by Richard W. Bann


Leo McCarey, born one hundred years ago on 3 October 1898, was one of the the most prized writers and directors at Hal Roach's film studios, the "laugh factory to the world." There, pioneer filmmaker Hal Roach, who controlled the privately held corporation, encouraged humor and escapism. The spontaneous and lively atmosphere at the studio naturally inspired the young McCarey, and vice versa.

Leo McCarey, a Los Angeles native, entered the film industry in 1918. By 1923 he was writing gags for short subject units operating at Hal Roach Studios, but chiefly for the "Our Gang" comedies. Right from the start McCarey excelled at crafting comedy situations and visual gags for the silent screen. In the mid 1920s, Roach began to feel that Charley Chase's comedic gifts would be put to better use in front of the camera instead of behind it, where Chase, as director general, had been working until then. And he decided to let McCarey direct Chase in a new line of comedies.

The early one-reel comedies McCarey made with Charley Chase were cranked out at a pace of about two per month. In less than a year, these films were so well received that Roach upgraded their budgets and doubled their lengths. Chase and McCarey worked together as star and director for almost three seasons worth of releases. One of the best one-reelers was ALL WET, with leading lady Martha Sleeper. Outstanding two-reelers McCarey made with Chase include BAD BOY, DOG SHY, HIS WOODEN WEDDING, CRAZY LIKE A FOX and the ingenious MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE. Directed with the taste and elegance found in all McCarey's work, MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE is the perfect example of how silent comedy is frequently helped by the absence of sound.

Working with the talent pool appearing in the so-called "All-Star" shorts - a catch-all category which actually meant non-stars, future stars and former stars - it was Leo McCarey who first saw the chemistry of Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel. Once Stan Laurel was actually working with Oliver Hardy, it was McCarey and Laurel who then molded them as a team. All of it was ultimately and always done under the guidance and supervision of Hal Roach, who, if anyone, is fundamentally responsible for creating and sustaining the comedy partnership of Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy.

Although McCarey shot retakes on many Laurel & Hardy films, he took screen credit for directing only three of their productions: WE FAW DOWN, LIBERTY and WRONG AGAIN. PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP was another Laurel & Hardy production McCarey was closely associated with, since it was based on his original story. In their recollections, both Laurel and Roach cite this film as the first official Laurel & Hardy film. McCarey hailed PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP as "one of my favorites, and Laurel considered it one of his best."

Leo McCarey quit the Hal Roach Studios in 1930 to direct feature films exclusively. Among his most notable films from the post-Roach period are DUCK SOUP with the Marx Brothers, GOING MY WAY and THE BELLS OF ST. MARY'S. McCarey's enthusiasm and unabashed sentimentality have provided us with a film legacy to cherish and to remember. And - it should be added - Leo McCarey's prolific association with Hal Roach Studios yielded more film footage than the combined sum of all McCarey's feature-length motion pictures.

The Complete Richard W. Bann Article

All photos copyright CCA

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