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Screwball Sourpuss

“All you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people,” says Alexander Bullock (Eugene Pallette) in Gregory La Cava’s 1936 screwball beauty My Man Godfrey. Bullock, the beleaguered patriarch of an addled Fifth Avenue family, is referring to a pack of millionaires at a swanky affair, but the comment might easily sum up the La Cava oeuvre. The sardonic director filled his rooms with the right kind of people: William Powell, Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers and an actor named Thirsty McGulp, to name just a few. Goosed by La Cava‘s fondness for zany improvisation, they could embody not only his searing wit but the all-important tussle between rational behavior and more subversive impulses. For all their wild hilarity and champagne sparkle, La Cava’s films are edged with a darkness that always threatens to take over, and often does. The director knew that social dysfunction and personal turmoil could exist hand in hand, and in his movies they feed off each other in a cruel cycle hidden, just barely, beneath the sophisticated veneer of uptown life.

In My Man Godfrey -- which screens this weekend as part of a tribute to La Cava at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art -- that darkness lurks in the desperate climate of post-Depression New York. The film begins at the city dump, where Godfrey (Powell), a grimy bum living by the East River, is picked up by Irene Bullock (Lombard), a burbling blond sheathed in liquid-silver bugle beads who needs a “forgotten man” to win a scavenger hunt. Godfrey plays along, and Irene, desirous of a “protege,” hires him to be the family butler. What follows is one of cinema‘s smartest screwball comedies, juiced by a manic screenplay from Eric Hatch and Marx Brothers scribe Morrie Ryskind, and by supporting players Gail Patrick, as Irene’s dark-haired, dark-hearted sister, and Mischa Auer, as the resident composer and freeloader, a saucer-eyed simp who entertains his patrons with chimpanzee impressions and a lugubrious piano dirge. While Godfrey tends fastidiously to the clan‘s various manias -- fixing a hangover “pixie remover” for daffy Mother Bullock (Alice Brady), or secretly trading stocks to keep the family fortune intact -- he’s also quietly underscoring the recent, drastic narrowing of the chasm between his class and his masters‘.

If La Cava’s movies are grounded in the grimmer depths of human experience, they also hit radiantly ebullient top notes -- the director wanted the hard truths to be known, but he didn‘t want them to spoil the party. Born in Pennsylvania to a shoemaker father and schooled at the Chicago Institute of Art, La Cava was a comic-strip artist before working on animated films like The Katzenjammer Kids and Mutt and Jeff. He went on to make 35 silent and talking pictures between 1922 and ’47, but his giddy sense of the absurd almost certainly had its genesis in the cartoons. La Cava is a master of the silly detail -- the cracked music-box tinklings that waft through Mrs. Bullock‘s pixie-infested bedroom, a Big Apple gossip column written by one Hattan Mann -- and his films can erupt without warning into riotous pandemonium. My Man Godfrey was made just as Hollywood was breaking free of stage-bound shooting conventions, and though La Cava moves his camera only a little, he jazzes his frames by cramming them with deeply layered compositions full of antic business.

Among the treasures screening in this three-week retrospective are La Cava’s other best-known film, the sublime 1937 comedy-melodrama Stage Door, as well as his 1926 W.C. Fields vehicle So‘s Your Old Man. The tribute begins with the wonderfully funny Feel My Pulse, starring Bebe Daniels as a young heiress on her own for the first time after “21 years of antiseptic upbringing” and up against a gang of rum runners, including the aforementioned McGulp.

That La Cava’s body of work is neither as extensive nor as revered as it might be is due, in part, to the demons with which he wrestled. A heavy drinker, he went through two marriages, the second lasting only a year and ending with charges, apparently valid, of violence and emotional cruelty. On the set, he could be difficult and stormy, which was fine as long as the movies were hits. In later years, however, his biting wit gave way to frequently heavy-handed social critique. The last straw came when, while preparing to direct the 1948 film One Touch of Venus for Mary Pickford‘s company, La Cava departed in a huff over the script, announcing that if anyone wanted him he’d be across the street having a beer. No one did want him, and La Cava never made another film. His last years were reportedly lonely ones, spent on the beach in Malibu shooting at sea gulls with a BB gun. He died in 1952.

For schedule and information, see Film & Video Events in Calendar.The subversive comedy of Gregory La Cava