Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

The Sins of Leo McCarey

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

The Sins of Leo McCarey

Article excerpt

I CATHOLICISM AND COMMUNISM

Leo McCarey's Catholic background undoubtedly colored his artistry, particularly his notions of sin and atonement, but few critics and historians have discussed this issue, or many of the other particular issues that arise from a close reading of his films in the context of his biography. McCarey's slender bibliography comes as a surprise in the case of a film maker who received two academy awards for directing and one for writing, and five other nominations for writing, directing, producing and even one for song writing. He worked with the best comic talent in Hollywood. During his years with Hal Roach (1923-29), he directed several silent shorts for Charlie Chase and was instrumental in refining the style of Laurel and Hardy. As film gained its voice, he did The Kid From Spain with Eddie Cantor (1932), Duck Soup with the Marx Brothers (1933), Belle of the Nineties with a slightly inhibited post-Code Mae West (1934), and The Milky Way with Harold Lloyd (1936). He even directed a young Charles Laughton through a brilliant comic turn in Ruggles of Red Gap (1935).

It is more than a bit of wordplay to suggest that the lack of critical interest in Leo McCarey may stem from the "sins" attributed to him by scholars who followed in the aftermath of auteur criticism in the 1960's.1 While auteur critics examined in great detail the works of his American contemporaries, John Ford, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and Howard Hawks, McCarey seemed to offer little of interest. Some years later, when film writers were comfortable investigating theological and philosophic themes in the works of Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, or Robert Bresson, American writers applied similar methods to the works of Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, or George Lucas. In all this flurry of theologically-based film criticism activity, few seemed willing to look back at the films of Leo McCarey as providing a precedent and context for his successors. As an exercise in idle curiosity, thumb through the indices of the standard comprehensive film history texts. It is truly astonishing to discover how few refer to him, and when he does appear, the reference might well lead to an entry on the Marx Brothers or Laurel and Hardy that mentions his contribution as director.

One can only speculate, of course, on this odd dearth of scholarly interest and respect. What I would like to suggest is that his "sins" made him something of a pariah, not in the sense of a vitriolic campaign to discredit his reputation, but rather as one whose work placed him outside the realm of serious academic discussion.2 His work was not bad; it was just irrelevant. Several factors converge to lead to this conclusion. His early reputation had been built on light comedies rather than serious drama. This is not an automatic disqualifier. Think of Charlie Chaplin or Ernst Lubitsch. Something else is at work in the case of Leo McCarey. His most popular films were Going My Way (1944) and its sequel The Bells of St. Mary's (1945). The stories of life in a Catholic parish, with the jaunty Father Chuck O'Malley (Bing Crosby), sparring with the grouchy but lovable pastor Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) in the first and with the lovely but tough Sister Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman) in the second, not only were immensely successful with the box office, but they harvested a sheaf of Academy Awards. For Going My Way McCarey himself took home statuettes for best picture as producer, best director, and best script, Bing Crosby received one for best actor, Barry Fitzgerald for best supporting actor, and James Van Heusen for best song (Swingin' on a Star). The Bells of St. Mary's also brought in huge audiences, but it was less successful with the Academy. It did, however, earn nominations as best picture for McCarey as producer, best actor for Bing Crosby, best actress for Ingrid Bergman, and best song for James Van Heusen (Aren't You Glad You're You). With two top-grossing films and extraordinary peer recognition through the Academy, McCarey was at the top of his game. …

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