Leo McCarey (1896-1969)

Leo McCarey
Leo McCarey

Leo McCarey was an award-winning film director, producer and writer. He was one of the first to see the comic possibilities of pairing Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy and he worked with them on many films. He also worked with the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, and George Burns and he is well known for his screwball comedies such as 'Duck Soup' in 1933 and 'Ruggles of Red Gap' in 1935.

His style later changed towards more caring and emotional films such as 'Make Way for Tomorrow' in 1937, the touching 'Love Affair' in 1939, 'The Bells of St Marys' in 1945 and 'An Affair to Remember' in 1957. In all he was involved in the creation of over 200 movies and he was the first director to win Oscars in three major categories for the same picture - in 1944 he won Best Picture, Best Director and Best Writing, Original Story, for 'Going My Way'.

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He was born Thomas Leo McCarey in Los Angeles, California on October 3, 1896. He had a younger brother, Ray, who also became a film director. His middle name was from his French-born mother, Leona McCarey. His father, Thomas, was a fight promoter and Leo, himself, grew up to be a good amateur middleweight boxer.

Leo attended St. Joseph's Catholic school and Los Angeles High School.and , at the urging of his father, went on to study law at the University of Southern California. On graduating in 1916 he joined the legal department of the Montana Mining Company. Two years later he started his own criminal law firm in Los Angeles but when this failed he turned to his first love, the stage. He began in vaudeville as a song and script writer and was introduced by a friend to the actor, Tod Browning who had embarked on a successful directorial career for Universal Studios several years earlier.

McCarey started as general assistant at Universal but was soon promoted to Assistant Director and worked with Browning on such films as 'The Virgin of Stamboul' in 1920 and 'No Woman Knows' a year later. Also in 1921 McCarey made his debut as a solo director with 'Society Secrets', which was not a success.

Hal Roach Studios 1923

His fledgling career appeared to be stalling when a chance meeting with Hal Roach at the Los Angeles Athletic Club led to his being taken on by the Roach Studios, initially as scriptwriter for the 'Our Gang' series of comedy shorts. It was the turning point in his career and he flourished in the relaxed atmosphere which Roach encouraged.

In 1925 he was promoted to director, working with Charley Chase, one of Roach's most successful comedians and an early pioneer of film comedy. McCarey excelled at crafting visual comedy for the silent screen and he and Chase turned out many successful one reelers such as 'A Ten Minute Egg' and 'All Wet' in 1924. The shorts were so well received that Roach increased the budget and McCarey and Chase began making longer movies such as 'Innocent Husbands' and 'His Wooden Wedding' in 1925 and the clever 'Mighty Like a Moose' in 1926. The comedies were so successful that by 1927 McCarey was promoted again to vice president, in charge of the whole of the Studio's two-reel output.

Laurel and Hardy 1928

Around this time McCarey worked several times with the comedy actor Oliver "Babe" Hardy. He was the first to notice the chemistry as well as the comical physical difference between Hardy and the English comedian, Stan Laurel. He paired them together and so helped to create one of the most famous double acts in history. Three of their movies were directed by McCarey: 'We Faw Down' in 1928, and 'Liberty' and 'Wrong Again' in 1929.

Freelance Career 1929

After almost seven successful years with Hal Roach, McCarey took the important decision in 1929 to resign from the studio in order to further his ambitions to direct full-length feature movies.

His first two full movies 'The Sophomore' in 1929 and 'Red Hot Rhythm' in 1930 proved disappointing but his next feature, the musical 'Let's Go Native' in 1930 with Kay Francis and Jeanette MacDonald, was a big hit and McCarey was on his way. Obviously comfortable with Talkies, McCarey continued his career with a series of successful movies with some of the biggest stars of the day such as Gloria Swanson in 'Indiscreet' in 1931, and Eddie Cantor in 'The Kid From Spain' in 1932. In 1933 he signed a contract to work for the Paramount studios and continued his rise, directing the Marx Brothers in the classic 'Duck Soup' in 1933, W.C. Fields in 'Six of a Kind' in 1934 and Mae West in 'Belle of the Nineties' in 1934. His directorial reputation was made.

'Ruggles of Red Gap' 1935

In 1935 the English actor, Charles Laughton, fresh from his triumphant performances in 'The Private Life of Henry VIII' in 1933 and 'The Barretts of Wimpole Street' in 1934, gave McCarey the singular honor of requesting him personally to direct him in his next movie, the comedy 'Ruggles of Red Gap'. The resulting movie was an acting masterclass by the brilliant Laughton as the eponymous Ruggles. The following year McCarey directed Harold Lloyd in another successful comedy, 'The Milky Way'.

In 1937 McCarey made what he considered to be his finest film, 'Make Way for Tomorrow'. The movie tells the story of an elderly couple's search for a home in the face of the selfishness of their children. Although it was not well received on release it has now been elevated to the status of a classic. The Criterion Collection describes it as"..one of the great unsung Hollywood masterpieces."

Later in 1937 McCarey made another movie classic, this time a screwball comedy 'The Awful Truth' for which he won his first Academy Award for Directing. The movie starred Cary Grant and Leo McCarey and, remarkably, was apparently largely improvised. McCarey was used to on-set improvisation from his silent comedy days, and Grant's comic timing fitted in perfectly. Just as McCarey had made the team of Laurel and Hardy into comedy icons, so he helped make Cary Grant a colossus of light comedy.

McCarey was now one of the top names in Hollywood and he signed a contract with RKO. His first film with the new studio was the romantic comedy drama 'Love Affair' in 1939, starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer.

McCarey was injured in a serious car accident in 1939 and as a result, was unable to direct his next project 'My Favorite Wife' in 1940, which he wrote and produced.

Post 1940 Change

After 1940, partly due to his long recovery from his accident, and partly due to protracted litigation with Howard Hughes, McCarey's output slowed and changed. He only made seven features between 1940 and 1960 and his movies were more serious and probing as his devout Catholicism and deep concern with social issues came to the fore.

In 1944 he directed 'Going My Way' starring Bing Crosby as an enterprising young priest. The film was a smash hit and McCarey won his second Academy Award for Best Director. After it he formed Rainbow Productions with Crosby, Hal Roach, and others. The first film of the new company was a sequel to 'Going My Way', called 'The Bells of St. Mary's' made in 1945 again starring Crosby, this time paired with Ingrid Bergman. The film was another big box office success.

McCarey had a rare failure in 1952 with 'My Son John', a film which has become notorious for its blatant anti-Communism. His film 'An Affair to Remember' in 1957 starred Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr and was a remake of his 1939 hit 'Love Affair'. The film used the same script as its 1939 predecessor and was again a big success. After this he reverted to comedy with 'Rally Round the Flag Boys' with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

In 1962 McCarey directed his final film, 'Satan Never Sleeps', starring William Holden and Clifton Webb. In it McCarey returned to the religious themes of his 1940's hits but the movie was poorly received.


McCarey married in 1920 to his childhood sweetheart, Stella Martin The couple had one daughter, Virginia, in 1927 and the marriage lasted until McCarey's death.

He was a lifelong anti-Communist as can be seen in some of his movies such as 'Going My Way' and 'My Son John' and 'Satan Never Sleeps. He voluntarily gave evidence at the HUAC hearings.

Leo McCarey died on 5 July, 1969, from emphysema. He is buried at the Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City, California.

Leo McCarey Academy Awards

Two Wins:
Best Director ... The Awful Truth (1937)
Best Director ... Going My Way (1944)

One Unsuccessful Nomination:
Best Director ... The Bells of St Mary's (1945)

Leo McCarey Filmography

Society Secrets
Publicity Pays (Short)
Young Oldfield (Short)
Stolen Goods (Short)
Jeffries Jr. (Short)
Why Husbands Go Mad (Short)
A Ten-Minute Egg (Short)
Seeing Nellie Home (Short)
Sweet Daddy (Short)
Why Men Work (Short)
Outdoor Pajamas (Short)
Sittin' Pretty (Short)
Too Many Mammas (Short)
Bungalow Boobs (Short)
Accidental Accidents (Short)
All Wet (Short)
The Poor Fish (Short)
The Royal Razz (Short)
The Rat's Knuckles (Short)
Hello Baby! (Short)
Fighting Fluid (Short)
The Family Entrance (Short)
Plain and Fancy Girls (Short)
Should Husbands Be Watched? (Short)
Hard Boiled (Short)
Is Marriage the Bunk? (Short)
Bad Boy (Short)
Big Red Riding Hood (Short
Looking for Sally (Short)
What Price Goofy? (Short) (uncredited)
Isn't Life Terrible? (Short) (uncredited)
Innocent Husbands (Short)
No Father to Guide Him (Short)
The Caretaker's Daughter (Short)
The Uneasy Three (Short) (uncredited)
Hold Everything (Short)
His Wooden Wedding (Short)
Charley My Boy (Short)
Mama Behave (Short) (uncredited)
Dog Shy (Short)
Mum's the Word (Short) (uncredited)
Long Fliv the King (Short)
Mighty Like a Moose (Short)
Crazy Like a Fox (Short)
Bromo and Juliet (Short)
Tell 'Em Nothing (Short)
Be Your Age (Short) (uncredited)
Should Men Walk Home? (Short)
Why Girls Say No (Short)
Jewish Prudence (Short)
Eve's Love Letters (Short)
Don't Tell Everything (Short)
Sugar Daddies (Short)
What Every Iceman Knows (Short) (supervising)
Should Second Husbands Come First? (Short)
The Way of All Pants (Short)
Us (Short) (supervising)
Flaming Fathers (Short)
Pass the Gravy (Short)
The Family Group (Short) (supervising)
The Finishing Touch (Short) (supervising)
Came the Dawn (Short) (supervising)
Blow by Blow (Short)
Tell It to the Judge (Short)
The Fight Pest (Short) (supervising)
Should Women Drive? (Short)
Imagine My Embarrassment (Short) (supervising)
Should Married Men Go Home? (Short)
That Night (Short)
Do Gentlemen Snore? (Short)
Habeas Corpus (Short) (supervising director)
Feed 'em and Weep (Short) (supervising)
We Faw Down (Short)
Going Ga-ga (Short) (supervising)
Liberty (Short)
Wrong Again (Short)
When Money Comes (Short)
Why Is a Plumber? (Short)
Big Business (Short) (supervising)
The Unkissed Man (Short)
Madame Q (Short)
Dad's Day (Short)
The Sophomore
Red Hot Rhythm
Freed 'em and Weep
Wild Company
Let's Go Native
Part Time Wife
The Kid from Spain
Belle of the Nineties
Six of a Kind
The Milky Way
Make Way for Tomorrow
The Awful Truth
Love Affair