He was nominated twice for a Best Director Academy Award, yet when considering the great directors of Hollywood’s Golden Era, you think of William Wellman, Frank Capra, Billy Wilder, John Ford, or George Cukor, yet of all the filmmakers from that age, few deserve remembering more than Gregory La Cava (1892- 1952). He was that rare freelance filmmaker whose considerable skills made him in demand by all the major studios for three decades. A comedy master, he got his start directing silent film shorts featuring funny actors, Bebe Daniels and W.C. Fields.
La Cava’s screwball comedies are characterized by improbable plots and brilliantly foolish dialogue but also by a social view that seemed to delight in establishing satirical contrasts between the rich and the poor.
You might know La Cava’s My Man Godfrey (1936), the very definition of screwball comedy, and maybe for Stage Door (1937), probably the greatest film about the Theatre after All About Eve (1950).
Stage Door was a hit with critics and at the box-office and gave a serious boost to the careers of the young actors in cast: Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball, Eve Arden and Ann Miller. The film was adapted from a play by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman, but La Cava almost completely changed everything for the film. Kaufman joked the film should be called “Screen Door“. La Cava listened to the young cast talking off set during rehearsals and incorporated their style into the film. He let them ad lib during the filming of Hepburn’s famous lines from the play within the film: “The calla lilies are in bloom again. Such a strange flower, suitable to any occasion. I carried them on my wedding day and now I place them here in memory of something that has died.” That dialogue is lifted from The Lake (1934), the play for which Dorothy Parker panned Hepburn’s performance as “….running the gamut of emotions from A to B“, giving fans a little in-joke. Before Stage Door, Hepburn’s previous four movies had flopped, but after the positive response to her performance in Stage Door, RKO signed Hepburn to play opposite Cary Grant in another screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby (1938).
La Cava did away with the original sentimental script of the Broadway hit and deepened its characters, giving Hepburn and Rogers beautifully balanced, contrasting roles, and juicy stuff for the rest of the cast, all playing aspiring actors, living at the Footlights Club, a sort of sorority for aspiring females starting off in showbiz. La Cava took the personal essence of his young cast from improved rehearsals before shooting.
Hepburn’s superiority and irritating affectations are smartly captured in her role of heiress Terry Randall. Rogers, Hepburn’s rival for Queen of RKO, is the plebian who can barely tolerate Hepburn and is not afraid to cut her down to size with a dry retort. Lofty Hepburn announces to her lesser residents at The Footlights: ”You’ll forgive me if I learned to speak proper English and use the correct knife and fork.” Rogers replies: ”All you’ll need is the knife.”
Although it was not Lucille Ball’s first film role (she appeared in small roles in several Fred Astaire and Rogers RKO musicals), La Cava used her crack comic timing and distinctive croak of a voice to great advantage. Arden, with a cat worn like a stole around her shoulders, wise cracks in that no-nonsense tone she used for rest of her career. La Cava brought out perhaps the only real acting that Ann Miller ever gave (she was only 14 years old). She is charming and funny, tap dancing nervously, while auditioning for Adolphe Menjou‘s horny, powerful producer.
Stage Door also has scene-stealing stuff by the delightfully droll, gratifyingly gay, Franklin Pangborn, known for playing small but memorable roles with comic flair.
La Cava gave Carole Lombard her best role. Her costar is William Powell, who had been briefly married to Lombard years before appearing together in this film. In My Man Godfrey he uses her delightful, delicious sense of the absurd, madcap goofiness and seductive sexiness as the scatter-brained Park Avenue young lady, Irene Bullock. The film is known as a screwball classic, but it is also the most beautifully shot comedy of the era. Lombard plays a socialite who hires a homeless man to be her family’s butler, and then falls in love with him.
Written by La Cava and his favorite collaborator Morrie Ryskind, it has luminous scenes featuring Lombard’s dazzling hair and gowns; expressive pools of light in the Bullock’s mansion; and the shimmery cam fires at a New York City Hooverville on the East River near the 59th Street Bridge. La Cava’s films are filled with visual delights, and smooth editing in service of smart comic pacing.
La Cava had contempt for studio executives and was known to be a bit eccentric. When he and Powell had a disagreement about how Godfrey should be portrayed, they settled things over a bottle of Scotch. The next morning, La Cava showed up on set with a headache, but Powell sent a telegram stating:
“We may have found Godfrey last night but we lost Powell. See You tomorrow.”
When tensions were high while shooting, Lombard would insert four letter words into her dialogue, to the amusement of the cast.
Unlike Lombard’s performances in silent movies, her mannerisms exhibited in her first La Cava film, the sparkling Big News (1929) show her true comic genius. Big News has a rare lesbian character who figures prominently throughout its hectic newsroom milieu, played by the butch Helen Ainsworth, later Marilyn Monroe‘s agent.
La Cava’s Bed Of Roses (1933) is one of the sexiest Pre-Hays Code films. It has Constance Bennett and Pert Kelton, scrumptious as hookers on the make on the Mississippi River on the way to New Orleans. Later, Bennett gives up the strumpet life when she falls for Joel McCrea, a La Cava favorite who worked in three of his films and who skillfully underplays the sexiness which made him an equal to Gary Cooper.
La Cava used the girls-for-hire theme againn for Primrose Path (1940), his emotionally deepest film. Rogers won an Academy Award that year, for Kitty Foyle, but really, it was also for the La Cava film. She plays a young woman determined not to follow the hard-boiled prostitution profession of her mother and grandmother. Because of her work with La Cava, Rogers was probably the most empathic American film actor of the era. She has real rapport with Marjorie Rambeau, who is amazing as her tragic mother (she was Oscar-nominated), and with McCrea, who again, somehow prefers the company of those sort of women.
This film features some scenes with heavy drinking, but Primrose Path is that rare movie where the effects of too much booze are major plot point. La Cava was a heavy drinker, which may be the reason for his professional downfall. He considered drinking a worthwhile pastime and a dependable inspiration.
La Cava began his career as an animator. His cartoon, The Breath Of A Nation (1919) is about Prohibition. It works as a cautionary tale, and a tribute to booze. One scene features a swishy gay guy leaving a bar as a new, strong, virile man.
Irene Dunne is an actor whose affectations drive some film fans crazy, but La Cava toned them down in Unfinished Business (1941). He uses her lovely singing voice in an enchanting nightclub scene where she is forced to sing greetings over the switchboard to the patrons.
Tired of screaming, Fay Wray shows off her comic skills in Affairs Of Cellini (1934) as an artist’s (Fredric March) model in La Cava’s scintillating Art Deco reimagining of the Italian Renaissance.
La Cava was a superb woman’s director which, in the male chauvinistic world of Hollywood, might account for his lack of status. Instead of confining himself to one studio or genre, La Cava had the freedom, professional and personally, to make shrewd, skillful studies of real human relationships. He did not always get credit, but he always had a hand in creating the screenplays for his films. As tastes changed in the 1940s, he mostly dropped out of sight. He directed only one film after 1942, Living In A Big Way (1947), a slight musical starring Gene Kelly.
La Cava died nine days before his 60th birthday in 1952, just as Hollywood filmmaking was starting to be more receptive to the kind of creativity that he possessed. You can visit him at the Chapel of the Pines Crematory near Downtown Los Angeles.