Archive for The Bells of St Mary’s

For people who don’t like yacht clubs

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


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.


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…


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.


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.


Oh God! You Devil!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2018 by dcairns

SATAN NEVER SLEEPS on the one hand would have made a great entry for The Late Movies Blogathon but on the other hand it’s simply too depressing. One thing that makes a director’s disappointing final opus more than just dispiriting is when said director references previous, better movies. Auteur status is simultaneously confirmed and travestied. And so it is in this 1962 turkey from Leo McCarey, filmed on location in matte-painting China and on the hillsides of Wales.

There are insistent callbacks to earlier, better McCarey films, and I may have to raise my estimation of GOING MY WAY and THE BELLS OF ST MARY’S since compared to this they look like the masterpieces some benighted souls claim they are. William Holden plays a priest sent to relieve an older, more staid priest, Clifton Webb (GOING MY WAY is basically reprised in this idea). A new element is added: Holden has saved the life of France Nuyen and she’s fallen in love with him and is basically stalking him. Then again, the story posits old-fashioned religious values against the dread communism, staged as a kind of father-son conflict (repeating MY SON JOHN). The wicked commie, Weaver Levy, dismisses the kids from the mission school upon his arrival, upsetting the nuns, as Bing Crosby does in THE BELLS OF ST MARY’S, then falls in lust with Nuyen and rapes her. When she bears his child and he tries to apologise, he falls into double-talk straight out of THE AWFUL TRUTH — “If things were the same, it would be different…” etc. Holden reunites the couple to create a nuclear family, again like Crosby in TBOSM does with William Gargan and Eva Novak. That’s right: Holden marries Nuyen to her rapist for a smiling, laughing happy ending.

This scene is made weirder by all the characters being superimposed into the church setting, and Holden’s poorly-matted vestments turn transparent like the parrot in CITIZEN KANE. Is he a ghost? Are we in space? Those painkillers poor McCarey was hooked on must’ve been some really good shit.

The characters walk down this road, there’s a cutaway to where they’re headed, and then they walk through the same shot AGAIN. Surreal.

The idea of harking back isn’t an obnoxious one in itself, and McCarey had always done it, repurposing gags from his early Charley Chase and Laurel & Hardy films in features like THE AWFUL TRUTH and MY FAVORITE WIFE. Even the idea of stealing bits out of the reassuring, sentimental priest movies and deploying them in a dysfunctional, creepy movie full of neck-snapping tonal shifts might work for me because I kind of dislike the priest movies, in case you hadn’t noticed. But the film doesn’t display any of Leo’s early sure-footedness: there are a few small laughs (Burt Kwouk!) and some dramatic moments that aren’t totally abortive, but the playing is often wildly mistimed: Nuyen and Webb might be acting via satellite link with time-lag. McCarey knew there was a problem: he told Daney & Scorecki (and Bogdanovich, in identical language) that he didn’t like Holden, Webb or Nuyen. Probably, as director and producer, he shouldn’t have cast them, then.

At least with Holden his dislike seems motivated: he claimed Holden nixed his preferred ending, which would have seen the character looking to the heavens for a sign from God, and being inspired by a helicopter (rather anachronistically for 1948 China, I suspect), and then giving his life to save the others. The revised climax leaves Holden standing as an impotent witness to a lesser character’s sacrifice, so it’s hard to imagine an action star preferring this, and Holden had cheerfully died for Wilder and Lean and would do so again for Peckinpah. I’m probably missing a few. I think it might have been the helicopter-as-sign-from-God bit that Holden objected to, since this isn’t used in the film as it stands, where it could presumably have been retained. But then Holden could still have died.

Anyhow, Leo lost all enthusiasm and let his assistant finish the last week of shooting.

Weirdly, the movie, at two hours and five minutes, is EXACTLY the same running time as both GOING MY WAY and THE BELLS OF ST MARY’S. Theories welcomed.


Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 26, 2017 by dcairns

Bing upstaged by kitten in boater. I guess this is what you’re reduced to when you can’t allow your comedy any trace of meanness.  But I admit I like the funny awkwardness of the composition.

A kind of morbid seasonal curiosity drove us on, remorselessly, into THE BELLS OF ST MARY’S, Leo McCarey’s follow-up to GOING MY WAY. It’s exactly the same length, two hours and five minutes, making this quite a Bing-binge. It’s exactly as shapeless as its predecessor but somewhat more amusing.

Bing walks into view from the side, just as he walked out of GOING MY WAY, a touch you can only appreciate if you watch them together, but he exited GMW walking right to left and enters this one left to right. What’s the matter, Bing? You call your movie GOING MY WAY, but just what IS your way? You seem UNCERTAIN.

The pleasure-needle briefly wobbles into the red when we meet Una O’Connor who warns Bing balefully about the deleterious effects of being “up to your neck in nuns.” Fine words, delivered by a woman with just the right Gothic horror comedy credentials to put them over big. But in fact, the nuns are fine, and Bing gets on perfectly well with them, and the movie resolves this inconsistency by having Una largely disappear for the next two hours so as not to remind us of the false promise of dramatic tension.

There are other amusing issues of continuity. Teenager Joan Carroll (one of those weird little adults they have as teenagers in the forties) shows up with lipstick and Bing wipes it off, revealing one of the few un-touched faces to be seen in Hollywood films of the period. But in her very next scene she has lipstick again, just paler, the kind we’re not supposed to notice. And she needs it, I guess, to stop us noticing that Ingrid Bergman, a nun, also wears subtle but quite apparent lipstick throughout. (In THE NUN’S STORY the sisters all wear make-up but it’s cunningly invisible.)

Bergman brings the entertainment, though. It’s the entertainment of seeing a lusty woman in a habit. When she smiles, it’s not only one of the most beauteous smiles in cinema, it’s far from beatific. It’s full of sex. When she tells Joan Carroll about all the things she should experience before deciding if she wants to be a nun, she seems to be really getting into it, and when she says “not until you’ve known all this…and more,” it’s not “more things that we have time to get into here,” it’s “more things than I can tell you about while the Breen Office is eavesdropping — wait until the fade-out.”

Also having her natural exuberance stifled is Ruth Donnelly, the Frank McHugh of this movie, a zesty pre-code malefactor now tamped down and smothered in vestments for the repressed post-war world. It’s like McCarey was on a personal mission to leach the good, dirty fun out of everything. William Gargan also turns up, simpering — he’s a different case, since his attempts at pre-code stardom fizzled, and he got a new lease of life in wartime while some of the proper leading men were away fighting.

Who else? henry Travers as the millionaire from whom the nuns want to get a new school. Casting someone convincingly irascible and Scrooge-like would seem the minimum requirement to generate some dramatic zing and tension, so McCarey, naturally, goes the other way in order to flatten and confuse his film, casting a mild, befuddled performer who was about to play an angel. McCarey’s strategy in these films is to throw a wet blanket over anything threatening to become suspenseful. It’s not incompetence, it’s genuinely his aim. But I can’t really sympathise with it.

Henry Travers upstaged by dog. See top.

He does pull off one terrific moment with this approach, I’ll admit. When Travers has his conversion and becomes a saintly philanthropist, he tells Ingrid she can have her new school and he’s just off to sign the papers. Those of us who have seen a few films, and noticed Travers’ jaywalking one scene earlier, wonder if he’s perhaps going to be struck down by an automobile before he can reach the office. He exits, there’s a pause, then a screech of brakes and cries of alarm. Ingrid opens the door in time to see him emerging from under a truck, waving. He’s fine! A sort of heart-warming narrative double-cross. Pull off a couple more of those and you might have a picture.

I will admit that the nativity play rehearsal is funny and charming and uses McCarey’s way with improv to get very natural performances from kids who are supposed to be giving bad performances in a play. I especially like the lead boy who can’t breathe. This is the only film I know of where “Happy Birthday Dear Jesus” is sung apart from FULL METAL JACKET. McCarey reports that the sequence worried the studio suits, who feared it might be blasphemous, “But they weren’t Catholic.”