Throughout cinema history, comedians and comedy filmmakers have always suffered from the impulse to do something serious. They all eventually come to realize -- perhaps through watching themselves not get nominated on Oscar night -- that their efforts to make people laugh will never reap any meaningful rewards. The long list of people who succumbed to this impulse includes Charlie Chaplin, Jerry Lewis, Roberto Benigni and Tom Hanks. But no one did it more gracefully than Leo McCarey. At his peak, McCarey was considered a major director, but in recent years has fallen from grace, and from memory. Perhaps the recent Criterion Collection DVD release of McCarey's masterpiece Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) will help restore his reputation.
Born in 1898, he began in comedy, of course. He gets credit for teaming up Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, who had been working separately in silent comedies. He also helped invent the "slow burn," or the long, silent reaction shots between them, rather than the frenetic pace of things like the Keystone Kops and other contemporary comedies. He also directed the best Marx Brothers movie, Duck Soup (1933), and a very enjoyable Harold Lloyd talkie, The Milky Way (1936). He directed Charles Laughton in a much-loved, but hard to find comedy called Ruggles of Red Gap (1935). And in 1937, he made The Awful Truth (1937), which is one of the quintessential screwball comedies and helped establish the "Cary Grant persona."