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The Genius of Leo McCarey

The Genius of Leo McCarey

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Appreciated and admired though he was by the greatest American filmmakers of his time (Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch), Leo McCarey isn’t held in the same regard today. While far from an obscure director, he isn’t considered a master of comedy by critics and audiences. The man who launched the careers of Laurel & Hardy and Cary Grant, and let the Marx Brothers make their zaniest film (Duck Soup), is not as well known as the performers he worked with.

This lack of recognition may be due to the difficulty in finding a throughline in his work. While a humanist impulse is evident throughout his career (as Jean Renoir put it, “no Hollywood director understands people better”), it’s hard to define McCarey’s touch. Unlike Lubitsch, his presence evolves in a more subdued way, so that the mise en scène, though precise like clockwork, doesn’t let you hear it ticking. At the forefront of every film by McCarey is the actor, a mirror image – sometimes direct, sometimes distorted – of the viewer. From the comedy shorts with Max Davidson to the religious films starring Bing Crosby, the directorial gaze is the same: McCarey favors the complexity of a broader vision over the allure of the close-up, and places man, actor and technical elements in a wider context. This vision feeds on details, stretching from the protagonist to encompass other stories. The dinner scene in Pass the Gravy is a good example of this: several vignettes featuring the other guests enhance the straight narrative line that runs from beginning to end (the reconciliation/conflict between the heads of two families). These increasingly grotesque and unreal moments make the short’s tragic ending acceptable. The Bells of St. Mary’s features the same procedure with a different story: in this case, the evolution of the relationship between Father O’Malley and Sister Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman) is mirrored on the smaller stories revolving around the boys at the institute. Whereas Pass the Gravy is an anarchic film about the junction between good manners and violence, The Bells of St. Mary’s deals with the kindness/cruelty duality within the education system.

In both cases, the conclusion gains its strength not only from good character work but also from the clever placement of different scenes that, irrelevant to the main plot though they seem, are part of the viewer’s emotional preparation for the ending. Leo McCarey’s genius lies perhaps in weaving threads and building shapes, unseen but solid and unstoppable like a spider’s web. He relies on his characters to take the audience exactly where he wants, with a winding yet effective crescendo rather than sudden jumps. The film that best exemplifies this talent is the one we rightly consider his masterwork, a film so crucial to his cinematic language that he made it twice. There are few narrative differences between Love Affair and An Affair to Remember, but the two films are fundamentally different in spirit thanks to nuances deriving from the difference in performances. One flows elegantly thanks to the charm of Charles Boyer, like a wave that will break in the emotionally charged final scene; the other, driven by Cary Grant’s energy (like McCarey himself points out, his sense of humor emerged even when it wasn’t planned), resembles the surface of a rippling sea that finds its emotional peak in the magnificent finale. In this game of contrasts and mirror images, Irene Dunne and Deborah Kerr serve as perfect counterpoints to their respective partners. The former plays with lighter tones, the latter goes for melodrama. Through their line delivery and blocking, they dictate the pace of the story. Cinema is a question of timing for McCarey, as seen in the two variations of the meeting with Grandmother Janou. The difference in space (the locations are clearly different) leads to a difference in timing. In this case, the second version becomes more languid and melancholy as the female protagonist (Kerr) asserts her place.

This approach to storytelling via timing would be unthinkable with a director who started with sound. It is customary for those who worked without words and sounds to let the rhythm take precedence. From this standpoint, Leo McCarey is, much like Lubitsch, an undisputed master. We can already see in the comedy shorts with Charley Chase how the director focuses on perfecting the pace of the story. From one film to other similar situations reoccur (the man and the woman enter the same establishment without noticing), clearly showing that McCarey uses what he learned previously in order to improve it. We’re beyond the universe of slapstick or comedy of errors, as the comedy mechanism isn’t self-serving but acts as an accelerator – not in the sense that it allows the story to end sooner, but rather showcases the basic components (like a nuclear accelerator, which allows us to detect particles of dark matter).

This principle, of exposing everything to shed a light on man’s dark side, is perfectly depicted in the Laurel & Hardy shorts. The joyous contrast between two bodies, so natural and obvious that it doesn’t require an explanation, allows for a wide range of variations that will remain unique in film history. Laurel and Hardy work in terms of the binary principle, in that they never occupy the same position. They always act antithetically, be it in the action (given or received), the timing of reactions or in relation to the few external elements they interact with. There is something properly mathematical about the possibility of exploring all possible positions, as with the trousers in Liberty (a binary variation of Putting Pants on Philip), the horse in a living room in Wrong Again, or the bowler hat in From Soup to Nuts. Watching the duo’s comedy shorts in the sequence is like seeing the variations of one theme, where the gag itself doesn’t change much but the actions and rhythm pertaining to it do.

Entranced by this maelstrom that, as we’ve noted, is as merciless as it is unrealistically slow as it unfolds, we do not notice the joyous perversion the shorts themselves carry out. They allude to themes that crawl into the unconscious like powerful antidotes to the normality of ordinary life, which the two comedians also embody. Homosexuality, violence, refusal of property, adultery, theft, murder… Seen from afar, the Laurel & Hardy shorts play like a law textbook. Except no repression is possible: once we’ve entered it’s impossible to return to normality because deviation works like a terrible, contagious virus. This is perhaps the greatest lesson McCarey will take with him and develop in terms not of storytelling but of mise en scène. His later films, both the hits and the less celebrated works, do not follow a preconceived pattern. They enter and exit genres, and they subvert the characters’ moral standing, with a dexterity which belongs to that fantastic era of silent filmmaking.

Carlo Chatrian
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