December 2018, arsenal cinema

Leo McCarey Retrospective

THE AWFUL TRUTH, 1937

Leo McCarey (1896–1969) was one of Hollywood’s most successful directors in the 30s and 40s, drawing on his great talent for comic and timing and a predilection for improvisation to make some of the most beautiful films of the classical Hollywood era, a unique blend of emotion, humor, vitality, and humanity. Yet despite this success and the admiration of such directorial colleagues as Frank Capra, Jean Eustache, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch, Jean Renoir, Alain Resnais, and François Truffaut, Leo McCarey is almost unknown today. From December 6 - 30, ee are showing a selection of his comprehensive oeuvre in collaboration with the Locarno Film Festival.

After graduating in law, Leo McCarey came to Hollywood in 1918, where he started out as a “script girl” (in his own words) for Tod Browning. In 1923, he moved to Hal Roach Studios, where he initially worked as a comedy writer for Our Gang and rapidly rose through the ranks to become a screenwriter and director. By 1929, he had made nearly 80 comedy shorts as a director or production supervisor in which situation comedy gradually become more important than slapstick gags. In 1927, McCarey formed the duo Laurel & Hardy, with whom he further developed the art of allowing a comedic exchange of blows to escalate with perfect timing, including the idea of the slow burn, whereby the effect of a joke is heightened by spinning it out ever longer. This great success paved the way for McCarey to direct features, which were equally defined by collaboration with famous comedians such as Eddie Cantor, the Marx Brothers, Charlie Ruggles, Mae West, W.C. Fields, and Harold Lloyd until the mid-1930s. Starting with RUGGLES OF RED GAP (1935), McCarey went on to shoot increasingly personal works which connected romantic and dramatic elements with comedic ones. The idealism that found expression here, which is rooted in the belief in the power of setting a good example, places him firmly in the orbit of Frank Capra. The humanist McCarey, of whom Jean Renoir claimed that no one understood people better in Hollywood, created his characters with leniency, understanding, and empathy. “I like a touch of the fairy tale. Others should film the ugliness of the world. I don’t want to give people any worries”. Religious motifs became increasingly prominent in his work from the 40s onwards after he was involved in a serious car accident. Leo McCarey was no longer able to replicate his previous successes in the post-war era and only shot five more films until 1962, including two that were marked by the anti-Communist sentiment of the Cold War.

THE AWFUL TRUTH (USA 1937, 6.12., with an introduction by Rainer Knepperges & 15.12.) Married couple Jerry (Cary Grant) and Lucy Warriner (Irene Dunne) each suspect the other of having an affair and decide to file for divorce. Before the judge, who doubts whether their intention to separate is serious and imposes a 90-day period of reflection, they haggle over who is to get custody of the fox terrier (who also appears in The Thin Man and Bringing Up Baby). Shortly before the divorce comes into force, Jerry suddenly wants to win back his wife Lucy, who is now being wooed by oil millionaire Leeson (Ralph Bellamy). Perhaps the most inspired screwball comedy in history, which at once serves as a summary and the crowning achievement of the genre, lifting the comedic battle of the sexes into masterpiece territory with sparkling dialogue and brilliant timing. For Cary Grant, who unsuccessfully tried to buy himself out of the contract due to McCarey’s seemingly chaotic and improvised direction, the film was his big breakthrough as a romantic comedy leading man. Leo McCarey won his first Oscar for Best Direction with THE AWFUL TRUTH.

Charley Chase And Max DavidsonShort film program (7.12., with a live piano accompaniment by Eunice Martins):
LONG FLIV THE KING (USA 1926) When the king of a miniature state dies and the prime minister whips up intrigue again the princess, who is on a visit to New York, Charley Chase, who was previously sentenced to death, unexpectedly becomes king. Fresh out of jail, he shouts “I’m the King!“ to the driver (Max Davidson) of the car he pulls over, who counters without missing a beat: “I’m the Pope of Palestine, but I don’t go round braggin’ about it.” Oliver Hardy appears in a supporting role with a twisted moustache.
FLAMING FATHERS (USA 1927) At the request of his wife, Jewish family father Max (Max Davidson) accompanies their daughter to the beach to make sure that she doesn’t get closer to her male companion than her parents would like. Due to his huge bathing suit and a strange manner, the bad-tempered Max becomes a star attraction for the children at the beach, with crowds of people even forming, as everyone wants to see the “funny man”. When a dog runs off with his bathing suit and he’s forced to wear an oversized police jacket instead, there’s nothing else to be done. “Please, Mister, will you come back next Sunday?”
DOG SHY (USA 1926) The zenith of the McCarey/Chase collaboration: due to a misunderstanding, dog-fearing Charley becomes the butler for a family who wants to marry off their daughter to an aristocrat against her will. Charley tries to help the beautiful daughter, but first has to give Duke a bath…

SIX OF A KIND (USA 1934, 7. & 14.12.) After twenty years of marriage, the Whinneys (Mary Boland, Charles Ruggles) want to take a second honeymoon trip to Hollywood. To save money on gas, they place an ad to find others to travel with them, whereupon a strange couple (Gracie Allen, George Burns) with a huge dog get in touch. A bag containing 50,000 dollars is also along for the ride, which Whinney’s colleague has embezzled and wants to smuggle out of the city. After a trip full of incident, the company of travelers ends up in Nuggetville, Nevada, in the hotel owned by the resolute Mrs. Rumford aka “The Duchess” (Alison Skipworth). Sheriff John Huxley (W.C. Fields), the hotel bar’s best customer, tries to find out what happened with the bank robbery in his own inimitable way. In this low budget Pre-Code comedy, Leo McCarey brought together three popular comedy duos of the time. The film’s great success also played a role in revitalizing the career of W.C. Fields.

BELLE OF THE NINETIES (USA 1934, 8. & 21.12.) St. Louis, 1893: The relationship between music hall queen Ruby Carter (Mae West) and boxer Tiger Kid is sabotaged by his manager, who accuses him of neglecting his training (a scene cut by the censors shows in what exact way). Disappointed, Ruby leaves the elegant St. Louis nightclub and takes on an engagement at Ace Lamont’s Sensation House in New Orleans an. Tiger Kid follows her and get caught up in the criminal business of Ace, who is also wooing Ruby. After the Hays Code was implemented in June 1934, several suggestive puns had to be removed from the finished film. The original film title “It Ain’t No Sin”, which was based on Mae West’s story of the same name, fell victim to the censors, as did the planned ending.

DUCK SOUP (USA 1933, 8. & 21.12.) Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) smokes fat cigars and likes the sound of his own voice. Along with the support of millionaire’s widow Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), this is qualification enough to become regent of the miniature state of Freedonia. He doesn’t realize that his chauffeur Pinky (Harpo Marx) and his Minister of War Chicolini (Chico Marx) are spying for Trentino, the ambassador of Sylvania. After Firefly boxes Trentino’s ears, war breaks out. With DUCK SOUP, Leo McCarey directed the most fast-paced and concentrated of the Marx Brothers films, which keeps on moving forward regardless of sentimental and musical digressions. Shot in the year that Hitler came to power (Harpo had already changed his first name from Adolph to Arthur), this anti-war satire shows the sons of a Jewish mother who emigrated from East Frisia in 1880 at the very height of their anarchic creativity. In Italy, the film was banned by Mussolini, in Germany it could only be seen in 1967 on television.

SITTIN’ PRETTY (USA 1924, 8. & 21.12.) will be shown beforehand: Groucho and Harpo’s famous mirror scene from DUCK SOUP – a vaudeville classic that one can also find in similar form in films by Chaplin, Max Linder, and Harold Lloyd – was already staged by Leo McCarey nine years previously in a one-acter with Charley Chase: False policeman Jimmy Jump (Charley Chase, born Charles Parrott) manages to overcome a madman (his brother James Parrott, who also directed several Laurel & Hardy films) with wild hair and beard by mimicking his actions precisely.

THE KID FROM SPAIN (USA 1932, 9.12.) Eddie (Eddie Cantor) und Ricardo (Robert Young) are expelled from college after being caught in the girls’ dormitory. Almost by accident, Eddie gets caught up in a bank robbery, the gangsters mix up the getaway car, and Eddie flies to Mexico. There he meets Ricardo again, whose lover Anita, daughter of bull breeder Gomez, is to be married off to matador Pancho against her will. Eddie wants to kidnap Anita for Ricardo, but kidnaps Rosalie by mistake, who he duly falls in love with. When a detective picks up Eddie’s trail, Ricardo claims that he is a famous Spanish torero – who soon must prove his abilities in the arena. Leo McCarey’s eight feature-length film as a director is the first one he regarded as successful. The star of this musical comedy is Jewish comedian and singer Eddie Cantor, who was taken under contract by Samuel Goldwyn after his success in the Ziegfeld Follies. Busby Berkeley, who had already done the choreography for two other Cantor musicals, staged the lavish kaleidoscope-like dance figures, which were to become a trademark for the famous musicals he shot for Warner in the years that followed.

THE MILKY WAY (USA 1936, 11.12.) Weedy milkman Burleigh Sullivan (Harold Lloyd) defends his sister against drunkards in front of a nightclub. When boxing champion Speed MacFarland is knocked out in the ensuing scuffle, Burleigh becomes famous and is coached into challenging for the title by Speed’s business savvy manager Gabby (Adolphe Menjou), who is happy to pay money to get the right results. The gauche, shy milkman becomes a self-confident star thanks to Gabby’s campaign around “Tiger Sullivan”, who soon lets success go to his head. Leo McCarey, son of a boxing promotor, directed Harold Lloyd’s most successful sound film in the form of this comedy about the bespectacled “Fighting Milkman”.

Laurel & Hardy short Film Program(12. & 13.12., with a live piano accompaniment by Eunice Martins):Leo McCarey was a supervisor on all four films and was also involved as a (uncredited) co-screenwriter on two of them.
SUGAR DADDIES (Fred Guiol, USA 1927) In this early joint film, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy aren’t yet a team and appear in unusual roles: Ollie is the butler of oil millionaire Cyrus Brittle (James Finlayson), who promised to marry a woman while drunk, who now wants to blackmail 50,000 dollars from him with the help of her criminal brother. As Brittle’s lawyer, Stan climbs on his shoulders, throws on a long overcoat and tries to get past the armed gangster as Ollie’s overgrown wife: “Who is this sun flower?” A turbulent chase sequence through an amusement park thus ensues.
LEAVE ’EM LAUGHING (Clyde Bruckman, USA 1928) It’s Stan’s toothache that is supposed to being treated at the dental practice, even though it’s Ollie ends up losing a tooth, while they both become intoxicated by the contents streaming out of a bottle of laughing gas. On the way home in their Ford T, the two completely disinhibited laughers cause traffic chaos and drive the police officer at the crossroads to despair.
TWO TARS(James Parrott, USA 1928) Sailors Stan und Ollie get to know two young women at a chewing gum machine and head off for a country outing in high spirits and fake headgear. When they try to overtake all the other vehicles waiting at a construction site, it makes the start of a lovingly celebrated orgy of automobile destruction.
BIG BUSINESS (James W. Horne, USA 1929) “Don’t you want to buy a Christmas tree? Maybe your husband wants to buy one? – If you had a husband, would he buy one? Stan and Ollie go house to house in summery California as Christmas tree salesmen and end up in such a big argument with an annoyed potential customer (James Finlayson) that nothing stays in one piece.

RUGGLES OF RED GAP(USA 1935, 14. & 28.12.) In 1908, the Earl of Burnstead loses his butler Marmaduke Ruggles (Charles Laughton) to American rancher Egbert Floud (Charles Ruggles) at a poker game in Paris. In Red Gap, Washington, Floud explains to the English butler that conventions have no meaning in America. Due to Ruggles’ chosen way of expressing himself, however, he is initially taken to be a colonel in the British Army and rapidly becomes a society sensation. Sacked by Floud’s snobbish brother-in-law at his own initiative, Ruggles recites Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (“all men are created equal”) to the astonishment of all those present in the saloon and decides to become the first in his family to step down from the profession of butler and determine his life himself. Alongside MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW and LOVE AFFAIR, RUGGLES OF RED GAP was one of the three projects made by McCarey in the 30s that was truly close to his heart. In this emotional comedy, Charles Laughton received the first ever opportunity to demonstrate his comedic talent on the big screen and was celebrated for his reserved depiction of the title character.

MY FAVORITE WIFE (Garson Kanin, USA 1940, 15. & 22.12.) Lawyer Nick Arden (Cary Grant) has his wife Ellen (Irene Dunne) declared legally deceased after she has been missing for seven years so that he can marry Bianca, the new woman at his side. Just as the newlyweds are setting off on their honeymoon, Ellen, long believed dead, suddenly returns: “How was my funeral?”. After an expedition ended in shipwreck, she was able to escape to a solitary island, where she was only now found. Yet Ellen and Nick’s reunion ends up being complicated: Nick is apprehensive at telling Bianca the truth, who for her part gets a neurologist involved due to his strange behavior. In the meantime, it becomes clear that Ellen wasn’t the only survivor of the expedition and spent seven years on the island with an attractive “Adam” (Randolph Scott), who would now like to marry his “Eve”. In addition, the life insurance company starts further investigations and Nick is accused of bigamy. Leo McCarey was supposed to direct this comedy of remarriage himself, a continuation of and variation on THE AWFUL TRUTH, but had to pass the reins to Garson Kanin after being involved in a serious car accident. After being released from hospital, he took over the editing of the film, which he also produced and co-wrote.

ONCE UPON A HONEYMOON (USA 1942, 16. & 28.12.) American radio reporter Patrick O’Toole (Cary Grant) uses former burlesque dancer Katie O’Hara (Ginger Rogers) to get to her future husband Baron von Luber (Walter Slezak’s Hollywood debut) in Vienna in 1938 in order to unmask him as having diplomatically paved the way for Hitler’s expansionist policies. The honeymoon leads the bridal couple across half of Europe, with O’Toole in hot pursuit; every country they visit is occupied by the German army shortly afterwards. At the time when National Socialist Germany was at the very height of its power, Leo McCarey set out to make his own patriotic contribution on the home front by mixing propaganda with the screwball comedy, romance, and the spy thriller – a balancing act that also came in for criticism. The highpoint of the film is a program on Nazi radio in which O’Toole, who has apparently changed sides, praises the vain baron live and with “shpontanuity” as Nazi No. 5, whose rise to Nazi No. 2 is merely a matter of time.

MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (USA 1937, 20.12., with an introduction by Esther Buss & 27.12.) During the Great Depression, aging married couple Lucy (Beulah Bondi) and Barkley Cooper (Victor Moore) lose their house after it’s repossessed by the bank. As their five grown-up children don’t have enough room for both parents, Lucy and Barkley must separate after 50 years together. For Leo McCarey’s personal favorite among his films, he worked for a reduced salary, did without stars, and resisted the pressure imposed by studio bosses to create a happier ending. It duly became a financial flop and cost him his contract with Paramount. The story is told with great emotional intensity, yet never falls into the trap of sentimentalism thanks to the connection to comedic elements, and inspired screenwriter Kogo Noda for Tokyo monogatari (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953). Despite the admiration of directorial colleagues such as Frank Capra, Delmer Daves (“one of the greatest American films ever made, and one of the most egregiously overlooked”), John Ford, Ernst Lubitsch, Jean Renoir, and Orson Welles, MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW languished in obscurity for a long period, only receiving fresh attention and acclaim in recent years.

GOOD SAM (USA 1948, 23. & 25.12.) Department store employee Sam Clayton (Gary Cooper) is the contemporary good Samaritan: “He’s in love with the human race, animals, fish. He just can’t help helping people”. Sam’s willingness to help, generosity, consideration, patience, and selflessness are exploited by every possible freeloader, however, and his wife Lu (Ann Sheridan), who wishes that he would put the needs of his own family first, increasingly sees Sam’s altruism as a problem: a soft touch, or rather too soft, in other words. After several dramatic twists and the question of whether one can afford behavior like Sam’s in today’s society, the happy message follows on Christmas Eve that “you can afford to be kind”. GOOD SAM is the highpoint in Leo McCarey’s late work, as this autobiographically motivated film succeeds in creating a seldom mixture of comedy, sentiment, and heartwarming humanitarianism.

GOING MY WAY (USA 1944, 25.12.) Young, unconventional priest Chuck O’Malley (Bing Crosby) is sent by his bishop to the parish of St Dominic’s in Manhattan, which is hopelessly in debt, in order to relieve the traditional, respected Father Fitzgibbon bit by bit, who has grown weary of his post. Yet the titular “my way” of the baseball playing, singing, and composing O’Malley, with his credo of “religion doesn’t have to rob you of happiness, but can actually make you more content”, isn’t something the grumpy old priest is able to engage with, who anyway isn’t going to leave without a fight. In the third year during which the US was at war, Leo McCarey found the right tone for his warm-hearted “Catholic comedy” about a priest who knows how to bring out the best in people. GOING MY WAY won seven Oscars and became one of his most successful films, even spawning a sequel by popular request: THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S.

THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S (USA 1945, 23. & 26.12.) Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby) is transferred to St. Mary’s Cathedral in New York, which has a run-down convent school attached to it, on whose grounds businessman Bogardus (Henry Travers, most remembered for playing the role of the friendly angel Clarence in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life) wants to build a parking lot for his neighboring office building. Due to the different ideas about educating the school children held by the conservative, traditionally minded Mother Superior of the school, Sister Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman), and the more pragmatic O’Malley, tensions are practically pre-programmed. Set in the festive season (and released then too), this serious comedy in religious garb even exceeded the huge success of its predecessor GOING MY WAY.

LOVE AFFAIR (USA 1939, 29. & 30.12.) Famous French artist Michel Marnet (Charles Boyer), future husband of a rich American heiress, and Terry McKay (Irene Dunne), nightclub singer and fiancé of an oil magnate, meet on a ship to New York and fall in love. At a stopover in Madeira, Michel’s charismatic grandmother, who lives there in an enchanted estate, helps them to accept their feelings for one another. Shortly before arriving in New York, where their respective partners are waiting for them, they agree to meet again six months late on the roof of the Empire State Building – if they’re still sure of their feelings. This romantic comedy with melodramatic elements – which were ultimately a result of the codex of the Hays Office – was one of McCarey’s favorite films. In 1957, he shot a remake entitled AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER.

AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER (USA 1957, 26. & 29.12.) “As at least two generations of young people were never able to see the first version, I had the feeling that I should tell the story for them again.” 18 years after LOVE AFFAIR, McCarey once again tells the story of two people already taken who fall in love with one another on a transatlantic liner. Cary Grant took on the role of the playboy with artistic potential and Deborah Kerr that of the singer, in this around 30-minute longer film, which was shot in color and in Cinemascope. AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER is one of the seldom examples of a successful remake and one of the few films by Leo McCarey to do well after the war. (hjf)

An event in collaboration with the Locarno Film Festival, with thanks to Iria Lopez. The retrospective in Locarno was curated by Roberto Turigliatto.