The cold war of Leo McCarey

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

In 1944, Leo McCarey directed Going My Way, concerning Father Chuck O’Malley. A film showing the positive influence of religion on american life. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

During the Second World War, religious films were in vogue.  The Song of Bernadette (1943) was a popular film, based on the bestselling novel of 1941. In 1944, Leo McCarey directed Going My Way, concerning Father Chuck O’Malley, who guided young people an it proved to be one of the most successful films of the year. This benign vision of religion reverberated with the American public, who probably needed reassurance of religious guidance. The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), was its follow up and was also successful.

Leo McCarey was a devout Catholic and his Catholicism helped spawn a strong anti-Communism. McCarey testified before HUAC in 1947 and in 1948, Leo McCarey, wrote an article for The New York Times on the need for films with religious themes. McCarey wrote that the film industry had a tremendous opportunity for ‘education, enlightenment, and influence’.  He claimed there was a growing plea for motion pictures with a religious influence.  McCarey called for religious pictures that entertained.

Religion and its principles can be absorbingly and tellingly presented within the basic screen itself.  After all, the cinema would soon lose its influence, if it lost the primary function of entertainment.  As an example, the unentertaining, heavy handed pounding of a theme is one of the mistakes which the Communists repeatedly make in the filming of their Soviet propaganda.  Pictures which are so colossally dull that their points, if any, are already lost. [1]

McCarey argued for the tactful and tasteful use of religious stories to show the ‘goodness of good as against the banality and wastefulness of those living without beliefs.[2]  By contrasting religious films with Soviet propaganda, it is clear that McCarey, like many others, saw religion as an effective antidote to communism. [3]  McCarey wanted religious films to be more effective propaganda than the Soviet efforts and he wanted Hollywood to contribute to ensuring a deeper belief in religion throughout the world.  He looked forward to the production of The Robe to demonstrate the strength of his arguments.

McCarey would also be a key ally for DeMille when conservatives moved against Mankiewicz in 1950, but his anti-communist activity did not end there. In 1950, he made a film You Can Change the World was a short film for the Christopher movement who were members of Catholic church aiming to reinvigorate the United States with strong religious values. It features Bing Crosby, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Irene Dunne, Rochester, William Holden, Loretta Young, and Ann Blyth. The film hoped to energise people to do more good work in the community, as antidote for those who were taking control – read communists. Despite the clear talent, it is like a poor lecture on the Declaration of Independence and the need for religion or religious values. The participants, aside from Benny, Rochester, and Hope, are lifeless. The film gives the distinct impression of being an exercise to prove anti-communist credentials, and the actors appear to be disinterested in the whole lecture – which includes slabs of the Declaration of Independence. It is not a Catholic film as the participants covered a wide range of religious views. Ann Blyth was a devout Catholic and Jack Benny was Jewish.

Despite its noble grandstanding, the film has a barely concealed racism. Rochester, as an African-American, is not invited to hear the father speak, even though he is just as famous as the rest of the guests. He was a valet, and his rejection is either based on class or race or both. Race is also mentioned when the priest tells the story of a young man who may lose his job at a service station because he is African-American. After a community boycott, one person finds the service station 25 new customers and he is allowed to keep his job. The film does not question the right of the customers to discriminate or the service station owner’s ability to sack his employee, because of his customer’s reaction to race. The implicit assumption in the film, “You Can Change the World,” is that the “you” is limited to white people. They can help African Americans, but it is one-way street.

Despite the honour roll of talent, the film is a rather dull lecture. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

McCarey would again tackle communism in his feature films. In My Son John (1952), his message was clear: communism was a cancer in American society which had to be ripped out. The film was a strange mixture of political intolerance, homosexual repression and anti-intellectualism.  The film was not well received, and it is now regarded as one of the more feverish of the anti-communist films. (See: https://cinemahistoryonline.com/2019/08/23/my-son-john-1952/ for a fuller discussion.) A decade later, he would try again with Satan Never Sleeps and it was also a dismal failure. The actors appeared to be going through the motions, and the Chinese Communists were moronic thugs. If My Son John is feverish, Satan Never Sleeps is just dreary. Leo McCarey and fellow writer Claude Binyon were accomplished comedic writers and drama appeared to elude them. It represented a sad end for McCarey, who was one of Hollywood’s greatest directors, but simply did not know his limitations. McCarey had made some highly effective and notable religious films during the Second World war, but something seemed to be missing when he made religious or political films in the immediate period following the cold war.

The advertising for Satan Never Sleeps, gives it a message of unresolved sexual tension between the two leads., which is simply not present in the film. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

[1] New York Times 12 December 1948. 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ceplair and Englund, Inquisition, p. 259.