Los Angeles-born Leo McCarey was, along with Frank Capra, one of the most popular and successful comedy directors of the pre-World War II era. Unlike Capra, however, McCarey's success endured well after World War II, and like Capra, his work was still influencing filmmakers in the 1990s. Originally an attorney, McCarey entered films by a circuitous route shortly after starting his own practice, beginning as an assistant to Tod Browning. During the 1920s, he went to work for Hal Roach Studios as a gag writer and director and, within two years, was a vice president. It was while at Roach that McCarey teamed Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy together for the first time, thus creating one of the most enduring comedy teams of all time. As a director, he imposed a frantically paced, breakneck speed to comedy which quickly became his trademark in the 1930s. A triple-threat as writer and producer as well as director, McCarey made some of the most inspired comedies of the decade, including The Milky Way, Ruggles of Red Gap, and The Awful Truth, collecting an armload of Academy Awards as a director, writer, and producer in the process. His work also had a serious side; McCarey was a devout Catholic and deeply concerned with social issues -- which came out in films such as Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), a groundbreaking film about the displaced elderly. During the 1940s, his work became more serious -- McCarey was concerned with the battles that had yet to be fought for human dignity, after World War II was won -- but this only seemed to make his work more popular. His share in the profits of Going My Way (1944), starring Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald, gave McCarey the highest reported income in the U.S. for the year 1944, and its follow-up, The Bells of St. Mary's, which was made by McCarey's own production company, was equally successful.
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After the war, McCarey's vision darkened, and the public reacted negatively. My Son, John, an overblown anti-Communist diatribe, failed at the box office, but five years later he was back on track, as co-author, producer, and director of An Affair to Remember, a romantic comedy that became the basis for the 1993 hit Sleepless in Seattle and, through the latter's success, found a whole new audience 36 years after it was made. McCarey was unable to put his new-found success, after nearly a decade of inactivity, to good use -- like Frank Capra, with whom he was frequently compared, McCarey's most serious movies found relatively little reward at the box office, but he kept trying, and his last movie, Satan Never Sleeps, returned to anti-communism as a theme and failed. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi