Overlooked Achievements

By Arnold, Gary | Insight on the News, November 23, 1998 | Go to article overview

Overlooked Achievements


Arnold, Gary, Insight on the News


For film buffs, each year offers the chance for centennial celebrations of stars, directors, screenwriters.... Unfortunately, movie channels seem to miss the most of such opportunities.

The ease with which deserving film directors, actors and screenwriters can fall through history's cracks is underlined by the recent poll of the "100 greatest American movies" by the American Film Institute. The most painful omissions: Buster Keaton, Fred Astaire and Preston Sturges, whose centenary date fell on Aug. 29. The American Movie Classics network, or AMC, which has most of the Sturges titles in its library, found room for only a fleeting triple bill on the anniversary day.

A similar cursory treatment now haunts the shades of directors Leo McCarey and Rouben Mamoulian. Born respectively on Oct. 3 and Oct. 8, 1898, they emerged as distinctive, accomplished stylists during the 1930s. McCarey died in 1969; his last feature, The Devil Never Sleeps, was released in 1962. Mamoulian died in 1987, his film career ending prematurely with Silk Stockings in 1957.

McCarey was born in Los Angeles. A 1918 graduate of the University of Southern California Law School, he traded in a legal practice to become assistant to horror-film director Tod Browning. Hired as a gag writer by the Hal Roach studio in 1923, he eventually supervised comedy production, including the shorts that starred Charley Chase and the team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Some historians credit him with the initial casting that led to the Laurel-Hardy partnership.

McCarey would come to epitomize comic playfulness and sophistication. Between 1932 and 1937, he directed Eddie Cantor in The Kid from Spain; the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup; a superlative ensemble of George Burns, Gracie Allen, W.C. Fields, Charles Ruggles, Mary Boland and Alison Skipworth in Six of a Kind; Mae West in Belle of the Nineties; Charles Laughton in Ruggles of Red Gap; and Cavy Grant and Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth, the definitive screwball farce about patching up a wounded marriage.

These movies delightfully defy the ravages of time, as does McCarey's 1939 romantic comedy Love Affair, which matched Dunne with Charles Boyer. A tear-jerker, Affair became freshly popular in the 1990s with the success of Sleepless in Seattle. In fact, McCarey himself enjoyed a comeback in 1957 by remaking Love Affair as An Affair to Remember with Grant and Deborah Kerr, which has become an honorary "chick flick," frequently revived on AMC. AMC again aired An Affair to Remember with Ruggles in the wee hours of Oct. 4, the network's tiny tribute to the director. (Lest we forget, McCarey's Love Affair also inspired the 1994 ill-advised remake with Warren Beatty and wife, Annette Bening; it served as a superfluous valedictory project for Katharine Hepburn, inheriting a role originally played by Maria Ouspenskaya.)

McCarey's greatest commercial hits, Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary's, still lend themselves to holiday revivals, of course. Going My Way emerged as a box-office colossus after being released in the spring of 1944. Its sequel, Bells, was a resounding hit during the holiday season of 1945-46 when Ingrid Bergman reigned as a triple-threat phenom, also attracting throngs to Notorious and Saratoga Trunk.

Nevertheless, it is disconcerting to see how little commemorative activity is stirred by the McCarey centenary. While restrained in terms of volume, AMC did at least identify McCarey as a birthday boy. Turner Classic Movies, or TCM, revived The Awful Truth -- but on Mamoulian's birthday. Rubbing in the joke, the film was booked as part of a Ralph Bellamy evening.

TCM trumped AMC by actually booking Mamoulian's Silk Stockings, the Cole Porter musical revamp of Ninotchka that costarred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. Yet Stockings ran on Oct. 21 and 28 as part of a "Star of the Month" tribute to Charisse. Ironically, TCM also airs a "Director of the Month" series. …

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