Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Born on This Day: Gregory La Cava (1892 - 1952)

Gregory La Cava 
(March 10, 1892 - March 1, 1952)

While perhaps not the most well-known director to make his name during the Studio Era, true fans of Old Hollywood and it's films will no doubt recognise the name of Gregory La Cava. An under-appreciated genius, La Cava's films remain a testament to his ability as a writer and director. Recognised today as one of the original pioneers of screwball comedy, La Cava's range as a director was much more varied than most people realise. During his over 20 years in Hollywood, La Cava tackled both drama and comedy with the greatest of ease and created a name for himself by being an innovator who appreciated the creative process of individuals (even if that meant abandoning the script).

Before he was a renowned Hollywood Director, La Cava helped establish one of the first Animation Studios in the United States and was critical in the training of several animation pioneers. Prior to arriving in Hollywood, La Cava studied at the Chicago Art Institute and took odd jobs as a cartoonist before finding permanent work with Raoul Barré in 1913. When Barré opened the Barré-Nolan Animation Studio in 1914 (the first of it's kind in the United States) with Bill Nolan, a live action shorts producer, Gregory La Cava was one of two young cartoonists hired to work with them.

In 1915, William Randolph Hurst poached La Cava from Barré (by offering to double his salary) and made him Supervisor of his brand new animation studio, International Film Service (which Hearst created in order to turn his paper's most popular comic strips into cartoon shorts for the screen). In 1918 (less than three years after it's doors opened), the entire staff of IFS was laid off due to Heart's considerable financial debt. Most of the staff were hired by other studios- except La Cava, who after a short stint at John Terry's animation studio (which went bankrupt a few months after IFS), decided to "Go West" to a little town called Hollywood. During La Cava's short tenure as Head of IFS, he is credited with giving some of the most talented animators of the time their first job at a real animation studio- including Grim Natwick (the creator of Betty Boop) and Walter Lantz (the creator of Woody the Woodpecker).

After directing over 100 animated shorts, La Cava made his live action directing debut "His Nibs" in 1921, a comedy starring Charles 'Chic' Sale and Colleen Moore. While La Cava struggled to make his mark as a director in the silent era (directing around 15 features and 9 shorts- the most prolific of which being the two he made with W.C. Fields- "So's Your Old Man" in 1926 and "Running Wild" in 1927), once "talkies" were introduced in 1928, La Cava found his niche. A string of hits were to follow his introduction to talking pictures- the first being "The Half-Naked Truth" (1932) starring Lee Tracy, Eugene Pallette, Lupe Vélez and Frank Morgan. It should be noted that "The Half-Naked Truth" is today considered to be one of the earliest examples of screwball comedy.

Between 1932 and 1936, La Cava directed several notable films (including "She Married Her Boss" with Claudette Colbert and "The Affairs of Cellini" with Fredric March)- however, his career was yet to reach it's apex. Without a doubt, La Cava's legacy as one of the pioneers of screwball comedy was cemented when he directed the 1936 smash hit "My Man Godfrey" (starring William Powell and Carole Lombard). Not only was the film a major hit with movie-goers in 1936, it is considered today to be one of the greatest comedies of all-time (sitting at #44 on AFI's list of 100 Years...100 Laughs).

After "My Man Godfrey", La Cava ventured into drama and directed the critically acclaimed "Stage Door" (1937) starring Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers and a young Lucille Ball. "Stage Door" is La Cava's only film (amongst his over 175 feature and short film credits) to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and was his second nomination for Best Director (the first being for "My Man Godfrey" the year before).

Gregory La Cava, Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn on the set of "Stage Door" (1937)

Aside from being considered one of the most reliable comedic director's in Hollywood at the time, as I alluded to earlier, La Cava had a reputation for going off script and encouraging his actors to do the same. The September 27th, 1937 issue of LIFE Magazine wrote the following about Gregory La Cava's work on the 1937 film "Stage Door".

"Stage Door was directed in a manner which Hollywood has seldom seen since the early, chaotic days of the cinema, when a director would start with the bare outline of a story and invent each scene as he went along. Director Gregory La Cava had a script, and a good one, but he did not stick to it. After each scene he would halt his cameras, sit down with crack Scenarist Morrie Ryskind and rewrite the next. The method, though it used up time worth several hundred dollars a minute, doubtless added to the spontaneity of the action and the crackle of the dialogue."

Ginger Rogers echoed these sentiments in a fond recollection of her experience working with La Cava on the 1937 film "Stage Door" in her Autobiography "Ginger: My Story";

"The story and cast were first rate and so was the director, Gregory La Cava.....In order to expand and enhance the dialogue, Greg would take time out from shooting to sit around and listen to the off-camera chitchat amongst us girls. He'd make notes on our conversations and then incorperate these off-the-cuff exchanges into the dialgoue. That's one of the reasons "Stage Door" remains so fresh and snappy and why the dialgoue rings so true. La Cava liked me and knew how to get the best from me and the rest of the actors. I liked him immensely, too, and felt great confidence in him. La Cava had a drinking problem, and many times during the shooting there was a teacup in his hand. The Earl Grey was liberally laced with gin. However, his alcholism didn't affect his competence. As a person, he was kind and loving; as a director, he was masterful".

Gregory La Cava directing Ginger Rogers and Joel McCrea in "Primrose Path" (1940)

The drinking problem mentioned by Ginger Rogers proved to be La Cava's undoing as a director. After "Stage Door" in 1937, La Cava directed only 5 more films (4 of which were released before 1942). Of these films, only two were considered successful- "Fifth Avenue Girl" (1939) and "Primrose Path" (1940) (both starring Ginger Rogers). His final film, "Living in a Big Way" (1947), reportedly lost 2 million dollars for MGM and almost ended the career of it's star, Gene Kelly.

La Cava died of heart failure in 1952, just nine days shy of his 60th Birthday. Today he is scarcely remembered for his contributions to classic film- despite being an innovator that challenged his actors to look beyond the script and instead let their own creative impulses dictate the scene.

Alice Brady, Carole Lombard, Mischa Auer, William Powell and Gregory La Cava on the set of "My Man Godfrey (1936).

Awards and Recognitions:
  • Nominated - Academy Award for Best Director- "My Man Godfrey" (1936)
  • Nominated - Academy Award for Best Director- "Stage Door" (1937)
  • Won - New York film Critics Circle Award for Best Director - "Stage Door" (1937)
  • Awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960
  • Directed 8 Actors to Oscar nominations: Frank Morgan (Best Actor, The Affairs of Cellini), Claudette Colbert (Best Actress, Private Worlds), William Powell (Best Actor, My Man Godfrey), Carole Lombard (Best Actress, My Man Godfrey), Mischa Auer (Best Supporting Actor, My Man Godfrey), Alice Brady (Best Supporting Actress, My Man Godfrey), Andrea Leeds (Best Supporting Actress, Stage Door), and Marjorie Rambeau (Best Supporting Actress, Primrose Path).

Gregory La Cava directs Walter Huston, Franchot Tone and Karen Morley in "Gabriel Over the White House" (1933)

My Top 5 Gregory La Cava Films:
  1. My Man Godfrey (1936)
  2. Stage Door (1937)
  3. Primrose Path (1940)
  4. 5th Avenue Girl (1939)
  5. Gabriel Over The White House (1933)
Behind the scenes of "My Man Godfrey" (1936)

If you wish to learn more about La Cava's work and legacy, make sure to read this wonderful article by Gary Morris- http://brightlightsfilm.com/forgotten-master-the-career-of-gregory-la-cava/

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