Archive for Leo McCarey

The Battle of the Exes

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on May 30, 2018 by dcairns

Got my copy of THE AWFUL TRUTH from Criterion — excitingly, I have a video essay on this one, dealing with Cary Grant’s development from stage tumbler to great light comedian. I can’t entirely account for why we decided to call it Tell Me Lies About Cary Grant, but something about the phrase just seemed to click.

   

Stephen Horne did his usual magnificent job editing, and Danny Carr once more stepped in to create a title sequence (see also Ants in Your Plants of 1942 on SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS and On Transcendental Style and Flatulence on GOOD MORNING). I tentatively suggested replacing the words in AWFUL TRUTH’s main title with our own text, a task that proved to be more complex than expected — Danny basically animated everything you see here, the hand that turns the pages being the only moving element retained from the original shot.

Danny’s a genius, Kind of like Cary Grant in that way.

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The Sunday Intertitle: the thrill of the Chase

Posted in FILM, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , on January 28, 2018 by dcairns

From Laurel & Hardy and Harold Lloyd’s work for Hal Roach, it seems natural to move on to Charley Chase, whose silent work in particular includes some of the greatest little farces ever put on screen. Leo McCarey, who directed most of them (though he credited Chase as the real creative mind), compared the films to The Dick Van Dyke Show — domestic comedies using farcical plotting. (And when DVD found Stan Laurel in the phone book and called him up to see if it was really him, he remarked, “I stole a lot from you,” to which Stan, a regular reviewer, replied, “Yes, I know.”)

I had a conversation with an eminent farceur recently in which we agreed that feature-length farces rarely work — “very hard to find a comic motor to sustain the plot,” was his diagnosis. So shorts in the twenties and thirties did it repeatedly, sitcoms can do it endlessly, but features usually sputter. In this light I’m fascinated that THE AWFUL TRUTH works so well. Part of its success is due to director McCarey having learned so many lessons from his work with Chase (plus Stan & Ollie and I guess Max Davidson). But part of it I think is the way it drops little emotional scenes in along the way to keep the stakes clear — we should feel that Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are an ideal couple and it’s a tragedy they’ve broken up, and then we can go back to laughing as they sabotage one another’s attempts to find a replacement mate.

Chase, working on two-reelers, doesn’t require any of that weight, but the films do want you to like and root for his character. Though a kind of cruelty is required, surely, to dream up such exquisite comic embarrassments, the audience is expected to wince in sympathy even as it laughs, and the ending is required to resolve the situation with a kind of poetic justice.

In INNOCENT HUSBANDS he’s married to the great Katherine Grant, in Mrs. Hardy termagant mode. She’s obsessively suspicious of her blameless spouse. Fate contrives to heap incriminating circumstances on the poor fish, really putting him through a lot of hell he doesn’t deserve, but the ending restores happiness and trust in a very McCarey way…

The film’s big idea is to combine two situations of compelling interest, the “Oh no! My wife!” bedroom farce and the mediumistic séance. Chase has to smuggles three people out of his bedroom while a spiritualist meeting sits in his living room, by disguising them as spooks. The contrivances involved to get us to this point are considerable, and almost too much — the key to this success is to make the contrivances themselves funny (as they never are in Ray Cooney type farces), playing up their absurdity or using them to point up character.

At the end of the story, Chase catches Katherine in an innocent compromising position with a man, forcing a very McCareyesque compromise: she promises not to be suspicious of him if he won’t be suspicious of her. As in THE AWFUL TRUTH, a successful marriage is like a conjuror’s trick: undeniably marvelous, but don’t inspect it too closely.

 

Then, just as peace reigns, one of the forgotten “guests” Charley has been trying to get rid off, comes tiptoeing through the back of frame. Charley sees her and cringes. Katherine, embracing him, does not. And then the character, on the way to the door, gets caught on a piece of cloth and starts pulling an ornament off its tabletop… Charley sees this too, and cringes some more…

But Charley has a revolver (established earlier) and so fires a shot at random in perfect sync with the smashing of the ornament — and the house detective (established earlier) pops out of a chest, rubbing his wounded posterior.

Amazing stuff — the condensed plotting is on a par with the final minute of NORTH BY NORTHWEST. It boggles the mind that such tightly-plotted, inventive and funny stuff was put together, at speed, by serious alcoholics (McCarey, Chase, Grant too). But maybe working alcoholics need to have more discipline than the rest of us, just to be able to pull of their (farce-like) double lives. Maybe so.

Stan & Ollie & Leo

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2018 by dcairns

The mystery of who teamed Laurel & Hardy is probably insoluble. Leo McCarey claimed credit. Hal Roach claimed credit but allowed Leo some, too. And there are a couple of other names that should be mentioned.

McCarey deserves his place at the table because he supervised most of the silent collaborations and directed a couple and contributed lots of the best story ideas. And he was capable of modesty, insisting that he learned everything he knew from Tod Browning, whom he assisted, and Charley Chase, whom he directed. McCarey said CHASE was the real director on those films. That kind of giving away of credit is rare, so when McCarey says “I teamed them,” he has some credibility.

Roach seems to lie a lot, or at any rate say things that don’t make sense. He presided over the studio where Stan & Ollie appeared in numerous films together without anybody noticing the chemistry between them. I think he lucked into the greatest comedy team of all time and his splendid contribution was to mainly leave them alone to get on with it. Some of the films he has a director credit on are good, but the director is not that important a figure in these films, where there’s a highly creative star/writer, and also a supervisor charged with overseeing the whole process.

A Roach studio employee recalled that when Roach pitched an idea, nobody could ever understand it. And the ideas Roach describes in Randy Skretvedt’s book Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies conform to that pattern, especially his nonsensical storyline proposal for BABES IN TOYLAND which makes me tired and ill just thinking about it.

I just watched HURDY GURDY, which was Edgar Kennedy’s first talkie, to see if he has “a voice like a sissy” as Roach alleged. Roach claims he got Kennedy to talk deeper after seeing this movie. But Kennedy in HG is the same bellicose sea-lion he ever was. MAYBE the fault was corrected before the film was finished, but there are plenty of other Roach statements that seem questionable. So I’d say Roach is an unreliable narrator who happened to outlive everyone else and got to repeat his lies more often and more recently than his competitors. He always insisted that Stan couldn’t think up gags, he just remembered them from the music hall, and had no sense of story, allegations denied by absolutely everyone who ever knew Stan.

The other trouble with Roach is that he wasn’t satisfied with having sort of presided over L&H’s union, or giving them the freedom to make their magic. He wanted to get involved and prove that his ideas were as good as anyone else’s. This was fatal.

Stan, of course, was the primary creative force in the film-making, and as long as he had authority the films were good, though he obviously needed collaborators, gag men, a director, and Babe Hardy. But Stan didn’t want to form a double-act and was planning to head behind the camera when the team-up was more or less imposed on him, so the actual idea of Laurel & Hardy can’t go to him.

But the other name deserving of mention is Fred Guiol. He directed DO DETECTIVES THINK?, which is the first film pairing Stan & Ollie in their trademark hats with their trademark personalities. Skretvedt has seen his original draft of WHY GIRLS LOVE SAILORS, an earlier short, in which Guiol proposed casting the boys as inseparable partners. And he directed THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS, which plants the boys in the same cell, providing one of the few practical reasons ever provided for their sticking together.

It’s notable that Leo McCarey’s first story credit on an L&H film is PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP, in which the boys do not have their traditional costumes and personalities.

So Guiol — a talented gag man, moderate director, and for decades after a producing partner to George Stevens, was right there on three key occasions where the boys developed their act. He wouldn’t have had the authority to declare them a team and make other directors use them as such — Roach and McCarey were surely involved in that decision.

Incidentally, lost bits of Stan’s solo movie DETAINED have just been found, and we can see Stan trying out gags that recur in THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS.

One thing we can safely conclude Leo contributed to the team-up was the escalating tit-for-tat gag, which seems to have multiple antecedents in his own life, from his father’s staged riots in the boxing ring, where all the local newsboys would throw in their shoes and fight to retrieve a matching pair, to an incident with a bow tie started by Mabel Normand, escalating into a clothes-ripping frenzy that destroyed the collective evening dress of an entire New York night club. Even if the slow-burn comedy of retaliation were McCarey’s sole contribution to L&H, that would be enough to earn him immortality.