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Missing from Home Video: Gregory LaCava’s UNFINISHED BUSINESS

Cary Grant stated that of all the actresses he worked with, the one with the greatest comedic ability was Irene Dunne.

Director Gregory LaCava left a far greater imprint on Hollywood history than just his chef d’ouevre MY MAN GODFREY.  A graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, LaCava broke into the industry as an animator.  Soon he was recruited for William Randolph Hearst’s new animation studios where he adapted the Hearst Syndicate’s comic strip Katzenjammer Kids to film.  That comic strip — with its rebellious kids and big, dumb authority figures — created a template for LaCava to use in his comedies over the ensuing decades.

As LaCava segued to two-reel silent comedies and then to features, he directed a couple of early W. C. Fields movies.  LaCava and Fields became best friends and drinking buddies which led to the emergence of his second film motif:  alcohol and hangovers.  (It’s interesting that the German word “katzenjammer” — literally the racket of howling cats — is also slang for a hangover.)  His major sound films (such as FIFTH AVENUE GIRL, SHE MARRIED HER BOSS, PRIMROSE PATH, STAGE DOOR and of course MY MAN GODFREY) collectively displayed a world of clueless bluebloods, a smartass working class, personalized coping skills for hangovers, and characters suffering from the general unfairness of life. LaCava’s upending of the social order, irreverence for authority, and a decidedly ‘morning after’ view of the world created some of the most jaundiced yet humorous examinations of the Human Condition that Hollywood ever dared to articulate.

Gregory LaCava’s 1941 UNFINISHED BUSINESS was an anomaly in commercial film production:  it was a misanthropic chick flick. 

Like Frank Tashlin, LaCava was a former animator who could populate natural surroundings with nonsensical characters.

The director’s work often declared the world was neither fair nor a meritocracy (Ginger Rogers’ college-educated dad ending as a low-rent suicidal drunk in PRIMROSE PATH; the ‘gifted’ actress Andrea Leeds losing a career-saving role to the less-talented and less-motivated Katharine Hepburn in STAGE DOOR), and most frequently explored this through the status of women.  UNFINISHED BUSINESS’ protagonist, Nancy Andrews (Irene Dunne), has sacrificed many of her ‘good’ years in a small Ohio town raising her kid sister (Kathryn Adams).  In the opening scene, little sis is married off (to future LEAVE IT TO BEAVER dad, Hugh Beaumont) and Dunne’s character — faced with the idea of quickly becoming a maiden aunt — declares “I’ve been settled down my whole life” and decides to take the next train to New York.  [An interesting historical footnote:  the year after this film was released the actors who were bride and groom — Hugh Beaumont and Kathryn Adams — were married in real life.]

Once on the train and sampling her first night of self-directed freedom, she is quickly seduced and abandoned by a playboy on the make (Preston Foster in a delicious, weasel-y Zachary Scott-type performance).  Things don’t get much better once in New York:  hoping for a career as an opera singer, she flunks her audition and resorts to a job singing “Happy Birthday” telegrams over the phone.  (This was lifted from Dunne’s own life.  After studying voice in her hometown of Louisville, she embarked to New York at twenty-one but didn’t pass her Metropolitan Opera audition, which led to her work in Broadway choruses.)  Eventually she meets the younger brother of the guy who seduced her, and after an evening of way too many cocktails, they are married.

Irene Dunne’s work with director Richard Boleslavski had brought out her strong talent for comedy and improv, which then advanced in her films with Leo McCarey such as THE AWFUL TRUTH and LOVE AFFAIR.  LaCava also frequently improvised on set, so Dunne’s gifts as an actress — with her trademark wry, word-playing, physically arch comedy — worked beautifully within the director’s worldview.

[Boleslavski’s widow, concert pianist Norma Drury Boleslavski, played Cousin Nell in UNFINISHED BUSINESS.  It’s a rare opportunity to see her face since usually only her hands were used in movies, providing the close-ups of actresses’ fingers on the piano, such as Mary Astor’s in THE GREAT LIE, or in dubbing the piano playing for stars such as Ingrid Bergman in INTERMEZZO.]

Becoming a character on the other end of the social scale from his Park Avenue millionaire performance in MY MAN GODFREY, Eugene Pallette plays the acerbic butler.  And the film captured yet another brilliantly dizzy performance by Walter Catlett (who played the befuddled Constable Slocum in BRINGING UP BABY).

The director, writer, star and several supporting actors re-teamed on the Universal lot a few months later for LADY IN A JAM, LaCava’s penultimate film.

A tipsy and argumentative dowager, celebrating her wedding anniversary, tries to start a fight with Robert Montgomery and Irene Dunne, who are trying to get drunk enough to elope.

Like many of LaCava’s screen characters, the gifted director surrendered his destiny to The Bottle.  Thirty years ago I attended a LaCava Q&A with the prolific and legendary producer Pandro S. Berman, the man who gave us everything from Bette Davis in OF HUMAN BONDAGE to Elvis in JAILHOUSE ROCK.  (Berman and LaCava had made six films together at RKO in the 1930s.)  Hoping to sober up LaCava and get his career on track, Berman had given LaCava what was ultimately his last credited directing job:  a 1947 Gene Kelly comedy called LIVING IN A BIG WAY (featuring another future LEAVE IT TO BEAVER cast member, Barbara Billingsley).  When the moderator, Myron Meisel, mentioned that the Kelly film would be screened next week as part of the director’s retrospective at USC, Berman addressed the audience and told them not to come see it, that it was a rotten movie. 

Despite the slam against his final film, I think LaCava would have enjoyed that remark for its irreverence, its repudiation of turning his movies into sacred cows, and its total lack of sentimentality.

Doug / PoMo Joan

P.S. — In good conscience, if you are curious about checking out MY MAN GODFREY (which, since falling into the Public Domain, has seen a market glut of quick-and-dirty, unwatchable, budget-priced DVDs of the movie), you should avoid all copies of the film except the luminously restored My Man Godfrey – The Criterion Collection disc.  I never knew what the big deal was about this film until I saw it restored.  Also, the brilliant commentary track is like a mini-course from a top film school.

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5 Comments to “Missing from Home Video: Gregory LaCava’s UNFINISHED BUSINESS

  1. Doug says:

    UPDATE: The name and reputation of Gregory LaCava has surfaced recently in a Zippy the Pinhead comic strip:

  2. Paul says:

    Both Unfinished Business and Lady in a Jam need to be transferred to video! Especially Lady is a Jam, as it’s another La Cava class comedy (and zany—a socialite goes to work down the mine), with Dunne’s comic persona in its prime.

  3. Doug says:

    No kidding? Irene Dunne working in a mine?? Back in the 1980s, LADY IN A JAM used to be aired during “Movies ’til Dawn” but usually came on around 3 a.m. Never made it past the first 20 minutes. Thanks for the recommendation!

  4. Ann Becket says:

    Thank you so much for an interesting review of my grandfather’s films. My father would have enjoyed reading this.
    Also thanks for the tip about the Criterion Collection restored copy of My Man Godfrey.

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