La Cava-Esque

She Married Her Boss (and she does) from 1935 is an oxymoron: a sedate screwball comedy. Its rhythm is quirky and ambling, the plot taking its time to point out odd little happenings just outside the main view. The movie has many such charming, oddball moments, such as when two employees of a large department store, a small, mousy man and a tall, imposing woman, are bickering over which product to advertise in that week’s circular. The man pipes up for male sleepwear, the lady opts primly for fine linens. “The trouble with you, Miss Fitzpatrick,” huffs her squirrelly colleague, “is you know nothing of the appeal of men’s pajamas.” Cut to star Claudette Colbert, who, as both witness and referee, gets to react, with the tiniest yet most telling of smirks (so much implied in that little exchange). It’s a small bit, but you catch its humor, its slight but deft circling round the (then) recently imposed Breen office strictures. There’s more than one way to skin a Production Code.

Such moments I attribute to the film’s director, Gregory La Cava. Per what I’ve read, La Cava liked to work closely with his actors before shooting a scene, encouraging them to improvise and wander off the script. His method drove producers (and writers) crazy, but from such fluidity he got scenes that play with a touch of, how shall I express it—of small, unexpected occurrences, of unconventional undercurrents, of actors finding new and strange little joys in their characters and scenes. Take a scene that has Colbert’s small stepdaughter interrupting her meeting with Rogers, a business client. The two adults stop what they’re doing to hunker down with the girl and her toy piano and sing a song the child’s composed. The scene goes on for some minutes, but you’re not bored; it’s sweet and a little kooky, playing out in a natural rhythm, as if the actors are discovering their lines as they speak. The stepdaughter’s song is funny and cute (and sounds like a child’s song), the adults enter the spirit of the game, and you don’t sit there drumming your fingers until it ends. You’re only put out when Melvyn Douglas as the stodgy married boss blunders in.

La Cava’s use of such long, relaxed takes are what give his actors the time and space to discover offbeat rhythms and to react in the moment. I liked this non-frenetic pacing; as you watch the actors play off each other, you start to like their characters, enjoying their flukes and whims (a scene has young Edith Fellows as the stepdaughter and Michael Bartlett as Rogers greeting each other by sticking out their tongues). The camera will move to follow one character’s action, trailing after Colbert, for example, as she fetches a bicarb for her boss—not because the information is vital but because that’s what she happens to be doing, and for La Cava’s camera, that doing is an essential part of her. All the film’s characters are interesting to La Cava, he observes them sympathetically yet wryly. That even goes for the film’s anointed villainess, Douglas’s unmarried sister (Katharine Alexander), who’s like a send-up of an operatic heroine, fainting whenever things don’t go her way as if going down on the high note. She’s hissably funny but also a bit batty, which redeems her—you can’t really dislike her because she’s as nutty as everyone else.

The story’s about Colbert’s super-competent secretary Julia, who’s secretly in love with her boss Mr. Barclay (Douglas), owner of the aforementioned store. He’s a stiff who never has fun, but is all business, all the time. But he was also emotionally bruised by a former wife who ditched him for unstated reasons—though it’s hinted it’s because his home life is, in the words of one character, “like an Egyptian tomb”—and so he’s wrapped himself in his job as defensive shield.  However, he is attracted by efficiency. Observing how Julia, on a (strictly business) visit to his home, clears up the bills, fires the (thieving) servants, and wrestles his bratty spawn Fellows into something approaching civilized behavior, he’s impressed; then, mistakenly believing she’s accepted another job, he proposes marriage—but that’s a business arrangement, too. Julia’s to run his home the way she runs his store, keeping everything in platonically smooth order. Romance is just not part of the balance sheet.

Colbert’s working-girl secretary is in line with characters in La Cava’s other mid-to-late-1930s comedies, My Man Godfrey and Fifth Avenue Girl, in which an impoverished outsider marches into a wacky, wealthy household and, Shane-like, cleans it up. Like Godfrey, who’s both butler and protégé, or the Fifth Avenue girl, who serves simultaneously as jealousy bait and potential mate, Julia enters in an ambiguous position—is she wife, partner, drill sergeant, life coach?—as she brings a quarreling family together, or at least wraps enough rubber bands around enough gears and cogs to keep the machinery creaking along. These 1930s La Cava films, which include Stage Door, look at dysfunctional groups a little cockeyed, humorously observing how their quirks and rough edges can bind their members together, with the endings promising a marriage, a new career, or at least a temporary truce. Though the endings don’t really matter; you’re more interested in how the characters toddle along, at their own whimsical paces (resolutions happen when the films runs out of steam). Whether Julia can teach her uptight boss to have fun is not as important as whether Julia herself (and those of us watching) is having a good time.

While these La Cava films examine the meeting of class, work, and romance, Boss is different in that, unlike Godfrey or Fifth Avenue Girl or the actresses of Stage Door, Julia is already employed. She’s not so much gaining a job as stepping up the career ladder. As Julia notes, marriage is “a woman’s real career,” and what better way to advance than by marrying the boss? There’s something slightly subversive, if not that new in the notion of marriage as the ultimate business partnership, with, says Barclay, “interests in common.” By which interests he really does mean business, even conducting a sales deal on his wedding night that leaves his bride lone and lorn in her bedroom. When Julia later attempts emotional (and physical) intimacy, Barclay grouses that, “this marriage is just like any other marriage,” as if his wife were an employee not fulfilling her contractual obligations. (“It doesn’t sound like a marriage to me,” dryly observes Julia’s best friend, “it sounds like an incorporation.”) Where does work leave off and marriage begin? Or does it ever? That’s the gear Julia needs to turn to begin what she sees as her true life with Barclay—only Barclay happens to be the loose cog. And it might take more than a handy elastic to snap him back on course.

La Cava uses the elasticity of the screwball genre itself by going beyond its usual subject of how two people romance and mate, and looking instead at what should come after. Screwball focuses on courtship and marriage rituals, but Julia and Barclay have sidestepped the whole courtship thing; they’ve already married but they can’t become a couple. Which means they can’t become anything else. Julia’s got the set-up—husband, house, child, even an in-law—and the license that makes it all legal; but she can’t get the darn thing to work. Her marriage is a showcase only, a display in a store window. Indeed, La Cava uses a store-window display (in a Barclay store, natch) as a poignant expression of what Julia longs for. To appease her irate spouse, Julia offers to oversee the sale of Rogers’s store to Barclay’s chain. On the final night of the deal she surveys the mannequins in a window display—two children playing on the floor, big sister at the piano, mom and grandma relaxing on the couch—and ironically remarks, “perhaps I should tell the family I’m leaving.” It’s the perfect family in the perfect house, but it’s inhabited only by dummies. Could there be any more subversive takedown on the idea of happy domestic life?

Oh yes there is, and La Cava does it. With the deal closed and deflation setting in, Julia and Rogers (who’s romantically attracted to her) decide to get drunk, and La Cava shows us the aftermath: in a long take the camera leisurely pans over the window display where among scattered liquor bottles and glasses the mannequins louchely lie, like celebrants exhausted from a recent orgy. Here’s Mom splayed in a man’s lap, there’s Grandma (in male drag) hoisting a bottle, while Big Sis tumbles off the sofa (her legs pronged like fork tines), and Junior tipples atop the piano. And at the keyboard are Julia and Rogers, a dozen sheets to the wind, crooning, over and over, “The Old Grey Mare,” as if that aged nag were setting the tempo. The scene, the film’s best, is hilarious and kinky, La Cava suggesting an entire evening of debauchery with only camera movement and décor. But the scene is more than funny. It’s also peculiarly dreamlike, almost surreal in its slow, woozy rhythm. Julia and Rogers, along with their elderly equine and those weirdly life-like dummies, seem suspended in a separate space-time continuum. For one prolonged moment they’ve formed their own little family, in their own little pipedream of a world.

I bet much of this scene’s flavor comes from the alcoholic La Cava’s own knowledge of drunken debauches and the dreamily vague detachment such excesses produce. There’s a similar scene in Godfrey, when the new butler serves Mrs. Bullock her morning glass of “pixie remover,” and the hungover chatelaine groggily murmurs that, while she’s not fond of the little creatures, she doesn’t want them stepped on. La Cava slows yet lightens that scene’s rhythm, so that everything happening has a weightless quality, as if Mrs. Bullock’s physical reality was dissolving around her. It’s the drunk’s world view, in which escape from mundane dreariness is just a glass, a drink, several drinks away, and real life will then pleasantly disappear. In Boss’s scene, not even a pair of snooping reporters can disturb Julia and Roger’s plastered tranquility. As with Mrs. Bullock’s pixies, they’re only a harmless nuisance. You don’t even have to raise a foot to deal with them.

That same boozy knowledge may underlie La Cava’s sideways view of the universe, of seeing life through a tilted shot glass. The quirky situations, the flaky characters, are slipped into Boss without comment, as if La Cava knows of things he’s not telling. Such as Julia’s best friend Martha, played by Jean Dixon (who’s kind of like a glamorous Ruth Donnelly), in whose presence you sense undercurrents stirring between the two women (sitting in a cab with Julia and Rogers, she almost suggests a threesome). Martha keeps popping in and out of Julia’s life, running her affairs, declaring, “Don’t worry darling, I’ll take care of you.” She seems more than a friend if less than a lover, and their relationship is a little ambiguous and teasing, especially since Dixon is costumed in man-tailored suits, walks with a swagger, and barks orders like a general in the field. Her saucy, sapphic glamour makes you wonder about her, as you do about Barclay’s sister, who seems excessively attached to her brother. She’s harmless enough but definitely—odd.

This off-kilter La Cavean sensibility, the way he angles round a scene or character without quite bulls-eyeing the center, also infuses his cinematic style. Note Barclay’s proposal scene, which has Barclay requesting a glass of water from Julia; then, after some meandering, he requests a second glass (proposing is a thirsty business). It’s a big buildup to the Big Ask—but we never see it. Instead, the scene dissolves to Julia’s assistant sitting at Julia’s desk, humming the wedding march as she sorts through mail. When the phone rings, she gushes to the caller that Julia and the boss have just married. “Isn’t that lovely?” she babbles, “we were all so excited about it here in the office where we heard about it, one of the girls fainted—”; at which moment she pauses and taps the phone cradle, repeating “hello, hello?” when there’s no response. The joke is made not via a boffo sight gag but through a subtle accumulation of detail (the dissolve, the hummed music, the run-on speech) before the punch line (the offscreen, second faint). Instead of the main event (La Cava no doubt assumes we’ve figured that out anyway) we get its humorous repercussions, which, La Cava implies, are even funnier to watch.

There are flaws; mainly the ending, which seems tacked on, a strained attempt at wackiness, in which a now-drunk Barclay and Julia heave bricks through his department-story window. The film has established an idiosyncratic, offbeat mood, but its finish is clunky and unconvincing, as if La Cava couldn’t think of a way out and resorted to boozing and window-smashing in desperation. And Douglas can’t make the unappealing Barclay likable (though he’s an actor I’ve never been able to warm up to). Douglas was a fine technical performer, particularly in comedy, but the script restricts him to priggishness, and his ‘liberation’ scene, when he gets good and sozzled, fizzles. It’s played too conventionally, with Douglas weaving across the floor and slurring his speech; it can’t match the lightness, and strangeness, of the earlier Julia-Rogers debauch. You’re left feeling that, after all this hugger-mugger, Julia chose the wrong mate. I think I’d’ve liked it better if she could have gone off with Rogers and those dummies instead.

Still, the film has manifold delights up to its final ten minutes (you can let your mind wander at that point). Colbert’s an actress who can be sexy even when doing nothing; she has a way of smiling to herself and shrugging, when alone onscreen, as if, like La Cava, she’s wryly acknowledging the weirdness of life. Little Edith Fellows makes brattiness charming (and she blessedly free of goo), and she and Michael Bartlett play with a delightful astringency off each other. La Cava is generous with his actors, allowing even supporting players a chance to shine. There’s a scene with Grace Hayle as Julia’s assistant, being asked by a window designer to approve a display. She does so, with enthusiasm; he then demurs, thinking Julia should be consulted; at which she suddenly reacts, snapping that she’s made the decision and he’s to hop to it. You can see how the character is discovering this gumption within herself, and, even better, you can see how the actress doesn’t anticipate her response, but plays off the moment. La Cava gives space to such minor bits, which expand, and amplify, the main setting, letting us see how the film’s diegetic life embraces even its fringes.

Two other things. One, LaCava’s smooth looseness (no other phrase), his delight in the unexpected—it made me think that, had he been directing 25 years later, he might have felt right at home in the New Wave. His style foreshadows such spontaneity; it also thinks cinematically, in terms of how dialogue flows along with camera movement and editing. And then there’s his way of eliding the Production Code, demonstrated in yet another scene of underhanded suggestion. Franklin Pangborn as a window dresser is setting up the mannequins in the main store window. As he finishes the display he stops to give a final touch to the little-boy mannequin—stroking its face, smoothing its tie, patting its head, seemingly reluctant to leave it alone. He seems awfully fond of that little dummy.

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  1. I so much enjoyed reading your description of LaCava’s style, of his playing with the characters, the dialogue and the rhythms. I have a growing appreciation for director’s knacks and quirks as related to pulling us into their vision, they own special corner of the world.

    • Thanks so much. I’ve grown to appreciate his films also. He’s not well known today, which is too bad, as his films are worth rediscovery, beyond just My Man Godfrey. I think She Married Her Boss is in many ways just as good.

  2. Ha – “There’s more than one way to skin a Production Code.” – very well put! I think it’s so interesting how in the first few years after the Code there was a lot of… skinning it 😉 but as the decades rolled on it seemed that movies (with some notable exceptions of course) started to fall in line with it more and more.

    I love It Happened One Night but have never seen this – definitely on the to-watch pile, thanks!

    • Yes, I would agree that, while some directors (Preston Sturges, Ernest Lubitsch, Billy WIlder) found ways to circumvent the Code, most went along with its strictures (though there were some spectacular exceptions, such as Gone With the Wind and The Outlaw). La Cava seems to have found subtle little digs and throwaway bits of business that no one caught onto. It’s astonishing to read just how picky the Breen Office could be in riding herd on every minor detail in a film (fussing over women’s costumes, for example). I admire the directors and screenwriters who could find the loopholes!


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