Divine Tragicomedies

The two movies that started Leo McCarey's amazing '30s run
by R. Emmet Sweeney  posted September 4, 2008
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I always get comedy in, even when there’s tragedy.

— Leo McCarey to Peter Bogdanovich, Who the Devil Made It

Midway through the 1930s Leo McCarey, the maestro behind the early shorts of Laurel and Hardy, started making feature-length masterpieces. From 1935 to 1939 he directed Ruggles of Red Gap, Make Way for Tomorrow, The Awful Truth, and Love Affair. It’s an astonishing run, but the first two features have long been unavailable on home video, their reputation surviving through the tantalizing words of critics and McCarey fans like Robin Wood and Dave Kehr. They were relegated to the bootleg circuit while The Awful Truth and Love Affair became canonized (although the latter is still languishing in public domain editions). The French releases of Make Way and Ruggles on DVD this past June, on the BAC Films label, are a cause for both celebration and reevaluation. Joyful and devastating, these films are tragic comedies and comic tragedies, which find McCarey using the improvisatory methods he perfected at Hal Roach’s studios to pursue his themes of personal freedom and the grace bestowed by love.

McCarey got a taste for freedom at his first Hollywood job, as an assistant to Tod Browning in 1918. He told Serge Daney and Jean-Luis Noames of his experiences: “From film to film, I had the opportunity to propose ideas because the scenarios we were shooting were all original. It was a unique apprenticeship working with a man who wrote, directed, and edited his films himself.”

From there he got a job with Hal Roach, first as a gag man for the Our Gang series, and then as a director and supervisor for Charley Chase and eventually Laurel and Hardy. It was during this period that McCarey developed his improvisational style, in which he would take breaks from filming to play the piano and toss ideas around with his collaborators until something stuck. Then he would call over the script girl to type up the new pages to be filmed immediately. This quick turnaround from idea to screen was an ingenious way to eliminate studio interference once he entered feature filmmaking.

McCarey's post-Roach career consisted of a string of middling comedies, centered on the strong personalities of his leads, who included Eddie Cantor (The Kid From Spain, 1932), the Marx Brothers (Duck Soup, 1933), Burns and Allen (Six of a Kind, 1934), W.C. Fields (Six of a Kind), Mae West (Belle of the Nineties, 1934), and Harold Lloyd (The Milky Way, 1936). These variably entertaining laffers are basically filmed records of stage acts, with McCarey trying to corral various shticks into a plot. Duck Soup is the high-water mark here, but its greatness lies in the anarchic dialogue-heavy humor of the Marx Brothers, a style inimical to McCarey’s training in the silents, as he told Bogdanovich: “It wasn’t the ideal movie for me. In fact it’s the only time in my career that I based the humor on dialog, because with Groucho it was the only humor you could get. Four or five writers furnished him with gags and lines. I did none of them.”

There is little of the director’s romantic/spiritual sensibility in these works. Nor is there the structural rigor and improvisatorial spirit of his Laurel and Hardy shorts. They are transitional, a groping toward his later seamless blending of comedy and tragedy. But there are moments that point to his future: a remarkable scene in Belle of the Nineties crosscuts between Mae West’s lament for her lost love (“Oh Lord, am I to blame?”) and an African American evangelical revival meeting across town. The rest of the film consists mostly of West’s withering put-downs; this scene joins the spiritual and emotional planes of the character in a manner McCarey perfected later with the sublime Love Affair (1939). Another glimpse of obsessions to come appears in Six of a Kind, when a couple, played by Charlie Ruggles and Mary Boland (who appear the following year in Ruggles of Red Gap), complain that they haven’t spent two weeks alone since their honeymoon—spurring them on a cross-country jaunt. A similar lament appears near the end of Make Way for Tomorrow, retooled and re-toned into a devastating commentary on the passage of time.

It was in 1935, with Ruggles of Red Gap, that the mature phase of McCarey’s feature film career began. The film concerns an English butler whose master loses him in a card game, forcing him to move to the American Midwest and work for a family of frontier yokels. The story originated as a serial in The Saturday Evening Post, and went through multiple iterations as a stage play and feature film, including one that starred Edward Everett Horton in 1923. The star this time was Charles Laughton, who was also in the midst of a career transition. As Jean O’Reilly has noted (in the Quarterly Review of Film and Video), he was coming off a failed season at the Old Vic theater and a string of unimpressive films, and was eager to exert more control over his work. He found a willing compatriot in McCarey. O’Reilly quotes the producer of Ruggles, Arthur Hornblow, Jr.: “[McCarey and Laughton] had an instant rapport. In fact, they were so much in rhythm, that [I] became the “heavy” in the trio. Charles and McCarey both seemed to resist producers as representatives of the establishment.”

This anti-establishment mentality produced a film that, paradoxically, was a beautiful ode to American democratic establishment values as well as a peerless comedy of manners. The film is a dream of America, a vision of the country’s best intentions made flesh in the town of Red Gap, where class barriers dissolve and officious social climbers get their comeuppance. This vision is crystallized in the scene where Ruggles recites the Gettysburg Address in a bar, after none of the residents can remember the words. The country of the address exists solely in Ruggles's head, but it's his (and McCarey's) unstinting belief in a more perfect union that pushes Red Gap closer to Lincoln's model—and makes the film so enduringly affecting

Charles Laughton’s Ruggles is a brilliant creation, a fastidious man who rarely breaks his perfect posture, his growing disquiet with his role in society played out mostly through his sarcastic saucer eyes. McCarey gives him plenty of room to exploit this physical interpretation of the role, and one scene encapsulates their working relationship on the set. In a piece for The Saturday Evening Post entitled “The Role I Liked Best...,” Laughton recounts the beginnings of a scene where he makes tea for love interest Prunella (Zasu Pitts):

Once, when a prop man was making me a cup of tea on the set, I objected because he took the kettle of hot water to the tea. “Always bring the pot to the kettle,” I told him. “Never bring the kettle to the pot.” McCarey sat right down at the piano and started working out the little score about that, which you may have seen in the film.

Examples of this kind of spontaneous scene-building abound in McCarey’s work, and stand out for their emphasis on character—on slowing down the plot to savor the various idiosyncrasies of his actors. As Robin Wood puts it, McCarey works with “actors-as-people, intimate and spontaneous.” To achieve this intimacy, he prefers to work with couples. In Ruggles he eliminated the character of Prunella’s child to this end, replacing it with a dog—a tactic he repeated in The Awful Truth, leading Wood to endorse the idea that “McCarey disliked families but loved couples.”

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) would seem to validate that claim. The central couple, Barkley (Victor Moore) and Lucy (Beulah Bondi) Cooper, are allowed children in this film, but the kids act like dogs. After some bad investments, the aging Coopers have lost their house to the bank, and are evicted into the hands of their five offspring, who bubble with resentment at the imposition. The parents are soon separated into different homes (this scenario inspired Kogo Noda to write Ozu’s Tokyo Story).

Produced after the death of McCarey’s father, it is a deeply mournful treatise on aging, that, in the final act, turns into a beautiful evocation and justification of the Coopers’ love and of their marriage. It stares unblinkingly at everything they have lost, the hours spent caring for children who have not repayed the debt, but also at the moments of grace afforded by spending a lifetime together. This grace is displayed in two exquisite reaction shots, a McCarey specialty that dates from his silent days. In the first, Bark’s friend Max (Maurice Moscovitch) has broken off reading a letter from Lucy (living 300 miles away) due to the increasingly personal, and painful, emotions expressed in it. After Bark departs, Max calls for his wife, Sarah. The beatific smile on his face drops as no answer is forthcoming. In the same shot, McCarey tracks forward behind Max as he walks into an open hallway, the Coopers’ dark mood infiltrating his home. Then the camera settles in the doorframe and Max yells, unsettled, “Sarah!” She emerges, exclaiming, “What do you want!” and finally there is a cut to Max in a medium-long shot, from the knees up, beatific smile returned: “I just wanted to look at you, mama.” The delicacy of emotion in this sequence cannot be overstated, the love expressed in a tilt of the head, the comfort of the beloved’s presence restoring emotional and stylistic order. Max’s dread is literalized in his funereal march to the doorway, his world restored when the tracking shot cuts to the static reverse shot.

Bark and Lucy don’t reach this unspoken level of tenderness until the last third of the film, when they are reunited. During their separation their worst selves emerged, Lucy turning manipulative and whiny, Bark stubborn and vulgar, their actions restoring some sympathy to the put-upon children. Once they are granted one final day together, in a New York City that holds their honeymoon memories, the world opens up to them in a kind of “eternal return” to their youth, as Dave Kehr has opined. Samaritans help them on every block, from the car salesman to the hotel manager, and the Coopers are treated as equals, almost as royalty. The dream of Ruggles’s America takes over in this last third, until the final, shattering goodbye. McCarey holds a medium shot of Lucy as Bark departs on a train behind her, likely gone for good. Her face flutters with myriad emotions, the fears of solitude and death mingling with the joy of her honeymoon reverie. She swallows deeply, angling her head down and then snapping it back up to steel her resolve. With one last breath, she swings her face to the left of the frame with an indomitable force of will, heading off to an uncertain future, but singularly in possession of love's memory. 


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Courtesy MCA/Universal Home Video
Ruggles of Red Gap
Photo Gallery: Divine Tragicomedies


Leo McCarey  |  Hollywood  |  Hal Roach  |  film review


R. Emmet Sweeney writes a weekly column for Movie Morlocks, the official blog of Turner Classic Movies. He has also contributed to Film Comment, Time Out Chicago and The Believer.

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Author's Website: Movie Morlocks