DVD review: Hail, Hail Freedonia—And Leo McCarey

Leo McCarey poses with ZaSu Pitts and Charles Laughton on the set of Ruggles of Red Gap

If he had made only the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, Leo McCarey would have a place in the pantheon of American comedy. He did much more, of course, from a superb series of silent two-reelers with Charley Chase and some of Laurel and Hardy’s finest comedy shorts to such great feature films as The Awful Truth and Love Affair. His name isn’t invoked as often as other giants of his era, perhaps because his later films became sentimental (Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s, both giant hits with Bing Crosby) and then political (My Son John, Satan Never Sleeps). But somehow, in this year of 2010, as some of us shake our heads over signs that civilization—

is crumbling around us, two of McCarey’s greatest films have come to DVD for the first time: Ruggles of Red Gap, from 1935, and Make Way for Tomorrow, from 1937. This is truly cause for celebration.

The sources of these discs couldn’t be more different. Ruggles is part of Universal’s welcome new dvd-on-demand service from It’s reasonably priced, and while it has no extras, it comes from a perfectly preserved negative and looks great. Tomorrow is a product of the Criterion Collection, which always means a pristine copy of the film, along with two outstanding interviews and a booklet with three fine essays.

The actor Edward Norton recently cited Ruggles of Red Gap as one of his five favorite movies. Having heard a reference to it in the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink, set in 1930s Hollywood, he became curious and checked it out. Like anyone of good taste, he fell in love with it.

I remember the first time I saw it, at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan when I was very young. Then as now, MoMA draws a diverse crowd to its daily screenings, from diehard devotees to people looking for an inexpensive way to pass the time. At the end of this particular film, the audience roared its approval, coaxed by Leo McCarey’s expert staging of the finale, in which a sedate British butler—and his former master—find love in the wilds of America. As Tag Gallagher points out in his essay about Make Way for Tomorrow, “A McCarey movie plays an audience …and unites people with each other.”

But Ruggles of Red Gap was considered foolproof even before McCarey got his hands on it (along with adapter Humphrey Pearson and screenwriters Walter DeLeon and Harlan Thompson). Harry Leon Wilson’s play had been filmed twice, in 1918 and 1923. (In fact, most of Wilson’s work, largely forgotten today, had that kind of staying power with American audiences of the early 20th century. He also wrote Merton of the Movies, filmed three times; Cameo Kirby, filmed twice; and Bunker Bean, which had three screen adaptations. There were even later productions of Ruggles, one as a TV musical special, the other as a vehicle for Bob Hope and Lucille Ball called Fancy Pants.)

Ruggles of Red Gap has a cast filled with expert players from top to bottom, including Charles Ruggles, his frequent screen wife Mary Boland, ZaSu Pitts, Roland Young, and Leila Hyams, who was never so charming as she is here. The supporting cast is filled out by such sure-footed veterans as Maude Eburne, Lucien Littlefield, and Dell Henderson.

McCarey, who was famous for improvising whole scenes on the set of his pictures—sometimes spontaneously, other times apparently based on careful thought the night before—brought a unique spark to his comedies, and just as important, set his actors at ease. Charles Laughton would go on to play other comedic roles, but none was as effective or charming as his interpretation of a timid English valet in Ruggles. McCarey gave this robust dramatic actor the freedom to experiment, but knew how to stop him from becoming self-conscious or cute.

The director was equally effective with Victor Moore in Make Way for Tomorrow. Stage and screen veteran Moore could, and often did, ham it up, and his role as an old codger was practically an invitation to do so—but McCarey kept him under control, which can also be said about the director himself. Although his later films almost wallowed in sentimentality, McCarey seemed to understand that if Make Way for Tomorrow was to be effective, the story had to be played straight and not beg the audience for sympathy. (Filmmaker Alexander Payne screened it last year when he served as Guest Director of the Telluride Film Festival, and it was one of the weekend’s unqualified hits. Men and women alike left the showings in tears.)

Make Way for Tomorrow is the surprisingly contemporary story of an elderly couple who lose their home. With no savings and no prospects of income, they turn to their grown children; one lives in California, while the other four, closer to home in New York, reluctantly grapple with the issue of caring for their parents. Moore plays the father and Hollywood’s quintessential earth mother, Beulah Bondi, plays his wife. Again, the cast is well-chosen, including Thomas Mitchell, Fay Bainter, Maurice Moscovich, Minna Gombell, and Louise Beavers. (Dell Henderson, who also appears in Ruggles, has a good part here as a car salesman who takes Moore and Bondi for a spin, and proves to have a good heart. Henderson started out at Biograph with Mack Sennett and became a comedy stalwart on both sides of the camera.)

Peter Bogdanovich knew McCarey and conducted an oral history with him; his recollections, and observations about the director’s work, on this DVD, are vivid and vital. (He also remembers mentioning the picture to Orson Welles, who called it the saddest movie ever made.) A separate interview with jazz and film essayist Gary Giddins is equally rewarding. Giddins (whose superb articles on vintage films have just been collected as a book, Warning Shadows: Home Along with Classic Cinema) makes a series of brilliant observations about Make Way for Tomorrow, and notes that McCarey, who was proudly Irish Catholic, didn’t inject either his Catholicism or his Irish heritage into this production, perhaps sensing that the story would seem more universal if he didn’t. (In fact, Giddins points out, there is no mention of religion at all.)

Evocative essays by Tag Gallagher, the late Robin Wood, and the always-perceptive filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier fill a handsomely produced booklet that accompanies the first-class Criterion disc.

These outstanding movies deserve no less. Now I hope they find the audience they deserve, so McCarey can continue to work his magic on viewers of the 21st century who need his laughter, his heartbreak, and his humanism more than ever.

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