The Forgotten Genius of Norman Z. McLeod Essay
The Forgotten Genius of Norman Z. McLeod
“He was a very nice guy and a fairly good director,” said Groucho Marx of comedy director Norman Z. McLeod, “but no genius. ” Norman Zenos McLeod helmed three of the most popular comedy films of all time and yet his name is practically forgotten nowadays. He is not as famous today as, say, Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges or even Frank Capra. He didn’t win any Oscars, nor is he the subject of any film introspective or intimate biography. Neither is his directorial style discussed in any lengthy review by Roger Ebert or any other reputable authority on film.
But McLeod’s name is up there with the other greats of his era and his legacy seemed to have endured in many of his movies. McLeod was born in Grayling, Michigan from a family that had no connections at all to show business. Before he discovered the movies, he spent two years fighting World War I in France as a fighter pilot in the US Army. McLeod became an animator before he even discovered that he could direct in the movies. He learned the comedy trade at the Christie Film Co. , which specialized in comedy shorts.
His first full-length film was the 1928 silent film, Taking a Chance. McLeod was working for Paramount when he directed the Marx Brothers in two movies, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers, which today are considered two of the team’s best. Horse Feathers especially show the Marx Brothers at their wackiest and most anarchic. The material for the movie was based on the brothers’ stage act, which means that before it was ever brought to film it was already familiar stuff for its actors. They only had to transfer the action in front of the camera and on celluloid, so to speak.
It is not easy to imagine anyone directing the incomparable Marx Brothers on stage and on film but McLeod did and he seemed to have done a very good job at it, too. Critics, however, are somewhat contemptuous of his abilities, calling him a Paramount “functionary” and “a specialist comedy director”. Matthew Coniam in his blog “The Marx Brothers: Council of Britain” said of McLeod: Norman Z. McLeod does not enjoy much of a reputation per se. He reminds me of that line in one of the Sherlock Holmes stories, where the great detective tells Watson: “Some people, without possessing genius, have a remarkable power of stimulating.
” For a comedian’s director like McLeod, praise rarely comes any higher. After all, there’s something innately ludicrous about the notion of anybody actually directing the Marx Brothers or WC Fields. But both acts could make bad films, and certainly did when not properly handled. Meanwhile, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers and It’s a Gift (1933) have no business outside of anybody’s list of the twenty greatest comedies ever made, and all three have Norman McLeod’s name on the dotted line.
What did he have that many of their other directors lacked? He didn’t try to impose his personality to the detriment of theirs and – a rarer gift than you might think – he obviously got all the jokes. (15) McLeod certainly got all the jokes. And one of them was that you don’t attempt to direct a great talent like the Marx Brothers you simply give them enough space to move and allow them to do their own wacky and hilarious stuff without interference. And that’s exactly what McLeod did in Horse Feathers.
Horse Feathers makes no more sense than a Saturday Night Live episode. But the movie does revel in anarchy, reams of it, and elevates the non-sequitur as close to an art form as it can get. It is filled with Groucho’s special brand of humor (e. g. , “Why don’t you go home to your wife? I’ll tell you what, I’ll go home to your wife and, outside of the improvement, she’ll never know the difference,”) and features the very popular song “Everyone Says I Love You”, which was sang in three different versions in the movie by Zeppo, Chico and Groucho.
Harpo, of course, hummed a version of it in his ubiquitous harp. For most of the time, McLeod keeps the camera trained on his actors and then gets out of the way. He did manage some well staged moments in the finale, where the boys win the football match by driving a make-shift chariot on the track. Most importantly, McLeod kept the pace from flagging, even during the Zeppo sequences, (Zeppo as usual played the straight man to his brothers) with the result that there’s hardly a wasted moment in the film.
The movie is also pure, unadulterated Marx Brothers without influence from anyone. It resembles a wide, open canvass where the figures of Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo moved in perfect synchrony, alert and pro-active to each other’s movement and dialogue. And McLeod’s ever-present camera never fails to capture this synchrony, nor the twitches in Groucho’s eyebrows when he utters a joke. The Swordfish scene, for example, is a master combination of both action and framing.
It is easy for a director to intrude and even improvise on the scene to make it funnier but McLeod’s camera remained unobtrusive throughout, allowing the actors the liberty to shine and the audience full appreciation of the lively action on the screen. The camera never shifted from actor to actor but held steady on all the players, rather like a passive and mute witness even as the scene grew more hilarious by the minute. The style is reminiscent of a Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd confrontation scene, which is not surprising given McLeod’s animation background.
The director doesn’t interfere with the scene but he instinctively knows when to move back or off as the case may be, which shows he knows the material than he is given credit for. McLeod understands that comedy is a sight gag. If you cut too soon or if you focus on the wrong person, the comedy will fall flat in seconds, which is why Groucho is given the full close-up treatment when he tells the audience they have a choice to leave the theater while Chico does his thing on the piano. McLeod employed the same technique in the pond scene where Groucho sings the third version of the song, “Everyone Says I Love You”.
Any director worth his salt would have given Groucho the whole close-up treatment just to watch his changing expression as he sings to the college widow but McLeod did not, preferring to train his camera between his two players, wholly anticipating the audience’s reaction as the song’s rather racy lyrics is being sung to the diaphanous-gowned and seductively preening presence of the widow on the opposite end of the small canoe. At one point, McLeod’s camera also framed a duck to reinforce the joke then with a sly wink finally settled on a Life Savers candy which Groucho threw at the widow when she fell off the boat into the water.
You can almost hear the uproarious laughter the gag must have elicited from the audience. For McLeod, a joke works best when it is supported by visuals caught mid-action by the camera. He employs this kind of visual style in the W. C. Fields movie, It’s a Gift, which he also directed. The story of a henpecked grocer who yearns to own an orange grove in California, W. C. Fields has never been put to better use than in It’s a Gift. The scene where a blind man wielding an unruly cane visits Fields’ store is already a classic.
The scene piles visual gag upon visual gag, and ends in an uproarious yet heart pounding sequence of the same blind man crossing a street while police cars, ambulances and a fire truck raced around him on the suddenly busy intersection. Another scene of Fields attempting to sleep on his porch while things and people around him keep him from doing so is an amazing study of both talent and directorial marksmanship. Like his treatment with the Marx Brothers, McLeod didn’t even attempt to reign in the great W. C. Fields but he made sure that same enormous talent is ably supported by an ever increasing mania of visual sights and gags.
The scene is priceless in both comic timing and visualization and the movie has often been cited as W. C. Field’s best and funniest picture, undoubtedly one of the greatest, classic comedies ever made. Maybe the reason why McLeod is overlooked by historians and film buffs is the fact that he never wrote any of his materials and his visuals were never fancy but were strictly utilitarian that served the purpose only of the scene at hand. He never experimented with angles or lightings but captured his subjects as they were, making their trademark shenanigans to elicit a laugh.
McLeod also worked with the biggest talents and biggest egos in show business. In addition to other classics like It’s a Gift and Monkey Business, McLeod also directed Danny Kaye in the Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the story of another henpecked who escapes the misery of his life by imagining all sorts of exciting identities for himself. Another big talent directed by McLeod is Bob Hope, Mr. Showman himself, whom McLeod directed in The Paleface and Road to Rio. His association with the biggest names in Hollywood of his era could have been a disservice to McLeod.
Certainly he knew his talents and he knew comedy and he combined both to perfect effect. But in the end, one doesn’t watch a Norman Z. McLeod movie starring the Marx Brothers or W. C. Fields or Danny Kaye, it was always the top talent first and the director second. In a sense, that was what McLeod did so well, to so totally efface himself that any movie he helmed turned out as a worthy vehicle for the top talent his studio has signed on to. Also, most of his films tapped perfectly into the commercial mood of their times, which is why they were usually popular then and are often forgotten today.
Critics also point out that McLeod has very little visual style and seems more competent than inspired. As if his films happened all by themselves and he just happened to be there. He also happened to understand his role in making these movies. For a quiet and self-effacing man like this very unlikely director, that could have been high praise indeed. Work Cited Coniam, Matthew. The Z, incidentally, stands for ‘Zenos’. The Marx Brothers Council of Britain Page 15. 21 May 2009. Blogger. com. http://marxcouncil. blogspot. com/search/label/Norman%20Z. %20McLeod. 3 May 2010.