Saturday, May 17, 2014

DIRECTOR'S THEATER: GREGORY LA CAVA


Directing is a painful existence. The making of a movie is a torturous marathon sprint. The creative arguments never cease. If everything works out in the end others claim all the credit. If it doesn't, you get all the blame. Years later all of the crap is forgotten and only the film remains. And let's face it, most films don't age well. You're lucky if you get one that outlasts you. Two and your a legend. Three and you're John Ford.

So, Cookie. Let's talk about Gregory La Cava. First, however, click here to read a fine article by Gary Morris about this shamefully neglected filmmaker.  While "My Man Godfrey" remains his most famous film--the "one"--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).

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."

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?  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!"

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). Whatever. La Cava did his thing, left behind two terrific films (one a certified classic) and a handful of other movies of more than moderate interest and skill. If I were offered the ability to sign up for just such a summation of my own work-life on this earth, I'd grab the pen and mark a big fat frigging X.






1 comment:

Joe's name here said...

So very interesting... Thanks for writing all of these.