• Ruggles of Red Gap

For the past few weeks, the Music Box has been running a special weekend matinee series dedicated to the Marx Brothers. This weekend it’s screening the great Duck Soup, which is not only their best film but also one of director Leo McCarey’s finest comedic displays. Duck Soup is just about the only Marx Brothers film I can really stomach, so I focused this top five on McCarey, a great director famous for his screwball comedies. Jean Renoir supposedly once said that McCarey “understands people better perhaps than anyone else in Hollywood,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean people readily understood McCarey, whose best films only just recently became readily available on home video. (It should be noted, though, that he’s been championed in the pages of the Reader for decades.) Below, you can find my five favorite Leo McCarey films.

5. Duck Soup (1933) Not the director’s most personal film, and I know he didn’t care for it much, but he deserves ample credit for directing the best (i.e., most palatable) Marx Brothers film. The film isn’t a musical, but it is nonetheless very musical, not only in the sense that music is featured prominently, but also in the director’s symphonic incorporation of each Marx’s specific persona. He probably understood the Brothers’ appeal better than any other filmmaker with which they collaborated.

4. The Awful Truth (1937) One of the very best screwball comedies ever, partly because its brilliant and subversive denouement is so unique to the director. Unlike the Hawks screwball model, in which the comic scenarios increase in zaniness before reaching a properly manic climax, McCarey’s approach is to gradually reduce the energy, so that the climactic moment is essentially transcendent.

3. Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942) Probably McCarey’s most curious film, not without its monotonous stretches but as cogent and joyous a celebration of love as anything from the era. The film depicts romance and democracy under imperial duress, artfully equating what Dave Kehr describes as “true love and the democratic ideal,” but the director employs a lighthearted touch that belies the serious subject matter. The effortlessness of Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers helps matters, as do the kitschy visual gags, my favorite being the clock with a swastika for hands.

2. Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) A seminal moment for McCarey, the culmination of a decade’s worth of stylistic refinement and his first proper attempt at a more personal brand of filmmaking. The famous saloon scene, in which the titular Brit, surrounded by a cadre of drunken Americans, is the only person in the room who can recite the Gettysburg Address, is rightfully considered his most inspired comedic set piece, marked by the humanist underpinnings that would work their way into each of his films for the rest of his career.

1. Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) Somehow released the same year as The Awful Truth, this heartbreaking drama has a truly everlasting quality, evident by the fact that it was commercially unavailable for decades yet retained its reputation as a masterpiece. Jonathan Rosenbaum described film as “the greatest movie ever made about the plight of the elderly,” and its thematic model has indeed proved remarkably sustainable, reappearing as recently as Ira Sach’s Love Is Strange.

Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.