Archive for The Awful Truth

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.

Advertisements

For people who don’t like yacht clubs

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 12, 2018 by dcairns

LOVE AFFAIRS TO REMEMBER

Wild speculation and biography department.

I feel like I’m on the verge of outing Leo McCarey. Always a questionable activity, especially when it’s based on textual readings of an artist’s work. Still, it seemed harmless in this case to throw some mad theories out there.

I got interested in some odd parallels between Hitchcock and McCarey, two utterly different artists — one who emphasised above all else the careful preparation of every element of his filmmaking practice, the other who stressed the value of improvisation. McCarey apparently forced a reluctant Cary Grant to improvise on THE AWFUL TRUTH, and Hitchcock for once allowed him to on TO CATCH A THIEF. Although I always wondered if that was just Hitchcock trying to throw shade on his scriptwriter, John Michael Hayes, who had been getting too much attention in the press. Biographers’ attempts to ascribe Hitch’s liberation to the effects of the breezy location founder in the face of obvious process photography.

But here are the connections: both men were Catholic, McCarey more stridently, Hitchcock in a more subtle and interesting way. Both men only had one wife all their lives, and one child, a daughter. The one wife fits well with Catholicism, the one child not so much. In Hitchcock’ case, we pretty much know the explanation: after successfully procreating and giving us the essential Patricia, he and Alma packed the whole sex thing in and concentrated on making pictures, with the occasional foray into harassment and assault of lading ladies for Hitch. With McCarey, there might have been some trouble having children: he got married young, at seventeen or eighteen in 1914, but Mrs. Stella Martin McCarey did not present an heir, Virginia (some sources say Mary), until around 1927. And then there’s all that sexual frustration in the films: Ann Sheridan in GOOD SAM and Paul Newman in RALLY ROUND THE FLAG, BOYS! are sex-starved because of their spouse’s obsessions.

Meanwhile, according to what we would have to call gossip, McCarey was frequently unfaithful. He hinted at this himself when he said that THE AWFUL TRUTH was inspired by events in his own life, but he was always quick to say “but not the adultery part,” with a quip like, “don’t print this, my wife will kill me,” sometimes thrown in.

But almost in the same emphysemic breath, he would tell Peter Bogdanovich about trying to pick up Vina Delmar before discovering she was the author of a story he admired, MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW. But then it turns out that Vina Delmar (like McCarey?) was two people: she wrote with her husband, Eugene (real name Albert Otto Zimmerman), under her name. So which one was McCarey trying to pick up? Admittedly, Vina was pretty cute. But anyhow, when McCarey admits to a “very close” collaboration with Vina on MWFT and THE AWFUL TRUTH, he was in reality collaborating with two people. “Nice man, that Mr. McCarey,” said Vina, describing a charming and laid-back writing process in which McCarey would apologise if they didn’t like his ideas, and apologise again if he didn’t like theirs.

(I mentioned to our friend Nicola that McCarey’s womanizing caused him great Catholic guilt, and Nicola, who knows whereof she speaks, corrected me: “He had Catholic guilt because he was Catholic.)

McCarey had just lost his father, whom he loved. But McCarey Sr. was also the man who forced Leo to become a lawyer against his will, so the relationship may have been a bit more complicated than is admitted. It’s striking that, while dad made his fortune as a boxing promoter, McCarey learned how to box from a nun at his school (see THE BELLS OF ST MARY’S). Capra tells us that the elder McCarey would stage massive newsboy fights, in which dozens of scrappy kids would throw their shoes into the ring and then battle to retrieve a matching pair, the winner being chosen by crowd popularity rather than actual success. Rewarded with a gold coin, he would then walk home wearing two left shoes. But little Leo was banned from these exhibitions — he would sneak in without dad’s permission. And of course the mass shoe fights are transformed into the escalating street battles of the Laurel & Hardy silents McCarey supervised, starting with PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP.

McCarey determined, on his father’s death, to never again make a film he wasn’t dead set on making. He had just had the great success of RUGGLES OF RED GAP and the less happy experience of THE MILKY WAY, in which he couldn’t get the results he wanted from Harold Lloyd. Also, on that picture, the accident-prone Leo drank milk from a contaminated cow and nearly died. His brother Ray finished the picture in his place. More about Ray, who is hardly ever mentioned, later.

Critically acclaimed, MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW underperformed and basically got McCarey fired from Paramount (he held a lifelong grudge: “Every time I work for Paramount, it costs them a half million more than it should”), whereas THE AWFUL TRUTH at Columbia was a massive hit and won him the Oscar.

YACHT RUNS WILD

McCarey was a member or at least associate of the Emerald Bay Yachting Association, “the yacht club for people who don’t like yacht clubs,” originally “the Young Men’s Purity, Total Abstinence and Snooker Pool Association,” in essence a debauched drinking club with John Ford as a prominent member. Devotion to drink was not enough to gain admission, you had to be an “ambulance drunkard.” Alcohol may have been the real cause of McCarey’s “bone disease” after his Oscar win, and of the near-fatal car crash that stopped him directing M FAVORITE WIFE. When he made LOVE AFFAIR, where you begin to see religion forcing its way in — I think the film is uneven, the delicate balance of McCarey’s best work already beginning to skew. And on the night of the preview, he drunkenly drove his car onto and along the railway tracks, pretending he was in charge of the Super Chief, while editor Edward Dmytryk, in the passenger seat, tried to recall if the Santa Fe ran a night train.

Here, McCarey seems guilty not of recycling his life into his films, but his films into his life — the story recalls the conclusion of TWO TARS, a Laurel & Hardy short he supervised in 1928.

Then McCarey made the even bigger mistake of going into business with Howard Hughes, which ate up the next few years of his life and produced nothing. McCarey, forever recycling his life in pictures, wanted to make a movie about moviemaking, under the title (wait for it) QUEER PEOPLE. The project fizzled when Hughes became obsessed with making THE OUTLAW and McCarey couldn’t even get him on the phone: the men ended up suing each other.

Then we have the ragged, bizarre ONCE UPON A HONEYMOON, the wildly successful priest films, and the ragged GOOD SAM, whose release in 1948 coincides with Ray McCarey’s suicide. He was found kneeling by his bedside like a praying child, with a bottle of pills beside him. McCarey merely said his brother had been ill for some time. Depression, alcoholism, or unrelated physical suffering that made life unbearable? This is the other Hitchcock connection, the less successful, suicidal brother. An even bigger trauma if you throw in dedicated Catholicism. Ray had been a fellow director at Roach Studios, but had mainly made B-pictures. Following in big brother’s footsteps.

Ray McCarey, occluded.

 

You still find people calling McCarey a nice man socially, at this time, but John Huston calls him macchiavellian, and his writer on MY SON JOHN, a fellow commie-hater, came to believe he had lost his mind. Red-hating dominates the McCarey of MSJ and SATAN NEVER SLEEPS, with RALLY ROUND THE FLAG, BOYS! offering a satire of jingoism which, along with the burlesquing of the father in MSJ that complicates things a bit. But, as David Ehrenstein has commented right here, MSJ doubles as a homosexual panic picture, red terror as pink terror. McCarey comments that a big theme of the film is the college-educated son being embarrassed by his plebeian father. But it’s also the elegant, well-mannered son embarrassing the macho dad. It’s easy to see that the class elements here derive from McCarey’s own “loving” relationship with his father, but where does the sexual subtext originate? (The film is never able to address WHY Robert Walker’s character has strayed into the arms of the commies: we get no politics at all, merely a sort of pop-Freudian reading based on his domineering father and over-protective mother, the classic psychologist’s set-up for the dread sexual inversion.)

(Incidentally, Frank McHugh reprises his role of Father O’Dowd from GOING MY WAY in MY SON JOHN, making this the third panel in McCarey’s triptych of cosy religious movies, which just makes things weirder.)

Everyone seems to agree, without there really being a definite source, that McCarey was a serial cheater. Maybe trying to prove his masculinity to himself. Maybe he had no sex life at home. Maybe he was just compulsively charming and highly sexed. Did he just go with women or did homosexual flings enhance his stockpile of Catholic guilt? This is the man credited with creating Cary Grant. The floundering deceit that forms much of the comedy in MY FAVORITE WIFE does seem to support the idea of McCarey the philanderer…

A BRIEF DISCOURSE ON NAMES

McCarey says he and his wife called each other Tom & Jerry (two inseparable comic strip friends, long before the cat & mouse double act used the names ironically). Tom & Jerry is the name of an episode of Screen Director’s Playhouse McCarey wrote and directed. Jerry is a name which recurs obsessively in Leo’s work. Skeets Gallagher in LET’S GO NATIVE  Gloria Swanson in INDISCREET, Cary Grant in THE AWFUL TRUTH, all play Jerries. So who was Lucy? Beulah Bondi in MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW, Irene Dunne in THE AWFUL TRUTH, Ann Sheridan in GOOD SAM and Helen Hayes in MY SON JOHN play variants on this name. And Anita? Joyce Compton in WILD COMPANY, Ruth Hall in THE KID FROM SPAIN and Fay Bainter in MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW all play Anitas. Leo was named after his French mother, Leora. (My friend Lawrie once claimed that John Guillermin’s peculiar temperament derived from his Franco-Irish parentage. Leo had the same problem.) There are several Pats and Michaels too, of both sexes, and several Joes and Marys, but I don’t attach much significance to these commonplace names. Tuesday Weld is the only Comfort Goodpasture you’ll find in Leo’s filmography.

Dotting one’s mistresses names through one’s dramatis personae would fit well with Leo’s telling interviewers how THE AWFUL TRUTH was based on his own marriage, except the adultery part (then why include it? It barely makes sense in the film) and then hinting that maybe that too was an inspiration.

THE OLD SEX THING AGAIN

McCarey told Charles Laughton that he regretted his philandering, “But here I am sitting next to a pretty girl in the commissary, and I find myself saying to her, ‘You eat your lettuce so pretty.’ I’m love and I can’t help it.”

He also told Bogdanovich that the phone booth scene in MY FAVORITE WIFE in which Cary Grant calls Gail Patrick and says he’s at the airport, then exits his booth and collides with her, really happened to him — but he declined to describe the circumstances.

I guess the sexual ambiguity in MY FAVORITE WIFE is probably just a result of the screwball genre’s burlesquing of societal norms, and a natural response to certain qualities in the Cary Grant persona. MY SON JOHN is harder to account for, and it’s hard to see why the Catholic and avowedly straight Leo would be drawn to such a theme if it had no personal resonance for him. Unless… his brother?

These stories are drawn mainly from Jerome McKeever’s excellent essay cited yesterday. The lurid speculations are my own.

Acting the Fool

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 11, 2018 by dcairns

The key missing Leo McCarey film, which some lucky New Yorkers got to see a year or so ago, is PART TIME WIFE, a proto-screwball comedy from 1930. Parts of it were recycled in THE AWFUL TRUTH — the dog, and the lawyer bickering with his wife. Without being able to see that one, I’m left with McCarey’s early broad comedies, mostly starring clowns like Eddie Cantor, the Marx Bros, Mae West. DUCK SOUP is a masterpiece, the rest vary, but they rarely suggest the miraculous looseness of his mature work, the stuff which reaches a pinnacle with RUGGLES OF RED GAP, MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW, THE AWFUL TRUTH.

INDISCREET (1931) is more interesting to me than slapdash slapstick like LET’S GO NATIVE. It stars Gloria Swanson and Ben Lyon and has a kind of melodrama plot in which Gloria has to save her little sister from marrying a louse. She knows he’s a louse because he used to be her lover. A delicate problem.

Within that framework, McCarey pulls off some engaging farce — Gloria tries to put off the wedding by planting a rumour that there’s madness in her family, and then acting the part at a swank dinner. It’s not as funny as Irene Dunne pretending to be Cary Grant’s floozy sister Lola in THE AWFUL TRUTH, but it’s pretty good. Especially because it’s Gloria.

The climax also has Gloria trying to smuggle her way onto an ocean liner past a suspicious guard, a lovely piece of low comedy — the ghost of screwball yet to come — a great, glamorous, serious star being silly.

Cutie Barbara Kent is cute, creep Monroe Owsley is creepy, and there’s a glorious, cartoony, entirely wrong performance by Arthur Lake who would later find his spot by playing a cartoon character, Dagwood Bumstead in the BLONDIE series.

The movie was planned as a musical, but because a bunch of the 1929 crop of musicals had flopped, the studio ordered McCarey to remove all the Buddy DeSylva songs (he retained one), a shame, since Gloria had a fine operatic voice. Rewriting the script was done in a hurry, and Leo was dissatisfied with the results. These early films are often most interesting for the ways they echo the early Laurel & Hardy and Charley Chase films, and anticipate the later masterpieces. But this one also shows an early near-success in McCarey’s struggle to transition from shorts to features. How to sustain the momentum in a comedy over ninety minutes? McCarey’s solution, in the end, would be to make dramas, with comic developments and tone and climaxes. THE AWFUL TRUTH is a divorce drama. MY FAVORITE WIFE is a problem play.

Reading: I got ahold of Leland Poague’s The Hollywood Professionals volume on McCarey, but didn’t care for it too much. There’s nothing about the filmmaking in it. But then I found Edinburgh University Library had a PDF of The McCarey Touch: The Life and Films of Leo McCarey by Jerome M. McKeever. It’s a marvelous overview. McKeever seems to have dug up every bit of research material possible, and his observations are astute and illuminating. This was his PhD thesis — it should be published!