George Cukor had a long and distinguished filmmaking career but he is best known as the director and mentor to a pantheon female screen icons (Garbo, the Hepburns, Harlow, Leigh, Crawford, Garland, Halliday, Monroe, Maggie Smith, etc.). The Cukor’s name is synonymous with cinematic elegance and sophistication and with few exceptions he always took the high road in approaching his material.
The sensitive theatre-trained director was indeed a thespian’s dream but he was no slouch behind the camera either. Cukor learned from an A-List of Hollywood set designers, cameramen and perhaps most importantly two producers with fine taste and a talent for showmanship, Irving Thalberg and David O. Selznick.
Cukor was open about his homosexuality and the Sunday get-togethers of Hollywood’s gay community at his home were the stuff of Tinseltown legend. But unlike the out and about F.W. Murnau and James Whale, the diplomatic director, for better or worse, toed the line and never bore the brunt of much ill-will from the industry’s homophobic studio heads. Such patience and professionalism bore a rich and varied legacy.
Born in New York City to Jewish immigrant parents from Hungary, Cukor was fascinated by the theatre at an early age. He would play hooky from high school to attend matinees on Broadway much to the chagrin of his father who hoped young George would become a lawyer.
By the time he was twenty-one the ambitious lad began his own theatrical company in Rochester, NY and seven years later he was summoned to the Great White Way to run the Empire Theatre where he worked with such luminaries as Jeanne Eagles, Laurette Taylor, Ethel Barrymore & Helen Hayes. His expertise with actors caught the eye of the local Paramount film executives who hired Cukor to be a dialogue coach for a studio mired in a troubling transition to talking film. Cukor soon moved to the west coast and never looked back.
After working for Lewis Milestone as a dialogue coach in the pacifistic WWI epic, All Quiet on the Western Front Cukor was hired to co-direct three films before getting a chance to go solo.
The most accomplished of the lot was The Royal Family of Broadway, a predictably stagy but often riotous adaptation of the Ferber-Kaufman play based on the three Barrymores. The film is mostly interesting today for a rare screen appearance of immensely popular Broadway comedienne Ina Claire and Frederic March throwing all caution to the wind in a thinly-veiled spoof on the vain John Barrymore.
Cukor’s career continued an upward trajectory, directing talents diverse as Tallulah Bankhead, Kay Francis and Joel McCrea in a pair of overlooked pre-code films about women struggling to keep their heads above water in New York City. In Tarnished Lady Bankhead plays Nancy Courtney, a young woman from an old money family who has fallen on hard times. Instead of following her heart and sticking with the aspiring playwright she loves Nancy marries the rich stockbroker Norman Cravath (Clive Brook) in order to maintain her expensive lifestyle. Nancy dumps Norman the very day the stock market crashes but her pride won’t allow her to return to him after she learns she is pregnant.
Based on a screenplay by one of Cukor’s closest collaborators Donald Ogden Stewart, Tarnished Lady walks a fine line between maudlin melodrama and sophisticated entertainment but Bankhead’s modern take on the Park Avenue girl who gets her comeuppance is quite refreshing.
Girls About Town follows the high-spirited adventures of Wanda Howard (Francis) and Marie Bailey (Lilyan Tashman) two Manhattan good-time girls on call to escort visiting businessmen in exchange for cash and expensive jewelry. One night they are hired to accompany a pair of moguls from Lansing aboard a yacht where Wanda falls in love with the handsome Jim Baker (Joel McCrea).
The morning brings a dose of reality to Jim who laughs off any promises he might have made the night before. Meanwhile Marie, who has succeeded in shaking down her new beau (Eugene Pallette), can’t understand why Wanda would want to give up such a fun lifestyle but she decides to help her friend win her young man’s heart.
Cukor would go onto make more sensitive—and less interesting—films (A Life of Her Own, The Model and the Marriage Broker) about young women trying to get ahead and find love in the big city but in Girls About Town he delivers a racy little gem.
Having proved his mettle in a variety of projects Cukor received what initially seemed a plum offer to shoot a film for Paramount studio head Ernst Lubitsch. But One Hour with You turned out to be a professional disaster as the German genius rebuffed Cukor at every turn and finally took creative control of the film.
Although he was initially given credit for One Hour with You this delightful musical starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald too closely resembles Lubitsch’s earlier work in the genre (The Love Parade, The Monte Carlo Story and The Smiling Lieutenant) to find much evidence of Cukor’s own distinctive touch.
Cukor soon left Paramount for RKO where he found a creative partner and friend in David O. Selznick, a tireless producer who was just beginning to make a name for himself in Hollywood. Their first collaboration turned out to be an ambitious comedy-drama about the unforgiving industry of dreams.
What Price Hollywood? follows the rise of Mary Evans (Constance Bennett), an opportunistic Brown Derby waitress who succeeds in capturing the attention of dissolute film director Maximilian Carey (Lowell Sherman). Although her first attempts at screen acting prove embarrassing she perseveres and quickly wins the favor of the studio bosses and fickle movie audiences. She is propelled to stardom through a series of peppy family films, but Mary soon finds she is unable to save either her marriage or the ruined Maximilian who ends up taking his life in her bedroom.
The ensuing scandal turns her into a public pariah but she finds solace in the return of her recalcitrant husband and the promise of a normal family life. This precursor to A Star Is Born shines best when Bennett is allowed to flex her comic talents early on and in the Expressionist sequence depicting Carey’s suicide. Nevertheless, there remains a starchy quality in much of the dramatic playing which also hamstrings Cukor’s next film, A Bill of Divorcement.
Here, Katharine Hepburn makes her film debut as the well-meaning Sydney Fairfield who finds herself taking care of her shell-shocked father Hilary (John Barrymore) to the chagrin of mother Meg (Billie Burke) who is planning to marry another man. Based on Clemence Dane’s popular play the film creaks under the weight of Barrymore’s overwrought performance and Hepburn’s inexperience in front of the camera. In the ensuing years Cukor would put both performers to much better use in a series of memorable screen parts.
After reuniting with Constance Bennett in Our Betters, a very fine adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s play about a rich American marrying into British aristocracy, Cukor followed Selznick to MGM to direct the film which would help turn him into an A-List player in Hollywood. Dinner at Eight, another adaptation of a Ferber-Kaufman play (scripted by Frances Marion, Herman Mankiewicz and Donald Ogden Stewart) gathers together a large ensemble of MGM stars in the fashion the previous year’s omnibus hit Grand Hotel.
Here, the fluttery Mrs. Oliver Jordan (Billie Burke) frets as the dinner party she so carefully arranged seems to be coming apart at the seams. Her husband (Lionel Barrymore) has become ill over his failing business, the old money Brit couple she wants to impress has run off to Florida, the silent film matinee idol (John Barrymore) invited to amuse a vain grand dame of the theatre (Marie Dressler) has committed suicide, and the trashy nouveau riche couple (Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery) her husband invited are just plain embarrassing.
Burke, Harlow, and the jowly, bug-eyed Dressler are hilarious but once again Cukor stumbles with the melodramatic scenes with the Barrymores and as a result the film doesn’t date well. Cukor continued to film popular and classic plays throughout his career but over the next few years he became extremely accomplished in bringing masterpiece novels to the screen.
With Little Women, David Copperfield and Camille Cukor began his true evolution as a filmmaker. While his filming of plays never strayed far from the source material, Cukor and his screenwriters re-sculpted these three 19th century novels into lively ensemble pieces of buoyancy and tenderness.
Some eighty years on Cukor’s Little Women remains by far the best cinematic take on the March family from Massachusetts. Set near the end of the American Civil War, Jo March (Katharine Hepburn) is a high-spirited young woman who wants to move to New York City and become a writer but a sense of responsibility to her mother and sickly sister Beth (Jean Parker) keeps Jo pining at home.
When older sister Meg (Frances Dee) announces she is engaged, Jo leaves home to the consternation of their Aunt March (Edna May Oliver) who out of spite takes younger sister Amy (Joan Bennett) on a long journey to Europe. While in New York Jo’s head is turned by a warm-hearted mentor (Paul Lukas) and remains blissfully unaware Amy has become attached to her old boyfriend (Douglass Montgomery).
Although he was worried about the sentimentality of the material Cukor wisely let scenes play out in unusually long takes and with the help of set designer Van Nest Polglase and cinematographer Henry W. Gerrard he creates an idyllic cocoon for the young women to suffer through adolescent angst and absorb valuable lessons while on the rocky road to adulthood.
The Selznick production of David Copperfield gets the well-scrubbed MGM treatment but its stellar cast of waifs and miscreants makes this one of the finer entries in the Dickens film oeuvre.
Young David (Freddie Bartholomew) begins his odyssey as a motherless child (Freddie Bartholomew) who suffers at the hands of his cruel stepfather (Basil Rathbone). Aided by the rascally Micawber (W.C. Fields) Freddie escapes to Dover where he is taken in by his Aunt Betsey (Edna May Oliver).
Under her care he matures into a promising but naive young man (Frank Lawton) who unwisely snubs the neighbor (Madge Evans) who loves him to marry a childish young woman (Maureen O’Sullivan). Perhaps finding the adult David to be something of a prig, Cukor allowed Fields, Oliver, Rathbone and the crew of zesty character actors to chew-up the scenery creating a colorful palette of Victorian England.
It would be a stretch to say the director’s Romeo and Juliet was realistic take on Shakespeare’s ill-fated teenage lovers, as his lead players (Leslie Howard & Norma Shearer) were forty-three and thirty-two. Still, Cukor’s Verona is a lively place and the slick MGM production looks positively regal next to Franco Zeffirelli’s achingly hip 1968 version and the modernist train wreck which is Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Clare Danes.
In his final performance in a Cukor film John Barrymore is terrific as the knavish confidant Mercutio, a far more natural and spontaneous take on the Bard than his Richard III from 1929’s omnibus The Show of Shows.
The Alexander Dumas novel/play The Lady of the Camellias was already a Hollywood warhorse having been filmed three times during the silent era. Though originally reluctant to cast Greta Garbo as the infamous courtesan Marguerite Gauthier in his Camille, Cukor ultimately befriended and helped the shy Swede turn in her greatest film performance. The luminous Garbo put a motherly spin on Paris’ most notorious woman and her seduction of the puppyish Armand Duval (Robert Taylor) is more nurturing than sexual.
After a worried father (Lionel Barrymore) begs Marguerite to give up his son, she reluctantly distances herself from Armaud, contracts tuberculosis and sells off her worldly goods to die in comfort, but not before she is confronted by her brokenhearted suitor.
Cukor drastically reinterpreted Dumas’ sensationalistic social commentary and elevated it into a noble and deeply felt Romance. Cukor honed down his leading lady’s exaggerations and bad acting tics, molding her into a thoroughbred tragedian. Garbo interprets the role of the worldly courtesan with an intelligence and gravity that belies her still young age (thirty-one).
Cukor wouldn’t have as much luck with Claudette Colbert, yet another Parisian bad girl sacrificing her prospects of happiness in Zaza. As a dance hall chanteuse the typically charming Colbert comes across as insincere, making her ill-fated romance with that great cuckold of the screen Herbert Marshall seem all the more ridiculous. The bewildering transition from backstage comedy to tear-jerking melodrama also helps relegate Zaza to the realm of third-tier Cukor.
Cukor is rightly credited with “discovering” the Connecticut Yankee Katharine Hepburn, the likes of whom Hollywood had never seen before. He knew to keep tight reigns on his thoroughbred filly and it’s no accident she turned in many of her best performances under his tutelage. But Cukor can also take credit for turning Cary Grant’s moribund career around with his casting of the talented Cockney in the gender-bender adventure Sylvia Scarlett.
After traveling abroad with her gambler father (Edmund Gwenn) Sylvia (Hepburn) tries to smuggle some expensive stolen lace into England. She cuts her hair and poses as a man to elude police, but in a drunken stupor her father betrays them to fellow miscreant and jewel thief Jimmy Monkley (Cary Grant). Jimmy rats the Scarletts out so he can make his own getaway but when an angry Sylvia catches up with the rascal, he offers to let them in on his latest scheme.
The film has taken on legendary status in gay and lesbian circles, much in part due to a kiss between the cross-dressed Hepburn and maid Dennie Moore. But the charming Sylvia Scarlett was intended to be innocent fun and creating a subtext that just isn’t there is one of the dangers of applying revisionist criticism to a movie made decades ago.
1938 would be a watershed year for the Hepburn and Grant team which scored big in Howard Hawks’ hysterical screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby. But their other film from that year, Cukor’s Holiday based on the Phillip Barry play, could well be their finest collaboration.
The free-spirited Johnny Case (Grant) becomes engaged to Julia (Doris Nolan) of the old money Seton family. But Johnny’s flippant attitude towards his career upsets his conservative fiancée and future in-laws and he finds himself “banished” to a children’s playroom with Julia’s black sheep brother Ned (Lew Ayres), and her sister Linda (Katharine Hepburn). Through a delightful, and poetic, series of sequences it is apparent Johnny has found his soul mate in the idealistic Linda but she remains torn between remaining loyal to Julia or pursuing what could be the love of her life.
Exquisitely played and scripted (by Donald Ogden Stewart and Sidney Buchanan), Holiday remains one of the crown jewels of 1930s cinema, but like Bringing Up Baby this box office bust would have to wait fifty years until it found appreciative audiences in repertory film theatres.
Hepburn quit Hollywood and retreated to Broadway where she hit pay dirt in the role of spoiled socialite Tracy Lord in Phillip Barry’s saucy society tale, The Philadelphia Story. MGM bought the film rights from alleged Hepburn beau Howard Hughes and cast Cary Grant as Tracy’s ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven and James Stewart as reporter Macauley Conner, as her latest conquest.
As Tracy prepares to marry a respectable clod, Dexter shows up on her doorstep with a “friend” (Stewart) and begins to wreak havoc on her upcoming nuptials. Though Spy Magazine reporter Conner has a sworn disrespect of the rich he inexplicably finds himself falling in love with the high and mighty Tracy. But soon, the old sparks fly between Tracy and Dexter and the highly-strung diva finds herself wondering if she is marrying the right man.
Despite the presence of her illustrious co-stars The Philadelphia Story was Hepburn’s show from start to finish and the massive hit regenerated her film acting career.
It’s difficult to say just how much of Cukor’s shooting made it to the final cut of Gone with the Wind, but if Vivien Leigh and her female co-stars are to be believed his painstaking efforts brought a much needed sensitivity to Margaret Mitchell’s lusty epic of the Old South. It’s reasonable to assume producer David O. Selznick, with whom Cukor shared many tastes and sensibilities, ultimately reshaped the film to his liking after he fired his old friend and replaced him with the rough and tumble Victor Fleming.
If we can look beyond the embarrassing racial stereotypes on display in GWTW then it’s not much of a stretch to say it’s a rousing triumph of efficient studio system filmmaking.
Cukor’s magic touch with actresses didn’t always extend itself to Joan Crawford although she is quite memorable as gold digger Crystal Allen in the director’s stylish take on the hit Clare Boothe play The Women. Crawford leads a powerhouse ensemble of cloying, virtuous, neurotic and ultimately independent Manhattan society dames who get down and dirty when it comes to men.
To modern eyes this early feminist effort could seem weak sauce but Cukor does another expert job in keeping the huge cast busy and bringing out the fire in each player. Crawford is perfectly at home playing the shop girl bitch who thinks nothing of stealing a husband from the dull as dishwater Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) and her bathroom scenes with her new boyfriend’s self-righteous daughter seems a precursor to Mommie Dearest.
Cukor’s winning streak came screeching to a halt with his next two projects with Crawford. Based on a Rachel Crothers play Susan And God is a confusing mish-mash of comedy and sentiment about an airhead society matron (Crawford) who tries to convert her alcoholic husband (Frederic March), a lonely teenager daughter (Rita Quigley) and some jaded friends to her newfound belief in God. Crawford gives it her all but playing ditsy bluebloods wasn’t her bag and in the end Cukor and the talented cast are sunk by the play’s muddled message.
In A Woman’s Face Crawford found the role of bitter, disfigured Anna Holm to be much more up her alley. Living by her wits as a blackmailer unhappy Anna enters into a strange relationship with the sinister Torsten Barring (Conrad Veidt). She is caught breaking into the home of a sympathetic plastic surgeon (Melvyn Douglas) who offers to perform a life-altering operation upon the amoral young woman. The procedure renders Anna beautiful but she remains under Torsten’s spell and soon takes the job as governess of a child he plans to murder.
This murky remake of a Swedish Ingrid Bergman melodrama nearly chokes on its convoluted thread but Crawford brings intriguing darkness to her role and the thrilling sleigh chase in which Torsten meets his icy doom almost redeems the whole affair.
Cukor’s slump would continue with a pair of unfortunate swansongs to two of MGM’s most iconic leading ladies; Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer (Her Cardboard Lover).
Looking to capitalize on the surprising hit Ninotchka MGM repaired Garbo with leading man Melvyn Douglas in another light comedy but Two-Faced Woman drew critical heat for making the great Swede look hopelessly silly in the dual role of a dour ski instructor and her slutty twin sister. While Garbo certainly made any number of far worse films (Susan Lenox, Mata Hari, As You Desire Me, etc,), this second collaboration with Cukor was disappointing to critics—who had been overrating her abilities all along—and devastating to her career when the public overwhelmingly rejected the film.
Just two years removed from The Philadelphia Story Cukor’s career too seemed at a crossroads. It was hard to believe the same director that made Little Women and Holiday could have been behind the camera for his most recent duds but it was proof this interpretive artist needed strong material and incisive writing to help coax magic from his beloved performers.
The war years saw Cukor’s pace of productivity decline. While he did make a creditable piece of feature propaganda (Winged Victory) for the Allied cause action films were of little interest to him. But the darkness of the times did seem to have an effect on Cukor’s sensibility as evidenced by his best films of the 1940s, two mood-drenched psychodramas whose disturbed lead characters drift towards madness and murder.
Based on a popular stage hit by Patrick Hamilton Gaslight is an unsettling tale of a manipulative killer who preys on an opera singer and her niece in Victorian London. Cukor went against type by casting regal Ingrid Bergman as Paula Alquist, a troubled young singer who falls under the spell of the suave but gloomy Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer) while living abroad. They marry and return to London to live in the house where Paula’s aunt had been murdered ten years before.
Marriage turns out to be a miserable experience for Paula as Gregory belittles her in front of the help and doesn’t allow her to mix with the neighbors. Paula begins to hear strange voices from the attic and notices the gaslights dimming every evening, all the time unaware the man who killed her aunt has rigged the house to drive her insane.
Inspired by the claustrophobic set design by Edwin B, Willis, atmospheric cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg and a sinister performance from Boyer, Cukor creates a hostile atmosphere which makes Bergman’s edging to precipice of insanity a chilling experience.
Three years later Cukor returned to the suspense genre with A Double Life scripted by friends Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin and starring Ronald Colman as Anthony John, a famous but unstable stage actor who takes his serious roles far too personally. While acting in a record-breaking run of Othello, Anthony snaps and his unconscious self takes on the jealous persona of the Moor King. His delusions soon cause him to reenact the murder of Ophelia upon an unwitting waitress (Shelley Winters).
Shooting extensively on the streets of New York City, Cukor and cinematographer Milton Krasner infuse noir elements into Anthony John’s nightmarish world where the actor’s persistent demons finally overwhelm his troubled soul.
Based on a play by Robert Morley and Robert Langley, Edward, My Son is yet another portrait of an unscrupulous man who wreaks havoc on the poor women who dared love him. Sir Arnold Boult (Spencer Tracy) is a disreputable businessman who has bought and bullied his way to the top in order to sponsor the dissolute lifestyle of an unseen son. Along the way he uses and disposes of his former business partner (Mervyn Johns) and mistress (Leueen MacGrath) before alienating the affections of his long-suffering wife (Deborah Kerr).
While it is interesting to watch Tracy portray a truly mean guy, Edward, My Son is the rare Cukor film which comes off as both overwrought and soulless.
After an early misstep Cukor would become the pre-eminent director in the Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy series and natural repartee between the famous couple was a major influence upon the mature style of Cukor’s great films of the 1950s. That said, the first collaboration between the iconic screen team and Cukor was quite a dud.
In Keeper of the Flame Tracy plays a reporter, based on famous war-time correspondent I.A. Wylie, who investigates the mysterious death of an American philanthropist. Having attained the confidence of the man’s wife (Hepburn) he learns the great hero was a closet fascist who sought to bring down his country’s government as it inched towards the brink of World War.
Cukor was out of his element directing such paranoid populism and beyond of a pair of interestingly creepy performances by Richard Whorf and Margaret Wyncherly this political potboiler looks rather silly today.
With Adam’s Rib Cukor seemed to find his stride again in a progressive Gordon & Kanin comedy about husband and wife lawyers Adam and Amanda Bonner (Spencer Tracy & Katharine Hepburn) who are on opposite sides of the bench during a trial for attempted murder. Defending a wife (Judy Holliday) accused of shooting her cheating husband (Tom Ewell) Amanda’s often unprincipled attempts to win points in the courtroom causes serious cracks in her marriage.
Calling attention to traditional sexist hypocrisies in a patriarchal society Adam’s Rib may well be the first American feminist film. But beyond the principled politics, it is in this warm comedy-drama genre where Cukor finally seems to find his comfort zone as a filmmaker. The marriage between Adam and Amanda is complicated and it takes compromise to keep the relationship from drowning in pettiness.
Cukor and the Kanins re-teamed Kate and Spence for Pat and Mike a feathery light comedy about insecure phys-ed teacher recruited by a shady sports promoter to become a professional golf and tennis champion. The one flaw in Patricia Pemberton’s game is the anxiety she feels when her disapproving fiance (William Ching) shows up to watch her compete on the links and tennis court.
Under not-so ethical tutelage of Mike Conovan, Patricia gets over her fear of stuffy Collier Weld and teams up with her new mentor in what seems destined to be a profitable business arrangement and a satisfying romantic relationship.
Cukor’s finest discovery of the era, the brilliant comedienne Judy Holliday got her first starring role in Born Yesterday based on another play by Garson Kanin. Ex-chorus girl Billie Dawn (Holliday) is the longtime girlfriend of the thuggish junk tycoon Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford) who has come to Washington DC to hardball a local senator and put together a shady cartel.
To keep Billie busy and out of his hair he hires an idealistic journalist Paul Verrall (William Holden) to show her the sites of the nation’s capital and give her some education. Paul teaches his apt pupil far too well and soon Billie begins to question Harry’s motives while falling in love with her handsome teacher.
Holliday is a revelation as the not-so-dumb blonde who withstands some nasty bullying by Harry in her own charming manner to her coup d’etat where she finally walks out on Harry, dismantling his complex illicit business dealings. Cukor’s expertise in long-take scenes was put to its ultimate test in the hilarious gin-rummy sequence where Billie’s intelligence and cunning are first revealed.
In The Marrying Kind Holliday plays young wife Florence Keeler who along with estranged husband Chet (Aldo Ray) end up in divorce court sorting out what went wrong with their seven year marriage. The Keelers have had their share of setbacks from the get-go with a failed attempt at becoming business entrepreneurs to the devastating accidental death of a child. But a wise judge lets Chet and Florence talk without lawyers and soon they realize their differences aren’t insurmountable, after all.
The Marrying Kind is, at times, an almost unbearable portrait of a struggling marriage. Warm scenes of family intimacy turn on a dime resulting in disappointment, irretrievable lost chances, and tragedy.
Cukor re-teamed with Holliday in It Should Happen to You, a delightful spoof of empty celebrity worship, co-starring Jack Lemmon in his impressive film debut.
As her dream of becoming famous is slowly slipping away, out of work girdle model Gladys Glover rents a giant billboard in Manhattan’s busy Columbus Circle where she posts her name. Gladys is thrilled by the whirlwind of attention she receives, especially from the dashing Evan Adams III (Peter Lawford), an insincere business mogul who wants to make her a star.
All this weighs heavy on struggling young filmmaker Pete Sheppard (Lemmon), the regular guy who truly loves her. Holliday is simply wonderful as the wide-eyed girl who ignores her conscience to enjoy fifteen minutes of fame and conquer the Big Apple in her own delectable way.
With the mediocre MGM projects of the previous decade in his rear view mirror, Cukor was proving to be a master of a more intimate style of filmmaking and his warm takes on little people with big dreams were producing some of the most enchanting films during the bleak Cold War years.
Taking into consideration Cukor’s sympathies for thespians of the female variety it is no surprise several of his finest films of the era (The Actress, A Star Is Born & Heller in Pink Tights) were love songs to aspiring actresses from past to present.
Based on autobiographical writings by Ruth Gordon, The Actress was a tender take on youthful feelings and folly recalling Cukor’s earlier chamber works Holiday and Little Women.
Set in Pre-WWI New England, this coming of age tale finds small town girl Ruth Gordon Jones (Jean Simmons) dreaming of a move to New York City to act on stage but she is thwarted at every turn by her crusty, overprotective father Clinton (Spencer Tracy). Ruth takes a dim view of what her dad thinks she should do with her life and further surprises him by rebuffing her longtime beau. Slowly becoming aware his ambitious bird needs to leave the nest, the resigned old sea captain comes to a momentous decision.
In A Star Is Born Vicki Lester also has to make a leap of faith from a safe cocoon (a steady gig as a singer in a big band) to follow her seemingly mad dream of becoming a great star. Cukor’s lavish, wide-screen update on William Wellman’s 1937 classic digs deep into the troubled relationship of fading screen star Norman Maine (James Mason) and his talented discovery Lester (Judy Garland) who shows she’s in it for more than the money. Rather than bite the hand that had fed him so well, Cukor eschewed much of the social commentary of the original film to paint yet another damaged portrait of a loving, yet troubled relationship.
After Norman “discovers” Esther Blodgett singing her heart out at a roadside bar, he uses his influence to get her an audition at the Oliver Niles Studios. He painstakingly tutors Esther until she finally gets a chance to perform for Niles (Charles Bickford). Cast as the lead in a major musical, Esther is now Vicki Lester and soon after the film becomes a hit she and Norman marry.
In time Vicki’s star eclipses her husband’s prompting self-loathing Norman to drown his sorrow in drink. When Maine’s films begin to tank at the box office the troublesome star is quickly ditched by the studio. After several humiliating interludes Norman retreats to a sanitarium to dry out but his disastrous attempt to make friends with the studio publicity man (Jack Carson) leads to another drinking binge and a night in the drunk tank.
Vicki is ready to give up her career to nurse Norman back to health, but when he learns of her sacrifice he takes his life in a fashion worthy of a Hollywood icon.
In later years Cukor often gushed over Garland’s comeback but aside from the exuberant musical interludes, she is strained and difficult to watch. Mason’s sensitive and anguished portrayal of an artist losing his battle with inner demons is truly one of the great screen performances, catapulting A Star Is Born to the top echelon of the Cukor canon.
Loosely based on a Louis L’Amour novel, Heller in Pink Tights follows a caravan of colorful actors aiming to perform their art and stay of harm’s way in the Old West. Tom Healy (Anthony Quinn) keeps his little troupe just out of reach of creditors who threaten to close the show down. They settle in a Wyoming frontier town which lives in the shadow of gunfighter Clint Mabry (Steve Forrest) who has the hots for their lead actress Angela Rossini (Sophia Loren).
After their proposal of performing a high-falutin’ Offenbach opera is shot down by the owner of the town’s theatre they settle on the blood and thunder histrionics of Mazeppa which gives Angela the opportunity to show-off her awe-inspiring curves in revealing pink tights. When she strays into Mabry’s arms, the broken-hearted Healy decides to disband the troupe prompting the vain actress to look beyond her own desires for the first time and make a surprising gesture.
Quinn gave an unusually low-key performance for Cukor as the thoughtful entrepreneur in Wild Is The Wind. Here Quinn is more familiar territory as Gino, a rich, boastful Nevada shepherd who arrives home from Italy with a new wife in tow. Gioia (Anna Magnani) speaks very little English but she quickly guesses she is little more than a replacement for Gino’s beloved first wife who died in childbirth years before.
His decision to tame his tempestuous wife only drives her into the arms of the man who he thinks of as a son, Bene (Anthony Franciosa). Unfortunately for Gioia her new young man is incapable of giving her the sort of love she needs so she accepts Gino’s offer to put their shattered marriage back together.
As we’ve seen in Adam’s Rib, The Marrying Kind and A Star Is Born Cukor was unafraid to paint marriages as something less than picture perfect, but in Wild Is the Wind it seems likely Gioia and Gino will have to settle for mere companionship instead of true happiness.
Given his penchant for making graceful entertainments it’s surprising it took Cukor so long to actually direct a musical. Coming towards the end of the Hollywood’s golden age of musicals Les Girls, Let’s Make Love and My Fair Lady can’t be ranked alongside the more innovative works by Minnelli, Donen and Kelly but Cukor’s flair shines through even when the material wasn’t always up to snuff.
Bolstered by a slew of memorable Cole Porter songs, Les Girls stars Gene Kelly as Barry Nichols, leader and stern taskmaster of a popular dance act featuring three tempestuous talents (Mitzi Gaynor, Kaye Kendall and Taina Elg). Years after the troupe has broken up, Lady Sybil Wren (Kendall) is being sued by Angele Ducros (Elg) over an allegedly libelous tell-all book about their days as the Nichols girls.
On the stand the women tell wildly different stories about their affairs with Barry and ensuing suicide attempts leaving the court at wit’s end until a surprise witness gives testimony to help mend fences and settle the score.
Left to choreograph just one dance sequence Kelly is little more than a bland object of desire for the three women. But the sawdust and tinsel stage show seems to have inspired Cukor who (with the help of cinematographer Robert Surtees) turns in his best visual direction since A Star Is Born.
Following in the same vein Let’s Make Love is a light music-comedy about putting on a show. But, here, a complicated plot and some crucial miscasting undermined Cukor’s first collaboration with Marilyn Monroe. Annoyed by an Off-Broadway production aimed to mock his dour demeanor, Billionaire Jean-Marc Clement (Yves Montand) pays a visit to the set and promptly falls in love with Amanda (Monroe), the leading lady.
Unaware of his identity and feelings, she sets out to help the smitten man secure the role of Jean-Marc but to his disappointment Amanda doesn’t succumb to his charms. The tycoon hires Milton Berle, Bing Crosby and Gene Kelly to teach him how to become a better performer but ultimately it’s his seductive powers which finally win her over.
Saddled with a leading man with little knowledge of English Let’s Make Love didn’t have much of a chance, but the dreary sequences with Montand and the guest stars only call attention to how ill-suited he was for this sort of film. Besides Monroe’s knockout performance of Cole Porter’s My Heart Belong To Daddy, the rest of the musical book (composed by the usually reliable Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn) lacks luster and the dance sequences are nothing special.
Cukor was the beneficiary of a magnificent collection of Lerner and Loewe songs in a tuneful spin on Shaw‘s Pygmalion, so it was no real surprise that My Fair Lady turned out to be the best filmed mega-musical of its time.
As with Gone With the Wind Cukor was the helmsman for a producer with a big ego (Jack Warner) wanting to recapture a long dead time and place (pre-WWI London), but the elegant production values (highlighted by the Cecil Beaton wardrobes) and the warmth of the ensemble playing makes for a winning three-hour extravaganza.
The film’s success only inspired Hollywood producers to inflate budgets and hire directors with tin ears (Robert Wise, Ken Hughes, Richard Fleisher, etc.) to bludgeon audiences with turgid slop (The Sound of Music, Star! and Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang), in effect cannibalizing one of American film’s most unique genres.
The dissolution of the studio system in the 1950s did more damage to the careers of directors of comedy and heart-felt dramas like Cukor than outdoorsy, spectacle driven filmmakers (Ford, Hawks, Aldrich, etc.). Cukor seemed uncomfortable with the public’s changing tastes and the adult fare which was making its way to movie screens in the 1960s.
Based on Alfred Kinsley’s groundbreaking books on human sexuality and a lurid Irving Wallace novel The Chapman Report follows the exploits of four lonely California women (Jane Fonda, Claire Bloom, Shelley Winters & Glynis Johns) who submit to the confrontational questions posed to them by the earnest researchers. Since Cukor didn’t possess the sense of irony to make such trash transcendent The Chapman Report turned out to be an embarrassing mish-mash of silly comedy and trite melodrama.
Justine, the first book of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, seemed like a more promising prospect but Cukor came onto the project late and it soon became apparent the ethereal material was too elusive for his sensibilities.
Graham Greene’s shaggy dog, kidnap caper, Travels With My Aunt, fared better in a large part to Maggie Smith’s riotous and touching take on a spirited eccentric who thrusts her sheltered nephew headlong into fast living. But, it would take a throwback story starring his favorite actress that would ascend Cukor to the heights of his finest work.
Set in London circa 1911, the made for television production of Love Among the Ruins is a tale of lost and found love. Katharine Hepburn is Jessica Medlicott, a 60-ish lady of society being sued for breach of promise by her slimy, younger ex-lover (Leigh Lawson). Jessica retains the services of the prominent Sir Arthur Glanville-Jones who had a torrid love affair with her when she was a road show actress forty years before.
Staid Sir Arthur still carries a torch the handsome Jessica but he is devastated to find she seems to have forgotten their romance. He also finds it difficult to proceed in a case where he will have to hurt Jessica’s reputation in order to protect her assets.
The sweet and melancholic film about aging bodies and youthful hearts was a shot in the arm to both Hepburn and Olivier, whose participation in a string of dreadful films (Marathon Man, The Boys from Brazil, The Jazz Singer) would stain a sterling career. Love Among the Ruins would have been a fitting swan song for a director with delicacy and exquisite taste but, unlike many of his Hollywood peers, he soldiered on bravely into old age.
The Soviet-American production of The Blue Bird, based on the Maurice Maeterlinck play, was overrun with budget problems and the project soon proved too unwieldy for even an expert craftsman like Cukor to make sense of.
The television production The Corn Is Green, based on the Emlyn Williams play starring Katharine Hepburn, was just the sort of tonic to get his creative juices flowing again. Shot exclusively on location on gorgeous Wales locales, Cukor guided his old friend through a nuanced performance while keeping the material from lapsing into easy sentimentality.
Cukor’s final film Rich and Famous initially seems to have been cut from the same cloth as The Old Maid and Old Acquaintance, the classic, bitchy weepies Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins co-starred in for Warner Brothers.
But as Cukor was saddled with lesser lights like Jacqueline Bisset and Candace Bergen (before she honed real comic acting chops for Murphy Brown) this saga of two friendly rivals who try to one-up one another on the ladder to success loses its steam just as Liz (Bisset) half-heartedly indulges herself in empty sex with younger men.
Without Davis, Hopkins—or Joan Crawford and Paulette Goddard—available to provide some much-needed sizzle Rich and Famous ends up being too polite and middlebrow to live-up to the director’s lofty feminist standards.
Books on Cukor:
On Cukor – Gavin Lambert **** In which the eloquent Cukor sits down and talks with critic and confidante Lambert about his marvelous career. The two friends provide lots of juicy insights into the Hollywood studio system and the many luminous actresses who worked with the director.
George Cukor: Interviews – (ed. Robert Emmet Long) **** Another fine book of interviews with the thoughtful director taken from the autumn of his career which mostly addresses his body of work and the state of the post-studio system film industry. Terrific stuff.
George Cukor: A Double Life – Patrick McGilligan **** The title refers to one of Cukor’s most popular films and the deft handling of his not so closeted homosexual lifestyle during a less tolerant era. The great critic and film historian McGilligan writes vividly and informatively about Hollywood’s gentlemanly survivor.
Cukor – Carlos Clarens **** A generally spot-on critical analysis of the Cukor touch covers the director’s long career, from his theatrical beginnings to Love Among the Ruins.
Films by Cukor:
1930 The Royal Family of Broadway ***1/2 (w/Cyril Gardner)
1931 Tarnished Lady ***1/2
1931 Girls About Town ***1/2
1932 One Hour with You **** (ghost directed by Ernst Lubitsch)
1932 What Price Hollywood? ***1/2
1932 A Bill of Divorcement ***
1932 Rockabye ***
1933 Our Betters ***1/2
1933 Dinner at Eight ***1/2
1933 Little Women ****
1935 David Copperfield ***1/2
1936 Sylvia Scarlett ***1/2
1936 Romeo and Juliet ***1/2
1937 Camille ****
1938 Holiday ****1/2
1938 Zaza ***
1939 Gone With the Wind **** (signed by Victor Fleming)
1939 The Women ***1/2
1940 The Philadelphia Story ****
1940 Susan and God ***
1941 A Woman’s Face ***1/2
1941 Two-Faced Woman ***
1942 Her Cardboard Lover ***
1943 The Keeper of the Flame ***
1944 Gaslight ***1/2
1947 Desire Me *** (no credit, w/Mervyn LeRoy)
1947 A Double Life ***1/2
1949 Edward, My Son ***1/2
1949 Adam’s Rib ***1/2
1950 Born Yesterday ****
1950 A Life of Her Own ***
1952 The Model and the Marriage Broker ***1/2
1952 The Marrying Kind ****
1952 Pat and Mike ***1/2
1953 The Actress ****
1954 It Should Happen to You ****
1954 A Star Is Born *****
1956 Bhowani Junction ***1/2
1957 Les Girls ***1/2
1957 Wild Is the Wind ***1/2
1960 Heller In Pink Tights ***1/2
1960 Let’s Make Love ***1/2
1962 The Chapman Report ***
1962 Something’s Gotta Give *** (incomplete)
1964 My Fair Lady ****
1969 Justine ***
1972 Travels With My Aunt ***1/2
1975 Love Among the Ruins ****
1976 The Blue Bird **1/2
1979 The Corn Is Green ***1/2
1981 Rich and Famous ***