McCarey v. McCarey
The Art of Lampooning One’s Own Beliefs
and James Corning
Leo McCarey, a trained lawyer, loved to portray life as an endless series of back-and-forths. For this director, a lifelong husband and the son of a fight promoter, marriage was an arena of constant battle; he built a whole form of comedy on this premise in The Awful Truth (1937). Faith, for this most Catholic of directors, was a matter of relentless doubt. He approached everything backwards: nobody depicted Americans as more vulgar, more vicious, more small-minded, incharitable, incorrigible, less educated, less sincere, or, ultimately, more worthy of respect.
Despite his reputation as one of Hollywood’s most prominent conservatives at a time when the country-wide consensus was unabashedly centrist or liberal, McCarey looks today like one of the most introspective and politically self-depreciating filmmakers of the studio era. The man who made Make Way for Tomorrow in the first year that Social Security cheques were cashed in Roosevelt’s America (1937) was, in real life, a prominent dissenter to the President’s New Deal. In 1947, large parts of America entered a period of hysteria over the influence of Communism in Hollywood. McCarey was one of the first to testify at the House Committee on Un-American Activities. But he would go on, several years later, to make My Son John (1952), one of his most beautiful films, about a Communist spy in sleepy small-town America, which today plays almost as melancholically anti-American as it does fervently anti-Red.
Like all great comic minds, Leo McCarey believed that the best target for comedy is oneself. But what is remarkable is that, for somebody with as outspoken a belief system as this Catholic and conservative film director, the movies he made are more fervent in their takedowns of his own side than in their attacks on the other. Perhaps more than any other director of his day, McCarey was willing to counterpoint and undermine his own point of view at every turn. He was eager to go where others wouldn’t; he was willing to turn the knife on himself.