October 17th, 2013

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Our 'Man' in Westwood: UCLA celebrates La Cava

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Who's the man we don't recognize sitting alongside Carole Lombard and several other members of the "My Man Godfrey" cast? None other than its director, Gregory La Cava -- who like Lombard, William Powell, Alice Brady and Mischa Auer of that celebrated screwball comedy, was recognized with an Academy Award nomination, but ultimately denied the award. And while for decades, La Cava's work tended to be overlooked among 1930s directors, that appears to have been changing in recent years. If you only know La Cava for "Godfrey" (or worse, have never seen it on the big screen in the company of an audience) and live in the Los Angeles area, you can catch up on his oeuvre this November and December by taking a trip to Westwood, specifically the Billy Wilder Theater at UCLA:

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This isn't the first La Cava retrospective in recent years; one took place in July 2012 in Edinburgh, Scotland. The UCLA version appropriately kicks off with his most famous film...

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Godfrey was referred to as a "forgotten man" during the scavenger hunt, but does that mean he was a World War I veteran? (And wasn't his last name Parks, not Smith?) I don't recall any reference to military service in the character's backstory. (One La Cava movie that notes the plight of "forgotten men" -- 1932's controversial "Gabriel Over The White House" -- isn't part of this retrospective. Neither is the other film he made with Carole, the relatively unseen 1929 newspaper drama "Big News," probably Lombard's best talkie feature for Pathe.) "The Half-Naked Truth," also on the Nov. 8 bill, is plenty of fun, with Lee Tracy, Frank Morgan, Lupe Velez and future "Godfrey" father Eugene Pallette.

Altogether, 14 La Cava feature films will be shown. Here's the complete schedule:

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The Nov. 23 date is an interesting one for Lombard fans, as it apparently has an example of "what might have been" for her in "Unfinished Business." According to archive notes, "Carole Lombard was originally supposed to star in this oddball, screwball comedy that eventually went to Irene Dunne who owns the role of Nancy, a small-town woman with a serious case of wanderlust. Declaring, ”I want to keep going until there are no horizons left,” she sets off to New York but her free-wheeling plans are immediately derailed by a one-night stand on the train into Grand Central Station." Here are La Cava and Dunne on the set:

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Perhaps Carole was reluctant to re-team with Robert Montgomery again so soon after "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" became a hit, thinking she might be linked to him as she was to Fred MacMurray in her final two years at Paramount. It would also have reunited her with Pallette and Preston Foster (from "Love Before Breakfast." Instead, Dunne took over and it was released in late August. (The night of Oct. 6, 1941, after Carole celebrated her 33rd birthday by pheasant hunting with Clark Gable, Irene appeared in an adaptation on "Lux Radio Theater.") Dunne also stars in the other film that evening, "Lady In A Jam," as does Pallette and Ralph Bellamy.

Two other dates in the retrospective show a little-known facet of La Cava's career -- he began as a cartoonist, and was hired by William Randolph Hearst's Cosmopolitan Productions in 1917 to oversee its newly-formed animation division. (He would later work for Hearst as director of "Gabriel Over The White House.") Here are a few frames from his work:

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Those are from "Policy And Pie," a 1918 Katzenjammer Kids cartoon (you can view it by going to http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/h?ammem/papr:@field(NUMBER+@band(animp+4081s1)). UCLA is showing two other samples of La Cava animation; on Nov. 17, preceding a pair of W.C. Fields silents, it will run "The Breath Of A Nation," a Prohibition lampoon from 1919. (Grim Natwick, who later created the Betty Boop character for the Fleischer studio, also provides animation.)

Another pair of live-action silents, 1921's "His Nibs" (starring Chic Sale and Colleen Moore) and 1928's "Feel My Pulse," will run Dec. 15 -- but the matinee will open with a 1917 cartoon, "Abie Kabibble Outwitting His Rival." (The Abie character is a middle-class Jewish car salesman.) We should also note that "Feel My Pulse," a Bebe Daniels comedy, features William Powell in another one of his silent-era villainous roles.

Also, don't forget the Dec. 18 session, in which La Cava proves up to the task of directing sexy pre-Codes with the racy college drama "The Age Of Consent" (1932) and the Constance Bennett vehicle "Bed Of Roses" (1933), with a dynamic wisecracking performance from Connie's colleague in hooking, Pert Kelton.

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La Cava, whose last film was 1947's "Living In A Big Way," suffered from alcoholism late in life and died on March 1, 1952, nine days shy of his 60th birthday and not long before film students began lionizing Howard Hawks, John Ford and other auteurs. Thanks in part to this retrospective, La Cava is no longer the forgotten man among classic Hollywood directors. Ticket information is at http://www.cinema.ucla.edu/programs/ticketing-information.

The reclining Lombard is seen with some interesting lighting patterns in our latest LiveJournal header, Paramount p1202-231.
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