’s films were sentimental “religious propaganda.” (31) Satan Never Sleeps may not be as strangely compelling as My Son John, but like that earlier film this one is due some re-consideration by those studying McCarey’s body of work. The questions it raises are greater than the answers it provides, and the parallels it implicitly suggests between the totalitarianism of Communist revolutionaries and the spiritual imperialism of Catholic missionaries mark it as an important film for a decidedly religious filmmaker.

Satan Never Sleeps has been routinely (and rightly) criticized for its absurd (and somewhat studio-imposed) recuperative ending, wherein a woman and her rapist are encouraged by Holden’s priest to form a family. The recuperation, twisted though it may seem, is indicative of the radical generosity of McCarey’s directorial personality. He tried to extend the chance of forgiveness and redemption, however unconvincing, to even his most repulsive characters. Indeed, forgiveness, possibly the single most important theme of Christianity, is one of McCarey’s major themes. It is what makes love – from the romantic love of The Awful Truth to the mother’s love of My Son John – in his universe possible. (32)

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The foundation of Robin Wood’s fine essays on McCarey is the contention that

[t]he failure [of auteur criticism to meet the challenge of McCarey] should be seen as casting doubt on the validity of auteurism (in its cruder and simpler forms) rather than on the value of the McCarey oeuvre. (33)

He’s right. Even McCarey’s most ardent supporters would have a hard time making the case that his films can be encapsulated in the way that makes defining Ford’s or Hitchcock’s status as an auteur a comparatively more straightforward enterprise. McCarey’s career has eras defined by substantially different concerns. His career, which began in silent slapstick and ended with works that bend genres and blend spiritual and political commentary, cannot be reduced to any one genre or theme. Furthermore, his style is one that is more sonic and rhythmic than picturesque, which makes the work more difficult to identify immediately and discuss in print. (Try selecting a still image that communicates rhythm!) And, like many great directors, he made some films that are, at first (or second) glance, bad or even embarrassing. These are mere complications, however, and a sensitive approach to McCarey’s career reveals a career of tremendous growth. The recurring themes and formal motifs of his mature period are largely unique in the American cinema, and the fact that he developed them over the course of his career in interesting ways makes him undeniably an auteur. The fact that many of these works are truly great ranks him, ultimately, as a great film artist.

As I am completing this essay, McCarey’s penultimate film An Affair to Remember has just been listed as the American Film Institute’s fourth-greatest Hollywood love story (“100 Films, 100 Passions”) and Duck Soup is fifth on the AFI’s list of 100 funniest films. The Awful Truth, surprisingly, is ranked on both (#77 and #68, respectively). These AFI lists are a pretty ridiculous enterprise, more marketing ploy than serious study, but that may make the inclusion of McCarey’s films, especially The Awful Truth, all the more noteworthy. Perhaps someday soon his films will get their due? Then again, maybe not – perhaps Leo McCarey will always remain a filmmaker appreciated by the few, not the many. If so, it will be a curious fate for a talent so respected in his day. (34)

Thanks to Charles Maland, Tom Kleinschmidt, Tony Rossi and especially Michael Campi, who provided me with videos of McCarey films unavailable in the United States.

Duck Soup


Leo McCarey produced, wrote, directed, and/or supervised countless comedy shorts at Hal Roach Studios. There are too many to list here, not to mention that, because credit was not always properly given, the authorship of many of these films is subject to debate. As such, only McCarey’s features are listed.

All films as director, unless otherwise indicated.

Society Secrets (1921)

The Sophomore (1929)

Red Hot Rhythm (1929)

Wild Company (1930)

Let’s Go Native (1930)

Part Time Wife (1930) also known as The Shepper-Newfounder

Indiscreet (1931) also Co-Story

The Kid from Spain (1932)

Duck Soup (1933)
US Library of Congress National Film Registry

Six of a Kind (1934)

Belle of the Nineties (1934)

Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)

The Milky Way (1936)

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) also Producer and bit part (uncredited)

The Awful Truth (1937) also Producer
US Library of Congress National Film Registry
Academy Award for Best Director

The Cowboy and the Lady (1938) Directed by H.C. Potter (Story only)

Love Affair (1939) also Producer and Co-Story

My Favorite Wife (1940) Directed by Garson Kanin (Producer and Co-Story only)

Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942) also Co-Story

Going My Way (1944) also Producer and Story
Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Bing Crosby), Best Supporting Actor (Barry Fitzgerald), Best Screenplay, Best Story, and Best Song

Good Sam

The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) also Producer and Story

Good Sam (1948) also Producer and Co-story

You Can Change the World (1951) short film made for The Christophers organization.

My Son John (1952) also Producer, Story, Co-screenplay

“Meet the Governor” (first airdate: October 5, 1955) debut episode of television’s Screen Directors Playhouse

“Tom and Jerry” (first airdate: November 30, 1955) episode of television’s Screen Directors Playhouse

An Affair to Remember (1957) also Producer, Co-story, Co-Screenwriter, Lyricist

Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys! (1958) also Producer and Co-Screenwriter

Satan Never Sleeps (1962) also Producer, Co-Screenwriter; also known as The Devil Never Sleeps (UK)

Worth noting:

Love Happy (1950) also known as Kleptomaniacs
Internet Movie Database (http://www.imdb.com) lists this film, the Marx Brothers final feature, as having an uncredited directorial contribution by McCarey. All research points to the contrary. Though he was initially interested in directing it, McCarey never worked on the film.

Select Bibliography

Peter Bogdanovich, “Leo McCarey”, Who The Devil Made It, Ballantine, New York, 1997, pp. 379-436

Sidney Carroll, “Everything Happens to Leo McCarey”, Esquire, May 1943

Jean-Pierre Coursodon, “Leo McCarey”, American Directors, Volume 1, McGraw Hill, New York, 1983

Bing Crosby and David Butler, “Remembering Leo McCarey”, Action, Sept-Oct 1969, p. 11-13

Serge Daney and Jean-Louis Noames, “Taking Chances”, Cahiers du Cinema in English, January 1967

John A. Gallagher, “Leo McCarey” in John Wakeman (editor), World Film Directors, Volume I, 1890-1945, H.W. Wilson Company, New York, 1987, pp. 739-747 [includes bibliography]

Wes D. Gehring, Leo McCarey and the Comic Anti-Hero in American Film, Arno, New York, 1980

Peter Martin, “Going His Way”, Saturday Evening Post, November 30, 1946

Leo McCarey, “Comedy and a Touch of Cuckoo”, Extension, November 1944

Leo McCarey, “God and the road to peace”, Photoplay, September 1948, p. 33

Leland Poague, “Leo McCarey”, Hollywood Professionals, Vol. 7: Wilder & McCarey, A.S. Barnes, San Diego, 1980. pp. 170-314

Charles Silver, “Leo McCarey from Marx to McCarthy”, Film Comment, September 1973, pp. 8-11

Robin Wood, “Democracy and Shpontanuity”, Film Comment, Jan-Feb 1976, pp. 6-15

Robin Wood, “Leo McCarey”, in Richard Roud (ed.), Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, Volume 2, Viking, New York, 1980, pp. 652-654

Robin Wood, “Leo McCarey” in Nicholas Thomas (ed.), International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers – Directors, 2nd Ed., St. James Press, Chicago, 1991, pp. 560-562 [includes bibliography]

Articles in Senses of Cinema

Duck Soup by Michael Koller

Web Resources

Compiled by the author and Albert Fung

Leo McCarey Retrospective. Dec 27, 2002 – January 9, 2003
To be held at the Walter Reade Theater.

Damien Bona’s, “Leo McCarey and the Sacred Region of Romantic Love” discusses Make Way for Tomorrow and The Awful Truth.

Richard W. Bann, “Leo McCarey at Hal Roach Studios”
An article on McCarey’s film career.

Terry Diggs, “Our Son John”
Article on the McCarey film, My Son John.

Click here to search for Leo McCarey DVDs, videos and books at


  1. Quoted by John A. Gallagher in “Leo McCarey” in John Wakeman (ed.), World Film Directors, Volume I, 1890-1945, H.W. Wilson Company, New York, 1987, p. 747
  2. Those studies are: Leland Poague’s Hollywood Professionals, Vol. 7: Wilder & McCarey, A.S. Barnes, San Diego, 1980, and Wes D. Gehring’s PhD dissertation, Leo McCarey and the Comic Anti-Hero in American Film, Arno, New York, 1980. Jerome Michael McKeever’s PhD dissertation, “The McCarey Touch: the Life and Films of Leo McCarey” (2000), sounds very promising, but because it remains commercially unpublished I have not been able to read it.
  3. A History of Narrative Film (Norton, New York, 1996) takes a fairly auteurist approach, and is one of the most comprehensive and popular histories of international cinema. Now in its third edition, the book mentions McCarey twice in its 1088 pages. Though Cook seems fond of McCarey, three of the four sentences he writes about him are devoted to My Son John, comparing it with Triumph of the Will (Riefenstahl, 1934) and Birth of a Nation (Griffith, 1915). This is hardly the sort of recommendation that would encourage most people to seek out a director’s work.
  4. Peter Martin, “Going His Way”, Saturday Evening Post, November 30, 1946, p. 14
  5. As well as the articles by Wood, Silver, and Morris (cited in full below) see also Margaret Smith, “Laughter, Redemption, Subversion in eight films by Leo McCarey”, Cineaction, Summer/Fall 1990, p. 84
  6. Martin, p. 68
  7. Sidney Carroll, “Everything Happens to Leo McCarey”, Esquire, May 1943, p. 140
  8. See, for example, Richard W. Bann’s “Leo McCarey at Hal Roach Studios”, http://www.laurel-and-hardy.com/html/news/hn5.html. Also useful are the interviews by Peter Bogdanovich (see below for citation information) and Cahiers du Cinema in English (ditto). Wes Gehring’s scholarship in this area has proven controversial, but it’s worth a look.
  9. In a January 1967 interview with Serge Daney and Jean-Louis Noames published in Cahiers du Cinema in English (pp. 43-54), McCarey stated that supervision of a short at Hal Roach meant being “responsible for practically everything in the film: writing the story, cutting it, stringing the gags together, coordinating everything, screening the rushes, working on the editing, sending out the prints, working on the second editing when the preview reactions weren’t good enough and even, from time to time, shooting sequences over again.” In this sense, while McCarey rarely took a screen credit for them, by his own account he ‘made’ at least a hundred Laurel and Hardy films.”
  10. Peter Bogdanovich, “Leo McCarey”, Who The Devil Made It, Ballantine, New York, 1997, p. 381
  11. Leo McCarey, “Comedy and a Touch of Cuckoo”, Extension, November 1944, p. 34
  12. McCarey did direct one feature early in his career, 1921’s Society Secrets.
  13. Conflating spiritual transformation and political patriotism would become a more important theme in later McCarey works, beginning with Once Upon a Honeymoon.
  14. Of the 1935-1945 period, McCarey took Producer credit on 6 of the 8 films; he took co-story credit on four. His fondness for improvisation means he had a hand in the stories of more than those.
  15. David Kerr, “The Bells of St. Mary’s”, Chicago Reader online, http://onfilm.chireader.com/movies/capsules/882_BELLS_OF_SAINT_MARYS
  16. Serge Daney and Jean-Louis Noames, “Taking Chances”, Cahiers du Cinema in English, January 1967, p. 50
  17. Robin Wood, “Democracy and Shpontanuity”, Film Comment, Jan-Feb 1976, pp. 6-15
  18. Bing Crosby and David Butler, “Remembering Leo McCarey”, Action, Sept-Oct 1969, p. 12
  19. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Texasville”, Chicago Reader website, http://onfilm.chireader.com/movies/capsules/8175_TEXASVILLE
  20. Daney and Noames, p. 50
  21. Daney and Noames, p. 53
  22. Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer, Jonathan Griffin trans., Green Integer, Copenhagen, 1997, p. 48
  23. Though McCarey and Bresson shared a Catholic heritage, for what it’s worth, McCarey’s work is far closer in spirit to Schrader’s other Transcendental filmmaker, Yasujiro Ozu. In their generosity towards their characters and their relaxed pacing, Ozu and McCarey share a similar sensibility. That their masterpieces Make Way for Tomorrow and Tokyo Story (1953) have more than passing resemblances has been noted by many. Jonathan Rosenbaum, however, in his capsule review of An Affair to Remember, was the first critic I know of to go farther comparing the two.
  24. “Tom and Jerry”, written by McCarey’s daughter, Mary (b. 1926), features a priest named Father O’Dowd, the name of the priest in Going My Way and My Son John. Here, however, Frank Fay, instead of Frank McHugh, plays Father O’Dowd.
  25. Jean-Pierre Coursodon with Pierre Sauvage, “Leo McCarey”, American Directors, Volume 1, McGraw Hill, New York, 1983
  26. In 1955 McCarey directed two half-hour episodes of Hal Roach’s Screen Director’s Playhouse for television. The first, “Meet the Governor”, is an amusing comedy whose populism recalls Ruggles of Red Gap. “Tom and Jerry”, the second, is a disappointingly unconvincing remarriage melodrama. The short film is 1951’s You Can Change The World, a short promotional film McCarey directed for The Christophers, an ecumenical religious charity started by a Catholic priest. The film stars McCarey regulars Irene Dunne and Bing Crosby (among others) and features an updating of Ruggles of Red Gap‘s Gettysburg Address scene, this time using the Declaration of Independence.
  27. Bogdanovich, p. 382
  28. It’s worth noting that the darkest films also feature the fewest instances of music.
  29. McCarey gave friendly witness testimony to the HUAC Committee, and I consider that a stain on his personal and professional life, but not his films. I have been unable to read McCarey’s full testimony to HUAC so I will neither defend nor attack his choice to be a “friendly witness.” McCarey’s opposition to Communism was based, no doubt, on its hostility to religion. (This, too, is at the heart of his opposition to the Nazis in Once Upon a Honeymoon, his only other film with outright “enemies.”) It’s worth noting, though, that the one excerpt I have seen of McCarey’s HUAC testimony has him saying Communist writers in Hollywood were always trying to write bankers as evil people. I find this most curious. Selfish bankers abound in McCarey’s work! There are enough, in fact, that it seems absurd to think that McCarey, who exercised such control over his stories, was not at least a little responsible for these characterizations. Certainly, with the uneasiness about capitalism found in Going My Way, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Good Sam, and especially Make Way for Tomorrow, one imagines that, professed though he was to be a conservative, McCarey might find sympathy with at least a few Communist ideals. He was able to articulate their side of the issues, certainly, for when he defended My Son John to New York critics, he pointed out that he was just as responsible for the Communist son’s words as he was for his bigoted father’s. (See “McCarey Comes to Town to Rebuke Critics”, Motion Picture Herald, April 26, 1952, p. 24.)
  30. For two early examples, see Leland Poague, Hollywood Professionals, Vol. 7: Wilder & McCarey, and George Morris, “McCarey and McCarthy”, Film Comment, Jan-Feb 1976, pp. 16-20. There are others, too. Most recently, Terry Diggs’ recent essay “Our Son John”, http://www.law.com/regionals/ca/opinions/stories/edt0116_diggs.shtml, discusses the film by drawing parallels between McCarey’s film and the recent case of “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh.
  31. Georges Sadoul in Peter Morris (trans. and ed.), Dictionary of Film Makers, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1972, p. 162
  32. McCarey’s short-lived production company was named Rainbow Productions, a nod, no doubt, to the Judeo-Christian parable of forgiveness.
  33. Robin Wood, “Leo McCarey” in Nicholas Thomas (ed.), International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers – Directors, 2nd Ed., St. James Press, Chicago, 1991, p. 562
  34. November 2002. As this essay was going ‘to print’ on the web, the Film Society of Lincoln Center (New York City) had just-announced a McCarey retrospective. This is, no doubt, a promising development in the recuperation of McCarey’s reputation. See: http://www.filmlinc.com/wrt/programs/12-2002/mccarey/mccarey.htm

About The Author

Paul Harrill's most recent films are Gina, An Actress, Age 29, winner of the 2001 Sundance Jury Prize for Short Filmmaking, and Brief Encounter with Tibetan Monks.

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