LEO McCAREY AT HAL ROACH STUDIOS
by Richard W. Bann
Dating back to 1914, Hal Roach Studios was known as the "laugh factory to the world," and the "lot of fun." Leo McCarey found laughs, fun, and a home there inside the studio's friendly confines of 14 acres located on Washington Boulevard in Culver City, California. Humor and escapism were actually encouraged by pioneer filmmaker Hal Roach, who controlled this privately held corporation. Quite naturally such a spontaneous and lively atmosphere inspired young McCarey, and vice versa.
In fact this inspiration was contagious. Based on the recollections of those who were there, it is clear that Leo McCarey fired the enthusiasm of everyone he worked with, from Hal Roach himself right through to the old man who supposedly maintained security at the studio entrance. Everyone at Hal Roach Studios loved the notion they were creating comedy a weary world wanted and was waiting for.
"I'll let someone else photograph the ugliness of the world," McCarey once said. "It's larceny to remind people of how lousy things are and call it entertainment."
Published biographical facts about Leo McCarey vary in their accuracy. One reason for this: McCarey himself was often the source of such information. McCarey's gift for comedic invention served well the films he made, but not the task of documenting his life story. In the few interviews he gave, McCarey seemed more interested in entertaining his listeners than providing a true account of events in his career. He wrote great stories, and told great stories -- sometimes about himself.
Leo McCarey was born in Los Angeles on October 3, 1898, one-hundred years ago. In 1905, a brother, Raymond McCarey, was born. After passing nods at more traditional career choices, both McCareys would become writers and directors of comedy short subjects and feature films.
Their father, an Irishman named Thomas J. McCarey, was "the greatest fight promoter in the world," in the opinion of the LOS ANGELES TIMES, and "a distinguished silver-haired diplomat," according to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED magazine. With "Uncle Tom" McCarey such a high-profile sportsman all throughout the state of California, it was little wonder that when Leo and Ray McCarey entered motion pictures they would make so many films revolving around boxing, baseball, golf and football. One of the most interesting was Ray McCarey's "B" film about baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers, IT HAPPENED IN FLATBUSH (1942). Tom McCarey's best advice to his boys was "don't bore people." Evidently they listened. The elder McCarey continued to influence his sons when he became the business representative for each filmmaker.
During the silent films era, the text or inter-titles for Hal Roach comedies were written by Harley M. Walker, eventually a vice-president of the studio. In 1980 film editor Richard Currier recalled that "Walker and Leo McCarey's father were old friends. Walker used to be a sportswriter under the name of ´Blinky Ben', in the EXAMINER, and McCarey's father had a boxing stadium in Los Angeles. Walker would go down there and write up the fights, so he got acquainted with Mr McCarey. And I think it was through ´Beanie' Walker that Leo got a job with Roach."
Another account, in a 1946 issue of THE SATURDAY EVENING POST, has it that McCarey met Roach playing handball at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. "You're a great guy for laughs," Roach told him. "How about coming to work for me?" In 1983 Roach confirmed that was his recollection as well.
In seemingly wasted preparation for such work, Leo McCarey first studied law at the University of Southern California and earned an L.L.D. He was a practicing attorney for only a short time, however, in San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Clients were scarce as laughs in MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW. Late in life McCarey often told a long story about one of his few - and last - cases. McCarey was conned into defending a wifebeater, who wound up chasing him out of court and down the street. That incident was the conclusion of his legal career. McCarey claimed he never won a single case. He was so young he was usually mistaken for the office boy.
According to the 1930 volume of the reliable Hollywood trade paper publication entitled MOTION PICTURE NEWS BLUE BOOK, Leo McCarey first entered the film industry in September 1918. By 1923 he (like Frank Capra the following year) was writing gags for short subject units operating at Hal Roach Studios, but principally for the Our Gang comedies. Other Hal Roach comedy companies at the time included the Will Rogers series, the Jimmy Parrott series (brother of Charley Chase), and the Snub Pollard series. Pollard had been spun off from films made by Harold Lloyd, who was just then about to leave Hal Roach Studios. Lloyd and McCarey would cross paths again in 1936 to make the boxing comedy (quite naturally with a scheming fight promoter) entitled THE MILKY WAY.
Right from the start McCarey excelled at crafting comedy situations and visual gags for the silent screen. The boss, Hal Roach, only six years older than McCarey, liked him. Both were Irish. Both athletic. Roach thought McCarey's gags for Our Gang were "inspired." McCarey was confident, almost reckless, and showed he had a fine sense of humor. Roach encouraged everyone at his studio, and quickly cleared a path for McCarey to succeed.
At the time, Charley Chase had recently served as the director general at Hal Roach Studios, supervising the various comedy production units on the lot. In 1924, at the behest of Hal Roach, Charley Chase elected to replace his own brother on a short subject series that wasn't working. Roach believed Chase would be more valuable if he would appear once again in front of the cameras, this time as a star (a decade earlier Chase had supported Charlie Chaplin at Keystone). Hal Roach also had the vision to promote Leo McCarey; the 25 year old son of a fighting Irishman would have his chance t direct comedies. Naturally enough one of the first films McCarey helmed with Chase featured the former heavyweight champion of the world, James J. Jeffries, in a picture called JEFFRIES, JR.
McCarey himself was once an amateur boxer. Three years later McCarey would supervise one of Laurel & Hardy's most famous films, THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY, which spoofed the so-called "flight of the century," with Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey. Stan Laurel played "Canvasback Clump." The picture concludes with the pie fight to end all pie fights.
McCarey was also a member of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, the Hollywood Athletic Club, the Elks Club, The Masquers Club (where his membership was sponsored by Charley Chase), and the Lakeside Country Club. At Lakeside McCarey often played a golf with people from the studio like Oliver Hardy and Our Gang director Bob McGowan. On one such occasion McCarey conceived a Laurel & Hardy Comedy built around gold. It was called SHOULD MARRIED MEN GO HOME? What began as a peaceful Sunday morning would conclude with the mud-slinging fight to end all mud-slinging fights.
The earlier one-reel comedies Leo McCarey made with Charley Chase evolved quickly. Cranked out at a pace of about two per month, in less than a year these laughfests were so well-received by exhibitors and the public alike that Hal Roach upgraded their budgets and doubled their lengths. Success warranted bigger pictures. The same thing had occurred after audiences embraced the Harold Lloyd "glasses character" one-reelers.
Critics, too, continued applauding the longer efforts. THE MOTION PICTURE NEWS declared, "(Chase's) initial effort in the two-reel comedies is...built up on the lines this comedian has been testing and developing for over a year. It is a play of character, with humanness as well as humor.... The start is an auspicious one."
Hal Roach recalled only one thing Chase and McCarey disagreed on. Chase celebrated the comedy of embarrassment. Evidently McCarey was not as keen for this slant on humor. It was not a major impediment to their working relationship.
In 1925 Chase himself commented on how well he and McCarey worked crafting these comedies. Having been a creative production executive at the studio, Chase had his own notions about characterisation, what was funny, why, how to shoot comedy, how to build it, how to pay it off, how to top gags, and how to "top the topper," as Hal Roach used to say. Chase told a reporter visiting the set what happened when he and McCarey would disagree over a scene. "We agree a while," Chase explained, "stop to play a tune, then do it both ways. Later we screen each take, see that both are wrong, and ask a neutral referee for advice."
So they had fun. They enjoyed themselves. Their rapport was solid. This relaxed, creative atmosphere was reflected in the films Chase and McCarey made together. These were silent films, but as Chase mentioned, the sets were filled with music and laughter. Spec O'Donnell, who played the nemesis "son" in the Max Davidson comedies McCarey would soon make, related what he saw when the cameras weren't rolling: "He (Chase) and Leo McCarey wrote a lot of songs, some just for fun, others were later used sometimes in Chase's sound comedies. Some of these were published as popular tunes."
Special effects photographer Roy Seawright remembered the special kind of camaraderie and creative freedom that Hal Roach fostered at his studio. "I always look back to the days when things were kind of quiet, when they'd roll a piano over to Stage One, and Leo McCarey would start playing," Seawright said. "And just like that, Charley Chase, Babe Hardy, Stan Laurel and Leo would start a quartet. It's unfortunate we don't have a recording of their impromptu entertainment. You'd walk in and listen to them, and you'd be entranced. The whole studio would come to a complete stop, the minute word got around that they were singing. People would just flock around that stage.... They were completely free to express themselves. And that expression - that freedom - was manifested in their pictures. In everything they did, there was freedom."
On all his important feature films, people who were there recalled that improvisation was a distinguishing characteristic of Leo McCarey's sets. He learned to improvise, to be spontaneous, and to trust honest sentiment during the seven years he spent working with the people - real people - who stimulated him at Hal Roach Studios. "I know it because I saw it happen," Hal Roach said in 1977. "Some of the best material in Charley Chase's pictures came out of sessions with Leo McCarey fiddling around at a piano. Sometimes it looked as though they were almost dreaming."
And maybe they were.
As McCarey and Chase turned out one winning short comedy after another, the Hal Roach publicity department went to work. They played up the comments of critics who saw the not-unintentional echoes of Harold Lloyd in the dapper but naive screen personality of Charley Chase. "Exhibitors and reviewers alike told us he was the best star (Hal Roach Studios) had presented since the old days of Harold Lloyd," declared press releases circulated by the studio in 1925.
The old days. Meaning the old days of 1923, which was then two years earlier. Hal Roach had failed in his first attempt (with Glenn Tryon) to find a successor for Harold Lloyd on his production schedule. Leo McCarey and Charley Chase were charged with the responsibility of trying again.
Lloyd and Chase were set apart from most 1920s comedy stars by their handsome, natural appearance. Neither wore a costume, nor engaged in gratuitous slapstick. Roach was always seeking to differentiate his product from the crude knockabout of Mack Sennett. To develop chase, Roach applied the same formula that worked for Lloyd: concentrate first on characterisation and situation. Gags were a secondary consideration. At the Sennett studio, and everywhere else, a gag could be used just for its own sake, regardless of how well it suited the characters or helped propel the continuity. Roach believed otherwise. McCarey well understood the Roach rule and would carry it over into the other units he supervised later.
Film historian William K. Everson once observed that Charley Chase seemed to be an extension of the Harold Lloyd character. It was as though many Chase films with McCarey were sequels. They depicted what might happen in married life after the Boy gets the Girl - usually that meant a journey from bad to worse.
Both Chase's average-man character and sometimes the storylines themselves could be traced to Harold Lloyd. His classic GRANDMA'S BOY was the inspiration for Chase's abridged version entitled THE FRAIDY CAT (directed by James Parrott), and Lloyd's human daredevil routine was the basis for PUBLICITY PAYS (this one helmed by McCarey).
Chase and McCarey worked together as star and director for almost three seasons worth of releases. One of the best one-reelers was ALL WET (although its popularity has cut both ways since surviving prints and negatives are well worn from extensive use). The leading lady was Martha Sleeper, whom Hal Roach first hired as a favour to a Pathé Exchange executive. Two decades later McCarey cast her again as "Patsy's mother" in THE BELLS OF ST. MARY'S.
Martha Sleeper also appears in INNOCENT HUSBANDS (1925). This slightly risque comedy may have been one of the second echelon Chase-McCarey collaborations, but there is speculation elements in it inspired René Clair when he made THE ITALIAN STRAW HAT a year later. Clair's hero sports a Chase-like moustache, and at the outset of each of these stories about marital infidelity the hero loses a straw hat!
Other fine two-reelers McCarey made with Chase include BAD BOY, DOG SHY, HIS WOODEN WEDDING, CRAZY LIKE A FOX, and the ingenious MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE. Directed with the taste and elegance found in all McCarey's work, MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE is the perfect example of how silent comedy is frequently helped by the absence of sound. The greatest tool any writer has at his disposal is the imagination of his audience. The reality inherent in a soundtrack is often a barrier inhibiting our imagination and limiting the plausibility of unreal premises and gags.
Certainly MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE requires a suspension of disbelief. In less capable hands, a situation like this where a husband and wife both coincidentally undergo such drastic cosmetic surgery so as not to recognise each other could appear ludicrous, as well as being unfunny. Yet the result is one of the truly great short comedies, particularly as enacted with range and skill by Charley Chase. Proving once more how underrated Chase has always been.
While he did remake several of his silents, Chase realised the danger of adapting such whimsical material within the limitations of sound. Actually this short was remade, thirty years later, as a Joe McDoakes Warner Bros. one-reeler entitled SO YOU WANT TO BE PRETTY. Enjoyable on its own terms, the remake suffers greatly by comparison, lacking in the charm and succession of sight gags which marked so many of these mid-1920's Chase and McCarey efforts.
When Chase began his starring series for Roach, it was F. Richard Jones who had succeeded him as Roach's production supervisor. As Jones left the studio, McCarey was promoted to take his place. Chase continued with different directors making delightful two-reel comedies until early death claimed him at the age of 46 in 1940. Alcohol abuse was something else Chase and McCarey had in common. McCarey, by 1940 a huge director, said, "My association with Charley Chase was one of the most pleasant memories I have in motion pictures. He was a great man, had a keen sense of comedy values, and we were together in fifty pictures at the Hal Roach Studios. I received credit as director, but it was really Charley Chase who did most of the directing. Whatever success I have had or may have I owe to his help because he taught me all I know."
In his CAHIERS DU CINEMA interview, McCarey said the Chase films were "really very funny, but they were completely different from what we did with Laurel & Hardy."
1927 was the year Hal Roach concluded his distribution arrangement with Pathé Exchange in favour of releasing through Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. As 1927 began, what were evolving as comedy units starring Max Davidson, and also Laurel & Hardy, were not yet branded as such. The way these pictures were produced and issued to exhibitors, they were still part of a catch-all series category known as the Hal Roach Comedy All-Stars. That really meant non-stars, future stars or former stars.
One of McCarey's first projects as production supervisor was to develop a series of Max Davidson comedies. Somehow, McCarey's Irish heritage helped him see the possibilities for Jewish humor surrounding Max Davidson as a beseiged, henpecked husband at the mercy of his family. And what a family.
Rich in visual gags and situational humor, the Max Davidson comedies written, supervised, or directed by Leo McCarey remain among the funniest - and also the most unsung - of all silent short subject films.
Born in Berlin, Max Davidson's brief series ended only when ethnic humor temporarily fell out of favour. One reason it fell out of favour was quite simply that the Jews who ran Hollywood were embarrassed by what they considered to be stereotypes. Seen even today, the little comedian's material is basically inoffensive and quite restrained.
If Hal Roach had continued with Pathé for distribution, the Davidson comedies would have survived longer. They lasted only a year of M-G-M's release schedule. At Loew's, and its subsidiary M-G-M, Russian born Jews Nicholas M. Schenck and Louis B. Mayer politely told Hal Roach that they did not wish to carry a second season of Max Davidson films. So ended a wonderful series - not because the films weren't funny!
Another reason Max Davidson remains unsung and ignored is that many of the few films produced are lost. There does exist, luckily, a Davidson two-reeler written and supervised by Leo McCarey called PASS THE GRAVY. This genuine classic simply but meticulously exploits one single situation. Shown at two international film festivals so far this decade - Pordenone and the Cinefest in Syracuse - it absolutely stole the show. Each time. Yet the only extant 35mm preprint material (the camera negative) is half decomposed and gone. PASS THE GRAVY can only be shown at a disadvantage today because this comedy gem exists in its complete form on 16mm film, not 35mm.
With so many films deteriorated and lost, other McCarey-made Davidson movies may be better than PASS THE GRAVY. We might never know.
Working with the talent pool appearing in these so-called "All-Star"shorts, it was Leo McCarey who first saw the chemistry of Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel. He did not create their chemistry, but he saw it first! In view of the casual way Laurel & Hardy were teamed, perhaps no one deserves sole credit for inventing this greatest of all comedy teams.
Once Stan Laurel was actually working with Oliver Hardy, it was then McCarey and Laurel who molded them as a team. All of it was ultimately and always done under the guidance and supervision of Hal Roach, who, if anyone, is fundamentally responsible for creating and sustaining the comedy partnership of Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy.
The first real, de facto, fully formed but completely accidental pairing of Mr. Laurel with Mr. Hardy at Hal Roach Studios came on a short subject entitled DUCK SOUP, issued early in 1927. Later Leo McCarey made an outstanding Marx Brothers feature film using the same title: DUCK SOUP. Its best gag showcased the pantomime mirror image of Groucho and Harpo. One brother believes he is looking at his reflection in a full length mirror. The other brother knows this is not so, since he himself is mimicking all the gestures! Although Max Linder apparently did it first on film, McCarey used this now celebrated device originally in a Charley Chase one-reeler called SITTIN' PRETTY, made nine years earlier. Chase and his brother Jimmy Parrott performed the routine.
A Chase two-reeler directed by Leo McCarey called ISN'T LIFE TERRIBLE? (1925) marked the second appearance of Oliver Hardy at Hal Roach Studios. By then Stan Laurel had already starred in two series for Roach as a solo comedian, in 1918 and 1923. Both ventures offered fast slapstick farce comedy, and a completely different kind of brash character for Stan Laurel. In his original 1961 authorised biography, John McCabe wrote of his subject, "Laurel & Hardy were joined by accident and grew by indirection."
In 1968 Leo McCarey told Peter Bogdanovich how he assessed those early films where two actors named Hardy and Laurel found themselves working in scenes together: "At that time, comics had a tendency to do too much. With Laurel & Hardy, we introduced nearly the opposite. We tried to direct them so that they showed nothing, expressed nothing, and the audience, waiting for the opposite, laughed because we remained serious. I came in one morning and I said, "We're all working too fast. We've got to get away from these jerky movements and work at a normal speed." I said, "I'll give you an example of what I mean. There's a royal dinner. All the royalty is seated around the table and somebody lets out a fart. Now everybody exchanges a glance, that's all." Everybody died laughing, but I got my point over."
Many Hal Roach comedies and particularly McCarey's silent masterpieces with Laurel & Hardy, are built around a device variously known as mutual abuse, civilised violence, deliberate harassment, and reciprocal destruction. McCarey told Bogdanovich his version of the genesis for this routine. (Hal Roach, however, remembered it differently.) "I was in New York," McCarey recollected, "with Mabel Normand, Hal Roach, Charley Chase, and I forget who else, I've always had trouble tying a bow tie - comes out cock-eyed. So we're all ready to leave and Mabel says, "Let's nobody tie his tie." And they all went out and left me."
McCarey sat on his bed for a while, sipping a highball, and thinking. He made several phone calls until locating someone to stop by and tie his tie. Success. McCarey went on to the nightclub where he "told the whole story to the gang," he said, "and no sooner had I finished than Mabel grabbed my tie and pulled it. I said, "You little son-of-a-bitch!" Well, everybody laughed, so I pulled Roach's tie. Somebody else laughed, so Roach pulled his tie. It began to spread to other tables and everybody started pulling each other's tie and, running out of ties to pull - it was too much fun to stop - they started ripping collars off - rrrriiip - until everybody's collar was off! Then somebody got an idea that if you took a knife you could start up the seam of a tuxedo, then grab ahold and tear it, and this was very effective. Pretty soon the nightclub was a shambles. Well, that was the basis for at least a dozen Laurel & Hardy pictures."
Just as more often than not it was Charley Chase who actually directed Leo McCarey's efforts on their pictures together, so it was with Stan Laurel who really ran the set on Laurel & Hardy films. Hal Roach did confirm this and actress Anita Garvin, always a favourite of McCarey's, declared, "Stan was the one who called the shots. He was clever about it, and considerate too. He steered things, without ever appearing to take over, you know? Stand did so much of the directing, even over Leo McCarey, and who was ever a better director for comedy than Leo?"
Hal Roach always maintained that next to Charlie Chaplin, "there was no better gag man in the business than Stan Laurel." On another occasion Roach said, "Leo McCarey had a great mind for comedy situations, which Stan admired..... Stan adored Leo McCarey."
McCarey told author John McCabe that he and Stan worked together "smoothly and sympathetically, and that made it very easy to meet the studio's rather demanding deadlines."
McCarey spoke of Laurel & Hardy in his CAHIERS DU CINEMA interview. "Laurel was remarkably talented," McCarey reflected. "This work represented a great deal to me; nothing could have replaced such an experience. And this experience - where all the ideas on which we were working were original and completely new - is comparable to no other... It caused me a lot of pain to leave Laurel & Hardy. It is to them, somewhat, that I owe some of my successes and the rewards that crowned them."
McCarey's first term contract with Hal Roach Studios was dated April 28, 1925. He was to receive compensation beginning at $350 per week and render services as a film director. Roach was so pleased with McCarey's productivity that a new agreement was written as of November 1, 1926, with remuneration starting at $750 per week. Each contract was scheduled to run for five years, and provided for pay increases. On December 27, 1927, McCarey was appointed vice-president of the studio.
Although he shot retakes on many others, Leo McCarey took screen credit for directing only three Laurel & Hardy films, all made consecutively - WE FAW DOWN (with the street-sprinkler gag reworked later in GOING MY WAY), LIBERTY, and WRONG AGAIN. As William K. Everson has written, "The three that he directed personally were neither typical McCarey nor typical Laurel & Hardy."
One of these might be described (although not accurately!) as typical Harold Lloyd: LIBERTY. Laurel & Hardy find themselves stranded on girders atop a skyscraper! When the THIS IS YOUR LIFE television program surprised Laurel & Hardy in 1954, Leo McCarey was scheduled as a guest. Back stage, Stan Laurel's daughter, Lois, remembers that McCarey nearly did not make it. He had been drinking and the staff was afraid to let him appear, inebriated, on a live programme. But McCarey came out on the stage anyway and spoke of the danger involved while shooting LIBERTY "up on a building; the two of them were constructing a skyscraper," McCarey explained. "They were up about 40 feet from the ground, which was the top of the building. Stan Laurel was standing up on the girder, looked down and got quite panicky. And Babe Hardy tried to quiet him. He said, ´Look, you don't have to worry. There's a safety platform about 15 feet under the scaffold.' Stan looked down and said, ´Well, even the safety platform doesn't look safe to me.' Babe tried to quiet him. He said, 'Look, to show you that it's perfectly all right, I'll show you.' And he jumped off. Well, it wasn't safe. The platform slowed him down a little, but he fell 20, and then 20 more feet, to the ground!"
Another Laurel & Hardy short closely associated with Leo McCarey was PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP. In his CAHIERS DU CINEMA interview, McCarey characterised the film as "my baby" although Clyde Bruckman received screen credit for directing it. Credits notwithstanding, McCarey recalled directing the whole thing himself in order to prove the value of his own original story which according to him was not well received when first offered in story conference. This made PHILIP a watershed project since everyone paid attention to the elaborate production and ballyhoo surrounding the film. As one example, many hundreds of crowd extras were paid for the street scenes, and there are still photos taken later back at the studio showing them all lined up serpentine fashion in front of the payroll window for their $5 day-wage. The additional effort garnered extra attention, a big campaign, and set off visionary lightbulbs in the minds of the top talent around the lot. The independent recollections of both Stan Laurel and Hal Raoch cite PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP as the first official Laurel & Hardy film.
Yet it was not. In PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP Laurel & Hardy are not cast as themselves. Nor are they portrayed as friends. Nor do they wear they trademarked darby hats. Laurel, as a kilted nitwit, doesn't even wear pants. What's more, they had already appeared in 14 two-reelers together when PHILIP was made. The casual evolution which had brought everyone to this new beginning with PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP was forgotten. DUCK SOUP was forgotton.
So much for memories of the principals involved. McCarey did hail PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP as "one of my favourites, and Laurel considered it one of his best."
And McCarey told CAHIERS DU CINEMA that Charlie Chaplin "particularly loved Laurel & Hardy. One of the most precious souvenirs is a fan letter that Chaplin sent me in which he congratulates me on my work with Laurel & Hardy and predicts a beautiful future for me."
Finally, Leo McCarey wanted to direct feature films exclusively, and he resigned Hal Roach Studios effective as of January 26, 1930. McCarey kidded about if for a 1945 article in LIBERTY magazine. Apparently McCarey and Roach were sitting in a steam room one day, "when Leo noticed Hal's powerful physique," the article read. Then McCarey told his boss, "Hal, a vice-president has no chance for advancement when the president is as healthy as you."
It was another of McCarey's prescient insights. We are now celebrating the centennial of McCarey's birth, but Hal Roach actually lived to enjoy his hundredth birthday in robust good health.
So McCarey left the little "lot of fun" as the 1930's began. He was not soon forgotten. When McCarey made THE KID FROM SPAIN, Roach starred Our Gang in THE KID FROM BORNEO. When McCarey made THE AWFUL TRUTH, Roach starred Our Gang in THE AWFUL TOOTH. The working title for McCarey's DUCK SOUP with Marx Brothers was CRACKED ICE. Hal Roach immediately starred Charley Chase in THE CRACKED ICEMAN.
McCarey and Roach remained close lifelong friends. McCarey and his wife Stella lived at 1014 North Crescent Drive in Beverly Hills, two blocks away from Hal Roach. They vacationed together. Always, wherever they were, they discussed comedy - what made people laugh and why. And why not.
McCarey returned to his home studio to make a pair of episodes for Roach's television series entitled SCREEN DIRECTORS PLAYHOUSE. One was called MEET THE GOVERNOR (1955) with Herb Shriner. The other starred Peter Lawford and Frank Fay and was called TOM AND JERRY (1955). This last was a Christmas story written by McCarey's daughter, Mary. McCarey even wrote a song for it, DON'T SAY GOODBYE TO LOVE.
McCarey said at the time he liked doing television, and that making a half-hour film for Hal Roach was second nature to him. "It's like sending an intelligent telegram," McCarey told the NEW YORK TIMES, "rather than a long letter."
Leo McCarey's brother Ray had less distinguished ties to Hal Roach Studios. In 1932 Leo McCarey asked Hal Roach to give his brother a job. Ray McCarey directed a workmanlike Our Gang comedy entitled FREE EATS, also Laurel & Hardy SCRAM!, another short subject. He received co-director credit for the 1932 Laurel & Hardy feature film PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES. George Marshall was the other director. Years later Marshall told Jordan R. Young, "I don't think Ray did anything more than come in and say 'Good Morning', and go out again. He may have done some of those second- unit things like the battle scenes, but nothing at all with Stan and Babe. To this day, I don't know how his credit got there."
Again, Leo McCarey and Hal Roach were friends; that's how.
In 1934 Ray McCarey wrote a screenplay for, and was set to direct Laurel & Hardy in BABES IN TOYLAND. His Irish temper cost him both credits.
Ray McCarey next went across town to Columbia Pictures in Hollywood to direct a new comedy team called The Three Stooges in MEN IN BLACK. Somehow, this film was nominated for an Academy Award. And that's not all. Ray McCarey died a young man, in 1948. He did not live the necessary additional half-century to see the drab-looking one-sheet theatre art poster for MEN IN BLACK auctioned at Sotheby's in New York on April 4 of this year for no less than $109.750.
Hal Roach Studios was shut down during most of World War II. The "lot of fun" functioned as Fort Roach for servicemen like Ronald Reagan who were stationed there. Just as Hal Roach had once hired Ray McCarey as a favour, during the war Leo McCarey employed Hal Roach Jr. to work for his Rainbow Productions on GOING MY WAY and THE BELLS OF ST. MARY'S.
Through the years McCarey's films bore ties to his seven year career at Hal Roach Studios. Many comedy gags and situations can be traced back to Roach, and so can the character actors and bit players. In the W.C. Fields film SIX OF A KIND, for instance, Leo Willis, Lee Phelps, Sam Lufkin and Harry Bernard are four of a kind whose names represented faces appearing regularly in silent comedies written, supervised or directed by Leo McCarey.
He frequently asked actress Anita Garvin (catch her chasing the elusive cherry in FROM SOUP TO NUTS) to come out of retirement and appear in a picture for him. She always declined. She wished to raise her family. She outlived most all of her contemporaries at Hal Roach Studios, so she attended many funerals. McCarey would be there. He was the most handsome director in Hollywood, and some said as good looking as Cary Grant, whom he directed in four pictures. As years passed McCarey's appearance was increasingly ravaged by alcohol. Anita Garvin particularly remembered seeing McCarey at Stan Laurel's funeral in 1965. Hal Roach drove McCarey, so they walked into church together. Roach marched erectly, while the younger McCarey was bent over and struggled as he tried to keep up. "He looked terrible," Garvin recalled, "this once great-looking, vibrant man. He hugged me afterwards and I wondered what had happened to him."
Leo McCarey, the fighting Irishman, the All-American-Boy, died the day after the fourth of July, Independence Day in the USA, of emphysema. He was 71, still young at heart, and always making way for tomorrow. McCarey told CAHIERS DU CINEMA, "I'm very happy to learn that Laurel & Hardy are still liked in France, for here they are still popular with the children of the new generation; their comedy cannot grow old, it is not faded by time."
McCarey's enthusiasm, and his unabashed sentimentality gave us a film legacy to cherish, and to remember. In particular, his prolific association with Hal Roach Studios produced more Leo McCarey film footage than the combined sum of all his feature length motion pictures.
Lots of movie fans enjoy feature films, too.
All photos copyright CCA