Director Gregory La Cava (1892–1952)—New York newspaperman, cartoonist, and hard drinker—headed off to Hollywood in the thirties to make bigger dough and some terrific movies. An astute observer of class distinctions and sexual gamesmanship, he worked well with women, directing feature-film hits with Katharine Hepburn (1937’s Stage Door), Carol Lombard (1936’s My Man Godfrey), and Ginger Rogers (1939’s Fifth Avenue Girl), all of which can be seen during the Museum of Modern Art’s exhilarating retrospective of La Cava’s best- and least-known works.
Fifth Avenue Girl is typical of La Cava’s comic incisiveness, a portrait of a rich but joyless businessman (Walter Connolly) who works so hard his butler (the peerlessly prissy Franklin Pangborn) has to identify the green stuff outside his penthouse window as Central Park. Rogers plays a poor girl who teaches him how to savor life, inhabiting her role with a sinewy toughness rare in her filmography—as the critic James Harvey has put it, this was “the deadest-panned of all Rogers’ deadpan heroines.”
One gleaming treasure in the MoMA series is 1932’s The Half-Naked Truth, starring Lupe Velez as a carnival hoochie-coochie girl who becomes the toast of Broadway with her randy wiggling and the publicity wangled by her nonstop manager: Lee Tracy’s Jimmy Bates is a devilish dervish of a performance. Tracy, a minor actor over a long career, gets La Cava’s laser-focus attention here; Jimmy enters rooms with lightning speed and a faster mouth. “This is a bigger sap town than I thought,” he crows within hours of arriving in Manhattan, where he soon convinces a prominent producer (the Wizard of Oz himself, Frank Morgan, in a witty parody of Flo Ziegfeld) to mount a lavish stage production around Velez’s barely-burlesque dance of the seven veils. La Cava and his co-writers gave Jimmy a marvelously cynical speech that can stand as a critique of media and audiences even unto today. “The world is greased with banana oil,” he enthuses. “The people want excitement, sensation, baloney, and we’ve got to give it to ’em!” Gregory La Cava, who died at the age of 59, certainly poured a fine brand of banana oil over his movies.