McCarey began as a humor man, which is important to note, for everything that McCarey would go on to become. Humor does not exist without tragedy, and vice versa. They are partners, reliant on the contrast from one to the other, to stand out as each does, paradoxically, in what is also their autonomy.
They are each strange that way, we might say, as life is itself strange. Laughter is better savored when one is cognizant of what might have been, or what has been at other times, because that is when we most need laughter. Meanwhile, tragedy is unlikely to be endured without finding some levity somewhere, even if it’s grim levity. Good luck continuing on otherwise. An understanding of the one makes it that much more likely to have an understanding of the other. Those who laugh best, know what pain is; those who endure when it seems that no one could, are sages of laughter.
Hollywood men at the time told tall tales. It was part of the prevailing attitude and mythos of the place. Just as the early Old West produced its legends and encouraged credit-grabbing and self-aggrandizement of the popular fiction sort, so too did this New West of Hollywood.
Going by his surviving interviews, McCarey mostly played it straight, though, so we have no real reason not to believe him when he says that it was he who originally paired Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy, thus bringing together our finest—it’s not close—duo of modern clowns. McCarey shaped their now familiar personas, though his judgment wasn’t perfect. Several decades hence, he’d tell director/critic Peter Bogdanovich that sound ruined Laurel and Hardy, because they couldn’t talk, despite the plethora of Laurel and Hardy masterpieces throughout the 1930s with Stan nattering away and Ollie bemoaning the fine mess in which he was then embroiled.
McCarey was also directing now. He only directed three silent films by “the boys," but he had fingers stuck in the pies of many of their others from the late 1920s. He also worked with Harold Lloyd, later saying how hard it was to do so, describing Lloyd as something of a comedic-savant, but when you got the good stuff, boy was that stuff good.
In the early sound era, McCarey directed W.C. Fields in Six of a Kind, and called the shots for exactly one Marx Brothers picture: 1933’s Duck Soup, which just happens to be their best, though McCarey couldn’t stand the brothers, remarking that it bordered on the impossible to get them all together in one place, and then when you did, it didn’t get much easier, which is also the most fitting description of the ethos of a Marx Brothers film itself.
For the bulk of the 1930s, Leo McCarey, who had gone from gag guy to stylized auteur—arguably the first American director for whom the term may be properly applied—was a Midas man. Most of what he touched became gold, even if Duck Soup represented a dip in the fortunes of the Marx Brothers, one that would be reversed soon enough by producer Irving Thalberg, who served as the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Monroe Stahr in The Last Tycoon.
Such was Leo McCarey’s life in Hollywood up until 1937, when The Awful Truth was released, McCarey’s first undertaking for Columbia, and one of his two pictures from that year as the United States lurched through another campaign of the Great Depression. Alleviation took the form of entertainment. Swing was becoming the thing, Joltin’ Joe and the Iron Horse both starred for the New York Yankees, and the nascent genre of the screwball comedy represented joyous, harmless anarchy for many people of a nation now long-accustomed to feeling boxed in and lacking hope.
The movie set a kind of screwball template. McCarey did a lot of template-setting in his career. He went first or close to it, then others followed. The Awful Truth starred Irene Dunne and Cary Grant. The latter and McCarey had taken to each other, partially on account of their similar names. McCarey, who would play piano on the set, waiting for ideas to come to him, while everyone else bid their time or goofed off, took Grant aside the way that Tod Browning had once taken McCarey aside, and told him that it was time for a change from what Grant had been doing.
The two decided to keep it loose and improvise. It was a new form of just going for it in American movies, one that required suavity and confidence. Sound like anyone you’ve watched a time or two?
If you say the phrase, “the Cary Grant persona” to any fan of old movies, they know exactly what you mean. But it started with this one film, which in its way helped beget many future and disparate films, save that the Grant persona unified them all.
People loved The Awful Truth. They fairly rejoiced. They couldn’t get enough. The Academy loved it as well. Despite what everyone does come Oscar time each year—that is to say, put stake in the Oscars—it is itself an awful truth that the best directors and the best movies, by and large, do not win these awards. The movies that last by artists of vision aren’t copping golden statuettes. A mid-level sort of forgettable drama is apt to be most successful, and by only a few years later, its absence of staying power has already been revealed. Horror films don’t win, and comedies rarely do, but The Awful Truth did net McCarey the Best Director award for the year of 1937.
As we've noted, though, it wasn’t McCarey’s only movie to have come out within those twelve months. That other film was as different as different can be in some ways, but then again, it also revealed an understanding—a deep, sobering wisdom—of what humor truly is, even as it has been called the most depressing movie ever made, and one that, for a time, tanked Leo McCarey’s career.
Taking to the stage to collect his award for The Awful Truth, McCarey said something that shocked everyone in attendance at the ceremony.
“You gave it to me for the wrong picture,” he stated, and for an awkward moment, people just stared at Leo McCarey.
But McCarey was correct, and, if it is possible to be so, he was more than correct. Here had been sounded the voice of pure truth. Because that other film of his from 1937—the alleged epic downer—was a movie called Make Way for Tomorrow, and it is one of the most remarkable things anyone has ever achieved working with a camera and the subject of human life.