Please note: This post was originally published on The Cinementals classic film blog on Friday 8 June, a few weeks before the site sadly ceased to exist. I’ve republished it here with their agreement.
It may be 60 years since Hollywood director Gregory La Cava passed away but it seems the time is finally right for him to make a comeback.
A director who straddled the silent era and the talkies, working with actors such as WC Fields, Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard and William Powell, leading eight of them to receive Academy Award nominations, La Cava remains something of an enigma to modern audiences, certainly those in the UK starved of a decent fix of TCM.
This could soon change thanks to the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF), the world’s oldest continually running film festival which runs from 20 June – 1 July. On browing the newly launched 2012 programme, six titles stood out for this film fan, all part of a Gregory La Cava retrospective starting on Tuesday 26 June: UNFINISHED BUSINESS (1941), FEEL MY PULSE (1928), GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE (1933), SHE MARRIED HER BOSS (1935), MY MAN GODFREY (1936) and PRIVATE WORLDS (1935).
The season then hands over the cinematic-baton to Scotland’s leading independent cinema, Filmhouse, on Saturday 7 July as they screen a further six La Cava titles: THE AGE OF CONSENT (1932), BED OF ROSES (1933), FIFTH AVENUE GIRL (1939), THE HALF NAKED TRUTH (1932), PRIMROSE PATH (1940) and STAGE DOOR (1937).
If reading the above has exhausted you, just think what it’s going to do to me as I head along to see (almost) every one of them as God intended, on the the big screen.
Intrigued to discover how the season came about, I spoke to the EIFF’s new Artistic Director, the film writer and journalist Chris Fujiwara, about his decision to programme 12 La Cava films and the practicalities of bringing those prints to Edinburgh this June and July.
Jonathan Melville: This is your first year as Artistic Director of the EIFF. Did you set yourself any challenges or goals before you began selecting films?
Chris Fujiwara: The main goal I set myself was to build the kind of programme that I would find interesting if I were a visitor to the festival.
How important was it for you to have a retrospective as part of your programme?
Retrospectives are essential to film festivals. It’s part of the core mission of festivals to delve into the unexplored riches of the past and draw connections between the past and the present.
How did you come to choose Gregory La Cava as the focus for a retrospective? Why those 12 films?
La Cava has fascinated me for a long time, among other reasons because of the scope he gave to improvisation in making his films. I’ve felt for a long time that he has been severely neglected. He’s probably the most underrated director of 1930s Hollywood. The twelve films in our retrospective are twelve of his best and most personal films.
La Cava successfully moved from the silent era to sound, how did his style change from one to the other?
For someone with such a powerful visual imagination, which was formed in the discipline of newspaper cartoons and silent animation, La Cava adapted to sound remarkably successfully. He was excited by the possibilities of film dialogue, and in his best films there is an amazing abundance of really great dialogue. In films such as PRIVATE WORLDS and STAGE DOOR, he also experimented with the soundtrack, approaching it with the same creativity he brought to the image.
What was the process involved in securing the rights to screen the films and locate the prints? Do they all reside in the UK?
James Rice, our Programme Manager, made a monumental effort of tracking down the prints for these films, some of which are very rare. Some come from the UK, some from elsewhere in Europe, and some from the United States, and they come from both archives and private collectors.
Do you have any particular stance on the “film vs digital” debate?
We’ll be showing all but one of the La Cava films in film prints, and that’s out of necessity: high-quality digital copies of these films do not exist, with a handful of exceptions. In general, archives do not have the resources to make digital copies of their film prints, and rights holders do not have a compelling financial motive to digitise most of their older films. With the disappearance of cinemas capable of projecting film, it’s inevitable that we’ll see further erosion of the infrastructure needed to manufacture, maintain and operate film projection equipment. There is a real danger that there will be fewer and fewer opportunities to see films from the past under ideal conditions: in good copies well projected on a big screen. This danger needs to be taken into account in the film-vs-digital debate.
Unusually for a film festival, half of the season will be shown at the EIFF and half at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse cinema post-EIFF. Why did you choose to split the films like that?
Rod White [Filmhouse programmer] and I both felt it was a good chance to link the festival with the regular Filmhouse programme. Also it allows local cinephiles to see some of the La Cava films during a time when there’s not as much competition for their attention as during the festival.
For anyone who can perhaps only make it along to one or two La Cava films, which would you say are unmissable?
If you’ve never seen MY MAN GODFREY or STAGE DOOR, which are his two most famous films, or even if you’ve seen them but only on DVD, you shouldn’t miss them. Among the lesser known La Cavas we’re screening, I’d especially recommend his risqué pre-Code films THE AGE OF CONSENT, BED OF ROSES, and THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH, and his late masterpieces PRIMROSE PATH and UNFINISHED BUSINESS, which hint at the kind of work he might have done had he lived to make films during the more liberal period of the late 1950s.
You’ve written books on Otto Preminger and Jacques Tourneur, two figures from the Golden Age of Hollywood. What is it about this period of cinema history that interests you so much?
I see the Golden Age of Hollywood as a structure that made possible the making of some very personal films that broke the rules of that structure. Preminger and Tourneur, like La Cava, and also like Jerry Lewis, whom I also wrote a book about, worked with success within the Hollywood studio system but pushed the limits (stylistic and thematic) of what that system could comfortably tolerate, and sometimes crossed those limits. Put simply, they were innovators who anticipated the transition from the studio system to a system of independent auteur filmmakers.
Are there any directors you’d like to see celebrated with a retrospective on the big screen, either here in Edinburgh or elsewhere?
It would be an extremely long list. Among classic-Hollywood directors, some names that came to mind are Raoul Walsh, Ida Lupino, Robert Parrish, Robert Aldrich, and Richard Fleischer, but that would be just for starters.
Thanks to Chris Fujiwara.
Full details of the Gregory La Cava season can be found on the Filmhouse website.