That’s fun, dancing on the edge!
– Little Emily in David Copperfield (1934)
After Norman Maine (James Mason) listens to Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland) sing “The Man That Got Away” in George Cukor’s 1954 version of A Star is Born, he describes the feeling he had while listening to her as “little jabs of pleasure”. Staring at Cukor’s lengthy credits as a film director, a film lover might feel those little jabs all the way down the list. This so-called “woman’s director” still has not received his due.
There are several things that need to be stressed about Cukor. One is his substantial growth as an artist whose true metier was film. He started off in the theatre and was brought in as a dialogue director for early sound movies. Throughout the ’30s, it is said, Cukor was rarely at ease unless he had a script in his hand. Yet by the mid-1950s, this was a man entirely capable of spending an inordinate amount of time shooting a striking set of drapes billowing in the breeze for his chaotic Indian epic Bhowani Junction (1956) (1). Even in an early, stage-bound film like The Royal Family of Broadway (1931), he started to move his camera gracefully, tracking up the stairs with Fredric March’s randy matinee idol Tony Cavendish.
In the ’50s, Cukor was overwhelmed by the possibilities of colour and even hired photographer George Hoynington-Huene as a colour consultant to really take advantage of all that Technicolor could do. He mastered several different idioms and, within his range, not many could match his versatility. A creature of the studio system, he was also quite happy to go on location, busting out of the back lot in the late ’40s and early ’50s for some New York local colour.
This is a deeply personal body of work, torn between crafty decorum and the wild nether reaches of excessive emotion. “You must learn to abandon yourself to extravagance”, says Aunt Augusta (Maggie Smith) in Travels With My Aunt (1972), and Cukor approved of this, in his life and his films. “Unabashed was the word for George”, laughed his friend Curt Gerling (2). At a Lincoln Center Tribute, Angela Lansbury remembered “a wonderful gamey quality about him, a wonderful lasciviousness” (3).
This was a man in love with theatre and theatrical effects who made feverish, dangerous films. This was a man delighted with impersonations, lying, bitchery and putting a brave face on sorrow. This was an artist who understood the deepest kind of pain. His films are peopled by actors and showgirls and impossible dreamers with outsized egos who put on an act on-stage and off. He favoured long scenes and, later on, very long takes. Most of his movies begin awkwardly and end in an anti-climax, like a party that takes a while to get swinging and then winds down gently.
So many of his films feature chronic alcoholics: broken-down director Maximilian Carey (Lowell Sherman) in What Price Hollywood? (1932), tippling mother Snooks Carroll (Jobyna Howland) in Rockabye (1932), finished actor Larry Renault (John Barrymore) in Dinner at Eight (1933), well-marinated stepmother Anais (Helen Westley) in Zaza (1938), sweet lost Ned Seton (Lew Ayres) in Holiday (1938), edgy C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) in The Philadelphia Story (1940), humiliated husband Barrie Trexel (Fredric March) in Susan and God (1940), wasted mother Evelyn Boult (Deborah Kerr) in Edward, My Son (1948) aged model Mary Ashlon (Ann Dvorak) in A Life of Her Own (1950) and drunken film star Norman Maine (Mason) in A Star is Born. Elsewhere, Lady Sybil Wren (an intoxicating Kay Kendall) does a comic drunk scene for the books in Les Girls (1957), and Alfred P. Doolittle (Stanley Holloway) in My Fair Lady (1964) is the ultimate anarchic drunk.
Cukor did come from a generally booze-soaked generation and moved in a liquor-heavy social set. He himself was a moderate drinker, but he was obviously fascinated by alcohol and why people needed it, the loosening of social inhibitions that came with it, and the somewhat alluring self-destruction it portended. Linda Seton (Katharine Hepburn) wants to get “good and drunk” towards the end of Holiday, and her brother Ned explains the effects of drink with reverence: “To begin with, it brings you to life. And after a while, you begin to know all about it…you feel important. And pretty soon the game starts. You think clear as crystal, but every move, every sentence is a problem. That gets pretty interesting…”
Cukor’s working friendships with Barrymore and Spencer Tracy, as well as with theatre legend Laurette Taylor, provided him with ample opportunities to witness the effects of alcohol firsthand. He knew its pitfalls (he called it “the kiss of death” (4)) but he was drawn to what it could (and couldn’t) do. “I want to get drunk”, says compromised Nancy (Tallulah Bankhead) in Tarnished Lady (1931). She takes a whole Second Avenue bar home to her mansion and winds up in a terrible state, weeping drunkenly on a bed. In Bhowani Junction, Victoria Jones (Ava Gardner) can only get her life back together and connect with the gruff Rodney Savage (Stewart Granger) after she has had a few drinks. In The Philadelphia Story, alcohol ruins Dexter’s marriage to Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn), but when she slips from her high horse and spends a night drinking excessively, it leads to romantic revelation with Mike Connor (James Stewart) and a positive re-ordering of her life that could never have been accomplished without the aid of a dozen or so glasses of champagne. Thus, in Cukor’s world, alcohol destroys, but it can also lead to edifying follies.
Cukor loves to watch his actors lose control. In The Women (1939), deserted wife Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) can only get her husband back by “going wild”, painting her nails jungle red and manipulating the ferocious women around her as she has been manipulated throughout the film. Notice too, in that movie, how impressed Cukor is by the full-blooded anti-social whirlwind of Rosalind Russell’s performance as the aptly named Sylvia Fowler. Russell did a test for the part, playing it once in a heavily villainous style and then using a broad low comedy approach for the second test. She was horrified when Cukor wanted her to play it the low comedy way, but his taste for emotional excess paid off in the scene where Sylvia starts breaking crockery and shouting, “I hate you!” repeatedly, then, “I hate everybody!”
The director found that Russell’s performance in this scene was like “the tantrum of a naughty eleven year-old girl who’d never been properly slapped. It was very original, the way she played that scene” (5). Cukor’s fundamental urge is to draw out shocking, unusual, revealing bits of human behaviour. Sometimes he goes too far, but he’s like a bloodhound sniffing out transgressions, bad manners, even outright lunacy, usually within a contrasting luxurious context.
Cukor treats insanity in a variety of forms, beginning with John Barrymore’s shell-shocked father Hilary Fairchild in A Bill of Divorcement (1932). The glum Keeper of the Flame (1942) comes to life when Margaret Wycherly does a tour-de-force mad scene as the batty, hidden-away mother Mrs. Forrest. Cukor brings Ronald Colman, a suave paragon of stability, to the brink and back as the Method-maddened actor Anthony John in A Double Life (1948), and, in the same film, he gave a first break to that emblem of hysteria, Shelley Winters. (He also created a future Winters template by killing her off violently.)
In Gaslight (1944), an extremely old-fashioned melodrama, the strong-as-an-ox Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman) is reduced to a gibbering wreck by the attempts of her husband Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer) to drive her insane. Years before Bergman’s work with Roberto Rossellini, Cukor saw just how intriguing it could be to test her limits as a sufferer, and he’s stirred by the contrast between her healthy appearance and the emotional masochist within her who was most effective (and most touching) when enduring ordeals. It’s like a surreal S&M chamber play, a Victorian Night Porter (Liliana Cavani) (1973), a specifically feminist nightmare (as are sections of The Philadelphia Story, where Cukor catches the hell of sexist entrapment).
For Gaslight, Cukor was most interested in the scene when Paula finally tells Gregory off, which plays like a wet dream of revenge. He also relished a similar big scene in Edward, My Son when the formerly weak-willed Mrs. Boult (Deborah Kerr), now a messy drunk old lady who slurs and shouts, evens the score with her ruthless husband (Spencer Tracy). You get the feeling that she needed a lifetime of secret drinking in order to finally stick it to him. When Vera Segert (Osa Massen) laughs at scarred Anna Holm (Joan Crawford) in A Woman’s Face (1941), she pays for her jeers with a series of stinging slaps; Cukor films this vengeful action voluptuously, with Segert crying like a little girl as Holm smacks her. It’s a weirdly sexy scene. “What’s wrong with a little revenge?” asks Jessica Medlicott (Katharine Hepburn) in Love Among the Ruins (1975), and she means it.
Alcohol, lunacy and revenge were favourite subjects, but notice too how often Cukor can hint at the kick of sexual abandonment. Early in his career, in Rockabye, Cukor staged an extremely rough bit of kitchen foreplay between actress Judy Carroll (Constance Bennett) and playwright Jacobs Van Riker Pell (Joel McCrea): she slaps him and he shoves her, again and again, back and forth, slowly, lingeringly. There is nothing violent or disturbing about this; it’s purely playful and purely sexual (as they start to kiss on the floor, Cukor pans to food sizzling on the stove).
In Camille (1936), when Greta Garbo’s Marguerite Gautier plants a flurry of nibbling kisses on the face of her young admirer Armand (Robert Taylor), Cukor achieves a high-voltage erotic charge, and in later life he was still marvelling over “the wantonness, the perversity”, that Garbo brought to the role. “She was the author of her own misery”, he said, approvingly. Producer Irving Thalberg was taken aback by how “unguarded” Garbo was in Camille; this is true of almost all of Cukor’s actors. Even in his staid MGM version of Romeo and Juliet (1936), with too-old Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer in the leads, he emboldened Shearer to play her suicide scene as a kind of orgasm, locating the sexual tension in her nervous performing energy.
As Zaza, Claudette Colbert is a vibrantly sexy coquette, more resilient than Garbo’s Marguerite, who pulls every saucy trick in the book to snare a lover (Herbert Marshall). In Colbert’s exultant physical restlessness, we see her healthy (and manic) sexual drive. “You know a lot, don’t you?” asks Marshall’s married man, to which Colbert’s Zaza replies, “About…some things.” The way Colbert reads the line, there’s no doubt what those “some things” might be. In this neglected film, Cukor soars with a Renoir-esque first reel of life backstage at a French music hall, an invigoratingly vulgar real time re-creation of a vanished world.
In Heller in Pink Tights (1959), Cukor had the wit to place the luscious young Sophia Loren (never more relaxed and charming than as trouper Angela Rossini) behind a set of sliding doors adorned with a painting of a naked woman. When she opens the doors, her gorgeous young head appears to emerge from the painted woman’s vagina (only Douglas Sirk would have had the guts to do something as wonderful as that). Aunt Augusta in Travels With My Aunt has golden memories of her ecstatic stint in an Art Deco whorehouse. Liz Hamilton (Jacqueline Bisset) enjoys an audacious (and very funny) airplane bathroom quickie in Rich and Famous (1981). And Cukor drew a quartet of wanton, perverse performances from the ladies of The Chapman Report (1962), a bold, unsettling reaction to the Kinsey Report that had Jane Fonda as Kathleen, a frigid young widow, Shelley Winters as Sarah, an adulterous middle-aged housewife, Glynis Johns as Teresa, an overly enthusiastic respondent and, most impressively, Claire Bloom as Naomi, a ladylike nymphomaniac.
All four women are exceptional, but Bloom is the one who really packs a wallop. Naomi moves restlessly, as Colbert’s Zaza does, so that you can see her compulsive sexual urges. You can also see that’s she’s falling apart, but she shows how perilously exciting it can be to really go to the dogs. Bloom and Cukor take something that could have been merely silly and make it ambiguous and tragic. In the PBS documentary On Cukor, Bloom recalled how close she felt to the director, so close that when he asked her to play her scenes without a bra, she didn’t demur. “For George Cukor, I would have taken my knickers off too!” she chortled.
In Bloom’s uncanny, totally exposed performance, Cukor solidifies his favourite theme: the glory of alcoholic, lunatic or sexual abandonment and breakdown, the sheer sensuality of it, and, at the end, its high price (Naomi is gang-raped and later commits suicide). Cukor celebrates Ava Gardner’s animal-like sensuality in Bhowani Junction, but he shows us its pitfalls when her Victoria has to fight off an attempted rape. This sequence, a plunge into fear and violence, looks like a series of smoky Goya war prints. Cukor knew that we would be most unsettled if we could only catch glimpses of what was happening and had to fill in the rest with our imagination. The director also presided over the public self-destruction of Marilyn Monroe on the set of her last, unfinished movie, Something’s Got To Give (1963), and shot some epochal nude footage of the star swimming in a pool, the ultimate in exhibitionistic erotic (and neurotic) showing off.
Cukor used his actors, quite blatantly, as his surrogates. “If I were very handsome, maybe I’d have been an actor”, he once said wistfully, in an interview (6). Almost every on-set photo of Cukor shows him shamelessly acting out with and egging on his actors. “I don’t weep or anything, but there’s always some part of me left bloody on the scene I’ve just directed”, he said (7). Early on, high-style Ina Claire and glittering, heartless Constance Bennett were ideal Cukor women. But his main creation was Katharine Hepburn.
In Hepburn, Cukor found a woman who exemplified everything he believed in and everything he wanted to be. Thus, a butch but vulnerable actress became the seminal artistic creation of a sensitive but thrillingly earthy gay man. There’s a 1940s photograph of the two of them with matching open-mouthed smiles: they have become each other, for a moment or more, and together they created the idea of Katharine Hepburn, a grand and ennobling and essentially solitary idea. George Cukor is Katharine Hepburn, and vice versa. They helped, long before it was fashionable, to de-stabilise the sexes, and they provided an example to lyrical loners everywhere.
Only they could have brought the necessary tough-mindedness to Love Among The Ruins, Cukor’s last great film, about a former actress (Hepburn), and her worshipper, Arthur Granville-Jones (Laurence Olivier). It’s a tribute to the staying power of adoration, a melancholy but scintillating look at a lost romance renewed in old age, filled with Cukor’s devotion to the theatre and his latter-day confidence that sex and love are not killed by age, only modified.
A big flop in its day, and an iffy proposition even today, the unhinged Cukor-Hepburn Sylvia Scarlett (1935), one of his most personal films, hints at a world where gender lines will soon be blurred. Far from regarding this with horror, as so many of the directors of the time would have, Cukor knows how sexy it could be (it’s no mistake that in later years he went out of his way to praise Paul Morrissey’s Flesh  and the Warhol western Lonesome Cowboys ). Much has been made about Cary Grant’s work with Leo McCarey, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock, but it is Cukor who first discovered the clowning athleticism of Grant in Sylvia Scarlett, and then brought it out even further in Holiday, where Grant gives his most relaxed, charming and certainly his sexiest performance.
Cukor loves just about everybody in the Depression-marked Dinner at Eight (especially John Barrymore’s ruined actor, who actually troubles to find the proper lighting for his own suicide) but he seems to be especially tickled by Jean Harlow’s roaringly vulgar trophy wife Kitty Packard (just as he was drawn to Angela Lansbury’s razor-blade maid in Gaslight). In the famous last lines of Dinner at Eight, Kitty is making small talk with Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler), a dignified but earthy old actress. “I was reading a book the other day!” she announces. “Reading a book?” asks Carlotta, clearly taken aback. “Yeah, it was all about civilisation or something, a nutty kind of a book”, says Kitty. “Do you know that the guy says that machinery is going to take the place of every profession?” Carlotta looks Kitty up and down, platinum hair, proud bust and all, and quips, “Oh my dear…that’s something you need never worry about.” This exchange is pure Cukor.
He might not have been as obvious as the Kitty Packards of this world, but Cukor loved vulgarity and his movies bloom with it, unashamedly. Constance Bennett’s Judy Carroll in Rockabye brags about being a “hard-boiled trollop from Second Avenue” and the movie celebrates her brassiness. Rockabye is a weird quasi-soap opera, with two scenes in which Judy has to Give Up Her Baby and another where she is asked to nobly Give Up Her Man, both of which the director seems to be sending up.
Cukor may have been known as a woman’s director, but he never made a real weepie woman’s picture, just as he never handled a generic men’s action film (the wartime assignment Winged Victory  being the only exception). He never worked on screen with Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck, and the ideal Cukor woman, Katharine Hepburn, is as far away from Stanwyck’s Stella Dallas or Davis’ Charlotte Vale as you can get. Cukor wasn’t attracted to self-sacrifice. He subscribed to the religion of self-improvement.
Even ostensible villains, like Alfred Pratt (Leigh Lawson) and his mother (Joan Sims) in Love Among the Ruins, are looked on fondly by Cukor because of their positive shamelessness and their attempt to rise above their social class. Cukor’s stylised version of My Fair Lady is most electric when Eliza (Audrey Hepburn) tells some vulgar, impeccably enunciated stories to the shocked ladies of Ascot. Cukor believed in Pygmalion transformations, but he knew that you could never really escape where you came from, and he always saw the humour in that.
Cukor’s work covers a wide spectrum of moods. Is any comedy as gentle and quiet as his Pat and Mike (1952)? Just two years later, is any movie as deeply committed to utterly uncontrolled emotional chaos as his A Star is Born? Though it was badly cut after its release and only partially restored today, A Star is Born feels like it would always be fragmented. It is both Cukor’s most characteristic film and his most flawed.
The first sequence at a premiere is unusually showy for Cukor: he goes in for hand-held cameras, exploding flashbulbs and deep reds and blues, ending with the first meeting between Norman Maine and Esther Blodgett (on stage) and climaxing rhythmically with a peal of starlet laughter. Cukor is still impressed by Hollywood glamour, but, as the film goes on, he emphasises the cruel de-humanisation rampant in Hollywood studios.
Cukor experiments with colour and rhythm all through the movie, but he zeroes in mercilessly on his two stars. With James Mason, he guided the actor into the depths of despair. Mason is especially touching in a long take when he quietly breaks down, in bed, right before his suicide. “All his feelings came out and he became so involved, in fact, that he could hardly stop”, Cukor reported. Mason’s Norman Maine is a selfish jerk most of the time, especially when he mocks his wife’s Oscar speech, but he has a sense of humour about his desolation. Holed up in a sanatorium, he says, “We dine here at 5:30. Makes the nights longer.”
Cukor bragged about how he got Judy Garland to emote for him, and she’s really something on her “Man That Got Away” number, especially when she steps forward, goes out of focus for a moment, and then comes through belting, but he can’t focus her three big scenes towards the end. Cukor was especially impressed with Garland in a scene after her husband’s suicide when she breaks out of a lethargic depression to scream at an old friend (Tommy Noonan). It’s a volcanic eruption, but off-puttingly indulgent too. Because he’s so into what Garland is doing, Cukor doesn’t notice that Noonan ruins the scene by trying to top her in his delivery. He thought Noonan “stayed right with her”, but that isn’t so. Cukor is not a democratic director. He’s devoted to the stars.
Yet if the stars don’t interest him, Cukor can give a lift to small-time players. Everyone seems to agree that A Life of Her Own, a Lana Turner vehicle, is the nadir of his output, an unwanted assignment that Cukor couldn’t do anything with. But look at the way he concentrates on the underused Ann Dvorak in the first 20 minutes of the movie. Playing Mary Ashlon, a washed-up model, Dvorak does a compelling and finally heartbreaking study in self-destruction, and without that distinctive Cukor-ian sense of pleasure.
We find out everything that we need to know about Mary in the brief time that we know her. We see her defensiveness, her corroded egoism, her last flare of hope. This is a woman who, without realising it or planning it, is about to commit suicide. Cukor shows the final spurt of energy that accompanies an unplanned suicide, the despair hovering above rock bottom that insists on action of some kind. When we hear that Mary has thrown herself out a window, we are saddened but not surprised, and she haunts the rest of the hopeless movie. Even on a film he couldn’t stand, Cukor is ready for revelation.
Cukor was famously fired from Gone With the Wind (1939), supposedly because Clark Gable didn’t want this “woman’s director” throwing the movie to Vivien Leigh. (Wherever the truth lies, an on-set photo of Cukor acting out one of the women’s roles next to a smirking, impatient Gable gives some credence to this story.) “You can always land on your feet if you know where the ground is”, Cukor said, echoing his risk-loving characters. It’s a shame that he didn’t get to lead that most self-indulgent of Southern belles, Scarlett O’Hara, into even greater fits of selfish folly. But his preparation is still there in the best scenes of Gone with the Wind‘s first half. Scarlett is above all a Cukor heroine, dancing by herself in her widow’s weeds, consistently outrageous, completely foolhardy.
At a low point in his career, in the early ’40s, Cukor was saddled with sub-par films for the MGM Big Three (Garbo, Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer). The Garbo movie, an extremely poor comedy called Two-Faced Woman (1941), is a profound insult to its star (it was her last film). But Cukor finds the time for one his favourites, Constance Bennett, to have a memorable Cukor-ian moment of hysteria. Enraged at a turn in the plot and determined to keep her poise, Bennett’s stylish Griselda Vaughn saunters over to a mirror, lets out a bone-chilling scream, then saunters away. Typically, she has an audience for this display of temper, two awestruck girls. Cukor characters always love an audience.
Her Cardboard Lover (1942), a claustrophobic adaptation of a French farce that Cukor had staged in the twenties with Laurette Taylor, made a somewhat appropriate career finale for Shearer. Most of it takes place in a bedroom, so Cukor contrasts the static set-ups with near-constant hysteria. Cukor lavished his laser-like attention on Crawford for two minor films, Susan and God and A Woman’s Face. In Susan and God, a vague tale of religious mania, Crawford seems out of her depth at first, but she eventually settles in and gives a good high comedy performance, counterbalanced by the desperate quietness of Fredric March as her alcoholic husband. March has a striking moment in his first scene: he staggers out of a movie theatre, sees himself in a mirror, and makes a sour, “Oh, so it’s you?” sort of face, a perfect detail. For A Woman’s Face, Cukor drew out all of Crawford’s woundedness and pathetic hopes in a character study about a scarred lady gangster. Both movies fall apart in their second halves, but Cukor got more out of Crawford than she might have thought she had in her.
Further afield in his range, there are two superb adaptations of Victorian literature: Little Women (1933) and David Copperfield. Cukor was surprised by the grit and honesty of much of Louisa May Alcott’s book, and, with Katharine Hepburn’s definitive tomboy Jo March, he avoided the sticky pitfalls of Little Women, bringing a sincere appreciation to its values of home and family. David Copperfield is a character actor heaven, and the best film adaptation of Dickens (no small feat). Cukor pulls off a kind of dream movie Dickens, with a dream cast: Basil Rathbone as Murdstone, Edna May Oliver as Betsey Trotwood, Roland Young as Uriah Heep, and, the masterstroke, W.C. Fields as Mr. Micawber. With his aptitude for drinkers, Cukor makes the most of the Great Man and he even improves on Dickens: Dora’s (Maureen O’Sullivan) death, handled so cheaply in the novel, is made moving in Cukor’s film.
Cukor could be a shape-shifter, too. He adapted completely for the attitudes of different decades, and, when asked, he made a perfect imitation of an Ernst Lubitsch film, One Hour With You (1932), whereas the formidable Otto Preminger tried to do the same thing twice in the ’40s, (A Royal Scandal  and That Lady in Ermine ) and failed miserably. When confronted with a salvage job on an idiotic Liszt biopic, Song Without End (1960), Cukor gleefully set to work turning beer to champagne (or, at least, 7-Up) and helped lead Dirk Bogarde send up the hopeless material quite entertainingly. “It’s difficult to be either good or bad”, says Bogarde’s Lizst. “I’m part gypsy, part priest.” He is also, as Cukor was, Hungarian and shameless and brilliant.
Some of Cukor’s early films are marred by dated stock theatre scenes that he carries out with zero enthusiasm (Dinner at Eight goes dead halfway through for about ten minutes when Mrs. Talbot [Karen Morley] lugubriously talks to her straying husband [Edmund Lowe]). In fact, Cukor was rarely concerned with a film as a whole; he was fired up about certain scenes to the point of obsession. “I always tend to lean toward a film that has left some impact on the viewer in several scenes, even if it is not a great film in one’s overall judgment”, he said (8) If this means that his work is fragmented, these fragments, taken together, do start to make an awesome whole.
Cukor did have to deal with the smugness and condescension of Garson Kanin’s scripts (often with Ruth Gordon) for A Double Life, Adam’s Rib (1949), Born Yesterday (1950), Pat and Mike and It Should Happen To You (1954), an uneven satire on pointless celebrity. Cukor was best able to transcend Kanin’s flaws with The Marrying Kind (1952), a small, profound film about marriage. As the couple in question, Florence and Chester Keefer, Judy Holliday and Aldo Ray feel right for each other (he croaks and she squeaks), but Cukor sees how life (and money problems) can tear perfect couples apart.
Cukor never quite cracked Judy Holliday’s impervious comic technique (her basso “ba-booms” during her gin-playing scene in Born Yesterday are still funny, but the rest of her performance feels mechanical). In The Marrying Kind, though, Cukor breaks through to her on a human level, particularly in the ghastly scene where the couple loses one of their children. The family is on a picnic, and Florence strums a ukulele while she sings a silly little song called “How I Love the Kisses of Dolores”. It’s idyllic, really lovely, but we begin to see people’s legs running back and forth at the top of the frame, and the couple finally realises that something is wrong: their son has drowned.
This is a flashback; in a quick, almost brutal cut, Cukor brings us back to the divorce court where Florence has been telling her story. She’s crying and beating her fists on a table, as if the drowning had just happened. Cukor knows that there is a difference between self-destruction and life-destruction, and the way he catches that difference in The Marrying Kind is unforgettable. So often in Cukor’s work, love is either a fool’s paradise or a hellish no exit. It’s hard to forget a strange scene in Girls About Town (1931) where loose lady Wanda (Kay Francis) and her beau of the moment (Joel McCrea) shout “I love you!” at each other over and over again, trying to make the words mean nothing, until all easy sentiment is completely nullified.
“Boys!” coos Amanda Dell (Marilyn Monroe) in her teasingly coitus interruptus rendition of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” in Let’s Make Love (1960), later confessing that she’s “not supposed to play” with them. That might have been Cukor’s motto as well, for examples of homo-eroticism in his work are rare, yet the unbridled Pre-Code campiness of the obviously gay Mr. Ernest (Tyrell Davis) in the little-seen Our Betters (1933) has been embraced by queer theorists. Mr. Ernest, a dance instructor sporting clown-like lipstick, sums up three Cukor obsessions in a single line: “Ah, what an exquisite spectacle, two ladies of title kissing each other!” Indeed, Our Betters, adapted from a brittle, bitter Somerset Maugham play, reads as gay all around. Lady Pearl Grayston (Constance Bennett) and her friend the Duchess (Violet Kemble-Cooper) share a young man (Gilbert Roland) between them at a house party. It could easily be two older gay men sharing a trick.
The gay mix-ups in Sylvia Scarlett are also potent, but Cukor is quite discreet about his sexual desires on film, at least until the end of his career. David Wayne’s Kip in Adam’s Rib reads as gay, but the script tells us otherwise. Cukor films certain actors, especially Joel McCrea, Cary Grant and Aldo Ray, with respectful fondness, but not until The Chapman Report did he unabashedly film Ty Hardin with the sensual attention that his straight colleagues took for granted. (Uninspired by Anouk Aimee, he also showed the same erotic alertness to Michael York in Justine .)
In his last film, Rich and Famous, Cukor was twitted by critic Pauline Kael for filming sex scenes with Jacqueline Bisset’s Liz Hamilton that made her seem like a gay man. Cukor shoots Bisset watching a young boy (Matt Lattanzi) pulling down his skin-tight blue jeans as if he is riffing on Pink Narcissus (Jim Bidgood) (1971), but the scene actually has just as much to do with the director’s recognition of Bisset’s butchness as it does with his own point of view. A farewell to California, New York and willing young boys, Rich and Famous is a wintry, melancholy swan song about strained but warm friendship. It is also a loving reconciliation between vulgarity and art, a line that Cukor straddled masterfully all his life.
There are three archetypal Cukor scenes. The first is in Camille, when Garbo’s Marguerite Gautier shares a piano bench with the Baron de Varville (Henry Daniell). Her lover Armand is outside, ringing for her, and she is torn between going to him and staying with the rich Baron. The Baron knows what’s going on, and he jokes with her cuttingly as he plays the piano, daring her to leave him. Suddenly, Marguerite sees the humour in the situation. “I might say it was someone at the wrong door”, she says, teasingly, beginning to laugh. “Or, the great romance of my life!” she cries, turning on a dime into tragedy. “The great romance of your life! Charming!” sneers the Baron. “It might have been”, she cries, throwing her head back and arching her neck. As the Baron plays louder and louder and Cukor pulls in close to her, Marguerite breaks into the saddest soundless laughter imaginable.
This scene is remarkable for several reasons, not the least of which is the breathtaking sense of pace the actor’s achieve, the little stops and starts, the knife-like contempt of the Baron, the complex, rapid-fire reactions of Marguerite. The scene builds as if it were a sparkler giving off burning light and ready to go out at any minute.
This sense of irony and play beating off the grimness of life is heightened in the extended “Somewhere There’s a Someone” scene in A Star in Born, where Judy Garland’s Esther, now a movie idol named Vicki Lester, tries to distract her depressed husband by making fun of a big production number she’s filming. It’s like the best party improvisation ever, and it goes on and on, and it gets better and better and funnier and funnier as it proceeds. For a while, they forget their troubles, and laugh at the world, alone together, far from the madding crowd.
The third scene is not really a scene but a long sequence: the party within a party in the ultimate Cukor film, Holiday, a miraculous series of anti-climaxes where everything is a little bit off, everything ends before it begins. Linda Seton (Katharine Hepburn), the black sheep of a wealthy family, protests her sister’s stuffy engagement party by holding one of her own in her old playroom. This could seem defensive and childish, but Cukor sees the glory in Linda’s rebellion, and the whole time that Linda and Johnny (Cary Grant) and their friends are in the playroom, everything feels transcendent. It’s a gesture towards utopia, a wholly convincing gesture, and George Cukor, who knew about men that got away and how hearts seldom belong to daddy, was an artist who felt that theatricality and striking attitudes and drinking and going nuts and sleeping around and jumping out windows and going to a perfect party could fill life and art with constant heavenly little jabs of pleasure.
I am indebted to three people who helped me with this piece: Tag Gallagher, for making me tapes of hard-to-find Cukor films, Charles Silver at the Museum of Modern Art for screening Zaza for me, and Tom Toth for screening me his prints of Tarnished Lady and Girls About Town.
Grumpy (1930) co-directed with Cyril Gardner
The Virtuous Sin (1930) co-directed with Louis Gasnier
The Royal Family of Broadway (1931) co-directed with Cyril Gardner
Tarnished Lady (1931)
Girls About Town (1931)
One Hour With You (1932) co-directed with Ernst Lubitsch
What Price Hollywood? (1932)
A Bill of Divorcement (1932)
Our Betters (1933)
Dinner at Eight (1933)
Little Women (1933)
David Copperfield (1934)
Sylvia Scarlett (1935)
Romeo and Juliet (1936)
Gone With the Wind (1939) uncredited, replaced by Victor Fleming
The Women (1939)
Susan and God (1940)
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
A Woman’s Face (1941)
Two-Faced Woman (1941)
Her Cardboard Lover (1942)
Keeper of the Flame (1942)
Resistance and Ohm’s Law (1943) documentary
Winged Victory (1944)
Desire Me (1947) co-directed with Jack Conway
A Double Life (1948)
Edward, My Son (1948)
Adam’s Rib (1949)
A Life of Her Own (1950)
Born Yesterday (1950)
The Model and the Marriage Broker (1951)
The Marrying Kind (1952)
Pat and Mike (1952)
The Actress (1953)
It Should Happen to You (1954)
A Star is Born (1954)
Bhowani Junction (1956)
Les Girls (1957)
Wild is the Wind (1957)
Heller in Pink Tights (1959)
Song Without End (1959) completed by Cukor after Charles Vidor’s death
Let’s Make Love (1960)
The Chapman Report (1962)
Something’s Got to Give (1963) uncompleted
My Fair Lady (1964)
Travels with My Aunt (1972)
Love Among the Ruins (1975)
The Blue Bird (1976)
The Corn is Green (1979)
Rich and Famous (1981)
Judy Klemesrud, “His Living Legends Salute Cukor; ‘Thrilled’ and Witty He Gets the Credit”, New York Times, May 1, 1978.
Gavin Lambert, On Cukor, G.P. Putnam, New York, 1972.
Patrick McGilligan, George Cukor: A Double Life, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1991.
Gene D. Phillips, “Fifty Years of Filmmaking”, Films and Filming, January 1982.
Mary Rourke, “George Cukor – A Magnificent Obsession”, Woman’s Wear Daily, April 25, 1978.
Articles in Senses of Cinema
A Woman’s Face by Karli Lukas
Bi-Polar Gender Bender: Sylvia Scarlett by Peter Kemp
Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Several online articles can be found here.
George Cukor at Reel Classics
Dedicated to Cukor and the films Philadelphia Story and My Fair Lady. Includes posters, film images, links and sound bytes.
American Masters – George Cukor
Feature essay on Cukor by Gavin Lambert.
Special Collections Manuscripts – George Cukor Collection
Outline of all Cukor material housed in the Margaret Herrick Library.
Tim Dirk’s detailed plot synopsis.
Tim Dirk’s detailed plot synopsis.
- Patrick McGilligan, George Cukor: A Double Life, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1991.
- Judy Klemesrud, “His Living Legends Salute Cukor; ‘Thrilled’ and Witty He Gets the Credit”, New York Times, May 1, 1978.
- Gavin Lambert, On Cukor, G.P. Putnam, New York, 1972.
- Mary Rourke, “George Cukor – A Magnificent Obsession”, Woman’s Wear Daily, April 25, 1978.
- Gene D. Phillips, “Fifty Years of Filmmaking”, Films and Filming, January 1982.