While William Powell’s eponymous butler in My Man Godfrey is characterised as the “forgotten man”, perhaps the film’s director, Gregory La Cava (1892-1952) might more appropriately merit this title. For someone attached to two films thought by many to epitomise the screwball comedy genre – My Man Godfrey and Stage Door (1937) – he has systematically been overlooked and underrated for at least half a century. Certainly, a retrospective of his career is more than in order, but, for the moment, even an examination of the most cursory details of his background and his methodology compels one’s interest. Son of an Italian immigrant, La Cava was a skilled artist who enrolled at the Chicago Art Institute in his teens and soon thereafter switched to the more lucrative field of newspaper cartooning. As early as 1913, his work appeared in the New York Evening Globe, the New York World and the New York Herald. Intrigued by the possibilities inherent in film animation, he switched allegiances and joined William Randolph Hearst’s animation department in 1916, and just a year later was put in charge of the enterprise and its seven animators as well as 27 tracers and assistants.
Like his successor Frank Tashlin, La Cava shortly thereafter became more intrigued by flesh and blood individuals rather than drawn characters. He joined Paramount’s East Coast Astoria Studios as a director in 1924. Simultaneously, he continued to study at the Art Student’s League under the tutelage of the Ash Can School affiliate George Bellows. His wife at the time, Beryl Morse, further enlarged his social and intellectual compass as she was an ardent socialist and feminist as well as artist and illustrator. Additionally, she had been close friends with Mark Twain and the former sweetheart of the social critic Lewis Mumford. Such a rich brew of influences did not immediately impact upon La Cava’s features, although he helmed two of W. C. Fields’ silent efforts, So’s Your Old Man (1926) and Running Wild (1927), and successfully articulated his style without the aide of his inimitable voice. Despite these achievements, the complexity of La Cava’s character began to emerge more fully when he moved to the West Coast in 1927 and almost immediately chafed under the strictures of the studio system. Even a modicum of supervision unnerved him, and, consequently, he left Paramount, moved between studios and developed a reputation as a disputatious individual with little respect for either authority figures or the demands of pre-written scripts. La Cava also stood out in the Hollywood community as being one of the early advocates of analysis, as he began attending therapy sessions sometime in 1930.
These insinuations of greater complexity, as well as a will to exceed restrictions, can be observed in some of his early sound features, most notably the first of two works whose protagonist was a prostitute, Bed Of Roses (1933), in which Constance Bennett and her cohort Pert Kelton maintain their dignity and ambition despite the shibboleths of social convention. La Cava returned to this milieu in Primrose Path (1940), wherein Ginger Rogers (the star of three La Cava features) sought to escape the seemingly incontrovertible destiny of growing up in a multi-generational clan of prostitutes. In either case, La Cava successfully engaged the demands of pre- and post-Code narrative requirements and maintained an even-handed sympathy for sisters of the streets. In his exuberantly boisterous The Half Naked Truth (1932), he makes ample use of Lee Tracy’s rapid-fire cynical delivery and treats Lupe Velez’s effusive sexuality without the seedy sensationalism all too often employed by lesser directors. That still leaves out his dramatic features, among which appears an examination of therapeutic practice, Private Worlds (1935). One can only imagine the degree to which this infrequently screened feature benefitted from the director’s own analysis.
La Cava habitually treated his scripts as a tool for improvisation and not a template to be followed religiously. In addition, like his contemporary Leo McCarey, he allowed the characteristics of his players to infiltrate their on-screen characters. Sometimes even whole lines from the actors’ and actresses’ conversations were integrated into the text they recited on screen. In an effort to retain some semblance of spontaneity, La Cava made many of his creative deliberations on the set, but remained sufficiently decisive that he rarely dawdled over the material and shot sequences rapidly once he came to a conclusion about continuity and characterisation. Executives nonetheless considered him a loose cannon and his practices incapable of adequate supervision. Performers, on the other hand, revelled in the opportunity to subvert convention and depart from the sometimes rote behaviour called upon from them by other less engaged directors.
Like many of those who engaged in the screwball genre, La Cava took the family as his focus, whether that clan was connected by blood, as in My Man Godfrey and elsewhere (She Married Her Boss  and Fifth Avenue Girl ), or simply a matter of convenience, as in the assembly of hopeful actresses housed together in Stage Door. Often these ensembles come across as connected by little more than a tissue of convenience, as La Cava draws comedic attention to the fissures that extinguish any sense of community. Many of the principal individuals seem enraptured by solipsistic concerns, and cannot manage to convert their obsessions into a bridge between them and other people. Such figures include Edith Fellows’ spoiled brat in She Married Her Boss, Mischa Auer’s virtual household pet and gorilla imitator Carlo in My Man Godfrey, and James Ellison’s rhetoric-spouting chauffeur in Fifth Avenue Girl.
Carlo is far from the only solipsist in My Man Godfrey. The Bullock clan, of which Carole Lombard’s Irene is the younger daughter, may be wealthy but simultaneously come across as impoverished of even a tinge of social sensitivity. So unhinged are they that David Thomson’s characterisation of the rich in the film as “demented monkeys” (1) seems not only apt but also even a bit magnanimous. Powell’s butler brings a cold shower of common sense to the household and overturns their over-the-top disengagement from the give-and-take of everyday life. Should one convert the narrative into the discourse of La Cava’s therapeutic experience, Powell’s Godfrey embodies the kind of reality principle that the Bullocks have expunged from their behavioural repertoire.
What renders the comedy complex above and beyond the demands of the narrative itself comes down to how one responds to the collision of conscientiousness and confusion as embodied respectively by Powell and Lombard. Some commentators have remarked about how the Bullocks’ smugness takes on a one-note dimension and that it forces Powell to embody more of a straight man persona than appears in his customarily multi-hued performances. Alice Brady’s mother comes across as altogether devoid of even a shred of self-consciousness and her elder daughter, played by Gail Patrick, exudes sufficiently icy haughtiness as to possess a below-normal body temperature. Amusing as their, and others’ antics might be, a certain monotony of tone can occasionally subvert the witty agenda. Also, the viewer must decide whether of not the ditzy quality of Lombard’s character amounts to someone not simply dumb but bordering almost on the deranged. La Cava does overload the plot with acts of petulance and puerile foolishness to such a degree that Powell’s Godfrey seems almost extra-human in his rectitude and resolute commonsense.
However, it remains the eventual rapprochement between Powell’s Godfrey and Lombard’s Irene that challenges the viewer to decide whether or not some reconciliation has been achieved between their two sensibilities, or if Godfrey has simply surrendered to Irene’s fawning adoration of him. For some viewers, the intensity of Lombard’s giddy adoration of her partner does not bode well for a stress-free coupling. The closing credits leave open the intimation that their family life might be as chaotic in its own fashion as the Bullock household. “It’ll all be over in a minute”, Irene opines to her new mate when their union is sanctified, as if a dream, or perhaps a nightmare, has just begun to unfold.
My Man Godfrey (1936 USA 94 mins)
Prod Co: Universal Prod, Dir: Gregory La Cava Scr: Eric Hatch, Morrie Ryskind, from the novel by Hatch Phot: Ted Tetzlaff Ed: Ted Kent Art Dir: Charles D. Hall
Cast: William Powell, Carole Lombard, Alice Brady, Gail Patrick, Jean Dixon, Eugene Pallette, Mischa Auer, Alan Mowbray