Tag Archives: William Powell

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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Three Cheers (and Six Martinis – Each) for the Charles’s: Celebrating The Thin Man

IT may not top the lists of greatest movies of all time, but the sparkling 1934 comedy-mystery The Thin Man was undoubtedly one of the most important films of its time. Not only did it introduce one of the screen’s most popular comedy partnerships in the elegant shapes of William Powell and Myrna Loy, but it also helped launch the screwball comedy which quickly became the defining genre of the decade. Yet, at the same time, its look (it was shot by cinematographer James Wong Howe, one of the greats) and its convoluted murder plot paved the way for the film noirs of the 1940s.

It was the first film to show a modern marriage, and one of the last films to get
away with overt sexual references before the censors clamped down in the mid-1930s. Its characters had fun, whether socialising, bickering or – and this was unprecedented – solving a murder. It was a film very much of its time, and yet, in the States, Thin Man parties – in which revellers drink to keep up with the hero and heroine – are still something of a cultish institution.

Based on a novel by Dashiell “The Maltese Falcon” Hammett, The Thin Man effortlessly blends mystery with comedy as ex-detective Nick Charles (Powell) is lured out of his luxurious retirement with his socialite wife, Nora (Loy), to track down a missing inventor. Dead bodies start to turn up, and the film climaxes in a dinner party at which Nick and Nora – aided and abetted by cops dressed as waiters – play host to the motley crew of suspects before revealing whodunnit.

The Thin Man moves at a brisk pace – only slowing down long enough for Nick and Nora to order their next cocktail, discuss their next cocktail, mix their next cocktail, drink their next cocktail or recover from the cocktails they put away the night before. It was directed by WS Van Dyke, known as One Shot Woody, because he was so economical, and shot in a staggering 16 days – half the time generally allotted to MGM’s movies. The script – by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who went on to write It’s a Wonderful Life – is snappy and packed with witty banter delivered, often at high, His Girl Friday-like, speed, by Loy and Powell, wisecrackers par excellence.

One of the most striking aspects of the movie – which will surprise anyone who thinks that the older the film the less likelihood there is that there will be any reference to sex – is the risqué nature of the dialogue. In one exchange, Nick and Nora discuss the newspaper coverage of his recent brush with a bullet.

Nick: “I was shot twice in the Tribune.”

Nora: “I read that you were shot five times in the tabloids.”

Nick: “He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids!”

Occasionally, the film likes to remind the audience that this couple is legit. When cops barge into their hotel bedroom and find a pistol, one of them asks: “Do you have a licence to keep a gun? Haven’t you heard of the Solomon Act?”
“Oh,” quips Nora, “that’s okay – we’re married!”

The fact that Nick and Nora start the film married was a novelty in the early 1930s. As Samuel Marx, the head of MGM’s story department, said years later: “Even that was a risk because in those days you got married at the end of a movie, not at the beginning. Marriage wasn’t supposed to be fun.” Nick and Nora had a playful, flirtatious relationship. Not only was it fun, but it was also a marriage of equals. They bickered and bantered and played tricks on each other but everything they did was underpinned by their obvious mutual respect.

The other constant in this marriage was booze and if there’s one aspect of The Thin Man which – after the twentieth martini – makes for rather uncomfortable viewing, it’s the amount of alcohol consumed. As Samuel Marx pointed out, the relaxed attitude to drinking must have been “a jolt” to audiences still uneasy about social drinking in the months following the repeal of Prohibition.

And yet, drink is a key feature of the movie. Nick is first seen standing at the Ritz bar, giving the bartenders a lecture on mixing a martini – “A Manhattan you shake to a foxtrot, a Bronx to a two-step, but a dry martini you should always shake to waltz time.” When Nora turns up, she is also somewhat the worse for wear. Dragged into the bar by the couple’s long-suffering terrier, Asta, she exclaims: “Oh there you are. He’s dragged me into every gin mill on the block.” Nick replies: “I had him out this morning.. ” When it’s not martinis, it’s Scotch – and variations on the “he’s working on a case – of Scotch” gag crop up in The Thin Man and all of its five sequels.

As for the hangovers, well, Nora’s appearance with the ice pack on her head was probably the first time in Hollywood movies a woman had been shown paying the price for a night on the tiles. Tipsy women were to become a staple of the screwball comedy, a genre which The Thin Man – along with two of 1934’s other big comedies, It Happened One Night and Twentieth Century – helped sire.

But the greatest legacy of The Thin Man was the birth of the comedy team of Powell and Loy. The pair had worked together on the crime movie Manhattan Melodrama earlier in 1934 and its director WS Van Dyke had witnessed them trading banter between takes. Seeing their potential as a screen couple who wouldn’t have to work at creating chemistry, he immediately decided that they were his Nick and Nora. The two stars went on to headline nine more comedies together; the spark they ignited in that original Thin Man film lasting throughout their screen partnership.

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