Spotlight on Leo McCarey, The Original Improviser

Leo McCarey was an incredible movie director from the first half of the 20th century. His filmography is mainly full of comedies, but he also made quite a few dramas, that also had small touches of comedy. He was one of the most well-known director's around the world during the 1930's and 40's, with his name above the film title, a sign of prestige that many director's didn't have during the studio system of yesteryear.

 Always a director.

Always a director.

McCarey started out working as a lawyer, and then randomly fell into filmmaking through his friends' connections. He directed many of Laurel and Hardy's silent short films and helped them strengthen their on-screen personas and partnership. By the 1930's, he started directing feature-length films, mostly comedies. Just some of his titles include Duck Soup, considered to be the best Marx Brothers film, Ruggles of Red Gap, a wildly funny and very touching Charles Laughton feature, and Make Way for Tomorrow, one of the few American movies to honestly depict old age and elder care.

I learned about who Leo McCarey was when I was watching a string of movies that I was particularly enjoying: The Awful TruthLove Affair, and Going My Way. To my surprise, I found out that all three were made by McCarey. After some research, I found out that he won a Best Director Oscar for The Awful Truth, and what made me fall further in love with him is that when he accepted the award, all he said was, "I want to thank the Academy for this wonderful award, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture." After more research, I found out 'the wrong picture' he was referring to was Make Way for Tomorrow, which came out the same year as The Awful Truth. That incident alone shows how he was confident enough to know what his best work was, and not to base that on what the Academy thought. He was right about Make Way for Tomorrow being his best film: Orson Welles called it the saddest movie ever made, and more expressively said, 'it could make a stone cry.' It's unfortunately become a somewhat forgotten film; probably because audiences aren't really interested in old age.

Leo McCarey's visual style wasn't anything particularly dynamic or interesting, but the freshness of the dialogue and the sense of improvisation, like what's happening in the movie is just something that is happening right then, make his movies timeless and very enjoyable. He would usually work on improvisation for different scenes with his actors before filming, and watching his movies, it's very clear that he trusted his actors and really allowed them to loosen up, making him an actor's-director. McCarey was using improvisation as a way to figure out the story, long before it was something that Second City and Upright Citizen's Brigade taught.


I love his movies. They're so incredible to watch. I have never once been disappointed. You could start with any of his movies and be pleased. Here are some of my personal favorites below:


Now get started watching some good old McCarey flicks! If you do watch any of his movies, please let me know what you think!