A Double-Shot of La Cava, Please
Published on January 24th, 2012 | by Michael Rawls0
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 on Gregory La Cava
Frank Capra is here referring to Gregory La Cava’s penchant for making studio departments accept outlines of action in lieu of finished scripts (this tends to play hell with budgeting, scheduling, the nerves of various department heads) and of rewriting dialogue (usually with designated writer, sometimes not) up to the day of shooting, when said (no pun intended) dialogue was presented to actors, thus insuring greater spontaneity, vitality, etc. and probably the occasional disgruntlement from the less spontaneous, vital, etc. thespians on hand. La Cava was also prone to the odd drunken binge and disappearance during shooting. He got away with this “off the cuff” (Capra, again) business as long as the hits (like “Stage Door” and “My Man Godfrey” and “Fifth Avenue Girl”) kept coming, but when they stopped, off the cuff became off the lot. Suing for wrongful dismissal from “One Touch of Venus” (1948) pretty much ensured perpetual exile. And he got it.
But I can’t quite buy this La Cava as proto-New Waver business. He certainly succeeds in extracting charm, spontaneity, and a comic sense from some performers not greatly noted for same (Robert Montgomery). But the cinematographic technique is of the point-and-shoot school. There’s not much in the way of camera movement and there are an awful lot of two-shots. But if you’re already running behind schedule and you’re over budget, you can hardly be tracking about like Max Ophüls come the day of shooting. What I mean is that the staidness of the camera technique dims the sparkle of both the dialogue and that of charmers like Claudette Colbert and Irene Dunne. But then, another surprise, La Cava extracts a quite satisfactory comic performance from Preston Foster.
Coming (at last!) to the point, the La Cava double bill of “She Married Her Boss” (1935) and “Unfinished Business” (1941) at Anthology Film Archives: these two films seem to me to have several major points in common. In both, a woman is torn between an amiable drunk (Montgomery in “Business,” Michael Bartlett in “Boss.”) and a successful businessman (Preston Foster in “Business,” Melvyn Douglas in “Boss”) who denies her any emotional sustenance. In both, women are presented as Olympians of sensitivity, men as profoundly undergifted in that quality. In both, marriage and children are what women should opt for rather than a profession even when, in the case of Colbert in “Boss,” they’re much more capable of running both the business and the home than their partners. At the beginning of “Business,” Dunne, bored to stupefaction at a wedding reception in her Midwestern Palookaville home town, mentions to a companion that when she hears a locomotive whistle she “just wants to hop on a train and go and go and go.” This she does, but in both her case and Colbert’s, that going calls for hitching your caboose to some large male engine. “Boss,” I believe, is the more successful film of the two, a comedy to the end, but with enough emotional depth to take it beyond “screwball.” ”Business,” called a ” sentimental drama” by Bertrand Tavernier and Jean-Pierre Coursodon (in their invaluable, and shamefully untranslated “50 ans de cinéma américain“) only really answers to that description in its, for me, catastrophic last twenty minutes or so. Some of the funniest lines in either of these films are in “Business.” I refer to such exchanges as: “I always heard marriage was sacred.” “WHERE DO you come from anyway?” (accompanied by incredulous expression) “My name is mud” (Irene Dunne, deeply depressed) “I knew some Mudds in Spokane.” And there’s also bullfrog-throated Eugene Pallette as a butler: “Well, it’s not as goofy as what some of those other dames are wearing.”
I hope I haven’t freighted the respective trains of Ms. Dunne and Ms. Colbert with more weight than they can bear. Aside from these excellent actresses, many of their fellow passengers are quite good company, too. I would single out Mr. Montgomery (before he falls prey to reform), Mr. Bartlett, Mr Pallette, and Ms Edith Fellowes, as Mr. Douglas’s brat of a daughter, saved by Ms. Colbert’s managerial genius, and this time reform is for the better. And there’s a brief appearance by noted window dresser/fur shop manager/bank examiner Franklin Pangborn.
Mention must also be made of the out-of-this-world lapels on the first of Ms. Colbert’s “Boss” (again, no pun intended) outfits. This little number appears to have been run up by Tristan Tzara and Klaus Nomi. Possibly working in combination with Cab Calloway. Hi-dee-hi-dee-hi-dee-hi.
Not on this bill, but see it when it turns up anywhere near you, is La Cava’s bizarre political fantasy, “Gabriel Over the White House.” Here, Walter Huston plays a political mediocrity recently elected President (yeah, what else is new) who after suffering what should have been a fatal auto accident, is brought back from near death now metamorphosed into a sort of Superpresident, something like a Franklin Roosevelt with fangs, talons, and a whole lotta guns. There’s some disagreement about whether this film is intended as a parody of liberal fascism or a poster for same. Here the La Cavanian cinematography (just put the ideas up front and shoot ‘em) works very well. Lindsay Anderson might have called the film Brechtian. Hell, Brecht might have called it Brechtian.