Sex on the Instalment Plan: She Married Her Boss (1935)

For his first picture with Columbia, La Cava worked with Sidney Buchman to develop a script adapted from a story by Thyra Samter Winslow (a former chorine turned novelist and screenwriter). The men held a similar outlook which allowed them to remain impervious to the noise from the front office and remain focused on the story. They also shared a ‘soak the rich’ ethos, through a refusal to glorify wealth and privilege. La Cava often anchored his pictures with women who worked hard to get ahead. In La Cava’s cinematic economy, women know their onions. Instead of a bank balance, posh address, or their name on a social register, women in La Cava’s pictures showed men that they should try to earn the love of a good woman. A man without a job might be considered a bum, but a man without feelings is nothing more than a wooden dummy, as in the scene where Claudette Colbert drowns her horny sorrows among mannequins in a shop window.

Eric Hatch, author of the novel Godfrey, recalled La Cava’s screenwriting method while he worked with the director and Morrie Ryskind on My Man Godfrey (1936). Most of the script was developed through discussion rather than written drafts. La Cava preferred to talk each scene through beforehand and made changes once shooting began, according to the dynamics between actors on set. After three months collaborating on the script, Hatch returned to New York. Hatch went to a menswear shop, bought a dress shirt, tore off one cuff, and posted it to La Cava, with a tag labelled ‘final shooting script’.

On the set, La Cava’s commitment to improvisation played a key role in retaining a woman’s point of view, which might have been overlooked by the male screenwriters or the director himself. La Cava knew he was sitting on a goldmine of salty colloquialisms once he assembled the cast of Stage Door, which is why he had his secretary eavesdrop on the women in the Footlights Club when the camera wasn’t rolling. La Cava had on tap what George S Kaufman’s play lacked—the real thing.

Although La Cava receives more attention for the pictures he made with Carole Lombard, Ginger Rogers, or Irene Dunne, he made two big hits with Claudette Colbert in 1935—Private Worlds and She Married Her Boss. Initially, he had written Colbert off as a ‘nice girl’. The director wrote an article for Photoplay magazine in November 1935, where he explained why he felt nice girls rarely gave exceptional performances. Too wrapped up in convention, ‘nice girls’ hid behind notions of propriety, and lacked access to a rich interior life of emotion. He preferred an actress with a red-hot, inflammable temperament. La Cava noted that Claudette Colbert tended to be worrisome. During production, Colbert worried about her acting, her weight, her contracts, what other people thought, as well as the larger problems in the world.

One day on the set of Private Worlds, he designed a test to see if she could take a joke. Unlike Woody Van Dyke, who pushed Myrna Loy into a swimming pool at a party to see if she would respond like Nora Charles, La Cava pulled a less shocking gag. He hung a sign on the back of her chair with a nickname ‘The Fretting Frog’. The crew braced themselves for an explosion from the star. Colbert surprised everyone and howled with laughter. She passed La Cava’s test by having a sense of humour about herself. The next day, Colbert responded in kind. She hung a prop card on the director’s chair labelled ‘Dangerous Ward, Dr Lucius La Cava’, a reference to the psychiatric hospital where the film was set.

La Cava recalled a day on set when Claudette Colbert argued for what her character would do in a situation. She shouted at him for not being able to see the woman’s point of view. The director confessed in the Photoplay piece that he deliberately provoked an outburst from the leading lady. He wanted Colbert to fight for what she felt was right for her character. By defending the way to play a scene, Colbert deepened her emotional investment.

As a result of the psychology La Cava used in production in a film about therapy, the picture boosted everyone’s stock in the film colony. It set La Cava up to make a string of hits that eschewed the screwball champagne aesthetic for the milk of human kindness. La Cava reteamed with Colbert and continued to showcase a versatile star who was more than just a ‘nice girl’. In their second picture, Claudette Colbert struggles with the problem for ambitious career gals who, in the illustrious words of Tess McGill, hae ‘a mind for business and a bod for sin’.

Edith Fellows joined a crowd of two hundred girls who auditioned for the part of Annabel Barclay. When she walked in La Cava’s office, his friend, comedian Benny Rubin, took one look at her and said ‘this is your kid’. Edith adored working with La Cava. At the time, he was dating Pert Kelton, an actress who could out-Bowery Mae West. Kelton had been taking voice lessons at the time. Once La Cava heard Edith sing, he introduced her to Kelton’s coach, and paid for half a year of lessons.

Among the cautionary tales about children in Hollywood, Edith Fellows experienced one of the worst cases of family exploitation. Edith’s mother left when she was two years old. She was raised by a stage-struck grandmother who had the girl performing when she was only a toddler. After one of Edith’s dance numbers in front of a crowd, a talent scout offered a screen test with Hal Roach studio in Hollywood in return for a $50 publicity fee. Edith’s grandmother paid the man and bought train tickets. Once they arrived, they found an empty lot for the address the agent had written on a card. The grandmother had been swindled. Mrs Fellows took a cleaning job while she sent Edith to a neighbour’s house. The neighbour’s son happened to work as an extra in pictures. One day he had a call in the Hal Roach studio and Edith tagged along.

Starting in 1929, Edith was cast in pictures with Charley Chase, the Little Rascals, WC Fields, Tom Mix, and Laurel and Hardy. She juggled a busy studio schedule and while Edith’s grandmother hovered close by and kept her from making friends. Edith wasn’t allowed to play with other kids because it might leave her with bruises, or in some way damage her chances at an audition. One year, Edith’s grandmother threw her a birthday party but didn’t invite any children. Mrs Fellows invited her own friends and left forlorn Edith sitting alone. If not for Edith’s teacher on the Columbia lot, Lillian Bartley, who became a close friend, the child star would have been completely isolated.

Edith Fellows had another source of support in the studio—from the mogul Harry Cohn. The first time Edith heard Cohn, she was on the set of She Married Her Boss, improvising a scene with La Cava, Colbert, and Douglas. At the time, she didn’t know the sound stage was wired with speakers. Cohn liked to listen in on a production to check if his employees were working or horsing around. The cast must have been acting too off the cuff for Cohn. He flipped on the speaker and shouted at the actors to get to work. Edith thought it must have been the voice of God booming at them.

The first time Edith met the studio boss, she was summoned to Cohn’s office with her grandmother. She remembers the long walk to his desk. Edith sat behind her grandmother, braced for another dressing down. She was astonished when Cohn reserved his salty tongue for her grandmother, chiding her for putting cheap clothes on Edith’s back, which reflected poorly on his studio. Motivated by the dollar signs that always floated in her peripheral vision, Mrs Fellows replied that Shirley Temple’s mother received a salary for taking care of her daughter. Mrs Fellows stuck out a brass neck and said she should have one, too. Harry Cohn had a cigar screwed in his face when he snarled that she would get nothing and like it. Little Edith was delighted. At last, someone was getting back at the woman who made her life a living hell.

Edith earned rave reviews for her role as the reformed brat Annabel. On the strength of her first role for Columbia, the twelve-year-old was given a seven-year contract. While she was filming Pennies from Heaven with Bing Crosby in 1936, Edith’s mother turned up with her hand out. Edith’s mother launched a custody battle claiming that her daughter had been kidnapped by her former mother-in-law. The courts resolved the suit by awarding custody to Edith’s grandmother and ordered that the girl’s earnings be placed in a trust fund. When Edith went to collect the money, which had been estimated at $100,000 the account balance dwindled to $900. After Edith’s grandmother finally died in 1941, she had staged a fainting attack with Lillian Bartley so she could rush away from the gravesite. In the car on the way home, Edith laughed her head off.

If the two female pronouns in the title failed to provide a clue, She Married Her Boss is a woman’s picture and one of the biggest gems from an era when women ruled Hollywood for three decades.