Unfinished Business (1941) and She Married Her Boss (1935)
Directed by Greogory La Cava
January 27-29 at "Stuck on the Second Tier: Underknown Auteurs," at Anthology Film Archives
Pitched some strange place between Victorian disillusionment, with its ethos in the brokenhearted individual, and the 20th century spectacle of Big Business, ethos in the gleefully homogenized mass, lies that treacly cynical, all-1930s ode to bootstrap pioneerism, the show girl bildungsroman. Barbara Stanwyck and William Wellman would make early careers out of the genre, an update on the silent melodrama of displaced waifs facing the passion plays of the modern city grind, in which a farm girl goes to the city—or, occasionally, a city girl goes to a farm—but rather than suffer nobly as she might a decade before, now steps to the music of ermine sin, frothing rakes, a butler's hair of the dog in the early afternoon. Money of course is king: a counterfeit pass to the upper echelons, a forgery of a personality. That the only real American democracy is a pack of thieves comes through nicely in a favorite phrase, are ya on the level? Often enough the badge of one con to another, sweetly honest that they're nothing but frauds.
Sin is as great a leveler as love, so that the seemingly most conservative directors of the era—McCarey, Cukor, La Cava—with their emphasis flat on home values, marriage, and true love, can also seem the most radical directors, refusing to tease apart notions of love and sin from one other. Each defies society's pillars of sobriety. The solution to a stratified household, run like a marketing business of table manners to neighbors, inevitably comes in a renewed spontaneity, a romance lived in the present tense, moment-to-moment without any overarching narrative, in the improvised jaunts of two drunk lovers and a kid around a family's old, half-tuned piano.
It's a cinema of presence as a constant hamming out. La Cava specializes in the career code's stratified but schizophrenic world, in which characters wear personalities as masks and oblige themselves into stuttering roles of telephone ops or trophy wives. Against this world of dress-up, La Cava, like McCarey, will isolate his two lost leads as they improvise an on-screen romance sitting side-by-side; these blocked-out spaces, windowsills, bedroom floors, and piano benches, can become like pockets of sanity against the off-screen sounds of a background capitalism, telephone girls, birthdays, recitals, giving each scene its rhythm.
Did La Cava conceive his films sonically? Out of all the everyday business of She Married Her Boss (1935), its title self-explanatory, and Unfinished Business (1941), the story of an Ohio girl's playboy loves in the city, come these emotional upswells through La Cava's automatic universe: weird heralds of lilted jingles and drunken ditties replayed on toy and heirloom pianos; an office girl sobbing while her co-workers keep phoning and singing around her; Irene Dunne's long monologue of clichés about life's endless horizons seemingly elicited by her cross-country train's squinching chugs as a lothario stares at her silently. Only when these bursts of feeling come does La Cava finally cut out to show a whole scene, previously heard only, of characters across a space gesturing in their own private rhythms. And the protagonists become relegated to the background, two more dangled marionettes in the hubbub of a world where mutual sympathy only comes knowing that they're strangers to themselves.
"Don't let a career fool you. It's something that sponges up your whole life and leaves you empty," preaches Claudette Colbert in Boss, a movie, about a woman taking control of her life and the family of the man she marries, that sounds fairly feminist while it argues that women belong in the home, but that men also belong in the home, that nobody should be committed to the role-playing of working life when domesticity is its own unfolding exercise. La Cava's anti-materialism, anti-capitalism, if that's really what they are (5th Avenue Girl ironically invokes "dialectical materialism" in a servant's mouth), come founded in the Hollywood assumption that the working world can be easily ignored for a life of luxury-as-anarchy, an aristocrat's drunken binge as he throws bricks through his own storefronts. Of course it's the ultimate, most radical romance, a romance of presence, in which one can be zozzled and have no historical concerns about a material wage or what the dawn will bring. To the 30s parade of welfare babes longing after their reflections in storefront windows, a girl's starving face superimposed on turbine egg beaters, Boss abolishes consumers and their needs in a long, midnight sequence as two old friends take over the storefront display, throw around the mannequins to make them seem as drunk as they are, and, accompanying themselves on the piano as always, bring the place out of stratified sterility to the life of a barrelhouse beat.