A Happier Audience
Of all the filmmakers profiled in this series, Leo McCarey may be the most overlooked, and the most devout. Born in 1896 and raised a Catholic, he attended St. Joseph's Catholic School in Los Angeles and remained a practicing Catholic until his 1969 death.
He was also a giant in his day. His films were financial and critical successes; many—like An Affair to Remember and The Bells of St. Mary's—have remained household names. McCarey worked on nearly 200 movies across 40 years, primarily comedies. He was the first director (and is one of only seven) to have won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay in the same year. Jean Renoir said McCarey "understands people better perhaps than anyone else in Hollywood."
Prior to entering filmmaking, McCarey first tried to be a middleweight boxer (his father was an Irish-Catholic promoter), then tried investing in copper mining, and then was a working criminal defense attorney, pursing law under pressure from his father. He would later claim that he never won a case and that his last defendant chased him out of court and down the street after losing. He also tried his hand at songwriting, writing hundreds of songs, none of which were popular—a major frustration in his life.
Switching to filmmaking, he worked at the Hal Roach studio in the '20s, cutting his teeth writing gags for the Our Gang (Little Rascals) series that many of us grew up on via television, and then he started directing shorts. He paired two comedians for the first time, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, thus making film history less than a decade after he began. He wrote and directed many of their shorts and by 1929, was VP of production for the studio.
He would often sit at the piano in the morning, play ragtime, and concoct improvised scenes to shoot. This musical approach continued throughout the rest of his career, and he included musical scenes in nearly all of his films without any of them being labeled a musical. Musicals often stop the progress of the plot for their numbers, but McCarey's films brilliantly forwarded the plot with the musical number: they were not digressions, but progressions; not interludes, but integral parts of the story he was telling.
With the advent of sound, he would branch out and work with many stars, focusing on his strengths and his loves, primarily comedy and music. His string of hits in the '30s is hard to believe: he directed Gloria Swanson in Indiscreet in 1931, Eddy Cantor in The Kid from Spain in 1932, the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup in 1933, W.C. Fields, George Burns and Gracie Allen in Six of a Kind in 1934, Mae West in Belle of the Nineties in 1934, Charles Laughton in Ruggles of Red Gap in 1935, Harold Lloyd in The Milky Way in 1936, and capped it all with one of the first screwball comedies and one of Cary Grant's first films in his now-classic persona, modeled partly on McCarey himself, The Awful Truth in 1937. Though McCarey would take home an Oscar for Best Director for his work on this film, he always held a grudge against Grant for stealing his persona for that film and his subsequent career of mega-stardom. This is ironic because McCarey often put autobiographical allusions into nearly all of his films.
As to his approach, McCarey told an interviewer, "I love when people laugh, I love when they cry, I like a story to say something, and I hope the audience feels happier leaving the theatre than when it came in."
On his success: "I don't know what my formula is. I only know I like my characters to walk in clouds. I like a little bit of the fairy tale. Let others photograph the ugliness of the world. I don't want to distress people." Many of his films center on teaching scenes—one person teaches another to sing, to box, to drum, to speak on the radio—but they always feature a teacher with compassion, who forgives his student for their gaffes, forgives them their sins, as McCarey's had been for his own many failures before learning where his place in this world was to be.