In Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, James Stewart, contemplating suicide, sees the world as it would have been had he not been born. The local movie theater has become a tawdry burlesque palace. After he returns to face reality, the town has reverted to its normal happy state—”Merry Christmas, movie house!” he shouts. Now the theater is showing Leo McCarey’s The Bells of St. Mary’s.
The careers of these two major comedy directors followed strikingly similar curves. Capra and McCarey both first made their marks in silent slapstick shorts, did their best work in the 1930s, and survived to fall out of favor during the 1950s due to changes in public taste and the collapse of the old Hollywood. Although Capra is still a household name, McCarey is remembered mostly for his box office excursions into blarney and sentimental religiosity—Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945). Yet a case can be made for McCarey as the greater artist. Jean Renoir said, “McCarey understands people—better perhaps than anyone else in Hollywood.” His nuanced characters have more density than Capra’s and are beset by more complex choices than the simplistic conflicts of Messrs. Smith and Deeds. McCarey’s universe is unstable, and though often hilarious, equally often grotesquely awry. A good measure of it can be taken in at the Walter Reade’s retro, which includes 15 of the director’s sound features and silent shorts.
McCarey worked with a full deck of Hollywood’s greatest clowns: the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, Eddie Cantor, Charley Chase, Mae West, Burns and Allen, Harold Lloyd. He was more interested in performers and their possibilities than flashy editing and glamorous photography. The one hallmark of his style was his use of the two-shot, which allowed a pair of actors to carry a scene through for several minutes without a break in continuity, leaving room for improvisation.
Two of the giddiest films here are silent shorts: Pass the Gravy (1928), with the great unsung Jewish comic Max Davidson, and Liberty (1929), Laurel and Hardy’s most outrageous romp, in which the boys are constantly being caught with their pants down (the entire film plays on the assumption that they’re gay lovers attempting to have sex in public). In the series’ rarest feature, the breezy musical farce Let’s Go Native (1930), Jeannette MacDonald warbles some tunes while shipwrecked on a desert island. Also at Paramount, McCarey directed the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup (1933), the most inventive, least cluttered picture of their career (he eliminated a good deal of their vaudeville shtick). In later years the increasingly right-wing McCarey never spoke kindly of this blissfully unpatriotic paean to anarchy.
The director’s forte, however, was hitching comedy to pathos, and in Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) the admixture works remarkably well. This five-hankie masterwork about an elderly couple who lose their home to a bank and vainly search for a spot to spend their last years together was a rare classic of personal filmmaking from Depression-era Tinseltown. The studio urged McCarey to tack on a happy ending. When he refused, Paramount dumped the film and gave the director his walking papers. He moved to Columbia and made The Awful Truth (1937), a screwball marital mix-up with Irene Dunne and Cary Grant that earned him a Best Director Oscar.
By the early 1950s, McCarey had become a raging rightist and active member of the Society for the Preservation of American Ideals. In his most problematic film, My Son John (1951), a small-town couple is shattered by the revelation that their son is a Commie agent. Some of this picture’s gruesome peculiarity stems from the fact that Robert Walker, who appears in the title role, died suddenly before production was completed; the actor’s death scene was patched together from shots “borrowed” from his death scene in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, made a year earlier. The confrontational ruckuses are charged with lunatic weirdness—for starters, redneck dad smacking Red-agent son on the head with the family Bible. Whatever it thinks it’s saying, My Son John has more to say about American ’50s hysteria than any other film ever made.