``

Film Series / Events

Search All Film Series (1999-present)
Browse All Film Series

June 8 - 16

Leo McCarey, Screwball and Beyond

Leo McCarey directed many of Hollywood’s prominent comic stars of the 1920s and 1930s, from Laurel and Hardy to the Marx Brothers and Cary Grant. In the 1940s and 1950s he helmed such major hits as Going My Way and An Affair to Remember. Soon after, however, his reputation suffered a period of decline, as his subsequent work was rejected as sentimental or even – in the case of the still controversial My Son John – inept and reactionary. At the time, the dismal reception of McCarey's late work even affected the reputation of his earlier triumphs, with the noteworthy exception of the sublime The Awful Truth. Yet in recent decades, perceptive scholars and critics such as Andrew Sarris, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Robin Wood, Dave Kehr, Gary Giddins and Tag Gallagher have all argued convincingly that McCarey deserves to be remembered as a major auteur of the Hollywood era, on the level of Hawks or Hitchcock. This claim relies on a re-examination of even those McCarey films typically considered "dated" (Going My Way, An Affair to Remember), minor works (Once Upon a Honeymoon; Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys!), or even outright critical and popular failures (the aforementioned My Son John).

What one finds, and what makes McCarey a great auteur, is not the baroque excess of a signature visual style, since he worked consistently with the economy and concision of the classical Hollywood mode. Rather, McCarey's creative vision is expressed through his ability to imbue the recurring themes of romantic and redemptive love with both heartfelt sincerity and the comic verve of anarchic wit. While a romantic, McCarey directed with a light touch that serves him in good stead when it comes to the sometimes melodramatic and occasionally sentimental nature of his material. Melodrama never becomes maudlin in the hands of a director so adept at steering a middle path between the pathos of Capra and the sophistication of Lubitsch. McCarey's genius with the funny side of things stems from his multi-faceted sense of comedy, which ranges from the slapstick of Laurel and Hardy pie fights to the observational comedy of Ruggles of Red Gap, the "crazy comedy" of the war montage in Duck Soup, the (early) screwball of Indiscreet, the farce of The Milky Way, the romantic comedy of The Awful Truth, the satire of Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys! and the touches of black humor in Once Upon a Honeymoon.

Leo McCarey's religiosity and right-wing politics may mark him as less hip than such maverick and politically outspoken filmmakers as Sam Fuller or Fritz Lang. Yet his films treat warfare, the nuclear family and life in the suburbs with a decidedly satiric scrutiny (despite the occasional recuperative happy ending), and consistently celebrate non-conformity. If the Church is never ridiculed, McCarey's Catholicism is of the humanist strain so prominent in such other greats as John Ford and Roberto Rossellini. It is McCarey's remarkable ability to create deeply affecting human characters and situations (even while satirizing human institutions) that lead Jean Renoir to famously observe, "McCarey understands people better perhaps than anyone else in Hollywood."


Live Piano Accompaniment by Martin Marks
Sunday June 8 at 3pm

Silent Comedy Shorts

After failing as a miner, a boxer, a lawyer and a songwriter, McCarey finally found something he was good at: making short comedy films as a director and supervisor for the great Hal Roach. McCarey worked primarily on films starring Charlie Chase and the team of Laurel and Hardy. Although not the first to pair Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy (as is sometimes claimed), McCarey played an integral role both in making them a permanent team and in shaping their screen personae. Similarly, McCarey helped reposition Charley Chase from knockabout slapstick to the "comedy of embarrassment" for which he would become best-known: playing cuckolds, clueless businessmen, hapless fathers and the like.

We Faw Down

Directed by Leo McCarey.
With Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy
US 1928, 16mm, silent, b/w, approx. 20 min.

Dog Shy

Directed by Leo McCarey.
With Charley Chase
US 1926, 35mm, silent, b/w, approx. 20 min.

Liberty

Directed by Leo McCarey.
With Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy
US 1929, 16mm, silent, b/w, approx. 20 min.

Big Business

Directed by Leo McCarey.
With Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy
US 1929, 35mm, silent, b/w, approx. 20 min.

Wrong Again

Directed by Leo McCarey.
With Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy
US 1929, 16mm, silent, b/w, approx. 20 min.


Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Introduction by Stanley Cavell
Sunday June 8 at 7pm

The Awful Truth

Directed by Leo McCarey.
With Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy
US 1937, 35mm, b/w, 91 min.

A marital squabble leads Lucy (Dunne) and Jeff Warriner (Grant) to divorce in this classic screwball comedy of stubborn lovers determined to undermine each other's attempts at a new romance. Most remarkably, the pinnacle of McCarey's comic genius – and the supreme example of what Cavell calls "the comedy of remarriage" – was apparently largely improvised. While McCarey was comfortable with on-set improvisation from his days in silent comedy, it reportedly threw Cary Grant, at first. By the end of shooting, however, Grant's comic timing was spot on. Just as he took the team of Laurel and Hardy and made them icons, so McCarey took Archibald Leach the last crucial steps towards becoming Cary Grant. Print from UCLA Film and Television Archive.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Sunday June 8 at 9pm

The Milky Way

Directed by Leo McCarey.
With Harold Lloyd, Adolpe Menjou
US 1936, 35mm, b/w, 86 min.

The Milky Way is a classic example of the comedy of mistaken identity. Harold Lloyd plays a mild-mannered milkman who finds himself suddenly being promoted as a brawling boxer after getting into a fight with a drunken heavyweight. The film finds both Lloyd and McCarey skillfully and successfully adapting their experience with silent comedy to sound. Their use of improvisation on the set generated one of The Milky Way's highlights: a sequence of Lloyd loading a horse into a taxicab. The result is a film generally acknowledged as one of Lloyd's best in the sound era.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Monday June 9 at 7pm

Going My Way

Directed by Leo McCarey.
With Bing Crosby, Barry Fitzgerald
US 1944, 35mm, b/w, 126 min.

One of the biggest hits of its day stars Bing Crosby as a new priest who arrives at a parish governed by a crusty older priest (Fitzgerald), only to find that it is mired in financial woes. The story of the rescue of the church was heartwarming enough to make it a major wartime success. By the same token, the film is sometimes remembered as saccharine, although the clear-eyed James Agee recommended it as genuinely moving. More recently, scholar Tag Gallagher has convincingly argued for the film's influence on John Ford and Jean Renoir, both of whom were known to admire McCarey's work.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Monday June 9 at 9:30pm

Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys!

Directed by Leo McCarey.
With Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Joan Collins
US 1958, 35mm, color, 106 min.

For his penultimate film, McCarey made a late-Hollywood "war of the sexes" comedy into a subversive look at the American dream and its discontents. Businessman Harry Bannerman (Newman) feels ignored when his wife (Woodward) starts pouring her energies into suburban activism. While she joins the campaign against plans to make the neighborhood dump into a missile silo, Harry becomes tempted by the attention of a bored housewife (Collins). The film climaxes with a crazed Thanksgiving parade that does for the narrative of American triumphalism what the climax of Duck Soup does for the myth of military heroics.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Friday June 13 at 7pm

Love Affair

Directed by Leo McCarey.
With Irene Dunne, Charles Boyer
US 1939, 35mm, b/w, 88 min.

When a French artist (Boyer) meets an American nightclub singer (Dunne) while crossing the Atlantic, a shipboard romance is born, even though both are already engaged to be married. They throw over their other relationships to have a brief fling in Europe and then head back to America, where tragedy awaits. Just as Make Way for Tomorrow is an unblinking, adult look at aging, here the director and his actors portray mature passion with as much candor as the studios' Production Code would allow. With its understated but undeniable charm, Love Affair is one of the most romantic Hollywood films of the studio era, on par with the films of Borzage and Ophuls.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Friday June 13 at 9pm

Indiscreet

Directed by Leo McCarey.
With Gloria Swanson, Ben Lyon, Arthur Lake
US 1931, 35mm, b/w, 72 min.

In one of her first talkies, Gloria Swanson stars as a self-proclaimed
"modern girl with an old-fashioned conscience" who dumps her cad of a boyfriend for a writer who turns out to be not quite the free thinker he (or she) thought he was. Difficult to see for many years, Indiscreet has been rediscovered in recent years as part of the revival of interest in pre-Code Hollywood. McCarey's direction is noteworthy for turning what could have been a stage-bound melodrama into an early example of screwball comedy. And as with Harold Lloyd in The Milky Way, the filmmaker shows an ability to translate a silent star's skills to the sound era.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Saturday June 14 at 7pm

An Affair to Remember

Directed by Leo McCarey.
With Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr
US 1957, 35mm, color, 115 min.

McCarey retools his understated classicism for 1950s widescreen Technicolor in this remake of Love Affair. This time the "man of the world and [the] woman of leisure" (as the promotional material for Love Affair put it) are played by Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. Once again, bliss gives way to tragedy, but here, even more than in the original, McCarey stresses the power of redemption, a theme that emerged ever more strongly in his work from Ruggles of Red Gap through his 1940s films. Unquestionably a bit less restrained than Love Affair, this version nevertheless retains the power to move audiences. "Neither star ever showed quite this much delicacy before or after, and McCarey's elliptical way of framing key emotional moments meshes perfectly with their sublime performances." – Jonathan Rosenbaum

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Saturday June 14 at 9:15pm

Make Way For Tomorrow

Directed by Leo McCarey.
With Victor Moore, Beulah Bondi, Fay Bainter
US 1937, 35mm, b/w, 91 min.

When an aged couple (Moore and Bondi) lose their home, they naturally expect to be taken in by their grown children. The children prove less than welcoming, however. This cursory description should be enough to demonstrate that, far from being a comedy, Make Way for Tomorrow is a melodrama. But rather than a tearjerker, the film is a heartbreaker, a remarkably sad film by Hollywood standards, then or now. Easily the most unjustly little-known film in McCarey's filmography, Make Way for Tomorrow does of course have its champions, because everyone who sees it falls in love with it. In fact, it bears comparison with Tokyo Story and, given Ozu's fondness for American cinema, may even have helped inspire that masterpiece.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Sunday June 15 at 3pm

The Bells of St. Mary's

Directed by Leo McCarey.
With Bing Crosby, Ingrid Bergman, Henry Travers
US 1945, 35mm, b/w, 127 min.

Given the success of Going My Way, a sequel was inevitable. Like its predecessor, it begins with Bing Crosby's Father O'Malley coming to a troubled institution to revitalize it. In this case, the institution is an inner-city parochial school run by Sister Benedict (Bergman). The Bells of St. Mary's is one of those few sequels that is today seen as superior to the original. For one thing, Ingrid Bergman makes a strong impression as Sister Benedict, a tough but loving nun who gives the neighborhood boys boxing lessons. This tale of a priest and a nun falling in love provides one of the best examples of McCarey's many transgressive couples. "McCarey's invisible hand, nudging the narrative more than directing it, turns looming cliches into the most refined, elusive feeling." – Dave Kehr

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Sunday June 15 at 7pm

Ruggles of Red Gap

Directed by Leo McCarey.
With Charles Laughton, Mary Boland, Charles Ruggles
US 1935, 35mm, b/w, 91 min.

At the turn of the twentieth century, British butler Marmaduke
Ruggles (Laughton) is "lost" by his employer in a poker game to a nouveau riche couple, who promptly re-locate him to their home in Red Gap, Washington. While Ruggles strives to instill some culture in his new master, the influence flows in the other direction as Floud's (Ruggles) genial, relaxed and egalitarian nature begins to rub off on the stodgy butler. In the title role, Charles Laughton delivers a much-loved performance. This film announced the arrival of McCarey's mature style, ushering in the decade from the mid-1930s to the
mid-1940s during which he made eight of his best and most successful films.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Sunday June 15 at 9pm

My Son John

Directed by Leo McCarey.
With Helen Hayes, Robert Walker, Dean Jagger
US 1952, 35mm, b/w, 122 min

Helen Hayes stars as a middle-aged woman who comes to fear that her son (Walker) may be a Communist. Robert Walker died during shooting, forcing McCarey to rework the end of the film and to rely on footage that Hitchcock had shot for Strangers on a Train in order to complete his own film. Rarely-seen today and regarded as an overheated relic from the beginning of the Cold War, My Son John has become notorious for the hyperbole of its red-baiting. However in retrospect, the film's anti-Communism exists primarily in relation to a bleak Oedipal nightmare, in which the battle between a brutal father and a manipulative son forces the wife and mother to have to choose between her country and her child.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Monday June 16 at 7pm

Duck Soup

Directed by Leo McCarey.
With Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx
US 1933, 35mm, b/w, 70 min.

When Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) is awarded the rule of European duchy Freedonia by a wealthy female admirer, he promptly plunges the tiny country into war. This satire (as merciless as anarchic farce can be) is usually considered the Marx Brothers' best film. McCarey's experience working with comedians, and his comfort with improvisation served him well when it came to directing the team – in fact, a number of sequences echo bits from McCarey's silent comedies. The film was a disappointment in its day, but its stature has grown steadily since, and today, the final reel, an absurdist look at the insanity of war, is still all-too timely

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Monday June 16 at 8:30pm

Once Upon a Honeymoon

Directed by Leo McCarey.
With Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, Walter Slezak
US 1942, 35mm, b/w, 116 min.

Ginger Rogers stars as an American gold digger about to marry a
Nazi bigwig, while Cary Grant is the reporter tailing the couple through Europe in an attempt to awaken Rogers' conscience. Relatively unknown today, Once Upon a Honeymoon deserves to be considered alongside other great anti-Nazi Hollywood comedies such as Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940) and Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be (1942). This is "Leo McCarey's astonishing attempt to blend screwball comedy and wartime propaganda – even more astonishing because, by and large, it works. Despite some windy passages, the film's
equation of true love and the democratic ideal is irresistible, quintessential McCarey." – Dave Kehr

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top
Harvard Film Archive • Carpenter Center • 24 Quincy Street • Cambridge MA 02138 • 617-495-4700