After a career-defining high point in 1937 with the melodrama Make Way for Tomorrow and the screwball comedy The Awful Truth, Leo McCarey boldly combined the two genres for Love Affair (1939). The result was the greatest romance of the Hollywood studio era. Glamorous strangers Terry McKay (Irene Dunne) and Michel Marnay (Charles Boyer) meet during a voyage to New York, flirt, fall in love, and are separated, first by plan and later by tragedy, before being reunited. McCarey plots an emotional scale that ascends from pink champagne to the nearest thing to heaven. Drawing on his own religious faith, he imagines that true love, when you find it, is nothing short of miraculous.
In his book Hollywood Without Makeup (1948), Pete Martin shares one of the director’s most vivid childhood memories. McCarey recalled watching a paternal aunt of his, the nun and schoolteacher Sister Mary Benedict—whom he later immortalized on-screen with Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)—kicking a football with her pupils in her long black habit. The image of Sister Mary Benedict made a lasting impression on the young boy, defining his view of Catholicism through a mixture of devotion and playful irreverence. McCarey’s Catholicism was less about liturgy and dogma than parable, symbolism, and play. For the director, being a Catholic was an instrumental part of his method, alongside playing piano on set and improvising scenes and dialogue with his actors during production.
Catholicism nurtured McCarey’s empathy as well as his creativity, particularly when it came to women. From an early age, he was drawn to Marian devotion, a tradition of honoring the Virgin Mary through meditation. McCarey’s devotion extended to Sister Mary Benedict; his sister, Mary (their aunt’s namesake); his wife, Stella; and later, his own daughter, Virginia Mary. His relationship with his high school sweetheart, Stella Martin, may account for the abbreviated nature of his legal career. When McCarey was a fresh law-school graduate, a man sought his representation in an alimony suit. McCarey took the case but, in court, discovered a battered wife with two terrified kids. Called to the bench, McCarey told the judge his client was a rat and dropped the case. Instead of risking defending abusers, he decided to look for another line of work.