It opens like Miracle Mile with a fortuitous phone call. A nobleman has gone to change a bill, Charley is fleeing a dog, he enters the phone booth and picks up the receiver. The girl at the other end is about to be married off by her parents.
Charley becomes a butler at the manse, ordered to give The Duke a bath. It’s finally explained to him that it’s milady’s dog.
“The howling hour of 12.” Charley and the girl are eloping, milord and a cop are getting rid of the pesky dog, the nobleman and a confederate are set to lift the safe. All have a prearranged signal, howling.
We faw down
Mrs. Laurel and Mrs. Hardy hold all the cards. You can’t get up a game of poker with them.
Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy go to “meet the Boss at the Orpheum Theatre” for a matinee of vaudeville.
On their way to the midday poker game, they help a lady and get all wet. She invites them upstairs with her friend to dry off.
The Orpheum Theatre burns down, the wives rush out.
Mr. Laurel doesn’t want to play, but the lady has a way of eliciting involuntary responses. One-Round comes home, they flee, observed by the wives on a sidewalk.
Knowing nothing of the disaster, they disastrously relate the entertainment that was offered.
Geo. Washington, Abe Lincoln, Gen. Pershing, Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy.
Busting out of prison, they get their clothes mixed-up in the getaway car, hats of course but also pants.
It’s very hard to change your pants in public, Mr. Laurel gets a crab in his behind a fish market, they are Mr. Hardy’s of course, it imparts a sudden jerk to the stance or gait.
A construction elevator whizzes them to the top of a building going up, Mr. Hardy has the crab now, they teeter and totter above the city until the elevator whizzes them down again, dwarfing a policeman.
The joking apparatus is instantly recognizable (horse, piano, Mr. Hardy) as a cousin to Un Chien Andalou, and especially when the statue gag is deployed you are made aware of a complicated view of art from the standpoint of a disinterested observer.
Sylvania wants to take over Freedonia, the main plans are to foment a revolution and to seduce the new leader, Rufus T. Firefly, with a Latin Mata Hari.
Firefly’s popularity defeats the one, his feverish desire for the nation’s benefactress the other.
The Sylvanian ambassador is also wooing the dame, and that puts Firefly on the offensive. His insults mean war.
All the huggermugger dissolves in Sylvania’s invasion of Freedonia, the ambassador is caught in his own trap.
A complicated succession of thematic gags (admired by Variety, not by the New York Times) generally expresses the opening image of ducks swimming in a caldron on the fire.
Belle of the Nineties
It Ain’t No Sin, goading the New Masses (“whether the success of her bawdiness is a sign that we have conquered Puritanism and are a mature people at last or whether it represents a complete collapse of morality,” wrote Robert Forsythe there, “it is evident that it reveals the lack of authority of religion”), cp. Rally ‘Round The Flag, Boys!, of course. The opening number presents Welles with an ideal entertainment for Citizen Kane. “And remember, I’m a lady, ya woim.” Those two cops in The Trial, the title character calls them on an impediment, “fix this guy.” Question of a champ’s regimen. “Well, I ain’t got a heart o’ stone, I can listen to reason.”
“I wouldn’t mind being a woman myself and have a place like this.” By steamboat to New Orleans, with paddlewheel wipes. “Great town, St. Louis. You were born there?”
“Why, all of me.” Sensation House, recalling Gauguin’s “maison de jouissance” on Tahiti, “ooh, I always did like French art.”
“This one in particular is an Old Master.”
“Mm-hmm. Looks more like an old mistress to me.” New Orleans Fizz, “French toast”, Thomas Moore. “Mm, experience isn’t always necessary.” An “outrage” upon the lady. “A collection to fight the devil.”
“The main bout this afternoon, for the championship of the world!” A Mickey Finn to the contender, a knockout to the horse’s ass he rode in on. “I did the best I could.” Screenplay by the authoress, cinematography Karl Struss, Duke Ellington’s Orchestra.
Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema raises, “the sad story of Mae West is that she was done in by the bluenoses,” and goes bust, “only in retrospect have we come to realize how much depravity lurked under the surface of Hollywood’s wholesomeness,” him they made professor of cinema at Columbia, her they gave the air (cp. Ball of Fire, dir. Howard Hawks), one of the “most notable eccentric stars” McCarey directed (“Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Harold Lloyd, Eddie Cantor... Victor Moore”), “Jean Renoir once remarked that Leo McCarey understood people better than any other Hollywood director.”
Andre Sennwald of the New York Times did his utmost, “a continuously hilarious burlesque of the mustache cup, celluloid collar and family entrance era of the naughty Nineties, it immediately takes its place among the best screen comedies of the year. Its incomparable star has been bolstered by a smart and funny script, an excellent physical production and a generally buoyant comic spirit. There are gags for every taste and most of them are outrageously funny according to almost any standard of humor. Arthur Johnston and Sam Coslow have provided four crimson chansons—‘My Old Flame,’ ‘Troubled Waters,’ ‘My American Beauty’ and ‘When a St. Louis Woman Comes Down to New Orleans’—which are quite perfect, and Miss West delivers them in her inimitable adenoidal contralto.” Variety couldn’t quite get the point either, “the melodramatics are put on a bit thick, including the arch-villain who is an arch-renegade, a would-be murderer, a welcher, an arsonist and everything else in the book of ye good old-time mellers.” Whence Pauline Kael (The New Yorker), “tawdry melodrama.” Dave Kehr (Chicago Reader) expounds on the director’s “obsessive Catholicism” making him “the Fritz Lang of comedy” who here “seems ill at ease”. Leonard Maltin (University of Southern California, part-time lecturer), “amusing example of Western humor.” TV Guide, “somewhat choppy”. Film4 has a somewhat incomprehensible curate’s egg with bits that “pass the time.” Halliwell’s Film Guide, “seems a pale shadow”.
Ruggles of Red Gap
One can’t know everything, which makes for a lot of difficulties in films as everywhere else, but a snob pretends to, and that takes McCarey practically all the length of his film to eject from the Anglo-American Grill by the seat of its pants (what follows is a conducting lesson for Ken Russell in Dance of the Seven Veils, Preston Sturges borrows the Parisian war whoop for The Sin of Harold Diddlebock).
The power of comic analysis exhibited by McCarey is the basis of his comic assemblage, and remarks about his films pass to nothing in the face of it, he cleaves the waters (like the bass drum) to a universal satire whose foundation is existence, an ideal position.
“Just plain comedy,” said Variety with complete approbation. Andre Sennwald of the New York Times liked it too, Laughton “provides the element of understanding which raises buffoonery a peg out of slapstick.” Nick Pinkerton in the Village Voice holds that “McCarey offers a utopian vision of Western aspiration,” of such is the critical record made.
The Milky Way
Sturges takes it up admiringly, style and detail, in The Sin of Harold Diddlebock. He was aghast, one may presume, at the strange measure of trompe-l’œil gag and sudden pause, the ragged respiration that encompasses all the material in a great sendup of the fight game.
A celestial comedy, a sidereal knockout. The horseman on his milk route fights to save his nag, her colt knocks out the champ, ultimately.
McCarey has a river waiting for him to tilt down on his stooge suddenly in it, and then a bridge waiting in the new shot like Emerson on translations.
The Awful Truth
It’s generally dispensed where it’ll do the most good, dropping to the floor to meet the audience’s jaw or sweetly twittering on its twig, as required.
He should have come back from Florida with a tan, he fakes one at the athletic club and greets the colored maid sort of dappled or pied, like an Appaloosa. The wife is not home, she spent the innocent night with her Continental voice teacher, whose car broke down. They agree to divorce.
Her suitor is an Oklahoman poetaster and impossible. He takes up with a skirty nightclub chanteuse and then a snooty socialite. She sees the light and makes fun of the former at the expense of the latter.
One quarter-hour before their divorce becomes final, they kiss and make up.
Make Way For Tomorrow
Without it, no Tokyo Story, no Umberto D.
Note that the car salesman’s assumption that the old couple have “a million salted away somewhere” is reflected in the hotel manager who flawlessly excuses himself with a look at his watch the moment it appears otherwise.
Nugent of the New York Times was laudatory, Variety saw the business side as weak (“a tear-jerker, obviously grooved for femme fans”). Halliwell emitted a fatuity, but cites John Grierson and Graham Greene to the contrary.
Once Upon a Honeymoon
When the Nazis take over, the first thing they do is to drape the public buildings in swastika banners. This is shown in newsreel footage unapologetically.
The “Timetable by A. Hitler” has a Calendar and a clock with the arms of a swastika instead of hands. The main thing is to overcome resistance from within, this is achieved by dinner with Quisling or by selling defective machine guns to Count Borelski, who must be assassinated upon learning the truth.
Individual minds are a danger, individual speech still more so. People are to be told what to think, there is a room where it is decided who shall father and bear children, Jews are herded up like cattle.
This is understood to be a grave condition, so serious that McCarey must first of all make sure of the people around him, a lover’s doggerel on “shared minds” defines the parameter of seeing eye to eye, then there is the Pledge of Allegiance for a meremost code to follow.
He finds himself in Mervyn LeRoy’s position with Escape, there’s no mistaking this for the bravura of Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent. Only enough technique is displayed to give an account of himself, McCarey has other fish to fry.
Crowther famously got this wrong, thinking it “callow” and underestimating Walter Slezak. Crucial aspects of the material reappear in Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, the entire matter is reassessed as The Trouble with Harry. More material is directly incorporated by Polanski in The Pianist.
Love Affair preceded it, Going My Way (and The Bells of St. Mary’s) came next. The tailor in Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (Maurice Chevalier, attending Jeanette MacDonald) is impersonated by a commentator from the European News Service with a metal tape measure, it buckles ithyphallically over the bust of Miss Flatbush the burlesque queen impersonating a Philadelphia heiress in Vienna (he recalls seeing her perform, the music shifts from waltz to Johnny Mercer’s “Strip Polka”). She marries Baron Von Luber in Prague, the wedding cake has a map of Czechoslovakia on it, cut.
The Baron is “Hitler’s undercover man,” his “personal finger man.” All she knows is he comes from a rich family, “and they’re all dead!” She gets wised up by a Jewish hotel maid.
What to do about the Baron? The commentator’s hotel is bombed out, she leaves a very expensive bracelet as proof of her demise. She goes back to her husband later, to discover his plan. He’s nearly destroyed by a laudatory propaganda broadcast under his own supervision in Paris, but survives this acquiescence of the commentator (“he’s only Nazi No. 5 today, tomorrow No. 4!”) to sail for America and lose his life wrestling with the girl on deck. The commentator is just below, and doesn’t see a dark form plummet into the sea behind him. The ship’s captain attempts a rescue, but on learning that the man overboard can’t swim, reverses course again.
Ginger Rogers has several roles to play, the pretense out of The Philadelphia Story, the New York Irish beauty, the savvy American girl who levels the remark, “I’ll pin your ears back,” at the Nazi.
There is no place for the maid to go with her two children, she acknowledges this with a smile when a passport is given and hope is proffered, “where?” The commentator and the daughter of proud Flannel Pants O’Hara find themselves in a concentration camp, a lament is heard from a cantor in the midst, the Americans are saved by their consul, but not before a dark night as she sits with a face full of radiance and he looks up at her darkly from the ground.
Variety found the film rather long, this is an effect sought by McCarey, a certain amount of tedium (exactly conveyed by Polanski on a hot day in a city square where prisoners are rounded up), many of his shots are merely scrims, he perceives the evisceration of Europe and has only this means of expressing it. What is happening is more than newsreel footage can see, more than he can say in so many words. “All’s right with the world, “ she says with Browning’s Pippa, “the whole world’s going behind a cloud,” he says with Pippa’s papa. “Cynical,” she calls him, “probably from reading Schopenhauer.” He cites her Irving Berlin on castles in the sky.
They’re being built with American steel in exchange for “lenses and toys”. Cary Grant has a hard time pronouncing the Philadelphian’s name, it’s “Butt-Smith” but sounded like “butte”.
“I’m gonna be a baroness,” she tells her mother, who stands at the phone in Brooklyn over a washtub and asks, “why in the world would you ever want to be a barrenness?”
Going My Way
The title song is put together on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera with Risë Stevens and the orchestra and a choir of boys from the streets trained by musical Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby), who has written it. In a scene of absolute authenticity, the music publisher (William Frawley) expresses his admiration for the song (the boys add a Bartók-Kodály accompaniment, as elsewhere in the score the note is sounded from Debussy) in the most genuine way, but rejects it tactfully as too highbrow for his house. Wishing Father O’Malley luck, he departs. The performers strike up “Swinging on a Star” (“or would you rather be a ...”), the publisher and his partners return, “we’ll take a flyer on that.”
McCarey’s sense of comedy is expanded to fit these circumstances, the reaction shot (double take or burn) expresses itself as an aperçu revealed by editing, it is simply a commonsense and natural thing in its element. Miracles such as this are the product of a great style.
Stevens plays an old friend of O’Malley’s, she doesn’t know he is a priest, at the Met she sings Carmen. The conductor (Fortunio Bonanova) has the argument with her that ends happily in The Red Shoes.
The church burns down, Stevens and the boys on tour contribute to its repair, Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) receives a visit from his mother, a long way to the New World.
The actors benefit generally from McCarey’s treatment, none so much as Frank McHugh as Father O’Dowd. His sharp canniness swells into the region of uncanny perception, filtered by a laugh that shreds all manner of folly before it.
Long, steady takes are the measure of grand conceptions for each scene. McCarey violates this on the golf course for an insert of sand flying out of a trap repeatedly at a closer remove than his master shot, to reinforce the comedy.
The kindly, smiling son has not his landlord father’s hardness of heart, a poor tenant receives his favor, her apartment is shared by him in a robe, they are married it turns out, the father is consternated, has a chat with her, the son re-enters in the uniform of the Army Air Corps, all of this is a surprise, the father does a slow burn at the daughter and melts. Not Capra, but Wyler, from quite another vantage point.
Behind General Grant’s memoirs in his bookcase is the musical box Father Fitzgibbon keeps for the Irish whiskey his mother sends him every year. He has her picture on the wall, a young Irishwoman. The tune is “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ra”, a dram for the health. Not Capra at all, John Ford at home.
The Bells of St. Mary’s
The builder next door wants it condemned, “and you’ll have to pay for it,” he’s chairman of the City Council.
Father O’Malley doesn’t know “what it means to be up to your neck in noons.”
It premiered months after the war, “a simple story” (Variety).
Gallagher’s Gamboliers, last heard from in Cincy, “a non-recording orchestra.” A daughter of this regiment attends St. Mary’s.
Crosby adds McHugh to his characterization, facing Bergman.
Bogardus the bogey man, bogus.
“I remembered what you said, Sister, and I turned the other cheek, then he really let me have it.”
Sister Mary Benedict’s boxing lesson. “Well, I’ll admit it’s easier on your face... I forgot everything, I forgot to bob, I forgot to weave, I had my mouth open, I walked right into the payoff!”
To have seen the end of the war is expressed in “Aren’t You Glad You’re You?”.
Zeffirelli on the Church Militant (The Champ), “as Shakespeare said... and he was so right, Sister!”
St. Mary’s, in the valley of the shadow of Bogardus.
The Christmas play, something the kids make up as they go along (and for the second time, after the song, McCarey grazing on new harmonies after the war).
“A miracle.” Before Pat and Mike, a girl whose heaven is sport. Bogardus, the man before the Law, “I’ll never get this deal closed.” He wants parking spaces, believe it or not, for his corporation, “my dream”.
The dream of lebensraum just evaporates. “Oh, you’re a very fortunate man, Mr. Bogardus.” Altman made a special study of this. Bogardus, Horace P.
“Tota pulchra es, O Maria!”
Return of the Gambolier. “The Land of Beginning Again”.
The daughter fails in school, again Zeffirelli picks up the note, in Tea with Mussolini. Capra follows McCarey’s tale of Scrooge one year later with It’s a Wonderful Life.
A desert recuperation, following on a little understanding gleaned at last.
Nothing in Time Out Film Guide, “embarrassingly winsome” (Tom Milne).
Film4, “Bergman as the singing nun.”
Dave Kehr, “a priest in love with a nun” (Chicago Reader).
Richard Corliss considers it one of the “Top 10 Worst Christmas Movies” (Time).
“Sentimental and very commercial” in Halliwell’s Film Guide (citing James Agee, “on the whole it is an unhappy film”).
My Son John
Vastly educated, anyway compared to his “lowbrow” parents.
A strange young man, mocking, with strangely familiar phrases, a regular Ninotchka on romance, for instance.
“A new and better-ordered world.” The power of the state as giver of rights the Legion thinks of as “God-given”. St. Paul on a practical basis.
Diddle diddle dumpling, an enemy agent, hand on the Bible, “I swear that I am not now or ever have been a member of the Communist Party.”
McCarey has a great gift, arrived at through long study, for depicting minds and emotions at work.
The strand of baloney spouted was heard before the war with another tinge, the tragedy of the postwar years is to hear it again, cf. Edward Ludwig’s They Came To Blow Up America.
Hitchcock (Shadow of a doubt) and Welles (The Stranger) are there to establish the echo.
A comedy at the summit of the art.
“Despair disguised as hope” is his racket.
A gang killing ends it. “Even now, the eyes of Soviet agents are on some of you...”
Hitchcock’s Notorious for the key.
“Whatever it thinks it’s saying,” says Elliott Stein in the Village Voice, and the italics are his. No-one mentions the fine score by Robert Emmett Dolan.
Bosley Crowther of the New York Times saw only “heat and wind”. Anthony Page has a similar case in Pack of Lies.
John Osborne’s A Patriot for Me has the eyes upon you (the Chichester production emphasized this). “Resist the temptation to laugh”, says Dave Kehr (Chicago Reader). Halliwell’s Film Guide sees “lower depths”.
Rally ‘Round The Flag, Boys!
This late masterpiece is a view of contemporary America, but also a history of America in which a Puritan (Paul Newman) is understood to be a commuter who cannot get a drink on the train because of the crowd. His wife (Joanne Woodward) belongs to various tribal societies she calls committees, the young are devoted to brilliant parodies of Elvis and Brando.
The entire purpose of the American venture is to launch an obnoxious Army captain (Jack Carson) into space. The Puritan is threatened with a mistress (Joan Collins), but plunks down for his wife maugre all.
Satan Never Sleeps
The properly celestial comedy begins with a tax upon the world and ends with the overcoming of it.
The Nativity, Joseph and Mary, Father and Son.
McCarey is his own precedent in Once Upon a Honeymoon, there is also Lubitsch’s Ninotchka for the Russian political advisor like Lugosi.
McCarey had to deny his work according to showmanship rules because no-one at all seems to have noticed any aspect of it, let alone its miraculous comic tessitura, which is the whole point.