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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

Leo McCarey Double Feature at the Aero Theatre

Here’s a great opportunity to catch two films by a great comedic auteur from the golden age of cinema. If you’re not already familiar with the films of Academy Award winner Leo McCarey then you’re in for a real treat. First, a rare venture into the genre of the "Screwball Comedy" and then, another rarity – the great dramatic actor Charles Laughton (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Spartacus) in a pure comedic performance.

Although the name Leo McCarey is not a readily recognizable one today, McCarey was the first of an elite group of five directors who have won Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay for the same project (Going My Way in 1945 – try and guess the others before reading the answer at the end of this article*). In addition to this distinction, McCarey also directed 6 different actors in Oscar-nominated performances, including Irene Dunne and Ralph Bellamy for The Awful Truth. No doubt, his early years spent with the great comedic geniuses of the silent era such as Harold Llyod, W.C. Fields, and Laurel & Hardy were instrumental in building the foundations of his comic sensibilities. McCarey’s career would ultimately span the entire range of American comedy, from the screwball to the romantic (An Affair to Remember).

The evening starts with the Cary Grant and Irene Dunne screwball classic, The Awful Truth for which McCarey received an Oscar as Best Director of 1937. Made at the height of the by-gone genre’s popularity, The Awful Truth is a more sophisticated example of the sometimes-silly comedy style expertly executed in the much beloved and greater known films Bringing Up Baby and My Man Godfrey. You still have the required ingredient of a high society couple embroiled in a battle of the sexes, but the usual “low” comedy is played with greater nobility than other films of its ilk, due in large part to the regal casting of Hollywood’s first true lady, Irene Dunne.

Remembered mostly for her light comedies and dramatic roles in films like I Remember Mama and Life with Father, director McCarey makes full use of Dunne’s under utilized gift for the more obvious demands of screwball, especially when paired with the master of the double take, Cary Grant. Together, they made a winning and likable couple. Grant’s brash and cocky persona softened the edges of Dunne’s respectability, and her stylish air enhanced the romantic gentleman lying beneath his street-smart surface. Long before his familiar image as an older, wiser, and ever-so-sophisticated man of To Catch a Thief or Charade, Grant was a bold young man from Bristol, often cast as such in a more frivolous time when hijinks and snappy banter were the modes operandi. Really, it is McCarey who is responsible for teaming these two opposites and creating one of the first stepping stones into Grant’s better known and more glamorous persona of his latter roles.

In this charming bit of fluff set in the realms of sophisticated and wealthy society, Grant and Dunne (Jerry and Lucy) experience one misunderstanding after another, leading to a sour parting of the ways. But before their divorce becomes final, they both do their best to ruin each other’s plans for remarriage; Jerry to a haughty socialite, and Lucy to an oil-rich bumpkin played to corny perfection by professional second banana, Ralph Bellamy (His Girl Friday). Among other strategies, Jerry sues for court-decreed visitation rights with their terrier, and Lucy dresses up in a crass and flamboyant manner in order to scandalize Jerry’s prospective bride’s family. All fine ingredients for a quality screwball comedy of the best order. And of course, ultimately, their divorce fails to take hold.

It’s easy to see why Grant and Dunne would be cast together two more times (My Favorite Wife – written by McCarey, and Penny Serenade). The two really seem to take a great pleasure in “taking the mickey” out of each other. You really get the sense that these two icons of the Hollywood era were tremendously enjoying every minute of screen time they shared together, and that pleasure shows on the screen. And the sweetly sappy Ralph Bellamy is a delight to watch as he bobs and dodges amid the flying barbs as Dunne’s rebound, Romeo. Once again, Bellamy (Trading Places) reprises his early defining role as the poor shmuck whose fate is to be second choice to Grant’s irresistibly charming rogue. Presented on a newly restored 35mm print, you really ought to catch this gem on the big screen in a darkened theater with a fresh bag of buttery popcorn.

The second billing of the night is McCarey’s lesser-known pearl Ruggles of Red Gap. This earlier McCarey comedy (1935), presents dramatic star Charles Laughton in a rare comedic role as a very proper English valet who’s been won in a poker game by a man from the Wild West. Thus, the clash of cultures commences. With Mary Boland, ZaSu Pitts, and many others. Not available on DVD, the night’s showing is an excellent opportunity to view good cinema at it’s best – in a movie theater.

* The others who have repeated this unique feat are Billy Wilder for The Lost Weekend, Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather, James L. Brooks for Terms of Endearment and Peter Jackson for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

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