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." Strangely, McCarey won a Best Director Oscar for that movie, which is extremely rare for a comedy. But when he accepted his trophy, he famously thanked the Academy and followed up with "but you gave it to me for the wrong picture." The same year, McCarey made his first real drama, Make Way for Tomorrow. It remained his personal favorite of all his movies until his dying day, but it was a very hard sell. You couldn't drag audiences to see it, despite some appreciative reviews. It's not hard to figure out why: it's the story of two aged parents who lose their home and become a burden to their grown children. There's really no way to spin this movie in such a way to get people excited about it, and nothing has changed today. It's the kind of subject matter that people go to the movies to get away from, not to remember.
But of course, when you sit down to actually watch the movie, McCarey's mastery takes over. It's an oddly unsentimental movie, and when it tugs on the heartstrings, it does so most unexpectedly and in the most beautiful, subtle ways. It sets up a family relationship that's deceptively complex, and even withholds certain information, as if we were merely eavesdropping and could not glean everything. (In one scene, Ma shies away from kissing Pa because we in the audience are watching her.) It could even be described as "realistic," moving forward based on the actions and reactions of its characters, rather than plot twists. (It anticipates Yasujiro Ozu's masterpiece Tokyo Story.)
During the first hour, four of five grown children discuss what to do with their newly homeless parents (the fifth lives in California and is never seen). It is decided that Ma (Beulah Bondi) will live with son George (Thomas Mitchell, who won an Oscar two years later for Stagecoach), and that Pa (Victor Moore) will live with daughter Cora (Elisabeth Risdon), who lives 300 miles away. Ma unwittingly makes a nuisance of herself with her daughter-in-law and granddaughter, and Cora acts like a controlling harpy around her father. Ma and Pa write wistful letters to each other, but there are also many surprisingly warm, hopeful moments. Pa gets sick and it is decided that he will move to California for the weather. Ma realizes that her son has decided to put her in a home, and in the movie's most powerful scene, she spares his dignity by suggesting the idea first.
During the movie's final half hour, the children organize a big farewell dinner before Pa's train leaves, but Ma and Pa decide to enjoy themselves, together, alone, in New York City. It's the movie's most joyous sequence, since McCarey realizes that they are truly in love, as much or more so than any young couple in any of a zillion romantic comedies. Additionally, everyone in this sequence -- from a car salesman to a hotel manager -- treats the old couple with kindness and respect, unlike their own children (a similar theme comes up in Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino), although McCarey refuses to pass judgment on any characters; no decision is made lightly or maliciously.
After Make Way for Tomorrow, McCarey rarely went back to comedy, though all his dramatic films always had comedic elements to them. He loved to create on the set, improvising and cooking up new angles with the actors (he loved to play piano while he considered new ideas). So all his movies have a very organic feel; his transition from comedy to drama never seemed desperate, or like a cry for love. It felt perfectly natural. He made Love Affair (1939), which spawned several homages and remakes, including McCarey's own, gorgeous An Affair to Remember (1957). He won another Best Director Oscar for Going My Way (1944) -- and a third Oscar for its screenplay -- and its sequel, The Bells of St. Mary's (1945) was an even bigger hit.
McCarey was one of the most successful directors of his day, and was often seen as a friendly rival to Frank Capra, so it's sad that he has been so forgotten. Here's hoping his films come back to glory. Make Way for Tomorrow is a good place to start, but there are more hidden gems (Ruggles of Red Gap, My Son John, etc.) in his filmography waiting for rediscovery too.