Tag Archives: Filmhouse

Hollywood’s Forgotten Man: Gregory La Cava

It’s not often these days that a festival programme makes me squeal with delight – but when I saw that the Edinburgh Film Festival was providing me with the chance to see one of my all-time favourite films on the big screen for the very first time, squealing was the only option.

The film is a 1936 screwball comedy entitled My Man Godfrey. In fact, it’s not just “a” screwball comedy; it is – to my mind – THE definitive screwball comedy. With its central romantic couple who bicker and banter and have zero in common, its supporting cast of eccentric nutcases (played by some of Hollywood’s most memorable character actors), its sizzling script and its lavish Art Deco sets, it is up there with Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night as a movie that defines the genre.

Like Capra’s film, it also has an edge over subsequent screwball comedies because it doesn’t focus exclusively on the Park Avenue set; it deals with the Depression head-on, and in a very no-nonsense, though poignant and poetic, manner. (Indeed, its revival seems timely, given the current economic climate.) Its hero (the charismatic William Powell) is a “forgotten man”, a once-successful banker who now gives his address as “City Dump , East River “, a cardboard shanty town under the Brooklyn Bridge just a short camera pan along the waterfront from the swanky townhouses where ditsy socialite Irene Bullock (the luminous Carole Lombard) and her set live.

Just as I’m thrilled to be getting to see MMG – which exists on DVD only in such a poor quality print that I binned mine – on the big screen, so Chris Fujiwara, the Edinburgh Film Festival director, is delighted to be showing it, along with 11 other films by its director, Gregory La Cava, himself one of Hollywood’s forgotten men. 

Even the most cinema-savvy might ask “Gregory La Who?”. After all, terrific as My Man Godfrey is, it is not often shown on TV and is undoubtedly La Cava’s best and best-known film. However, as Fujiwara explains, this is a director who has long been close to his heart – indeed, he’s been waiting a long time to give him the retrospective treatment. “This is the first film festival I’ve been the director of, and I always thought that if I had the chance to do a retrospective – any retrospective I wanted – then I would do La Cava.”

Gregory La Cava on the set of Stage Door, with Ginger Rogers & Katharine Hepburn

Why? “Because he’s a director who really needs a retrospective. He’s one of the great directors from what we consider to be the classic period of Hollywood and he made a number of great films, most of which are very little known even among people who are real film buffs.”

A one-time cartoonist, La Cava, who was born in 1892, began his movie career
making animated films before switching to live actioners in the 1920s, the last decade of silent pictures. Unlike many of his contemporaries he made a smooth transition to talkies. Indeed, as Fujiwara says, “what’s interesting is how well he did that. A lot of directors couldn’t make it and failed, or their careers declined rapidly. It was also a time when Hollyood was bringing out new directors especially from Broadway and from legitimate theatre because they thought that these directors would be better equipped to handle dialogue than people who’d been directing films during the silent period. But La Cava did make this transition and I think that’s a testimony to his incredible imagination, his ability to conceive of what sound could add to film, not just as a sort of extra, but as a sort of dimension of film.”

You only need to watch the “scavenger hunt” sequence of My Man Godfrey – which is reminiscent of the much later work of Robert Altman (MASH etc) – to see what Fujiwara means. The effect of all the hysterical, drunken chatter of a
group of over-excited, brainless socialites is total aural chaos – in the midst of which our man Godfrey is quiet, logical and the calm voice of reason. Some of the dialogue in these scenes get lost amongst the hubub of hyperactive voices but it doesn’t matter – though luckily we do get to hear one wisecracker’s comment that “All you need to start an insane asylum is a room and the right kind of people.”

Gregory La Cava with Irene Dunne on the set of Unfinished Business

Another of Fujiwara’s favourite La Cava films is Unfinished Business (1941) which, he says, shows that he was “very interested in doing something experimental with genre. He mixes pure comedy with very pure drama in this film, and very successfully. It’s a film which looks forward to a lot of the things that Hollywood would do years later, films like The Apartment.”

Ginger Rogers and James Ellison in Fifth Avenue Girl

The genre-mixing is a trademark of several of the films in the retrospective – and another common link is Ginger Rogers. “She was one of La Cava’s favourite leading ladies,” says Fujiwara. “She’s in Stage Door, Fifth Avenue Girl and Primrose Path – and she’s great in all of them. I think she worked really well with La Cava because he encouraged his actors to improvise. Stage Door was practically invented in rehearsal by Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers and the other actors and I think you can see it in her performances. Ginger was always great but there’s something extra in the way she performs when La Cava is directing – and those are three of her very best performances.”

Given all of this, why then is La Cava not better remembered? “I think part of it is that he didn’t live long enough,” says Fujiwara. “He died in 1952 and his last film was made in 1947 and there was a five year gap before that. So his career went into decline, obviously. Also, he died at the beginning of the 1950s, just as Hollywood filmmaking was going through a period that was more receptive to the kind of creativity that he had. In the 1950s, there was a real flowering of creativity in Hollywood. It was the period when directors like Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawks made some of their greatest work and I think that La Cava could have done that too – had he lived into that period. The fact that he didn’t meant that a lot of people with that sort of interest just overlooked him because he wasn’t working during that period of creativity.”

Is there a case for La Cava as an auteur then? “Oh definitely. I’d call him an auteur – no question. There’s a definite style you can see if you follow his films, even if you just see three or four of the ones we’re showing you can see tht they were made by the same person, that there’s a similar sensibility at work in them. He’s a director I would love the audience in Edinburgh to discover and I’d love to find out what people here think of his work.”

* The Gregory La Cava retrospective runs at the Edinburgh Film Festival from June 26-July 1, then at the Filmhouse from July 7-12.



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A Hawks Eye View

The names of many of the great directors of the golden age of Hollywood movies are synonymous with the types of films they made. Alfred Hitchcock was the master of suspense, Billy Wilder was the king of comedy, and John Ford was the storyteller who turned the western into an art form. But Howard Hawks, the subject of a magnificent, 14-movie, retrospective which starts at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse tomorrow, is the odd man out – a great director whose name variously evokes a certain tough attitude, a spirit of camaraderie, an unpretentious style, brilliant storytelling, great entertainment and a terrific sense of humour.

You only have to look at the list of titles that will be screened in Edinburgh over the next two months to see that his name can’t be synonymous with one category of film because he made great films in pretty much every genre – and some of them were among the very best of their type. Hawks’s His Girl Friday, The Big Sleep, Red River and Rio Bravo are among the best films ever to come out of Hollywood during his time in the director’s chair.

And the others – including Ball of Fire, Sergeant York and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – are among the most entertaining. He gave us such memorable moments as Lauren Bacall instructing Humphrey Bogart in the art of whistling (“You put your lips together and blow..”) in To Have and Have Not, and hoodlum George Raft’s iconic tossing of a coin in Scarface.

Hawks’s films are also high points in the careers of such stars as Grant, Bogart, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Rosalind Russell, Barbara Stanwyck, Marilyn Monroe and, especially, Lauren Bacall, whom he discovered and moulded into a screen personality. He had a gift for teasing the most fantastic performances from actors (just look at Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire compared with most of her other comedies, or Marilyn Monroe in the films she made before Hawks’s Monkey Business) and making characters come alive on screen.

Not only that, but – as one of his snappy dialogue writers might have said – he got in on the ground floor of such of-the-moment genres as the gangster movie (Scarface), the screwball comedy (Twentieth Century) and the film noir (The Big Sleep), and helped shape them.

For most of his career, Indiana-born Hawks  – a charismatic, dash-cutting figure who balanced out a bookish side with a passion for aviation and racing cars – was generally regarded within the movie business as a terrific storyteller, a reliable pair of hands in which to place a film. He didn’t have aspirations to innovate, he didn’t pose deep questions or make “important” movies, and he didn’t go in for fancy flourishes in his films. Rather, he made straight-forward, un-pretentious movies which interested him – being an independent director-producer most of the time, he was able to pick and choose.

Born in 1896, Hawks began his Hollywood career as a prop man. He first tried his hand at directing in 1917, when silent era movie sweetheart Mary Pickford asked him to fill in for the drunken director of her picture The Little Princess. After briefly serving in the First World War and working as an aviator, an airplane builder and a race car driver, he returned to Hollywood to direct and produce a number of comedy shorts before joining the story department of Paramount in 1922.

His name began to appear as director from 1926 but he directed more movies than he received credit for. As talking pictures came in, Hawks came into his own – he appreciated good dialogue and hired such top writers as Ben Hecht, Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, William Faulkner  – and turned out hit after hit. He developed a way of handling dialogue so that it moved along briskly and naturally, and in no film was this more effective than in the fast-talking newspaper comedy His Girl Friday in which Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell routinely talk over each other in their excited, sexy, banter – but not a laugh gets lost in the process.

It wasn’t until the late 1950s, when serious film criticism became fashionable, that Hawks’s genius began to be widely appreciated. The French film journal, Cahiers du Cinema, which counted such leading lights of French cinema as Francois Truffaut among its contributors, named Hawks as the embodiment of its newly-evolved auteur theory – the idea that the authorship of a film, the artistic credit, should be attributed to its director, and that an auteur’s body of work is unified by recurring themes, regardless of genre.

Film theory took off in a big way in the States in the 1960s and in the decade before his death, in 1977, Hawks found himself being interviewed extensively – and regularly – by film students and critics who had pored over his life’s work and come to the conclusion that his films did feature numerous recurring themes.

Strong, feisty, ahead-of-their-time women – most memorably Carole Lombard in Twentieth Century and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby – who got the guy on their own terms were celebrated in of Hawks’s films. (This was, he later explained, the exact type of woman he found attractive himself.) Groups of professionals, usually men, working together on a common cause, was another theme which is evident in many of his films notably the westerns Red River and Rio Bravo, the aviation drama Only Angels Have Wings and in the glorious romantic comedy Ball of Fire, which was based on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

The threat that women pose to male relationships – also evident in Ball of Fire, in which a brassy gangster’s moll hides out in a household of professors working on an encyclopaedia – pops up in film after film, from the 1939 aviation drama Only Angels Have Wings onwards. And there are various recurring motifs which the theorists have also identified through Hawks’s work – cross-dressing (usually by Cary Grant – see Bringing Up Baby and I Was a Male War Bride) and communal singsongs (Hawks often gathered his cast round a piano or inserted some jazz greats into the proceedings), to name but two.

At the end of the day, however, what Hawks’s films offer is pure, unadulterated entertainment of the highest order. That’s what he set out to make – and that’s why the films are still so fresh and popular.

* The Howard Hawks retrospective kicks off at The Filmhouse (www.filmhousecinema,com) today with a week’s run of The Big Sleep.


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The Bishop’s Wife

We all have our own little Christmas rituals. Pre-children, mine involved cramming as many Christmas movies as possible in to the run-up to December 24 – and topping them off with It’s a Wonderful Life in the wee small hours of Christmas morning.

In recent years, however, my guilty, pre-Christmas pleasure has been to sneak off to the GFT for its now-annual screening of a much less well-remembered movie of pretty much the same vintage as IAWL. The Bishop’s Wife is its title, and it stars Cary Grant as a suave angel who comes to earth one snowy Christmas to help a harassed bishop who has been neglecting his family while he devotes himself to fundraising for new cathedral. It doesn’t sound particularly prepossessing on paper, but with

Gregg Toland's signature "deep focus" photography

Cary Grant and Loretta Young’s star personalities and chemistry, a witty script, a supporting cast of delightful character actors, beautiful music and sumptuous cinematography (by Citizen Kane’s Gregg Toland, no less), it is a feast for the eyes and ears.

I’m clearly not the only one who feels that there’s magic in this movie. Those other GFT regulars who play hooky from their Christmas shopping to be bedazzled by Cary and co are similarly smitten. Indeed, given that we’re now in the fifth year of it taking up a brief residence alongside the Capra classic in Glasgow, is it fair to say that it’s now established as part of the film theatre’s own Christmas tradition.

“Absolutely,” says Allison Gardner, the GFT’s head of programming. Indeed, so strongly is the film now associated with a GFT Christmas that Gardner had to book the print back in the summer. “There’s only one print – and we didn’t want to disappoint people.”

So why has this 1947 movie captured the hearts of Glaswegian movie fans? Gardner believes it’s simply because it’s a great film. But it’s more than that. For one thing, I’m sure that, like me, many film fans who have overdosed on the Capra classic over the years welcome the choice of an alternative – and one that still has something cultish about it.

For another, The Bishop’s Wife is a grown-up Christmas movie – and the perfect antidote to the sugar-coated confections that swamp TV screens at this time of year. It’s not a film to take the family to see; it’s one for the adults because it’s essentially about a marriage. Although there is humour, a dusting of special effects, and a couple of cute kids (It’s a Wonderful Life’s ZuZu and young George no less), it doesn’t cater for a juvenile audience.

Which is probably why I remembered it – from my own childhood – as being
talky and dull when I first spotted it in the GFT programme back in December 2006. But, always eager to grab the chance to watch an old movie in a cinema, I went along to see it and, within seconds of the titles having rolled, I – like everyone on the screen – was totally beguiled by  the debonair Dudley, who leaves a trail of swooning females behind him wherever he goes. If there was ever a masterclass in how to charm the ladies, the super-attentive Dudley gives it in The Bishop’s Wife. Even Queenie, the family’s St Bernard, is left with her jaw hanging open after Dudley has glided by.

Nick Varley, of the Glasgow-based company Park Circus which distributes The Bishop’s Wife, agrees that the film has a quintessential grown-up appeal. “I think it’s popular here because is because Glasgow loves a good story.” Varley believes that had The Bishop’s Wife fallen into the public domain, in the way that IAWL did, it would enjoy a similar mainstream status. As it is, he struggles to persuade cinemas to take a chance on it – though when the GFT was approached following Varley’s discovery of a print back in 2006, a Dudley-style intervention seems to have taken place as it turned out that Jaki McDougall, the cinema’s director, had long been hoping to be able to screen it in honour of her head of finance, Marion Pearson, whose favourite movie it is.

IT may not be as well remembered as the Capra classic, but The Bishop’s Wife did very well when it was first released in December 1947. However, it was not the easiest film to make. Producer Samuel Goldwyn was riding high on the success of his multi-Oscar-winning drama The Best Years of Our Lives when he optioned Robert Nathan’s popular novel, but the production was plagued with setback.
First, the original director was replaced by the German emigre Henry Koster, whose whimsical touch – which came to the fore again two years later on the much-loved James Stewart comedy Harvey – Goldwyn knew was what the picture needed. Then, when the script, by Robert Sherwood, was found to be riddled with problems, Goldwyn had to draft in the crack writing team of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett (who’d written Ball of Fire for him). Meanwhile, Cary Grant, who had originally been cast as the bishop, and Niven swapped roles so that Grant took on Dudley’s heavenly mantle.
It was probably as well that Niven was relegated to the part of the downtrodden bishop: after all, having recently lost his young wife in a terrible freak accident, he was not ready to take on a light romantic role. Meanwhile, Loretta Young and Cary Grant vied with each other to ensure that their “best side” was shown to the camera – no easy feat when they both felt that their left profile showed their good looks to better advantage. It’s testimony to Koster’s diplomatic skills that he found a way round this, though Goldwyn later told both stars: “From now on, both of you guys get only half your salary if I can only use half your faces.” Now that’s definitely the kind of logic that would be appreciated in Glasgow .
* The Bishop’s Wife is showing at the GFT from Sunday-Wed, and at the Filmhouse in Edinburgh on Thursday 23rd and Christmas Eve


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