Comic Justice

Nick Pinkerton on Gregory La Cava at the UCLA Film & Television Archive

Gregory La Cava, My Man Godfrey, 1936, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 94 minutes. Irene Bullock and Godfrey (Carole Lombard and William Powell).

DIRECTOR GREGORY LA CAVA found an ideal outlet for his talents in the screwball comedy of the 1930s and helmed two of the period’s indisputable pinnacles, My Man Godfrey (1936) and Stage Door (1937), both of them startling feats of plate-spinning stagecraft and tragicomic prestidigitation. He was also instrumental in transferring W. C. Fields’s persona from vaudeville stage to screen—and before that had been one of the first figures in American cinema to make the leap from animation to live-action comedy.

While the effect of this transition is the first thing mentioned in most existing writing about Looney Tunes–trained director Frank Tashlin, the writing about Gregory La Cava establishes his very lack of notoriety as his most notable feature. This isn’t because programmers aren’t trying—last year’s Edinburgh Film Festival presented a La Cava retrospective, and now along comes UCLA Film & Television Archive with “Our Man Gregory La Cava,” a fourteen-film retro which includes such exciting rarities as 1941’s Unfinished Business and 1932’s The Half Naked Truth (also new on DVD from the Warner Archives Collection).

While he became one of the highest-paid directors of the 1930s, La Cava was of humble beginnings. He was born in Towanda, a small town on the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, where his Italian immigrant father found a job as a shoemaker. The family later moved to Rochester, New York, where Gregory worked as a cub reporter for the Rochester Evening Times. After attending the Art Institute of Chicago and Art Students League of New York, La Cava began working as a newspaper political cartoonist—it’s said that he was a talented painter in oils, but needed to earn for the family. Writing for the funnies provided La Cava an opening into then-infant film animation, working for Canadian pioneer Raoul Barré and eventually heading William Randolph Hearst’s International Film Service, producing animated versions of various comic strips running in Hearst’s newspapers.

UCLA will screen one of La Cava’s IFS shorts, Abie Kabibble Outwitting His Rival (1917), while the earliest example of his live-action work playing the Billy Wilder Theater is His Nibs (1921), which already evinces the director’s gift for jaunty pacing. Set in a rural movie house, the Slippery Elm Picture Palace, His Nibs features “Chic” Sale, a vaudevillian famous for his hick characters. Sale plays a variety of roles, including the on-screen hero of the film-within-a-film, the Palace’s hillbilly projectionist-proprietor, the local half-wit, and the pecksniffish self-appointed local censor. La Cava shared a contempt for hypocritical moralizing with his new Hollywood neighbor, W. C. Fields, as well as a fondness for golf and the drinking of strong waters. The man who Fields affectionately nicknamed “Dago” would go on to direct W. C. in two of his silents, So’s Your Old Man (1926) and Running Wild (1927), in which Fields test-drives a character that he would play for years to come, the henpecked stealth-drunk. The Fields double bill (November 17) is aptly accompanied by La Cava’s 1919 animated short The Breath of a Nation, which contains such Fieldsian nemeses as an old battle-axe wife and Prof. Witherbones, a sanctimonious temperance lecturer.

Though rarely credited as a screenwriter, La Cava would constantly improvise and rewrite through rehearsals, a process which allowed him an unusual amount of input into the content of his films. He would tinker with lines right up until it was time to call “Action!,” and the vivacity and spontaneity of his best work, as well as his ability to coax relaxed, natural performances out of actors not known for giving as much, is attributable to this.

In his films of the Precode years, La Cava freely vented a detestation of middle-class cant, known in the parlance of the day as “Babbittry.” Age of Consent (1932), a crackling campus comedy, has callow undergraduate Richard Cromwell almost railroaded into a shotgun wedding after a gin party with an underage soda fountain waitress—blame is placed on society’s expectation that Jazz Age kids should follow an outdated Victorian moral code. At the beginning of Bed of Roses (1933), Constance Bennett’s cynically hardened ex-streetwalker is sprung from a ladies’ prison, and sets out to use any deception necessary to find the title’s comfort, before being redeemed by the love of cotton bargeman Joel McCrea. A word on this pairing: While La Cava’s films move at a snappy tempo, with actors stepping on the heels of each other’s lines, his ample rehearsals created an easy atmosphere on set, and he was able to capture unusually frank and fresh flirtation. The back-and-forth between his romantic leads is often quite sexy, and his beautiful casts tend to look especially beautiful because they’re been allowed to show themselves as something other than burnished profiles. (The series was underwritten by the Hugh M. Hefner Classic American Film Program, who also financed last year’s monthlong tribute to forgotten rom-com master Mitchell Leisen.)

Desire is nothing dirty in La Cava’s films, but money certainly carries a taint, and in his best works, you can see that the shoemaker’s son remembers what it was to be truly hungry and hopeless. My Man Godfrey begins in an East River city dump, a veritable Valley of Ashes, before moving to the drawing rooms of Fifth Avenue, as heiress Carole Lombard scoops up homeless William Powell, an example of the “Forgotten Man” needed for a high society scavenger hunt. La Cava so liked the idea of an interloper upending a wealthy household—and was so tickled by the morbid self-dramatizing of the idle rich—that he filmed the same premise twice, with Ginger Rogers taking the Powell role in Fifth Avenue Girl (1939). Rogers also appears in Stage Door (1937), a Bechdel-test-besting ensemble whirl set in a theatrical boarding house for women in New York. La Cava had his cast, which included Katharine Hepburn, Eve Arden, and a young Lucille Ball and Ann Miller, live together for a period before the shoot, and Rogers remembers that La Cava would “listen to the off-camera chitchat among the girls . . . and then incorporate these off-the-cuff exchanges into the dialogue.” He also sipped gin-laced tea throughout the filming.

Gregory La Cava, Stage Door, 1937, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 92 minutes. Jean Maitland and Terry Randall (Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn).

La Cava’s practice of winging it—and on-set boozing—gave indigestion to risk-averse producers, and so, despite a solid box-office record, he skipped freely between studios throughout the ’30s. If La Cava is an attractive case for reclamation today, it’s because he has something of the rogue, maverick character about him. His films show a pronounced anticareerist, anticommercial streak, evident especially in She Married Her Boss (1935) with Claudette Colbert, a film whose department store window display scene ranks among La Cava’s finest set pieces. “I hate business, stores, everything that crushes the life out of people and turns them into pieces of machinery,” Colbert will say, anticipating a climax which is like the start of a riot. (For purposes of getting a grip on La Cava’s strange personal politics, it’s a shame UCLA couldn’t get hold of his 1933 presidential fable Gabriel over the White House.) Frank Capra even called the renegade La Cava “a precursor of the ‘New Wave’ directors of Europe,” adding “Pity he didn’t live long enough to lead them.”

This unlikely scenario didn’t happen with good reason. Among Fields’s drinking buddies—the infamous Hollywood Hellfire Club—life expectancy wasn’t long, and by the ’40s La Cava was a certifiable dipsomaniac, in and out of sanitariums. When producer Mary Pickford had La Cava removed from One Touch of Venus (1948) for working, as he always did, without a completed script, he sued her for wrongful dismissal and effectively sealed his reputation as “difficult.” (He also lost the lawsuit.) Never making another film, La Cava spent a brief retirement shooting pigeons with a BB gun from the beach in Santa Monica. On March 1, 1952, he was found dead in his Malibu home.

While he wasn’t around to curate his legacy with the rising generation of film historians, La Cava’s work speaks for itself. He was an insubordinate spirit, a disruptive, rebellious force whose method shook up the formality endemic to assembly-line studio filmmaking. He was also an astute surveyor of the American scene, and didn’t feel it was his patriotic duty to repress his knowledge of how circumstance shapes people—or more often misshapes them, for his films are full of souls that have been warped by poverty or privilege.

Now La Cava has a new showcase, and it’s standard practice to say that he must finally be up for reconsideration—the write-ups said as much before the 2001 La Cava retro at LACMA or the 2005 retro at MoMA. The fact is, though, that La Cava seems destined to eternally remain the Forgotten Man of prewar comedy. Perhaps it’s La Cava’s simmering anger that’s to blame—for in his prattling, shiny romps, there are glimmering shards of hard truths that we’d rather not remember.

“Our Man Gregory La Cava” plays at the UCLA Film & Television Archive in Los Angeles through December 18._