Thursday, September 03, 2015

All Wet Crazy Irishman

Well, I'm half Irish. But this post isn't about me. It's about Leo McCarey. I watched a few movies lately, so it's time to post!

  • Have been reading this lovely old tome: Who the Devil Made It by Peter Bogdanovich 

This book has always been one of my greatest inspirations for my enthusiasm for silent film and classic film and, of course, great directors. There's probably nothing more engaging than the first interview in the book, the one with director Allan Dwan, which takes you through the birth of the silent era as if you were there. Anyway, yesterday I realized I hadn't read everything in this book, despite owning it since it came out! So I read the segment on Leo McCarey, the Crazy Irishman, as his section is headed. I think I avoided it because I haven't seen that many of his films, nor had he made much of an impression. However, it was great to read it. Now that I've gotten involved in sketch comedy writing and performing, as well as screenwriting, it was really fascinating to see how they came up with ideas so quickly and turned them into Hollywood movies almost on the fly sometimes. This matches my experience now in real life, to some degree, even though many stories are written carefully with more forethought as well. Both situations can create valuable work. When the inspiration for ideas is lightning quick, it is best captured when you are fortunate enough, like Leo McCarey, to have a job that is paying you to come up with those ideas.

Otherwise, for those poor fools (the rest of us!) toiling away trying to come up with one great indie movie idea, it's really a lot harder, and we can't seem to have the luxury of rapidly snatched ideas tried many times over the years. No one's paying us to snatch those out of the air, and they just kind of pile up until you lose enthusiasm for capturing them-- because there isn't a directly palpable outlet for them. It is almost equally important to develop and tweak those ideas with quick additions made on the fly during writing and even on the day of filming. An interesting tidbit from this interview that proves that point was Leo liked to stop filming and play piano on set while he waited for inspiration to solve a problem or get a particular bit of business just right. This reminded me of Jean-Luc Godard on Breathless (1959) writing for the entire morning of shoot days and then only filming in the afternoon. So brazen on a first film, can you imagine?! In this manner, previously written ideas get better. I have also realized this in writing live sketch comedy: by working with the actors, and seeing it on its feet, and then also utilizing their great ideas, the ideas finally start to achieve a comedic reality. It's a true collaboration-- always. And to stare at the blank page and hope it will fully come to life-- well, unfortunately there's not anything else for the struggling feature screenwriter to do, but oh, how there is still so much more to be done when it gets into the hands of the actors and director! The "idea," the script that we write-- that isn't a finished product. Only the film is, and that is a different animal, so of course "writing" essentially continues in a very different way. Directing and shaping performances can almost rewrite a scene without changing a line.

This book continues to be a great inspiration, and I luckily nerdily owned so many Charley Chase DVD sets that I was able to pop in one of the short silent films that Leo McCarey directed and watch it immediately after reading his interview. So that was really fun, and it was quite a fun Charley Chase comedy, although seemed only half survives of the 2-reeler. It was "All Wet" (1924) (thus my title above). Oh, darn, as I was checking that date on IMDB, it claims Janet Gaynor is an extra in it! Bollocks, have to go back and watch it again..! It was a fun movie despite only half surviving, with a really great gag with a car getting pulled further into the mud than you can imagine. It was not McCarey's first film directing. He directed some days on sets of Tod Browning features, but his own fully directed first feature (at least according to Bogdanovich's book) was Society Secrets from 1921, and I do not know if that one survives.

And embarrassing admission time now, all the most famous Leo McCarey movies, I haven't seen them! Really not sure how I missed so many films by a fellow Irishman! Maybe because he was born in California, so can't really trust that type of Irishman, can ya? My sad report is I had seen only Duck Soup and The Milky Way, plus the Charley Chase silent shorts and many Laurel & Hardy silents that he either directed or more often was supervisor (with frequent story origination or collaboration via oversight). So I feel well-steeped in his comic sensibilities from those Laurel & Hardy and Charley Chase films, but I guess it's time to watch his most acclaimed films that you've probably all already seen, but here are some of the bigger hits if you didn't know: The Awful Truth (1937), Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), Going My Way (1944), The Bells of St. Mary's (1944), An Affair to Remember (1957), Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), and Love Affair (1939).

But mainly just thanks to Peter Bogdanovich for writing such a great book and taking the time to interview all these directors, even when they were coughing on their deathbeds, as Leo McCarey was-- he practically helped kill him?! It's a pretty amazing thing when a book can inspire you to rush right out and try to watch the person's movies.

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