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 ultimate screwball comedy. With its central romantic couple who bicker and banter and have zero in common, its supporting cast of eccentrics (played by a host of memorable character actors), its side-splittingly funny performances and its sparkling script, it is up there with It Happened One Night as a movie that defines the genre.
Like Frank Capra's film, My Man Godfrey has an edge over subsequent screwball comedies because it has an element of social realism, in that it tackles the Depression head-on, making its revival seem very timely, given the current economic climate. Its hero (the charismatic William Powell) is a "forgotten man", an ex-banker who now gives his address as "City Dump, East River", 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 the film – which exists on DVD only in a poor quality print – on the cinema screen, so Chris Fujiwara, the EIFF artistic 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.
So, why La Cava? "I've always had a soft spot for him," Fujiwara explains. "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, then I would do La Cava. He's a director who really needs a retrospective. He made a number of great films during the classic period of Hollywood – most of which are very little known even among people who are real film buffs."
A one-time cartoonist, La Cava (1892-1952) began his movie career making animated films before switching to live actioners in the 1920s. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he made a smooth transition to talkies. "What's interesting is how well he did that," Fujiwara agrees. "It's a testimony to his incredible imagination that he could 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 – a scene which is reminiscent of the much later work of Robert Altman (M*A*S*H 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 the calm voice of reason.
Some of the dialogue gets lost among the hubbub of hyperactive voices, but it doesn't matter. Luckily, however, 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".
Another of Fujiwara's favourite La Cava films is Unfinished Business (1941) "which shows that he was very interested in experimenting with genre. He mixes pure comedy with very pure drama in this film, and very successfully. It's a film which anticipates a lot of the things that Hollywood would do years later in films like The Apartment."
The genre-mixing is a trademark of several of the films in the retrospective. Another common link is Ginger Rogers. "She was one of La Cava's favourite leading leadies," says Fujiwara. "She's in Stage Door, Fifth Avenue Girl and Primrose Path. 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. "His last film was made in 1947 but his career had gone into a decline. He died just as Hollywood filmmaking was going through a period that was more receptive to the kind of creativity that he had. It was the period when directors like Hitchcock, John Ford and Howard Hawks made some of their greatest work – and I think La Cava could have done that too, had he lived."
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 that 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 International Film Festival from 26 June – 1 July, then continues at Filmhouse, Edinburgh from 7-12 July.
Edinburgh international film festival retrospective 1
Gregory La Cava was one of hollywood's forgotten men. Until Now by alison kerr