Publicity snap for Gregory La Cava’s psychiatric hospital melo PRIVATE WORLDS.
I could cull a whole series of blog posts from Lee Server’s fine interview book Screenwriter: Words Become Pictures. So I’m going to.
I mainly know Allan Scott as one of the Hollywood Ten/Unfriendly Ten — and as a producer for Dmytryk rather than as a screenwriter, but he was a significant writer. He worked several times with Gregory La Cava, allowing him to explain La Cava’s unique working methods in more detail than Ginger Rogers in The RKO Story. I asked Edinburgh International Film Festival artistic director Chris Fujiwara, at the time of his La Cava retrospective, about Ginger’s extraordinary account of La Cava’s handing out lines to his cast and getting them to explain how they would react to a scene.
“I think, in this case, Ginger can be believed,” he said.
Adrian Scott: La Cava was great fun. You know, he would never show a studio a script. They would buy something, a play or a story, to be on the safe side, but that was the last they saw of it. For example, he did the Kaufman play, STAGE DOOR, and he didn’t use one word of the play. And he never showed a word of a script to the front office.
He admired my dialogue, but I learned from him something very important. He told m. e how to stalk a scene. He said, “You don’t write it. You’re a very good writer, and I’ve read your plays and seen your stuff in New York. But in movies you don’t say the line, you stalk the scene.” We would do six or seven versions of each scene. If the front office had seen the script they would have fainted — it was about 190 pages, whereas most scripts were about 130.
Then, with all these versions, we would get to the studio about 8.30 in the morning. There was no script for the actors yet, nothing for them to study. And La Cava would take all the papers scattered around, and he would say, “OK, fade in.” And he’d start dictating different things from the material. And I would be there reminding him of this line and that. He had a girl he called Winnie — her real name was Kay, but he called her Winnie — and she would take it down and then make four or five copies.
The people on the set knew what the scene was in general, and he would give them the pages and a half-hour later he would start shooting. And it worked. The actors were so full of trepidation that they played it off the top of their heads, and it was wonderful. It worked for La Cava and it could have worked for a lot of people. If you ever get a copy of a La Cava script, they’ll say “as shot.”
It sounds like La Cava preserved some of the looseness of shooting silent pictures, where the actors had a scene to play but weren’t tethered to many specific lines of dialogue…
Lee Server: Did you have any trouble working this way?
Scott: Well, it was new to me, but I saw it work in front of me. The performers had a sprightliness about them, because they weren’t all set and comfortable in what they were doing. They didn’t know what the hell they were doing, in fact. As a result, it gave the films a kind of spontaneity that La Cava was noted for.
FIFTH AVENUE GIRL was an original script, and it was interesting for me because we got to pull a reverse on the sort of story that might normally be made. Here was this kid in the Depression, didn’t know where her next meal is coming from, and by chance she sits next to this millionaire. He admires her spunkiness and says, “Tell you what, you have dinner with me at my house,” It isn’t a come-on, and she doesn’t take it as a come-on, but everyone in the house, the wife, daughter, the son, thinks the worst. Now, instead of the old story of “Bunky Pulls the String,” where the character sort of takes on everyone’s problems and solves them, [already done by La Cava in MY MAN GODFREY] this girl doesn’t do anything. She’s just there. And they solve their own problems around her. That was the way Greg could think, reversing what you were used to.
This accounts for Ginger’s low-energy, low-affect performance, which surprised, delighted and slightly puzzled me. She’s a passive catalyst.
Server: Putting the script together so close to the deadline, were there any mistakes? Anything that had to be done over?
Scott: Yes. On FIFTH AVENUE GIRL, when everything was over and settled, Greg had Ginger just walking off by herself down Park Avenue. At the preview, a man in the audience got up and shouted, “No! No!” It was plainly an unsatisfactory ending. They wanted her to get together with the boy at the end. So we had to go back and reshoot the ending. The boys appears in the doorway this time and says–whatever her name was–”Come back!” And then everyone was happy with that.
I think maybe I would prefer La Cava’s less traditional original ending, but he gets away with the one suggested by his anonymous co-author at the sneak preview. Tim Holt as the son has been such a lout, they have to work pretty hard to redeem him, but it’s OK.
La Cava, in fact, got contrasting performances from Ginger in STAGE DOOR, FIFTH AVENUE GIRL and THE PRIMROSE PATH…
Fiona admired Ginger’s handbag greatly. So cute! It’s a little car! Vroom!
Server: PRIMROSE PATH dealt with prostitution. Were there any problems with the censors?
Scott: The censors may have worried a bit, but since Greg didn’t have a script they couldn’t read it. It was a tastefully done movie, though. We made it in Monterey. You know, I told him that kind of strand doesn’t exist there, and he said, “Oh, the hell with it.” And in the middle of that picture, he just disappeared. And we found him, finally, selling hot dogs.
Server: La Cava? What do you mean, selling hot dogs?
Scott: Yes! At a hot dog stand! For four days he disappeared and nobody knew where he was. We were living up there. It was a lot of fun up there.
Server: You were on location and the director just disappeared to go sell hot dogs?
Adrian Scott: Yeah. And two days later the whole front office was up, searching for him. And they found him, wearing a white hat and an apron.
Server: What was his explanation?
Scott: He didn’t explain it.
Server: With his way of working, I guess it would’ve been impossible to fire him.
Scott: He was a guy they had to have. But they didn’t have to like him.