Lubitsch wasn’t the only one with a “touch”
Gregory La Cava is probably the greatest classic Hollywood director still in need of rediscovery. While for many people 1930s Hollywood means Chaplin, Hitchcock, von Sternberg, Hawks, Ford, and Lubitsch, with passing nods to Borzage and McCarey, La Cava — who created several of that decade’s most enduring classics — has been unjustly forgotten, misrepresented as simply a clever studio director whose authorship even of masterpieces like Stage Door and My Man Godfrey was overshadowed by everything from the genre (screwball comedy) to the actors (strong personalities like Katharine Hepburn, William Powell, Ginger Rogers) to the writers (George S. Kaufman and Dorothy Parker among them). The man W. C. Fields called the best comedy mind in Hollywood — no small compliment coming from Fields — is virtually forgotten today.
During the re-evaluation of American commercial cinema that started with the Cahiers group in the 1950s and culminated for many American fans with Sarris’ American Cinema rankings, La Cava was not properly isolated as the author of his films. Sarris, in particular, did not help the director by referring to his “delicate touch,” the implication being that it was ultimately only a touch. Disciples of Cahiers and of Sarris — and there were many — who might have done more extensive study of La Cava were signaled to file him away for possible later research as not much more than another intelligent studio craftsman.
Another reason these critics misread La Cava is the fact that he is as much a “woman’s director” as George Cukor, and many of his best films — Bed of Roses, My Man Godfrey (right), Stage Door, Primrose Path — show the woman (sometimes a group of women) as the emotional and often moral center, with callous or unevolved men having to be shown the way to feeling by the stronger woman. The bias in Sarris and particularly in the Cahiers group toward male-centered worlds — noirs, westerns, and action pictures of the Hawks / Ford / Walsh variety — would automatically relegate a director like La Cava to second rank.
A third reason for La Cava’s undeserved obscurity is his visual style. Unlike, for example, von Sternberg or Fuller, La Cava is no flashy formalist. He uses the visuals — framing, lighting, angles — strictly in the service of the characters and what they need to express. Not that he isn’t capable of flourishes, as the bravura scenes of Andrea Leeds’ suicide in Stage Door and the department store window sequence in She Married Her Boss show. And his sparing use of close-ups for maximum emotional impact is both resonant and economical.
La Cava’s present-day invisibility was not always the case. During the silent era, he worked with major stars like Richard Dix, Bebe Daniels, and his good friend W. C. Fields. In the 1930s, he worked at virtually every major studio with the top actors of the time, everyone from Claudette Colbert and Ginger Rogers to Joel McCrea and William Powell.
La Cava was widely recognized during his greatest decade — the 1930s — as a strong, in some ways unique filmmaker, capable of creating commercial hits that were also critical and artistic successes. His personality was so powerful and his working methods so unusual that by all accounts he regularly alienated everyone from the script girl to the studio head. During the 1930s, he never made more than three films in a row at one studio. His strength and his downfall were in attacking with gusto the single most sacred object in the Hollywood production matrix: the script. Whatever headaches were created by his refusal to follow approved scripts were usually forgotten by the time production was under way. By the time the films were released to popular and critical acclaim, all was forgiven — temporarily. Much of what is worthwhile in La Cava’s films can be traced to his working methods: constant rewrites, overlapping dialogue, improvisation. Actors, particularly, responded to his approach, claiming this method gave a fresh, spontaneous quality to their performances.
La Cava differentiated between intellectual actors who had difficulty being “real” — he called them “dressed-up puppets” — and “real actors” who could forget themselves and fully engage with the character they played. Andrea Leeds, who played the suicidal actress in Stage Door, was one of many who appreciated the director’s approach. In Stage Door, she said, “Gregory La Cava had all of us girls in the movie come to the studio for two weeks before the shooting started and live as though we were in the lodging house itself. He rewrote scenes from day to day to get the feeling of a bunch of girls together — as spontaneous as possible. He would talk to each of us like a lifelong friend. That gave us a feeling of intimacy.” Others on the set of Stage Door said he had a secretary eavesdropping on the girls and writing down their comments, some of which he incorporated into the film. La Cava’s careful work with Katharine Hepburn on this film rescued her from the dreaded status of “box-office poison,” and Ginger Rogers, not always charitable in her comments on those she worked with, labeled him “masterful.”
Producer Pandro Berman, who worked on many of La Cava’s films, talked about the chaos that existed on the director’s sets. “He amazed me, and I gave him complete freedom. I went through a terrible ordeal on the picture [Stage Door], not knowing where we were going, what we were doing tomorrow, how the script would turn out. The picture aged me a hundred years every day we worked. Every single person on our boards here and in New York wanted me to fire Greg. It was pure hell!”
Even a cynical producer like David Selznick grudgingly admitted La Cava’s particular genius. In one of his infamous memos, he said, “La Cava would drive me crazy with the rewriting he does on the set.” Ninety-nine directors out of a hundred are worthless as producers. However, there are exceptions. I believe that La Cava might be an exception.”
The virtues of his films were not lost on filmgoers or on critics of the time, who responded to their sense of freshness and spontaneity, their absorbing atmosphere, and their sophisticated mix of cynical wit and pathos. During the pre-Code era, La Cava — who never avoided controversial subjects — created some of the raciest tableaux of the time, particularly in The Half-Naked Truth, where Lupe Velez’ exposed flesh and bump-and-grind dancing represent a high point of comic vulgarity on screen. His films are often acerbic attacks on big business and wealth — particularly in She Married Her Boss and My Man Godfrey, with its ghostly troupe of unemployed “forgotten men.” But La Cava held nothing sacred, and communism was as broad a target for him as capitalism in the Ginger Rogers vehicle Fifth Avenue Girl, surely the only Hollywood comedy where characters casually dispense phrases like “capitalistic scum” and “dialectical materialism.” Even a contemporary fad like nudism is roundly ridiculed in The Half-Naked Truth.
La Cava shared more than friendship with W. C. Fields — both men were alcoholics who spent various periods in sanitariums drying out. Fields’ famous dictum about hating dogs and children (and his statement that he liked the latter “par-boiled”) are reflected in two of La Cava’s films. In She Married Her Boss, he echoes Fields’ sentiments almost verbatim. When a little Annabel (Edith Fellows) tells acerbic adult Martha (Jean Nixon), who is treating her cruelly, “I don’t like you!”, Martha replies, “I’m sure I could learn to like you — roasted!” In Primrose Path, an eight-year-old conspires with her ex-prostitute grandmother to ruin her sister’s life by making the latter provide for the family by whatever means.
As these films reach their climax, La Cava’s deviation from Fields becomes clear. These children are far from the noxious, oatmeal-spewing brats of Fields’ world. La Cava shows their anti-social, sometimes violent behavior, but justifies it as a not unreasonable response to an impossible environment of uncaring wealth (She Married Her Boss) or dire poverty (Primrose Path).
This treatment of children — the tension between outward behavior and inner feeling — can be extrapolated to indicate something of La Cava’s general worldview. His films are typically based on such oppositions, most commonly the conflict between wealth/business and emotion/spirituality. His attitude is resolutely antimaterialist, even when he shows, sometimes to extravagant effect, the surface charms of money.
In My Man Godfrey, the glamorous mansion of the Bullocks — initially mesmerizing to Depression-era audiences starved for fantasies of instant wealth — becomes a zone of psychic disruption, as all its inhabitants are shown to be aimless, valueless, depressed. It takes a “fairy prince” — a rich man disguised as a bum — to rescue them, and their rescue involves the restoration of their human values, significantly timed to coincide with the collapse of their empire.
In Stage Door, the cheap theatrical boarding house, with its lively banter and vibrant comic interludes, is shown to have the gritty, irresistible texture of life missing from the sleek, joyless penthouse of Broadway impresario Anthony Powell, who seduces some of the boarding house’s inhabitants with the lure of stardom. In Bed of Roses, Constance Bennett, after finishing a jail stint for prostitution, cons her way into a rich publisher’s life, only to find that love — and human values — lies elsewhere. She Married Her Boss features an ultra-competent secretary, Julia (Claudette Colbert), in a loveless marriage with businessman Melvyn Douglas. Hoping for love, she is reminded by the business-obsessed Douglas that theirs is a “partnership” with no need for “adolescent nonsense like love.” Her withdrawal forces him to come to terms with his inability to feel.
Even in a broad comedy like The Half-Naked Truth, a maniacal press agent, Jimmy Bates (Lee Tracy), browbeats his way into a powerful position as Broadway impresario, but eventually forsakes it to return to the ratty but thrilling circus of his beginnings. Business and its material rewards pale beside the rewards of community, of human relationships.
What precisely is La Cava’s ideal world? The films give us many examples. In Stage Door, it’s a community of equals, artistic temperaments bound by a sense of struggle with life, with self-expression, and with each other. In The Half-Naked Truth, it’s another “artistic” environment — this time a broken-down circus, cheap and exciting, with the possibility of success always near but rarely realized, and again a creative community of equals: artists and performers.
In some of the films, the ideal is a domestic version of community. In Fifth Avenue Girl, the head of a rich, frivolous family hires Ginger Rogers as a live-in girlfriend in an attempt to restore what was once a loving family. In Primrose Path, the ideal world is reduced even further, to the couple played by Ginger Rogers and Joel McCrea. Rogers’ desperation to get away from her poverty causes her to lie to McCrea about her background, in turn causing McCrea to degrade her by carrying on with other women in public and eventually dumping her in a scene of surpassing cruelty. La Cava understands Rogers’ need to lie about her life, and the film documents in heartbreaking detail her attempts to make the uncomprehending McCrea understand her feelings and his own.
Primrose Path is a strong example of La Cava’s woman-centered world. In this film, most of the men except Gramp (Henry Travers), McCrea’s boss and Rogers’ simpatico friend, are unevolved or uncaring. While her mother, Mamie (Majorie Rambeau), keeps the household together (barely) by “going to the fair” (ironic code words for prostituting herself), her husband is a failed writer slowly drinking himself to death. Mamie’s mother, played by Queenie Vassar, is a study in grim survival — conspiring with her young granddaughter to ruin Rogers’ chance for romance.
Primrose Path looks like a pre-Code film in its portrayal of two generations of prostitutes, living in poverty and trying to make a whore of the third generation. The film was banned in some local markets.
La Cava usually has ethnic characters in his films, often in more enlightened portrayals than are found in other movies of the time. In Primrose Path, a black maid and Mamie’s white prostitute friend (Vivienne Osborne) are more like comrades than maid and mistress, exchanging dresses and laughing about the large number of “men named Smith” they run across in their business. Occasionally, La Cava made an entirely “ethnic” film — Symphony of Six Million celebrates the Jewish presence in New York’s lower east side, while What Every Woman Knows is so Irish it might have been made there.
Some of his films were controversial before or after release. Gabriel Over the White House was one of the few that were heavily tampered with. The rough cut of the film showed the president of the United States almost killed in a car wreck, then reborn as a crypto-fascist who makes violent changes in the country. Louis B. Mayer was so incensed at the anti-Hoover overtones that he overrode Irving Thalberg and demanded some scenes be reshot and new ones added.
Critics who have not seen La Cava as the gifted formalist he is should watch Stage Door, and pay particular attention to the scene leading up to Andrea Leeds’ suicide. La Cava added an unusual aural track to the scene, with distorted voices that once praised Leeds’ performances echoing eerily as signs of her madness on the soundtrack. As these voices rise to a crescendo, her tormented face moves into extreme close-up, then vanishes out of the frame as her insanity overtakes her. This scene surely presages later studies in female madness like Repulsion.
She Married Her Boss has one of the director’s most resonant scenes, much remarked during the film’s initial release. Colbert and an adoring male friend secretly enter a window display at the store she has just finished straightening out. All her frustration with the stuffy, soulless family of her businessman husband comes out as she and her friend talk to the dummies sitting in frozen domestic poses in the window furnished as a room. The mixture of artifice, humor, and pathos reaches unsettling extremes here, with Colbert’s repression by the family she’s married into bitterly reflected in her “encounter” with these unsmiling, soulless wax figures.
La Cava’s drinking interrupted his career in the 1940s, and only three finished films bear his name during that decade. The last, Living in a Big Way , was in 1947; uncharacteristically, it was a musical, starring Gene Kelly. La Cava’s next project was a film being produced by Mary Pickford. When Pickford came to the set and saw that La Cava was working without a script, she fired him — even though his contract permitted him to work in his old way. A court battle gave Pickford a victory, and La Cava vanished from view. Critic Ezra Goodman glimpsed him on the beach at Santa Monica, shooting at sea gulls.
La Cava’s influence has been much wider than the obscurity of his name would indicate. It can be seen in the 1950s in the work of Frank Tashlin (both began as cartoonists and both extensively satirized pop culture). More recently, his use of overlapping dialogue to give a dazzling sense of real life to what is onscreen reappears in the work of Robert Altman. Not that La Cava should be seen as a shadowy historical figure whose influence on others surpasses the value of his own work. Quite the contrary. Films like The Half-Naked Truth, She Married Her Boss, Bed of Roses, My Man Godfrey, Stage Door, Fifth Avenue Girl, and Primrose Path look and sound as fresh today as they did in the 1930s, and stand with the very best that considerable decade has to offer. La Cava died in 1952, nine days shy of his 60th birthday.