Gregory La Cava Retrospective
A look at the glamour, irreverence and eccentricity of the under-appreciated Hollywood director
It’s touching somehow that Nora Ephron’s sad death coincided with the arrival of a Gregory La Cava retrospective at EIFF and Filmhouse. His masterworks of screwball action and improvised banter occupy just the sort of eternal Old Hollywood cocktail hour – arch, classy, fur-draped and barb-spiked – that Ephron’s scripts evoked. Glamour isn’t precisely the point, although glamour there clearly is in the La Cava back catalogue, given leading ladies of the calibre and pulchritude of Carole Lombard, Ginger Rogers, Claudette Colbert and Irene Dunne. Rather, La Cava’s style – credited along with that of Frank Capra, Leo McCarey and Howard Hawks with giving us what we now call ‘screwball’ comedy – mingles the glamour and romance of Golden Age Hollywood with an irreverent, almost surreal energy that undercuts its escapism and grounds it in a familiar world of gaffes, mess and gender conflict.
It’s a common assumption, particularly to younger film viewers to whom black and white is an anathema, that mainstream cinema was basically staid and conventional until some point in the 1960s. Critics and film buffs fall into this trap too, when they identify interesting work from the past as ‘ahead of its time’, as if the artists of the past generally dwelt in naïve darkness. But La Cava is one of those filmmakers whose oevure reminds us that eccentricity, cleverness and subversive social observation were at work even at the heart of the Hollywood studio system.
Rewatching the brilliant My Man Godfrey, in which a family of deranged aristocrats take on a ‘forgotten man’ (tramp) as a butler, I was reminded much more of the melancholy playfulness of Wes Anderson and the sleek wit of Whit Stillman than of the star-led date-night pap that is the contemporary ‘romcom’. If the social message of the Depression-set My Man Godfrey – that the homeless are entirely functional citizens who just need to be given a nice job – looks a touch naïve here, its juxtaposition of truly ludicrous wealth and indulgence with poverty and need is still confronting to this day. Its take on love is also drily winning, acknowledging as it does that the pairing-off required by Hollywood plot logic leaves casualties behind: check out Jean Dixon’s performance as Molly the maid, whose unrequited love for William Powell’s Godfrey must be nobly bitten back. It’s this sort of subtle shading that makes La Cava’s films special.
He was also a strongly visual director, with a skill for both small visual gags and elaborate, set pieces (like My Man Godfrey’s dauntingly chaotic ‘scavanger hunt’ scene). This talent reflects his origins as a cartoonist, initially employed by newspaper baron William Hearst to turn his papers’ comic strips into films. This scheme didn’t work out, but La Cava had his way in to Hollywood, and proceeded – unusually – to make a smooth transition from silent film to sound production. He was immensely productive, but as he died young – a few days before his sixtieth birthday – he rather fell between the era in which directors were near-interchangeable contracted grafters, and the time when they would come to be sold and celebrated as auteurs. This new retrospective offers the welcome chance of re-evaluation, not to mention the opportunity to view the films in their original big-screen glory.
Gregory La Cava retrospective at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, until Thu 12 Jul.