Norman McLeod: A Fine Comedy Craftsman

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Today is the birthday of the legendary comedy director Norman McLeod (sometimes billed as Norman Z. McLeod, 1895-1964).

A Michigan native, McLeod had been a fighter pilot in WWI, experience that served him well as an A.D. on William Wellman’s Wings (1927). Starting in 1920, and throughout the decade of the twenties, McLeod was an animator and cartoonist for Al Christie. He specialized in these stick figures:

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His first film as director was the successful silent feature Taking a Chance (1928).

McLeod may be the record holder for director of the most comedy classics starring the widest array of classic comedians. These include the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932), the all star Paramount extravaganzas If I Had a Million (1932) and Alice in Wonderland (1933), W.C. Fields’ It’s a Gift (1934), Harold Lloyd’s The Milky Way (1936, co-director), the Cary GrantConstance Bennett screwball classic Topper for Hal Roach (1937), Red Skelton’s Panama Hattie (1942), Danny Kaye’s The Kid from Brooklyn, a remake of The Milky Way, 1946) and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), Hope and Crosby’s Road to Rio (1947), and Hope’s The Paleface (1948) and My Favorite Spy (1951). In the 50s and 60s he seemed to be coasting a bit, directing quite a bit of television, and less magical late Hope and Skelton entries like Public Pigeon No. One (1957) and Alias Jesse James (1959). One of his last projects was a tv pilot with Ben Blue Ben Blue’s Brothers that aired posthumously in 1965.

Interestingly, with all of those truly excellent credits (and there are many more besides), I’d hesitate to call McLeod a comedy auteur. He made scores of movies and I’ve seen most of them, some of them many times, but I would be hard-pressed to tell you what his point of view or style is. Mind you, many of these are truly excellent movies, and funny to boot. McLeod was an excellent comedy craftsman. He knew how to tell a story and get laughs. And that’s more than fine because if you look at the list above I think you’ll agree there are many that cannot be improved upon.

To learn more about comedy film history please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

 

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