Oscar History via Oscar Directors: McCarey Leo, Winner No. 7 of Directing Oscar–Background, Career, Awards, Filmography

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Leo McCarey Career Summation

Occupational Inheritance: No

Nationality: US

Social Class: father, fight promoter

Race/Ethnicity:

Religion: devout Catholic

Family:

Formal Education: University of Southern California law school

Training: mining, boxing, songwriting; assistant director to Tod Browning in 1919.

First Film: shorts (silent); the debut in 1931

Breakthrough:

First Oscar Nomination: Awful Truth, 1937

Gap between First Film and First Nom:

Other Oscars: Going My Way, 1944

Other Oscar Nominations:

Oscar Awards:

Nominations Span:

Genre (specialties):

Collaborators:

Last Film: Satan Never Sleeps, 1962; aged 64

Retired: 64; died 5 years later

Contract: Paramount;

Career Length: 1921 (shorts) to 1962; 41 years

Most Creative Era: 1932-1945 (13 years); decline after WWII

Career Output: 20 features

Marriage: NA

Politics: Right wing

Death: 1970; 69

Oscar Records

Oscar Awards: 3

1937 Best Director: The Awful Truth.

1944 Best Director: Going My Way.

1944 Best Writing (Original Story): Going My Way.

 

Oscar Nominations: 5

1939 Best Writing (Original Story): Love Affair.

1940 Best Writing (Original Story): My Favorite Wife.

1945 Best Director: The Bells of St. Mary’s.

1952 Best Writing (Motion Picture Story): My Son John.

1957 Best Music, Song: “An Affair To Remember” from An Affair to Remember.

 

Thomas Leo McCarey (October 3, 1898 – July 5, 1969) was an American film director, screenwriter, and producer, involved (in various capacities) in nearly 200 movies.

His best pictures include Duck Soup, Make Way for Tomorrow, The Awful Truth, Going My Way, The Bells of St. Mary’s, and An Affair To Remember.

While focusing mainly on screwball comedies during the 1930s, McCarey turned towards producing more socially conscious and overtly religious movies during the 1940s, ultimately finding success and acclaim in both genres. McCarey was one of the most popular and established comedy directors of the pre-World War II era.

Born in Los Angeles, California, McCarey attended St. Joseph’s Catholic School and Los Angeles High School. His father was Thomas J. McCarey, whom the Los Angeles Times called “the greatest fight promoter in the world.” Leo McCarey would later make a boxing comedy with Harold Lloyd called The Milky Way (1936).

McCarey graduated from the University of Southern California law school and besides the law tried mining, boxing, and songwriting before becoming an assistant director to Tod Browning in 1919.

It was McCarey’s boyhood friend, the actor and future fellow director David Butler, who referred him to Browning. Browning convinced McCarey, despite his good looks, to work on the creative side as a writer rather than as actor.

Hal Roach

McCarey then honed his skills at the Hal Roach Studios. Roach had hired him as a gagman in 1923, after McCarey had impressed him with his sense of humor, following a game of handball together at a sports club. McCarey initially wrote gags for the “Our Gang” series and other studio stars, then produced and directed shorts, including two-reelers with Charley Chase. Chase would become McCarey’s mentor.

Upon the comedian’s death in 1940, McCarey was quoted as saying, “Whatever success I have had or may have, I owe to his help because he taught me all I know.” The two men were compatible–they both enjoyed the hobby of writing popular songs.

At Roach, McCarey cast Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy together and guided development of their onscreen characters, thus creating one of the most enduring comedy teams of all time.

He only officially directed the duo’s shorts “We Faw Down” (1928), “Liberty” (1929) and “Wrong Again” (1929), but wrote many screenplays and supervised the direction by others. By 1929, he was vice-president of production for the studio.

Less well known are the shorts he directed with Max Davidson when Roach put together the Irish-American McCarey with the Jewish-American actor for a series of “dialect comedies.” They have been rediscovered in recent years, after their exhibition in 1994 at the Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone Italy.

Work with Stars

In the sound era, McCarey focused on direction, working with the biggest stars of the era, including Gloria Swanson (Indiscreet, 1931), Eddie Cantor (The Kid From Spain, 1932), the Marx Brothers (Duck Soup, 1933), W.C. Fields (Six of a Kind, 1934), and Mae West (Belle of the Nineties, 1934).

A series of six films at Paramount came to a crashing halt with Make Way for Tomorrow in 1937. While the story of an elderly couple who have to be separated for economic and family reasons during the Depression was not without humor in its treatment, the results were unpopular at the box office and the director was let go.

Nonetheless the film was recognized early on for its importance by being selected for the permanent collection of the recently formed Museum Of Modern Art in New York City. In later years it became canonical, and is even considered as McCarey’s masterpiece, due to perceptive champions such as director Bertrand Tavernier and critic Robin Wood.

In 1937, invited to Columbia, McCarey earned his first Best Director Oscar for the screwball comedy, The Awful Truth, with Irene Dunne and Cary Grant, a movie that launched Cary Grant’s unique screen persona, largely concocted by McCarey, Grant copied many of McCarey’s own mannerisms. Along with the similarity in their names, McCarey and Cary Grant shared a physical resemblance, making mimicking McCarey’s intonations and expressions even easier for Grant.

Critic Bogdanovich notes, “After The Awful Truth, when it came to light comedy, there was Cary Grant and then everyone else was an also-ran.”

After the success of The Awful Truth, McCarey could have become, like Frank Capra, a Columbia contract director with independence, but he went his own way, selling the story that would become The Cowboy And The Lady to Sam Goldwyn and moving to RKO for three films.

A car accident in 1940 prevented him from directing My Favorite Wife, a kind of follow up to The Awful Truth with the same two stars, so it was turned over to Garson Kanin though McCarey worked o the editing.

McCarey, a devout Roman Catholic, was concerned with social issues. During the 1940s, his work became more serious and his politics more conservative.

In 1944, he directed Going My Way, a story about an enterprising priest, the youthful Father Chuck O’Malley, played by Bing Crosby, for which he won his second Best Director Oscar and Crosby won a Best Actor Oscar.

His share in the profits of this smash hit gave McCarey the highest reported income in the U.S. for 1944.

Its follow-up, The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), which paired Crosby with Ingrid Bergman and made by McCarey’s newly formed production company, was similarly successful.  McCarey admitted that the film is largely based on his aunt, Sister Mary Benedict, who died of typhoid.

McCarey testified as a friendly witness early on in the hearings of the Un-American Activities Committee in Congress, which was concerned about supposed Communist activity in Hollywood.

The public reacted negatively to some of his films after World War II.  His anti-communist film, My Son John (1952) failed at the box office.

But five years later, he co-wrote, produced, and directed An Affair to Remember, starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, a remake (with precisely the same script) of his 1939 film Love Affair with Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer.

In 1993, the hugely popular romantic comedy film Sleepless In Seattle by Nora Ephron made such references to An Affair To Remember, which gave the older film a new lease on life in revivals, cable TV, and video; it has become McCarey’s most popular and accessible film.

He followed this hit with Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys! (1958), a comedy starring the recently married Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

Some years later he directed his last picture, the poorly received Satan Never Sleeps (1962), which like My Son John, was a strident critique of Communism.

Auteurist critic Andrew Sarris has said McCarey “represents a principle of improvisation in the history of the American film.” Through most of his career, McCarey’s method, rooted in the silents, was to drastically alter the story ideas, bits of business, and dialogue in the script. He would usually sit at a piano and doodle as the sometimes exasperated crew waited for inspiration.

Bing Crosby said about Going My Way: “I think probably 75 per cent of each day’s shooting was made up on the set by Leo.” While this technique was responsible for a certain awkwardness and rough edges, many of McCarey’s scenes had freshness and spontaneity lacking in the typical mainstream Hollywood cinema.

He was not the only director to work this way: fellow comedy directors Gregory La Cava, Howard Hawks and George Stevens (also a Roach graduate) were known for their use of improvisation.

French director Jean Renoir once paid: “Leo McCarey understood people better than any other Hollywood director.”

Leo McCarey died on July 5, 1969, aged 70, from emphysema, 7 years after making his last film.

His younger brother, director Ray McCarey, had died 21 years earlier.

In 1978, Leo McCarey’s production records, including scripts, budgets and letters were donated to the Charles Feldman Library at the American Film Institute.

Partial Filmography
(As director, unless otherwise specified)

Shorts:

Society Secrets (1921)
Isn’t Life Terrible? (1925 short)
Long Fliv the King (1926 short)
Mighty Like a Moose (1926 short)
Sugar Daddies (1927 short)
Should Married Men Go Home? (1928 short), also writer
Habeas Corpus (1928 short) supervisor
We Faw Down (1928 short)
Pass the Gravy (1928 short) supervisor
Liberty (1929 short), also writer
Wrong Again (1929 short)
Big Business (1929 short), supervisor and uncredited writer

Features:

1930s: 11

Indiscreet (1931)
The Kid From Spain (1932)
Duck Soup (1933)
Belle of the Nineties (1934)
Six of a Kind (1934)
Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)
The Milky Way (1936)
Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), also producer
The Awful Truth (1937), also producer
The Cowboy and the Lady (1938), writer
Love Affair (1939), also producer

1940s: 5

My Favorite Wife (1940), producer and writer
Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942), also writer and uncredited producer
Going My Way (1944), also producer
The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), also producer and writer
Good Sam (1948), also producer and writer

1950s: 3

My Son John (1952)
An Affair to Remember (1957), also producer and writer
Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys! (1958), also producer
Satan Never Sleeps (1962), also producer

Academy Awards
Wins
1937 Best Director: The Awful Truth
1944 Best Director: Going My Way
1944 Best Writing (Original Story): Going My Way

Nominations
1939 Best Writing (Original Story): Love Affair
1940 Best Writing (Original Story): My Favorite Wife
1945 Best Director: The Bells of St. Mary’s
1952 Best Writing (Motion Picture Story): My Son John
1957 Best Music, Song: “An Affair To Remember” from An Affair to Remember