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Carlo Chatrian, in order to understand the genius of a complex and many-sided figure like Leo McCarey, we surely have to start with the comic brilliance in which his artistic career was rooted, in a golden age for comedy, and in particular with his relationship with Laurel and Hardy...
When McCarey first met up with the famous double-act he already had considerable experience in the field, having worked with director-producer Hal Roach and with other comedians such as Charley Chase and Max Davidson. McCarey’s early movies are notable for their firm grasp of storytelling and their striking variations in narrative pace. His strong suit was the perfect timing of entry/exit on camera combined with typical slapstick routines, but he could also weave a comedy of errors and misunderstandings and bring it out clearly in a storyline. With Laurel and Hardy, those skills were honed to a level of pace and elegance that never fails to surprise. His timing could be relaxed or tight by turns, while the running jokes were played out to the full but never became detrimental to the overall effect, because every single element had its place, in an ensemble that allowed for constantly shifting pace, dialogues, and situations. On the one hand, therefore, the comedic range was as broad as could be, with all its myriad resources, but on the other hand the formal composure – the vector of the comedy – was all the greater, in part because everything depended on the physicality of the actors, the fat one and the thin one, which in itself represented a divergence from normal criteria.
So much for McCarey’s contribution to the films of Lauren and Hardy. But what influence do you think they had on McCarey?
Most critics rightly underline the masterly control exerted by McCarey over every aspect of filmmaking, from directing the actors to mise en scène. But in so doing they sometimes overlook the extent to which that period of comedies, with all their subversive energy in terms of filmic language, was an influence on McCarey’s cinema later on when he tackled other genres. Together with classic formal command, McCarey never lost a taste for upsetting expectations and turning certain cinematic clichés upside down. You can see the legacy of those comic origins in celebrated scenes such as the one in which “Sister” Ingrid Bergman becomes a boxing trainer, upsetting the “sentimental” trim of a film like The Bells of St. Mary's.
Given that legacy, what would you see as the defining characteristics of the romantic dramas and sophisticated comedies that McCarey directed in the later part of his career?
I agree totally with what the French critic Jacques Lourcelles wrote about Leo McCarey. He called him a director who “films emotions”. That expression captures one of his defining characteristics: his skill at focusing on emotions, but with a sobriety that prevents him from slipping into sentimentality. He never fails to adhere emotionally to the subject at hand, but that sentimental material is never addressed in such a way that it becomes over-emotional. By way of example, I would cite the final scenes of two films that very much mirror each other: Love Affair (1939) and its remake An Affair to Remember (1957). Although the settings are different, we discover the situation of the female lead (confined to a wheelchair) indirectly. That is, we see the scene through the eyes, or rather in the facial expression, of the male lead (Charles Boyer in the earlier and Cary Grant in the later film), as each finds out the truth not because of the woman’s immobile posture, but because of the presence of a painting in the bedroom. Any drift towards pathos is thereby halted. McCarey includes the actor’s gaze in the surrounding space using a range of shots and without overdoing the close-up.
At the end of the day, McCarey is a classic director…
He certainly is one of the greatest representatives of classic cinema. On the other hand, though he never strayed into expressionism he was sometimes genuinely and quite surprisingly modern in his approach. McCarey’s name usually comes up in the context of the male stars with whom he worked, from Cary Grant to Paul Newman via Bing Crosby. Yet there were movies, such as Belle of the Nineties (1934), in which he could use a remarkable performance like that of Mae West to present a character that in some ways anticipates the burlesque: a nightclub queen who makes her way in the world of show business, never becoming a victim. On the contrary, although West plays the role as befits the 1890s setting of the title, she does so with a peerless irony that not only puts her in charge of the story but also seems resonant with the sensibilities of our own time.
On the subject of modernity and of masterpieces that have entered the collective imagination... No evaluation of McCarey’s contribution to film history would be complete if it left out the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933). How did that partnership work out?
It’s very much one-of-a-kind because it was the Marx Brothers themselves – who were already established stars – that asked McCarey to work with them. The resulting match-up was as inimitable as it was laborious, precisely because their working methods were diametrically opposed. The Marxes (especially Groucho and Harpo) were an irrepressible force of nature, ad-libbing both dialogue and movements, while McCarey had the thankless task of trying to contain their anarchic efforts inside a narrative structure with some kind of shape – something that went beyond gags and caricature and made each single scene part of a coherent formal whole. He succeeded brilliantly in Duck Soup, but the effort that it cost him was unrepeatable.
Another milestone, if only because it took the Academy Awards by storm (winning seven Oscars), was Going My Way (1944)…
The role of Bing Crosby as a Catholic priest was exploited to perfection; the whole project was a classic example of giving the public what they want. A successful formula put together with the usual skill, but which makes for what – seen from today’s perspective – is a less impressive film than it must have seemed at the time. His next picture, The Bells of St. Mary's, was in some ways a rather more challenging sequel and is certainly more interesting. This time the priest (Bing Crosby again) was joined by a nun (Ingrid Bergman). Given the setting, a dangerous element of sexual chemistry was thus included in the mix, all the more so since McCarey was himself a Catholic, and so the film is delicately poised on a narrative premise which is boldly contradictory in more ways than one.
Looking back on such films as Duck Soup and Going My Way, another aspect emerges: unlike many other great directors, McCarey did not make a series of better-known pictures that cast a long shadow over the rest of his output.
Yes, McCarey’s filmography is wide-ranging, like an open universe. Which is why a retrospective on his career is so important because it’s only the overall picture, which will give us the right perspective on this truly protean filmmaker. Last year, with Jacques Tourneur, the audience set out from very well known films such as Cat People to discover other interesting facets of his filmography. This time round, I believe that McCarey’s strength lies precisely in the fact that you can only really discover his work by making the full journey through the various periods of his career. At the same time, there will certainly be some aspects that attract more interest than others. One such is likely to be his relationship with Cary Grant, whose career was launched by McCarey. Indeed many observers have seen the great star as a kind of alter ego for the director, because of his unfailing elegance in so many different elements of performance: gesture, repartee, sense of humor. The very same elements, in other words, that allows a scene to take flight while remaining true to the dialogue. A lightness of touch that can retain many things within itself: from the paroxysm of comedy to the strongest of feelings.