Retrospective of a Comedic Master

MoMA unearths the early, cinematic delights of Gregory La Cava

Of all the relatively unsung directors of Hollywood’s Golden Age, few are as in need of recognition than Gregory La Cava who died in 1952. La Cava was that rare maverick free-lancer, whose singular skill as a writer and director made him an easy hire by every major studio for nearly thirty years. La Cava’s comedic mastery was honed by his early silent work with the comedienne Bebe Daniels (“Feel My Pulse”) and W.C. Fields, with whom he made two of that actor’s greatest films, “So’s Your Old Man” and “Running Wild.”

La Cava’s deservedly best-remembered films are “My Man Godfrey,” the definitive screwball comedy, and “Stage Door,” the greatest ensemble acting film about the theater until “All About Eve,” in which he personally drew up the blueprints for the subsequent careers of actresses Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball, Eve Arden and Ann Miller.

The first thing La Cava did was to throw out the ponderous, sentimental original script of that Broadway hit play and reshuffle and develop its characters, giving Hepburn and Rogers beautifully balanced, contrasting roles, as well as a wealth of juicy opportunities for a raft of supporting actresses, all playing aspiring thespians, living at the dormitory-like Footlights Club. La Cava was an observant genius of human beings and basically took the personal essence of his performers, which emerged in morning, improvisation-filled rehearsals, which he would then shoot in the afternoons. It was an original way to work, especially for Hepburn, and richly rewarding.

Hepburn’s maddening aristocratic superiority, her irritating affectations, as well as her beautifully boned lyricism, were captured in her role of heiress Terry Randall. Ginger Rogers, Hepburn’s real-life rival for queen of the RKO lot, as well as for the affections of billionaire Howard Hughes, assumed the position that Spencer Tracy would later take in his Hepburn-partnered series: the true-blue proletariat, barely tolerant of Kate’s cut-ups and more than able to slap her down with a wry riposte. “You’ll forgive me if I learned to speak proper English and use the correct knife and fork,” Hepburn loftily announces to her resident underlings, to which Rogers replies, “All you’ll need is the knife.”

It was in “Stage Door” that America’s sweetheart, Lucille Ball, first appeared, as La Cava used the redhead’s snappy comic timing, distinctive quack of a voice and childlike, bawling (“Wa-a-h!”), which subsequently became so familiar on television. Eve Arden, with a Persian cat worn like a stole around her shoulders, cracked wise in the no-nonsense tones she would repeat for the rest of her working life. And La Cava elicited perhaps the only real performance Ann Miller ever gave, at age 14. She’s truly funny, tap dancing nervously, while being grilled by Adolphe Menjou’s lecherous, all-powerful producer.

In “My Man Godfey,” La Cava gave Carole Lombard the farcical opportunity of a lifetime, gorgeously exploiting her deliciously unbridled sense of the absurd, physical looseness and ravishing sexiness as the certifiably cuckoo Park Avenue playgirl, Irene Bullock. The film is known as a screwball gem, but less so as perhaps the most beautifully shot comedy of its era. Despite the script’s cheerfulness, written by La Cava and his favorite collaborator Morrie Ryskind, the film is a chiaroscurist tapestry, with iridescent silver accenting the fulgent darkness, in scenes including Lombard’s dazzling hair and gowns; evocative pools of light in the Bullock mansion; and the hobo fires along the East River. La Cava’s films are usually filled with such visual delights, not to mention smooth editing in full service of comic pacing.

Lombard’s performance, as contrasted to the silent screen, talk-to-the-hand mannerisms she exhibited in her first La Cava film, “Big News,” a snappy 1929 talkie in MoMA’s La Cava retrospective, indicates the actress’ true development. (“Big News” also contains a rare lesbian character who figures prominently throughout its hectic newsroom scenario, played by the hefty, butch Helen “Cupid” Ainsworth, later an agent for the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Guy Madison.)

“Godfrey” and “Stage Door” have a permanent place in the repertory, but it is gratifying to see how many equally worthy La Cava works MoMA is trotting out for its retrospective. “Bed of Roses” (1933) is one of the hardest, sexiest Pre-Hays Code films ever made, with Constance Bennett and Pert Kelton (near unrecognizable here from the mother she played in “The Music Man”), irresistible as two hookers on the make on the Mississippi River. “A couple of ump-chays,” says Kelton in Pig Latin about two johns she and Bennett proceed to roll for passageway to New Orleans. Later, Bennett gives up her courtesan’s life and falls for bargeman Joel McCrea, an underrated La Cava favorite who played in three of his films for him and whose skillful underplaying and relaxed sexiness made him every bit the equal of his more celebrated contemporaries, Gary Cooper and James Stewart, while never being as overbearingly folksy.

Seven years later, La Cava took this same “fallen woman” theme for “Primrose Path,” his emotionally deepest film. Ginger Rogers won the Oscar that year, for “Kitty Foyle,” but one wonders if it wasn’t really for La Cava’s movie, in which she plays a girl born into a family of hardboiled hookers. Rogers, largely due to her work with La Cava, was then probably the most exciting, empathic American screen actress, and her performance runs the gamut from tomboy innocence to heartbreaking womanliness. She shares a miraculous rapport with Marjorie Rambeau, magnificent as her easygoing, tragic mother, along with McCrea, again, who somehow prefers the company of those “Pordagee gals,” as the script refers to them, with amusing political incorrectness.

The character of Rogers’ dipsomaniac father, a scholar of Greek literature, brings up the major recurring theme in La Cava’s work—alcoholicism. Nearly every one of his films features some key scene of heavy drinking, and “Primrose Path” is a rarity in that the more insidious effects of liquor are featured. La Cava was a heavy drinker, which probably accounted for the looseness of his imagination, as well as his professional downfall. But, on the strength of his films, at least, it would appear that the filmmaker had no remorse about what was considered a worthy pastime and dependable muse.

La Cava began his professional life as an animator, and his 1919 cartoon, “The Breath of a Nation,” deals with Prohibition. It is both a cautionary tale, and tribute to demon liquor, with one scene that features an obviously gay, swishy fop robustly emerging from a saloon as a new, virile man, able to easily bend lampposts into pretzels.

In “Gallant Lady” (1934), one completely forgotten, highly admirable woman’s film, Clive Brook plays a once-brilliant doctor, hopelessly addicted to booze, who goes off on regular binges. He has a fascinating, wholly platonic relationship with the radiantly blonde Ann Harding, also completely forgotten today. La Cava humanized this often-hammy actress (who, along with the rest of the cast had perhaps the best movie wardrobe ever, designed by Gwen Wakeling), getting her to drop the stagy mannerisms and patented tremolo voice.

Irene Dunne was another actress whose affectations could set your teeth on edge, but La Cava toned them down in “Unfinished Business,” and capitalized on her lovely singing voice in a delightful nightclub sequence in which she is forced to sing inane greetings over the switchboard to patrons. Fay Wray was more noted for her horror film screaming than comic skill, but in “Affairs of Cellini,” she is hilarious as a succulent but dumb-as-dirt artist’s model in La Cava’s scintillating Deco evocation of the Italian Renaissance.

In “Gallant Lady,” La Cava also gets a wonderful performance from little Dickie Moore, as Harding’s illegitimate son. The director had a real, rare talent with children, also revealed by Joan Carroll in “Primrose Path,” Edith Fellowes in his charming “She Married Her Boss,” and, of course, the adolescent Ann Miller. Where even a fine director like George Cukor all too clearly exposed his disinterest in his younger performers (“Zaza,” “A Woman’s Face”), thereby allowing a cloying precociousness, La Cava obviously took as much care with his kids as anything else, resulting in some indelible moments, both bratty and affecting.

Like the equally underappreciated writer and director Edmund Goulding, La Cava was a sublime woman’s director which, in the equally chauvinistic worlds of Hollywood and film criticism, might account for his lack of status. And, instead of confining himself to one studio or genre (the macho shoot-‘em-ups of John Ford and Hitchcock thrillers), La Cava had a freedom—both professional and, obviously, personal—which evinced itself in his superlatively canny studies of real relationships. This begs the ultimate question: Which is truly harder to show on film—a shootout or true love between two human beings?

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