New artistic director Chris Fujiwara's Gregory La Cava retrospective at Edinburgh International Film Festival (six films, followed by six films at Edinburgh Filmhouse after the Festival) has brought to light several obscure titles from the great Hollywood director. For instance, I heard several of the lucky few crammed into the sweaty confines of Filmhouse 3 declare the silent comedy Feel My Pulse (1928) to be their favorite experience of the fest. But Private Worlds (1935), the penultimate film shown, is pretty fascinating too.
For one thing, it demonstrates La Cava's ability to work outside the screwball comedy genre for which he was most celebrated (although the film is far from humorless). The cast, which includes Claudette Colbert, Charles Boyer, Joel McCrea and Joan Bennett, could certainly have filled out a romantic comedy to perfection (Colbert and McCrea had both worked for La Cava in that capacity), but this is a sometimes sombre melodrama about the staff of a psychiatric hospital and their families. It seems to be a generic convention of psych ward movies that the doctors should be as neurotic as the staff, and so it proves here: the movie is like a rehearsal for Minnelli's The Cobweb.
As in These Three, McCrea is caught between two women, in this case Joan Bennett, his fragile wife, and the hyper-efficient and sympathetic fellow doctor Colbert. There's nothing going on between these two, but housewife Bennett feels inadequate compared to career woman Colbert. Then Boyer arrives to run the hospital, carrying a chip on his shoulder about women doctors, and a destructive sister (Helen Vinson) who immediately tries to smash McCrea's marriage just for the thrill of it. Colbert, being the sanest of the lot, is scapegoated by everyone until things reach a crisis which enables the various relationships to sort themselves out. In this way, the melodrama can be seen as a version of R.D. Laing's view of madness as a process by which intractable emotional problems can be smashed up and hopefully reconfigured into a functioning pattern.
La Cava's films often mix considerable wisdom about life and men and women with more childish genre elements: here, the patients are rather incredible figures. There's the hulking Guinn "Big Boy" Williams, a sort of Lonesome Lenny figure, and a proponent of the "they say a madman has the strength of ten" school, even though he seems more simple-minded than neurotic. And then there's Jean Rouverol as Carrie Flint, bullied by her sisters, who has retreated into near-catatonia with a dash of echolalia. Meanwhile, McCrea dispenses treatment in the form of inspirational sayings ("Life's a bully, you've got to hit back at it") while Colbert whips up miracle vaccines in the lab.
La Cava probably had real sanatorium experience, as an alcoholic, but he doesn't know much about psychiatry. He does have a major insight to share, though, and he's picked the perfect form. The most stable of the doctors is a former patient himself, and he advises that there's little difference between sanity and insanity. Which is true.
The setting also allows La Cava to indulge his experimental side, which he does in all his best films (Feel My Pulse has an eruption of slo-mo that anticipates Zéro de conduite). Here, the handy Paramount zoom lens gets an outing for a scene of late-night frenzy. Boyer upsets "Big Boy" by positioning screens around a dying patient (he's dying of insanity?)—the outsize maniac can't bear for anything to be concealed from him, you see. And so then this happens:
And here's Bennett's crack-up, brought on by her insecurity about Colbert, his affair with Vinson (dismissed as "a harmless flirtation" but it's all offscreen so we know better), her failure to help Carrie Flint and her deep-seated childhood traumas. La Cava may not have known madness but he's quite familiar with delirium.
In one of the film's more remarkable elisions, we never really learn the fate of Bennett's unborn child. La Cava was like that: his film's often leave you with nagging doubts, uncomfortable feelings, unfinished business. At first, this feels like a failing, but as you see more of the films, and appreciate their excellence, it starts to feel like a policy. Something in La Cava resisted the neat package that is the standard Hollywood form, so there's always a character arc left dangling (Carrie Flint and "Big Boy" are never shown getting well again), a tonal shift too far, or a plot thread left suggestively untied. That's life. And even Claudette Colbert can't do a thing about it.
It's been my experience that most film enthusiasts are slightly crazy, which is the price we pay for being human beings: most human beings are slightly crazy. So I'd be interested in hearing your views on which classic Hollywood depictions of mental illness and psychiatric treatment strike you as most accurate or truthful. Personally I'm rather keen on The Snake Pit, which for all its reputation as lurid melodrama (the title doesn't help), strikes me as humane, credible and hopeful without being starry-eyed.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.