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McCarey’s Creed

On the director.


It is a curious thing to be a cinephile before you are a grownup. The temptation to emulate what you see on screen is always immense, and, in my case, so was the urge to take on the characteristics of those great men behind the camera who called “action” and “cut.” For me, discovering a new director was a bit like trying on a new coat. With or without the new garment, you were still you, but when you had it on, you carried yourself differently: a red jacket made you feel like James Dean, a Burberry raincoat, a bit like Lane Coutell in Franny and Zooey. So, when I watched a director’s work for the first time, it was natural to adopt their attitude towards the world: John Ford’s irascible cussedness or Howard Hawks’s nonchalant ease. 

When I was an adolescent, I was drawn mainly to these manly, mercurial types as my directorial heroes. If I could have hung any movie poster in my bedroom when I was a teenager, it would have been the one for Hawks’s final Western with John Wayne, the tough, sinewy, invigoratingly unembellished Rio Lobo. On the poster, the following text appears above a silhouetted image of Wayne bearing a gun: “Give ’Em Hell, John.” What American male between the ages of thirteen and twenty could resist those words as an anthem?

It’s easy to imagine oneself a member of the raucous, back-slapping boys’ club of Ford, Hawks, and others, but far harder to commit oneself to the virtues that come through in the work of Leo McCarey, a Catholic, an Oscar winner, and the man responsible for such great films as The Awful Truth (1937), The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), and An Affair to Remember (1957). Knowing that an encounter with McCarey’s films would mean an embrace of their qualities—warmth, humility, fidelity, reverence, deference, piety—I spent much of my adolescence saving them for a rainy day, or, at least, a more mature point in my cinematic development. How can you believe in McCarey’s talent without believing in, or accepting, or at least acknowledging the merits of, McCarey’s creed?

Of course, I was familiar with McCarey by reputation—he was among the sixteen Golden Age filmmakers profiled in what was my bible, Peter Bogdanovich’s interview collection Who the Devil Made It, and he was said, by no less than Jean Renoir, to be the Hollywood director who best understood people—but something in me resisted him. I knew that to watch a Hawks Western was to learn how to have a good time, to sing along with Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson, but to watch a McCarey comedy-drama—his preferred genre—would be to learn, in the words of E.T., how to be good. And who wants to watch a movie to learn that?

The first McCarey film I ever saw was the one that I assumed would be the easiest to swallow—the least moralistic, the most innocuous, I reckoned. The screwball comedy The Awful Truth, for which McCarey won the first of his two Best Director Oscars, stars Irene Dunne and Cary Grant as Lucy and Jerry Warriner, a couple whose marriage is less a commitment to each other than a promise each has made to ignore the indiscretions of the other. As the film opens, we learn that Lucy spends too much time in the company of a lustful music teacher (Alexander D’Arcy) and Jerry goes to great lengths to convince his wife that he has been vacationing when he has, in fact, been doing God knows what and with whom. This arrangement is too flimsy to last, and when Lucy and Jerry conclude divorce proceedings, both fling themselves into the arms of potential mates: Lucy to proud Oklahoman Dan Leeson (Ralph Bellamy), who is so right (he is rich), but so, so wrong (he travels with his henpecking mother, warbles “Home on the Range,” and says “metchya” rather than “met you”); and Jerry to Dixie Belle Lee (Joyce Compton), a less-than-genteel wannabe singer.

Of course, any watcher of classic screwball comedy can see from a mile away that Lucy and Jerry are not destined to be with others but with each other. Yet I still remember being startled by the seriousness and sincerity with which McCarey depicts Lucy and Jerry’s tentative, hesitant, lurching reunion. This was no rollicking farce on the order of Twentieth Century or His Girl Friday or Nothing Sacred but a brief in support of tolerating a spouse’s flaws and excesses. Marriage, McCarey is telling us, is more important than its mere participants. If you find yourself in one, stay in it; if you find yourself having left one, get back in it. We are sure that Lucy regrets losing Jerry because, late into the film, she still laughs at his pratfalls; she wants him back not because she wants to be married to a goof but because this is the goof she was married to. There is comfort in constancy. 

Despite its screwball patina, I found that The Awful Truth demanded as much of its viewers as I imagined (or feared): If you truly became absorbed in Lucy and Jerry’s story, and truly took the message of the movie to be the promise of the marriage vows (“What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder”), how could you turn it off and ever think casually again about the relations between men and women? One cannot simply admire McCarey; one must take what he says as seriously as he does. Nearly six decades before the Defense of Marriage Act, McCarey had made a Defense of Marriage Movie. Emulating the too-cool-for-school heroes of the Hawks movies was one thing, but here was virtue incarnated by players as elegant as Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. 

Thomas Leo McCarey was born in Los Angeles in 1898. In time, he became that rarest of things: a Los Angeleno who entered the movie industry. (Then and now, most successful directors are transplants from faraway places like Cape Elizabeth, Maine, or Goshen, Indiana.) But, in his early days, he had no thought of getting mixed up with show people. As he explained to Bogdanovich in an interview, McCarey intended to make the law his life’s work, but his youth made him unattractive to prospective clients. “Besides that,” he said, “a discouraging factor in my legal career is that I lost every case.” 

When a friend found him a paying job in the movies—“I was a script girl and didn’t know it,” McCarey told Bogdanovich—he had found his calling. In short order, McCarey progressed from an apprenticeship with the great horror director Tod Browning to overseeing silent comedies starring, among others, Laurel and Hardy, a pairing McCarey originated. (When he began directing, Bogdanovich took the basic contours of McCarey’s early years as raw material for his great comedy-drama about early moviemaking, 1976’s Nickelodeon—starring Ryan O’Neal as a lawyer who becomes a director named Leo.)

Much is made of McCarey’s roots in baggy pants comedy, and we can see traces of it in his mature work: He is always ready to deposit a gag into an otherwise serious scene, and he has a tolerance for his actors’ personalities, a feeling of indulgence about their quirks, that stems from his silent training. And, in his biography of Bing Crosby, with whom McCarey worked on Going My Way (1944) and its sequel The Bells of St. Mary’s, Gary Giddins reports that McCarey adopted loosey-goosey working habits that sound better suited to the ragtag silent days than the more professional, regimented sound era: Seated at a piano on the set, Giddins writes, “he would play and sing a rag, a pop song, or a ditty of his own—he composed countless songs, most unpublished or forgotten, and one minor hit—to create a mood as he kibitzed with his cast and considered what to shoot.”

All the same, McCarey’s early feature films evince a restlessness with pure comedy. McCarey was saddled with Eddie Cantor on The Kid from Spain (1932), the Marx Brothers on Duck Soup (1933), and, of all people, Mae West on Belle of the Nineties (1934), but in each of these films, McCarey seems to have functioned more as a presenter than a creator: We sense that he is happy to oversee vehicles for these irrepressible comic talents—none of which he wrote—but itching to tell us something of what he thinks about life.

After I saw The Awful Truth, I sought out the earliest McCarey film that revealed the deeper currents within him: the 1937 masterpiece Make Way for Tomorrow, starring Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore as Lucy and Bark Cooper, an aging, penurious married couple whose separation occurs for entirely different reasons than that of Lucy and Jerry Warriner in The Awful Truth. When their financial straits force them from their home, each takes up residence with one of their adult children, an arrangement that can only end in frustration and unhappiness. 

McCarey may have been a moralist but the relentlessly bleak Make Way for Tomorrow demonstrated that he was no Pollyanna. Far from a heartwarming depiction of hearth and home on the order of Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis, the film could be considered a feature-length demonstration of how not to fulfill the commandment “Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother” (which McCarey includes in the picture as a title card). 

In fact, numerous McCarey films illustrate the challenges faced by, or abuse directed towards, secular candidates for canonization like Lucy and Bark. In the masterly Good Sam (1948), Gary Cooper plays Sam Clayton, a family man whose belief in the Golden Rule leads him to eagerly offer assistance to strangers and acquaintances, but he is shown to be as much Poor Sap as Good Samaritan when, for example, his car is totaled by one recipient of his beneficence and his dining table is invaded by guests who bark orders at his hapless wife, Lu (Ann Sheridan). Here, McCarey justifies the praise given to him by Renoir: We empathize with the well-intentioned Sam, but we also feel for the taken-for-granted Lu, whose dream of a new house is deferred by her husband’s free spending on others. “If this keeps up, we won’t be able to buy a tent,” Lu says, wearily. “Sam, when are you going to learn that there are some people in this world who don’t deserve your help?”

In McCarey’s world, there are even sons undeserving of a mother’s love. The filmmaker’s controversial drama My Son John (1952) stars Robert Walker as a young man who renounces his all-American upbringing for the intellectual fashion of the time, communism. The film has long been tarred by its association with the Red Scare in Hollywood, but anyone who sees it today will understand that what rankles McCarey is John’s bad behavior towards his kith and kin, especially his gentle, gallant mother, Lucille (Helen Hayes)—yes, another variation on McCarey’s favorite name for his heroines. This man-child, so sure of his intellectual superiority and so proud of speaking in “two dollar words,” condescends towards his mother, sneers at his father, and has fun at the expense of the family priest—that, less than Marxism per se, is his offense. 

“I was trying to give a very authentic portrayal of a father who worked and slaved to make enough money to send his son through college,” McCarey told Bogdanovich. “And consequently, Walker, his son, was ashamed of him. The father educated the son and the son was ashamed of the father.” This, for McCarey, is a tragedy; he is not blind to John’s good qualities—he has a sense of humor, albeit cruelly misdirected—but his disdainful manner offends the filmmaker’s sense of harmony. A family ought to be able to get along. 

We are asked to take sides in some of these films—with the old people in Make Way, with the wonderful mother in My Son John—but in McCarey’s greatest body of work, his explicitly Catholic films, we find that the filmmaker’s natural inclination is merely to sit back and appreciate the human parade. As Giddins wrote, “Leo saw life and his place in it as a sequence of anecdotes—vignettes he twisted, coddled, and improved for a laugh, whether to make a point or to hold his audience’s attention, much as he did in his episodic films.”

In Going My Way and its sequel, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Bing Crosby starred as a puckish, musical, sensible priest, Father Chuck O’Malley. It’s impossible to imagine two films about members of the clergy that are less self-serious; they have none of the overdone piousness of The Bishop’s Wife, let alone the religious zeal of A Man for All Seasons. The Bells of St. Mary’s accommodates countless memorable, human-scale digressions, including Father O’Malley beset by a bunch of kittens while introducing himself to the nuns working in the school he has been tapped to run; Ingrid Bergman, as Sister Mary Benedict, consulting a manual to instruct a bullied schoolboy on “the manly art of self-defense”—because, as a woman and a member of a religious community, she would know little about such things herself; and a glorious Nativity scene enacted by, and using the language of, schoolchildren. “This is Mary and I’m Joseph, and we’re going to Bethlehem to see if we can find some place to stay,” says one of the kids, in setting up the story of Christ’s birth. “And that’s all you have to know, really.” What a beautifully succinct illustration of the way a cosmic event, about which millions of words have been expended, can be retold, simply and beautifully, out of the mouths of babes. 

“There never would have been a Nativity scene, but a nun who worked very hard on the picture said she saw some children put on a Nativity play in their own words in Pasadena and she said, ‘If you could only have seen it,’” McCarey told Bogdanovich. “She tried to describe it to me and I thought I’d put it in the picture.”

McCarey’s classic romance Love Affair (1939)—starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer as lovers who improbably come together, stray from each other after a tragedy leads to a misunderstanding, and who, equally improbably, come together again—deserves to be counted among the filmmaker’s Catholic corpus, too. Yes, there are the scenes of devotion and prayer, but the story itself tell us that the faithful will be rewarded: If we can believe that Terry and Michel can resume their affair, perhaps we can believe, too, in the life of the world to come. “If you can paint, I can walk,” Terry says at the end, referring to Michel’s unlikely painting career and her own prospects for recovery following an accident. “Anything can happen, don’t you think?” 

Among all of the Golden Age directors, McCarey is perhaps the least visible today. Some directors of his generation worked into the 1970s; he scarcely worked beyond the mid-1950s. After directing his majestic remake of Love Affair, An Affair to Remember, starring Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant in the Dunne/Boyer parts, McCarey made the peppy political satire Rally ’Round the Flag, Boys! (1958) and then the flawed, rather strained Satan Never Sleeps (1962). Laid low by emphysema—Bogdanovich’s interview with him took place in a hospital—McCarey had no opportunity to write a memoir or do the talk-show circuit—or even be given an Honorary Oscar. He died in 1969. Today, he lacks the name recognition of Ford or Capra or Hitchcock, and given the fact that he had a very small immediate family—like William F. Buckley, he was a Catholic who had just a single child, a daughter named Mary—and that most of his stars are long deceased, there are few to speak up for him, other than cinephiles like Bogdanovich or Giddins. Or, I suppose, me. 

In the end, my embrace of the films of Leo McCarey was a matter of putting aside childish things; the model of Bing Crosby’s transcendent patience in The Bells of St. Mary’s really is superior to that of John Wayne’s untamed brutishness in Donovan’s Reef (though I still love that film dearly). It was not only my cinematic education that was enriched when I discovered him but my spiritual education, too. The catechism of Leo McCarey is as good as any I know.

Peter Tonguette writes for many publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Examiner, and National Review.

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