Leo McCarey — He Directs for Laughs — and Gets ‘Em (1935) 🇺🇸

Leo McCarey and Charles Laughton | www.vintoz.com

December 20, 2021

Director Leo McCarey is called “the greatest comic mind now living”.

Leo McCarey, the rollicking, young Irishman who directed “Ruggles of Red Gap,” is described by Charles Laughton as “not only a great director, but the greatest comic mind now living.”

by Scoop Conlon

It was while they were filming the cab sequence in which Laughton as the English valet and Charlie Ruggles as the rough-and-ready American Westerner were engaged in a polite, but drunken argument as to which one would enter the cab first. Even the working crew were convulsed with laughter as the scenes went on. Laughton turned to me between shots, and said: “Here is an illustration of what I mean when I say that McCarey has a great comedy mind. This scene wasn’t in the script. McCarey thought it out on the set. As usual, when he described the scene to us, it didn’t sound at all funny. He was greeted by dead-pans. But, the moment we started to walk and talk the scene, it suddenly became genuinely funny. He has a rare gift.”

Laughton then told me of an unusual incident that had occurred to him a few years ago in London. “I was attending a cinema where a Laurel and Hardy comedy was exhibited. In this picture there was revealed one of the funniest comedy situations I had ever seen. While entering a room carrying a huge wedding cake, Hardy was tripped, inadvertently, by Laurel. He fell face down in the cake. Here the director did something worthy of Chaplin’s best. He held the camera on the back of Hardy’s neck for fully 75 feet of film. Although Hardy didn’t move, we roared with laughter. One could see what Hardy was thinking from the back of his neck. I remained until the picture was run again to discover the name of the director, with a vow to play in one of his pictures if ever I had the opportunity. His name was Leo McCarey!” Laughton spoke earnestly.

Like most Irishers, McCarey was born with a sense of humor. He once wrote a song with an amusing title — Why Do You Sit on Your Patio? The lyrics carried a serious message to the world. He predicted that “people who sit on their patios never get anywhere.” Leo’s little song became a favorite everywhere. But somehow, after the publishing costs were paid, he received a check for only $1.73. He still has it, framed. The bright young man, then and there, decided not to sit on his patio any longer writing songs. He turned immediately to the movies.

As one may easily guess from the “patio” in the song, Leo McCarey is a native Californian. In fact, he is a native Angeleno. This means that he was actually born in Los Angeles, thirty-seven years ago.

“Uncle Tom” McCarey, Leo’s dad, was for many years the leading boxing promoter of the Pacific Coast, and many were the famous fights he staged.

As you may readily guess, Leo was something of an athlete, having been born to a sporting heritage. As they didn’t play American football in California in those days, Leo went in for rugby. His athletic prowess, however, was achieved in swimming, handball, and boxing. In fact, he became one of the finest amateur boxers on the Pacific Coast, but his wise dad never permitted him to become serious over the manly art. However, his golf game is one of the best in the film colony, for he shoots in the seventies. On the lighter side, Leo was easily the hottest piano player in college, and how he could compose blue songs!

When he was graduated in law, McCarey hied himself to San Francisco where he entered the offices of a prominent attorney for mining interests. Later, in search of adventure and to learn something about mining, he put in a year with a pick and shovel in Montana mines. With his athletics and manual labor, the future picture director built up a physique which is the envy of many a Hollywood actor today.

Law never really appealed to him, and J although he was a born songwriter, there was the “patio” experience. Leo took one last crack at a song when he collaborated with Chuck Reisner, another chap who has since become a director, in writing a war number. The day it was published the armistice was signed. That did it. McCarey turned to more lucrative fields — motion pictures. That was his work.

As handsome as most actors, he made a screen test, but Warner Baxter got the job. Even in those formative days of 1921, Leo had definite ideas about his picture future. He really wanted to write and direct. Accordingly, he began his career as an assistant to Tod Browning, who was directing Lon Chaney at Universal.

McCarey soon discovered that his mind ran to comedy. He landed a job with Hal Roach as a gag man and writer, and soon after was directing two-reel comedies. He scored so strongly that the producer set forth on a year’s world tour, confidently leaving the studio under the supervision of young McCarey.

During the past three years, he has directed many of the biggest box-office successes, chiefly Paramount features. His two greatest hits are Ruggles of Red Gap and Mae West’s recent picture, Belle of the Nineties.

This brilliant director, Charles Laughton has also said: “Leo is a wild Irishman, exteriorly. If he tells you a story of some incident in his life, or some funny happening in a golf game, you instinctively know that he is painting the scene with that vivid and colorful McCarey imagination. People and incidents could never possibly be as funny as he sees them.

“He lives in a world of his own invention. To him, the world is populated with nice people. He sees people only as he thinks they are. If the world was really composed of his people, it would be a ten times happier as well as a funnier old world. From what I know of his character, I should say that he has the widest and deepest sympathy for human nature of any man I have ever met. He has more staunch and demoted friends than any man I know.

“To my fellow actors I say never to be in doubt or fear when taking directions from Leo McCarey. Several times during the development of the Ruggles characterization, I would have gone astray, had it not been for his true comedy vision.

“He sees the story in terms of other people. He gives it life. That’s the real dramatist. He is a magnificent story-teller. He knows all the comedy tricks with which it is sometimes easy to get laughs. Yet, in Ruggles, he threw away much brilliant comedy in order to stick to the story line.

“His characters are always people who have high aspirations. He gets his comedy out of showing their spirits being frustrated by the facts of everyday life. But, in the end, somehow he brings out not the frustrations but the high aspirations.”

High praise, indeed, coming as it does from a man who is recognized as one of our greatest actors. Leo McCarey’s song only paid him $1.73, but it certainly taught him a lesson.

“People who sit on their patios never get anywhere!”

Source: Motion Picture, September 1935