Seriously Funny: The Films of Leo McCarey

The son of a fight promoter, and a graduate of USC law school, Leo McCarey was nevertheless drawn to the rich new art form taking shape in his native Los Angeles. Starting as a humble gagman, he rose to head of production at the Hal Roach Studios in the 1920s, making a major contribution to the development of Roach’s distinctively realistic, slow-burn style of comedy. Mole hills became mountains as the quirks and peccadilloes of McCarey’s all too human characters bounced off each other and created an escalating chain of events. Using this “Particle Theory of Comedy,” McCarey’s always seriously funny outlook gave birth to some of the 1930s’ most memorable classic comedies, and later led to examinations of darker, more bittersweet aspects of the human condition.

Equally adept at working with character comics like Charlie Chase and Stan Laurel, or dramatic performers like Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, McCarey straddled silent slapstick, screwball comedy, light romance, and sentimental melodrama, while working his way through the tangle of religion, politics, and sex otherwise known as American culture. McCarey spent 30 years creating a film universe that was not only successful, but made him one of Hollywood’s most unassumingly personal filmmakers. All films are from the U.S. and directed by Leo McCarey, unless otherwise noted.

Organized by Dave Kehr, Adjunct Curator, Department of Film, MoMA, and Steve Massa, film historian and author.

Special thanks to Serge Bromberg and Lobster Films, Cineteca Bologna, Gian Luca Farinelli, Guy Borlee, Ron Hutchinson, Richard Bann, Rob Stone, Mike Mashon, Rick Scheckman, Bruce Lawton, Anastasia Antonopoulou, Vince Giordano, Mike Feinberg, Todd Wiener, and Marty DeGrazia.