1/13/09

DIRECTOR'S THEATER: THE LA CAVA PAPERS

LaCavadunne

A massive case of work avoidance--both screenplay writing and blogging--led to the inexcusable delay between my last posting, featuring outtakes from Gregory La Cava's "My Man Godfrey" and this follow-up post, which I conceived while writing the first post but didn't get around to for a week. Procrastination is, I think, at the heart of the blogging life--one blogs initially in order to procrastinate, avoiding the "real" tasks at hand. And then, once firmly entrenched in bloggomania (a state in which one produces bloggorhea), one procrastinates working on the blog.

Enough. Back to the subject at hand, the forgotten but fascinating director Gregory La Cava. Click here to read a fine article by Gary Morris about this shamefully neglected filmmaker. I spoke last week of "My Man Godfrey", his most famous film, but several others are equally interesting and still freshly entertaining. La Cava seemed to be an early exponent of improvisatory work with actors--though at this distance its hard to say how much his finished films deviated from their screenplays. Certainly the best of his work always came as a result of working with a strong script--"Stage Door", my favorite of his films, came from the sturdy carpentry shop of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber (who also concocted "Dinner At Eight"). Let's whet the appetite with a look at the trailer of "Stage Door" (the movie, by the way, is posted on in full on youtube).





Having set the period and hopefully created a modicum of enthusiasm for the subject, lets examine what little there is about La Cava in print and see what we can learn about him. First up, Frank Capra:

"The meteor, Gregory La Cava, was an extreme proponent of inventing scenes on the set. Blessed with a brilliant, fertile mind and a flashing wit, he claimed he could make pictures without scripts. But without scripts the studio heads could make no accurate budgets, schedules, or time allowances for actors commitments. Shooting off the cuff, executives said, was reckless gambling...He stuck to his off-the-cuff guns. Result: fewer and fewer film assignments for him--then none. The flashing rocket of his wit was denied a launching pad because he wouldn't, or couldn't conform. So he mixed his exotic fuels with more mundane spirits and brooded himself into oblivion--his rebel colors still flying. La Cava was a man out of his time--a precursor of the "new wave" directors of Europe. Pity he didn't live long enough to lead them.

Frank Capra, "The Name Above The Title"

Capra's thumbnail history of his fellow filmmaker gives us two important pieces of information: that La Cava did indeed invent whole scenes on the set; and that he was a drunk. (His friendship with W.C. Fields might have similarly led us to this conclusion). Capra's correct about La Cava's sparse output--after he peaked with "Godfrey" and "Stage Door" he made only three more films, none of them successful. These were "Lady In A Jam", "Fifth Avenue Girl" and "Living In A Big Way". I have a feeling that whatever looseness developed on the sets of the more tightly scripted "Godfrey" and "Stage Door" may have gone to his head--director's who don't write do seem to require ownership over the screenplays they bring to life--especially if the movies are successful. (Altman was notoriously bad at crediting the fine writers he worked with for having much to do with his films).

shemarriedherboss Our next account of La Cava is an eye-witness one, from the sound engineer (and later director) Edward L. Bernds. (I had the privilege of knowing Ed while growing up and plan to write about him at greater length...unless, of course, I keep procrastinating). Bernds worked with La Cava on a 1935 Columbia movie called "She Married Her Boss". His feelings toward his boss are ambivalent; clearly he was fascinated by him, but also frustrated (a not uncommon feeling toward La Cava). In his memoir, "Mr. Bernds Goes To Hollywood", he makes extensive reference to a journal he kept while on the set.



"Some of La Cava's instructions to his cast members seemed strange..."Keep it filled up with business. No story value here except to show relationship of woman serving man. Keep it glib. Don't let anything stand out--the story value will seep through the scene as a hole." Something seeped through: the scene betwween (Claudette) Colbert and Melvyn Douglas was fast, sharp and amusing. Later, La Cava to his players: "I liked the easy way you played the scene. Throw it away: don't think of anything but glibness and ease." Diary, June 14, La Cava: "Do what you feel--then your reflexes are handling you, which is the theory of it". Diary, July 1: "Lines don't matter. Words don't matter, except sense and feeling--the thing is to get the essence of them-what is said doesn't matter!!"...I recall thinking that if what is said didn't matter, why bother to speak? Shoot a couple of close-ups of actors staring at one another and allow the essence of the scene to ripple and sseep through. La Cava's instructions did seem to be up in the clouds sometwhere. The term "double-talk" was not known in 1935--if it had been, I probably would have used it."

Edward L. Bernds, "Mr. Bernds Goes To Hollywood"

Well, I'm not sure about the "words don't matter" bit, but I think La Cava was onto something that might not have been easy to grasp; his instructions seem all about relaxation, about not thinking while doing--a very Zennish kind of approach for a mid-thirties screwball comedy director. Is this what gives the performances in his films there slightly ducky, warm and charming qualities? Look below at two superb scenes from "Stage Door"--especially Andrea Leeds wonderful "birthday breakdown" scene. I'll quote a bit from the above mentioned article by Morris:

" In Stage Door, she (Andrea Leeds) 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!"


Gary Morris, "Forgotten Master"

In spite of which the film turned out beautifully. So why didn't it ever work out for La Cava again? Ralph Bellamy, in an interview I'll post soon (it's mostly about Leo McCarey) refers to the 1942 "Lady In A Jam" disparigingly--unfavorably comparing La Cava's attempts at working without a script to McCarey's on "The Awful Truth". Perhaps the boozing had already gotten the better of him. I wonder if anyone ever spoke to Gene Kelly about "Living In A Big Way", the 1947 curio that ended La Cava's career (and almost Kelly's as well). More to come...





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6 comments:

  1. So La Cava thought he could work without a script? I can't even image how difficult that would be :)

    Since you have been talking about writing yourself are we safe at this point in assuming that City Island is completely finished? If not, what is left to go? Also, any heads up where we might see it debuted...any film festivals? Looking forward to it!

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  2. I myself have written & directed a few dinner theater plays and after
    my Actors new there lines pretty
    well and we were ready to do the show.I told them listen you do not
    have to get these lines exact.Just
    relate to one another get in the grove.It works every time they just lighten right up.But I would never
    tell them this in the beginning.Or it
    could turn into a disaster.

    ReplyDelete
  3. A bold thing to do I guess...working without a script and in complete freedom of actions.

    It reminds me of something related to my field and ocupation (education). There was this movement created by A.S NEill in England in 1921. It was a school (summerhill) were children would be completely free to do whatever they wish to do, learn, create...it was innovative and ahead of its time but...didn't work!

    Now in relation to the bloggomania efect...there is a "game" that started by a blogger somewhere in the world and it is quite interesting. It is called "interview" me. A blogger who wishes to be interviewed (in that case you Raymond) states to the blogger that has already been interviewed (in that case me) that he wishes to be interviewed. Then I' ll send you 5 questions via email and you can answer them in your blog for people to see. when I saw this I immediatelly thought of you. Who better to be interviewed and for us to read your words.

    If you wish to participate just post a comment saying "interview me" and let the games begin! If you don't want to be interviewed it is perfectly ok! It was worth asking :-)

    take care now
    peace and love
    xoxo

    ReplyDelete
  4. Yes, "City Island" is finished--I'm going to New York next week to view the final print. Our plan is to premiere it this spring in one of the many festivals that have proliferated in the US. However it's showing this February in the Berlin Film Festival for foreign buyers to see it (and hopefully buy it). I'll post more info on it (as well as stills once they're cleared) shortly.

    Yes, I too find the thought of directing without a script more than a little daunting. Frankly it's not so different from a recurrent anxiety dream I always have when shooting in which I get to the set, am faced with the actors and crew, and realize I haven't the slightest idea what the script is. (In the dream I have to pretend I know what I'm doing so I don't get fired). That La Cava and Leo McCarey (who I plan to write about soon) actually LIKED this sort of stress is peculiar indeed.

    Marianna: It's funny what you write about the A.S. Neill movement--these things never really work. And I'm game: interview me!

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  5. Very excited to hear about the Berlin Film Festival Raymond! And really wishing I was going to be there to see it but as I am not a foreign buyer nor am I in Germany, I guess I'm out of luck!

    Now are any of these film festivals the type with screenings that the public can attend and that the actors sometimes do Q&A for or are they strictly a producers-type thing?

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  6. Being that "City Island" is
    completed.Doe's this mean that
    it has a movie trailer also or is
    that something the Distributor
    helps with.Maybe you can tell us
    how would that work....ciao
    If we are not supposed to know if
    there is a trailer I understand.
    (Always wanted to go to Germany)

    ReplyDelete