Bing Crosby features in Leo McCarey's 'Going My Way.'

Going McCarey's Way

Dennis Harvey September 2, 2010

Is there another Hollywood Golden Age behind-the-camera talent who can claim so many classics within such a slim filmography as Leo McCarey? Unlikely. In an era when most A-list directors typically ground out multiple features for their assigned studio “factory” per year, McCarey took his own damn time. What he achieved was at once selfless and extraordinary.

He’s paid mini-retrospective tribute this month at the Mechanics’ Institute, where weekly projections of DVD or private-collector videotape (when a film is otherwise unavailable) attract Friday night crowds of film enthusiasts you seldom see elsewhere. They’re dedicated viewers, not to mention interrogators of host (and frequent contributor) Michael Fox’s guest speakers.

Native Los Angelean McCarey excelled at comedy, from his silent-era internship onward. He crawled up the studio ladder from flunky chores, graduating to directorial credit on a series of brilliant comedy shorts that eventually united Laurel with Hardy. Once the silent era passed into the sound one, he remained a major player of high profile and skill, yet ever decreasing output.

Still, what an output. The early sound era found McCarey in estimable charge of peak vehicles for Eddie Cantor (The Kid from Spain), the Marx Brothers (Duck Soup), Mae West (Belle of the Nineties), W.C. Fields (Six of a Kind) and Harold Lloyd (The Milky Way). For someone so expert at working with comic genius, it is a little strange that he never worked with any of the above more than once—a tribute to his restlessness, perhaps.

Two quite different 1930s McCarey comedies kick off the Mechanics’ September Love’s Labours—Leo McCarey Revisited series. The first, 1935’s Ruggles of Red Gap, was the third and final screen version of a popular novel. It starred Charles Laughton, then usually a dramatic heavyweight, as a very, very proper English butler whose titled employer “loses” him in a poker game. Ergo Ruggles improbably finds himself in 1908 Red Gap, Washington, trying to domesticate as it were the rich hick couple he now works for. Featuring the inimitable Zasu Pitts as the butler’s eventual romantic interest, this classic laid path for McCarey’s future, mixing the inspired comedy of his career to that point with heartwarming and poignant aspects.

The Awful Truth (1937) is one of the most revered amongst that decade’s “screwball” comedies, hewing to one of that genre’s norms in taking a gander at the idle rich—high escapism during the Great Depression. Cary Grant and Irene Dunne play the Warriners, a frivolous Manhattan socialite couple who don’t appear to be particularly faithful to one another. Yet when that matter is openly raised, their argument results in an impulsive decision to divorce. The only thing that seems to really concern them is who gets Mr. Smith, their terrier. However, as both embark on new romances, they discover that they’re not quite as ready to move on as they thought.

That same year McCarey made Make Way for Tomorrow (not playing in this series), an unusually frank look at old age that audiences resisted, though it’s now highly regarded. That marked his turn toward generally more serious material. A perfect illustration of his shifting emphasis is 1939’s Love Affair, which paired Dunne this time with Charles Boyer as (surprise) frivolous socialites who meet on a transatlantic cruise. But they’re engaged to others, and the strong attraction between them is as disconcerting as it is exhilarating. They make a pact to meet in six months if they’re still willing to chuck it all and start over together. But a cruel twist of fate prevents one from making the date, and Love Affair’s second half is an unabashed tearjerker. It was so successful McCarey remade it in 1957 as An Affair to Remember with Grant and Deborah Kerr, another hit.

The fourth and last film in the Mechanics’ series was a colossal smash in 1944 that’s rather seldom revived today, perhaps because it gives McCarey’s more sentimental side full rein. Going My Way cast Bing Crosby as a parish priest and lovably cantankerous Barry Fitzgerald as his superior. They and the film won Oscars; it made Crosby the year’s top box-office star for the first time. The whole gang reunited the next year for a sequel of sorts, The Bells of St. Mary’s, and that too just about minted money.

Between 1929 and 1939 McCarey made 15 features; during the last two decades of his career, only eight. His later work is spotty—it includes the Red Scare curio My Son John (1952), which had to be awkwardly cobbled together in the editing room when star Robert Walker (playing an all-American boy whose parents suspect he might be a Commie) abruptly died in the middle of shooting his scenes.

Like many esteemed directors of  the Golden Age, McCarey might have felt out of step with the shifting cinematic currents of the 1960s—in any case, he ceased working after 1962. But if you look at his output in the 1930s, his track record in that heady Hollywood era is second to none.