Family & Companions
Often overshadowed by Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges, director Gregory La Cava was a fine practitioner of the screwball comedy while earning a reputation for drawing out the best from his leading performers, thanks to a penchant for on-set improvisation. He began his career as a cartoonist, making over 100 animated shorts during the silent era before making the switch to live-action features, collaborating with the likes of Richard Dix and W.C. Fields. He successfully transitioned to the sound era with "Laugh and Get Rich" (1931) and "What Every Woman Knows" (1934), while finding more critical success with "The Affairs of Cellini" (1934). He made occasional excursions into drama with "Symphony of Six Million" (1932) and the overtly political "Gabriel Over the White House" (1933), but often his more serious films failed to live up to even his more middling comedies. Meanwhile, La Cava was Oscar-nominated for directing "My Man Godfrey" (1936), starring William Powell and Carole Lombard, which was considered by many historians to be one of the greatest screwball comedies ever made. He followed that with another Academy Award-worthy comedy, "Stage Door" (1937), which marked the pinnacle of his career. From there, he hit a precipitous downward slide with a number of box office failures that basically ended his career in the early 1940s. Though he was often forgotten by later generations, La Cava no doubt left behind an inviting oeuvre of exceptional comedies that ranked alongside the works of better known directors.
Born on March 10, 1892 in Towanda, PA, La Cava studied painting at the Chicago Institute of Art and the Art Students League of New York, before being forced to leave due to financial considerations. Instead, he abandoned his studies altogether to take a job as a newspaper reporter in Rochester, NY, and later worked as a cartoonist for both the New York Globe and the Evening World. In 1913, he moved on to performing odd jobs at the studio of silent era animator, Raoul Barré, and two years later, he was an animator on the "Animated Grough Chasers" series. Toward the end of 1915, La Cava was hired as the editor-in-chief of the International Film Service, an animation studio founded by William Randolph Hearst, where he worked with the likes of Walter Lantz on "The Katzenjammer Kids" and "Silk Hat Harry." Despite an unlimited budget, La Cava was hampered by his own limited creativity in the genre, as his works were clearly derivative of newspaper comic strips, while his rivals - particularly at Bray Studio - were making more successful animated shorts with more original characters. La Cava stayed with IFS until the money ran out in 1918.
La Cava continued making animated shorts, this time latching on to producer John Terry's studio, only to again find himself out of work when the well went dry just a few months later. Instead of joining his fellow out-of-work animators at the newly formed Goldwyn-Bray studio, La Cava moved westward to Hollywood where he was hired as a gag writer for one- and two-reel shorts. He made his feature debut as a director with "His Nibs" (1921), starring Colleen Moore, and went on to helm a series of all-star comedy two-reelers starring Charlie Murray. La Cava eventually directed a number of silent films, including the melodrama "Restless Wives" (1924), the comedy "Womanhandled" (1925) and "So's Your Old Man" (1926), starring W.C. Fields. After directing frequent collaborator Richard Dix in the comedy "Let's Get Married" (1926), La Cava reunited with Fields for the classic "Running Wild" (1927), which featured the popular comedian in the typical role of henpecked husband and meek employee who becomes more assertive after being put under a spell by a vaudeville hypnotist. La Cava finished out the silent era with forgotten films like "Paradise for Two" (1927), "Gay Defender" (1927), "Half a Bride" (1928) and "Feel My Pulse" (1928).
La Cava entered the sound era with the partial talkie "Saturday's Children" (1929) and a rare crime drama "Big News" (1929), starring Robert Armstrong and Carole Lombard. Following a return to comedy with "Laugh and Get Rich" (1931) and "The Half-Naked Truth" (1932), he directed Irene Dunn and Ricardo Cortez in the drama, "Symphony of Six Million" (1932). He next helmed the overtly political comedy, "Gabriel Over the White House" (1933), which starred Walter Huston as a corrupt Warren G. Harding-like U.S. president who revokes the Constitution, becomes dictator, and solves all the nation's woes. La Cava's audacious support of fascism drew both ire and admiration, though in the end it remained nothing more than a historical curiosity. After the Helen Hayes comedy "What Every Woman Knows" (1934), he directed the Oscar-nominated "The Affairs of Cellini" (1934), which earned nods for Best Actor (Frank Morgan), Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography. Taking another brief excursion into drama territory, La Cava guided Claudette Colbert to an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for her performance as the head of a mental hospital contending with a disgruntled head doctor (Charles Boyer) in "Private Worlds" (1935).
Though he displayed considerable gifts throughout his career, few were prepared for what became his masterwork, "My Man Godfrey" (1936), a landmark screwball comedy that showcased Carole Lombard at her most definitive in her only Oscar-nominated role, while earning six Academy Award nominations altogether, including Best Director. Lombard played a flighty Depression-era socialite who stumbles upon an eccentric hobo, Godfrey (William Powell), during a scavenger hunt and brings him home, where she makes him her butler. Of course, nothing is as it seems, as the hobo turns out to be a wealthy Bostonian who dropped out of life after an unhappy romance and restored his humanity among the dregs in the city dump. Naturally, she falls in love and determines to make Godfrey her husband, while he tries to save her family from their own pretensions. La Cava earned his second nomination for Best Director with his follow-up effort, "Stage Door" (1937), an impressive film that easily shifted between comedy and drama, and featured a mainly female cast headed by Katharine Hepburn, that also included Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball, Eve Arden and Ann Miller. Hepburn starred as a young woman from a wealthy family trying to make it as an actress while slumming with other aspirants in a boarding house. Like he did on many of his films, La Cava allowed his talent to improvise their lines, which resulted in a number of witty exchanges.
While "Stage Door" was the only film La Cava made that earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, it also marked the first of three consecutive collaborations with actress Ginger Rogers. The two next worked together on the comedy "Fifth Avenue Girl" (1939), where she played an unemployed girl given the chance to see how the other half lives by a neglected millionaire (Walter Connolly) and ultimately falls in love with the man's son (Tim Holt). In their third and final film together, "Primrose Path" (1940), Rogers went against type to play the daughter and granddaughter of prostitutes who vows to stay away from the business, only to confront unavoidable consequences that may indeed lead her down an undesirable path. From there, La Cava worked with star Irene Dunne on a pair of comedies, "Unfinished Business" (1941) and "Lady in a Jam" (1942), both of which failed at the box office - particularly the latter, which was one of the most expensive comedies made at the time. With his career in shambles due to increasing alcoholism, La Cava's output dropped to nil over the next few years. He returned behind the camera with the musical comedy "Living in a Big Way" (1947), starring Gene Kelly, and was uncredited on "One Touch of Venus" (1948), with Robert Walker and Ava Gardner. Four years later, on March 1, 1952, La Cava died of a heart attack in Malibu, CA. He was just 59 years old.
By Shawn Dwyer
Director (Feature Film)
Writer (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Production Companies (Feature Film)
Hired as an animator by Barre studios (date approximate)
Appointed editor-in-chief of an animation studio founded by William Randolph Hearst; worked with Walter Lantz on "The Katzenjammmer Kids" and "Silk Hat Harry"
Worked at Bray studio until it discontinued its animation unit
Moved to Los Angeles (date approximate)
First feature, "His Nibs"
Returned to feature filmmaking with "Restless Wives" and "The New School Teacher"; wrote screenplay for the latter
Signed to a four-year contract by Famous Players-Lasky Corportation; made 10 silent films, many starring Richard Dix
First film with W C Fields, "So's Your Old Man"
Helmed second Fields vehicle, "Running Wild"
Made what is arguably his best silent comedy "Feel My Pulse", with Bebe Daniels
Shot "Saturday's Children" as a silent; film reissued as a partial talkie
Put under contract at RKO; directed "Smart Woman"
Enjoyed a box-office hit with "Gabriel Over the White House" for MGM
Garnered praise for his direction of "The Affairs of Cellini"
Helmed the Claudette Colbert comic vehicle "She Married Her Boss"
Earned first Oscar nomination for Best Director for the screwball comedy "My Man Godfrey"
Received second Best Director Academy Award nomination for "Stage Door"; first of three films with Ginger Rogers
Co-wrote screenplay (with Allan Scott) and directed "The Primrose Path", featuring a strong performance from Ginger Rogers
Last directorial credit, "Living in a Big Way"
Began filming "One Touch of Venus"; reportedly walked off the set after 11 days of shooting and replaced by William A Seiter