|Gregory La Cava|
This Tuesday, Turner Classic Movies celebrated the films of director Gregory La Cava, of Towanda, PA. Adolphe Menjou of Pittsburgh will be featured this Friday. Both men made a successful transition from silents to talkies, but the only time the two worked together was for STAGE DOOR (1937), starring Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers.
Gregory La Cava
La Cava graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago and worked as an animator on the Animated Grouch Chasers series until he was picked up by William Randolph Hearst, who hired him to establish an animation studio to promote the comic strips in his newspapers. When the studio failed, La Cava transitioned to live action filmmaking, first in the form of shorts, then eventually feature-length films. Here is an example of his early work in cartoons, “The Breath of a Nation” (1919):
La Cava is best known for his comedies, most notably MY MAN GODFREY (1936), and STAGE DOOR (1937), for both of which he was nominated for the Academy Award for best director. He made several films with his drinking partner and close friend, comedian W.C. Fields. He had the opportunity to work with some of the biggest names in the business, including Ginger Rogers, Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, William Powell, Constance Bennett, and Walter Huston.
GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE (1933) was the first of La Cava’s films aired this Tuesday, and it is perhaps is most controversial. The film was described as an example of socialistic totalitarian propaganda at the time of its release. At the start of the film, newly elected American president Jud Hammond enacts an extreme laissez-faire approach to government. After a near-fatal car accident, he does a political 180, becoming a socialist dictator. As the Library of Congress describes the film in their Film Series on Religion and the Founding of the American Republic:
“The good news: [Hammond] reduces unemployment, lifts the country out of the Depression, battles gangsters and Congress, and brings about world peace. The bad news: he’s Mussolini.”
GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE projects a confused political ideology which makes it difficult to put a name to La Cava’s political stance. In a way, the film reminds me of George Cukor‘s KEEPER OF THE FLAME (1942) starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. William Randolph Hearst supported the picture, but Republican MGM boss Louis B. Mayer opposed the film and delayed its release until Hoover was out of office.
|La Cava, Katharine Hepburn, and Menjou on the set of STAGE DOOR (1937)|
Menjou was also a staunch Republican whose conservatism knew no bounds. During the Red Scare, Menjou made no bones about naming names for the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was an active member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, whose members also included John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Barbara Stanwyck, and Clark Gable.
“I’m a Red-baiter. I’m a witch-hunter, if the witches are Communists.”
“[Menjou is a] flag-waving superpatriot who invests his American dollars in Canadian bonds and had a thing about Communists.”
“Scratch a do-gooder, like Hepburn, and they’ll yell ‘Pravda!'”
It is possible that Menjou’s political views stem from his rather traditional upbringing. He was a Catholic, born to a French father and Irish mother in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He attended Culver Millitary Academy and then went on to study engineering at Cornell University. Menjou worked a number of manual jobs as he tried to get his start as an actor in New York. His trademark moustache first earned him roles as villains in silent films. He began to live a more lavish lifestyle, and he started playing the more debonair playboy types we remember him for as he transitioned from silents to talkies.