Monday, February 14, 2011

Lucy and Lucille, Tom and Jerry

More than many directors, Leo McCarey seemed to enjoy being self-referential. For years, I've wondered why the female characters in several of his films were named either "Lucy" or "Lucille."

In The Awful Truth, Irene Dunne's character is named Lucy, as is Beulah Bondi's character in Make Way For Tomorrow (both films were released the same year, 1937). In McCarey's later masterpieces, Good Sam and My Son John, the characters played by Ann Sheridan and Helen Hayes, respectively, share the name Lucille.

It surely isn't a coincidence, and while I've yet to find a satisfactory explanation, I suspect there is something in McCarey's life story that inspired the usage of these names. Watching the second of McCarey's contributions to NBC's wonderful anthology series, Screen Directors Playhouse, 1955's Tom and Jerry, I was again reminded of McCarey's tendency to repeat himself.

Peter Lawford and Nancy Gates star as the eponymous married couple. Like Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth, they are on the verge of separating as the story begins, and they eventually do. In one scene, Tom is speaking on the phone to his attorney (Charles Lane), who is admonishing Tom about the gravity of divorce. The scene is humorous because, as the attorney is telling Tom how great marriage is, he is becoming increasingly annoyed (in a very unflattering way) with his wife, who appears every few seconds to tell him that dinner is ready and he should get off the phone.

Well, this scene in Tom and Jerry is essentially a remake of a very famous scene in The Awful Truth, but with the genders switched. In the earlier film, the phone conversation is between Irene Dunne and her attorney, though the situation is identical. Both scenes end with the attorney characters losing patience with their spouses, before disingenuously telling their clients, "As I was saying, marriage is a beautiful thing..."

Of course, McCarey really did believe that marriage is "a beautiful thing," even though the above scene in The Awful Truth, as film scholar Diane Carson put it, points to the attorney's "hypocrisy of his public versus private persona," in boasting about marriage while behaving boorishly. But as Dave Kehr pointed out, describing the scene at the grandmother's chapel in An Affair to Remember, McCarey was "a deeply committed Roman Catholic for whom marriage was a sacrament." In Tom and Jerry, Lawford and Gates are incredibly touching as they find themselves slowly growing close again; Gates, in particular, shows great depth, rivaling the work of some of the best actresses McCarey ever directed, including Helen Hayes and Deborah Kerr.

Because McCarey was such a popular director -- The Awful Truth won him an Oscar for Best Director -- I think he very much wanted audiences to recognize the references he made to his films. My suspicion is he intended them to be taken in the same spirit as Alfred Hitchcock's cameo appearances.

With its charming performances, and terrific, witty dialogue by Mary McCarey, the director's daughter, Tom and Jerry is an irresistible delight, and for me, the best episode in the Screen Directors Playhouse series.