Make Way for McCarey: A Great Director Gets His Due

Duck Soup-Leo McCarey

Seriously Funny: The Films of Leo McCarey
July 15th-31st at MoMA

Although his name might not be as celebrated today, the film director Leo McCarey was every bit the equal of better-known auteurs such as Frank Borzage, Jean Renoir, and Carl Theodor Dreyer. Like Borzage, he was a born romantic who sought to understand how people (sometimes misguidedly) used love and intimacy to try to protect each other from the dangers of their surrounding world. Like Renoir, he observed them with affection as they moved through space and held his camera back in order to better see how their actions emerged from social context. Like Dreyer, he was a social conservative whose films responded to changing times by calling for people not to lose respect and appreciation for human life. His sensibility further overlapped with those of many other masters, including Yasujiro Ozu, whose best-known film, Tokyo Story (1953), draws direct inspiration from McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow (1937).

McCarey was fundamentally a comic filmmaker, and he used comedy to help create sympathy and compassion for basic human efforts. Humor often arises through the beautiful personal recognitions that take place for the characters in his films—the small, wordless instances of revelations in which peoples’ faces show realizations that their entire lives have changed. Such moments occur, over and over, throughout the lineup of the Museum of Modern Art’s series “Seriously Funny: The Films of Leo McCarey” (organized by MoMA’s Dave Kehr and outside curator Steve Massa), which begins today and runs through the next two-plus weeks.

Although the retrospective is not complete (with the missing titles including McCarey’s 1952 study of American reactionary tendencies, My Son John), it nonetheless offers a remarkable overview of the director’s work, including with many resuscitated gems. The series contains restored prints of wonders such as The Milky Way (1936) and Love Affair (1939) that have primarily circulated in poor public domain copies, as well as an extended cut (18 minutes more than what is commonly available) of his tender Christian parable Good Sam (1948). The series’ opening night contains a startling discovery, with an epic custard-pie fight included: The long-lost Laurel and Hardy short The Battle of the Century (1927).

McCarey (who was born in 1898 and passed away in 1969) began his film career with work on comic silent shorts at the Hal Roach Studios, where he eventually rose to head of production. He directed many shorts and supervised the direction of many others for Roach’s house stable of comic stars, including the charming Charley Chase and the cantankerous Max Davidson (the profound comic horror of whose 1928 film Pass the Gravy must be seen to be believed). It was he that first and most successfully paired the big, blundering-but-delicate Oliver Hardy and the little weeping willow Stan Laurel, who are appropriately represented in MoMA’s series with not one, but two programs.

Throughout a number of classics such as Mighty Like a Moose (1926), Two Tars (1928), and Liberty (1929), McCarey helped define with Stan and Ollie an existentialist structure of gag work, one in which each man would try to clean the other’s mess and only worsen the situation. The films are based endearingly upon struggles: The struggle to stand up, to sit down, to drive a car, to order a drink, to dress oneself, to breathe. They are also grounded in a basic sense of camaraderie—no matter the challenges of being alive, people will always strive to help each other surmount them.  

McCarey consistently brought a communal approach to the construction of his films. He was known for playing a piano on set while thinking of where next to take plots, which inevitably developed from the bouncing energies shared among his lead actors’ personalities. Few better examples could be concocted than the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933). McCarey avoided the obligatory studio-imposed subplots of the brothers’ other films, instead allowing the problems confronting the imagined country of Freedonia (“land of the brave and free”) to be embodied almost fully in the daily inefficiencies faced by its leader (Groucho) and two spies (Chico and Harpo). The film shows war being declared—both at interpersonal and on large-scale levels—through misunderstandings resolved by communication and teamwork, before battles break out once more.

Charles Laughton in Leo McCarey's RUGGLES OF RED GAP (1935). Courtesy Film Forum/Photofest.

There are few gentler or more remarkable studies of cross-cultural engagement than Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), a narrative feature generally considered to be the first film of McCarey’s strongest period. The film is challenging to summarize, in part because the principal characters are all developed richly enough for the tale to belong to any of them. Its title character, in any case, is a British butler (played by Charles Laughton) firmly focused on his caste-bound duties who finds himself struggling to shift his thinking after his master (Roland Young) sends him to serve a wealthy American family in the western title town, located in the state of Washington. Over the course of the film, Marmaduke Ruggles’s chief sentiments shift from horror at American vulgarity to admiration for American self-realization. Through conversations with the people around him, he comes to love his new country—and even, in his own, particular way, to marry into it.

McCarey’s work revolves around questions of belief, trust, and ultimately faith—the faith that people have in each other to mutually provide, and the faith in God to provide for them. These are laid out with care in his diptych Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), both of which show an ostensibly modern, open-minded Catholic priest (Bing Crosby) in deep engagement with a fellow servant of the Church (Barry Sullivan in the first film, Ingrid Bergman in the second). In each film, the other person initially seems to be more cloistered than Father O’Malley before coming to show him how much work they both still have left to do to open themselves to the world.

The director’s films that are focused on marriage and overtly romantic relationships also operate on this dynamic, in which two people give themselves to each other with the hope of finding strength for them to give to everyone else around them. The screwball jewel The Awful Truth (1937) focuses on a married couple (played by Irene Dunne and Cary Grant) who must gather the force to divorce once they realize they no longer love each other—and the resolve to reunite once they realize that they love each other after all. Love Affair (1939) and its soulful remake An Affair to Remember (1957) present couples that come together by chance and then are torn apart by it, leaving us to hope along with each person for the chance to see the other again.

McCarey’s most treasured among his own films was Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), a work whose poor box office returns in fact led to his release from Paramount. The film (a reference not only for Ozu, but also for Ira Sachs’s 2014 film Love Is Strange) stands today as evidence of what is possible in socially conscious filmmaking by asking clearly and simply what can be done to take care of people who struggle to care for themselves.

The film’s elderly central couple (played by Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore), married for many years, find themselves homeless as a result of economic troubles, then go on to discover that none of their adult children is able (willing?) to find a way to house them both under one roof. McCarey observes their troubles while doing his best to give them small alleviating gifts. The most precious he offers are perhaps the most precious in life: Space for moments of privacy with a loved one, respected by others, before the time in which it’s possible to be together runs out.

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