Cukor, George: A Life–1931-1932: Tallulah, Lubitsch Scandal

After the success of The Royal Family, Cukor’s status at Paramount changed.  His “apprenticeship” formally ended with his next assignment, which marked Cukor’s debut as a solo director.  The film was Tarnished Lady, a breezy comedy written by Donald Ogden Stewart from his short story, “New York Lady.”

Conceived as a vehicle for Tallulah Bankhead, Paramount had high aspirations for Tarnished Lady–it was her first sound film.  The studio hoped to cash in on the acclaim and notoriety Bankhead had earned as a stage actress.  After a successful debut on the American stage, the young Bankhead, still in her 20s, went to London and quickly became the toast of the town.  The English were absolutely fascinated by her. Mrs. Patrick Campbell, the witty English actress whom Cukor admired, once said, “Watching Tallulah Bankhead on the stage is like watching somebody skating over very thin ice–and the English want to be there when she falls through.”

Bankhead returned to America to make films, but Bankhead the stage idol, like Ina Claire before her, was never to achieve film stardom.  Cukor found her to be an exhilarating stage actress, but from the start he realized that the qualities which made her so exciting on stage did not translate to the screen.  Bankhead had interesting moments, but she was not at ease in front of the camera.  She wanted to look like Garbo–high cheekbones highlighting slightly tubercular hollow cheeks–but she did not have that kind of face.  Bankhead’s stage presence was striking, but her face didn’t have the kind of animation which the camera loves.  For Cukor, being photogenic was a question of movement, how the face projects under the piercing scrutiny of the camera.  Despite her enormous talent, when Bankhead spoke her mouth didn’t appear graceful, and her eyes never lit up.  “Movies were never easy for her,” Cukor said, “she wasn’t born for them.”

To make matters worse, Bankhead was miscast in Tarnished Lady.  The narrative centers around a popular heroine of the time: a socialite who marries for money when her family loses its fortune, but is tormented when she falls in love with a poor Greenwich Village writer. This classic set-up, however, suffers from a weak and untenable climax.  When she happens upon her lover talking–and only talking–with another woman, the girl’s trust is completely crushed.  Bankhead was able to handle the story’s moments of high comedy brilliantly, but she was not creditable in scenes, such as the climax, that demanded vulnerability and helplessness. 

Bankhead was slightly more established than Cukor at the time, though, as she later recalled: “Here was I, a stage actress, with a stage director and stage writers on my first American film.  We were all swimming without water wings, and we have never been in the water before.”

Bankhead found Cukor to be gallant and kind.  “If you’re tired or not up to snuff,” she told an interviewer, “he understands and makes things easy for you, instead of acting as if you’d contrived the complete feminine anatomy as a personal affront to him.”[i]  When Cukor had a correction to make, instead of bawling it out over the whole set to assert his authority or relieve his nerves–as other directors often did–he took the time to walk a few steps and say whatever he had to say into her ear.  “It’s not a minor thing,” Bankhead insisted, “Try being bellowed at for eight or ten hours a day, six weeks on end, and then tell me how you feel about it.” Almost all of the performers who worked with Cukor over the years singled out this quality, which became one of Cukor’s most consistent throughout his career.

Bankhead’s flamboyant temper flared only once during the shoot, when she refused to put on a shabby dress she thought was inappropriate for her character.  But it was Cukor who had the final word, commanding her: “Tallulah, put the dress on, now!” Bankhead said that Cukor was one of the few directors to have ever talked to her in such manner.  In later years, both joked about this incident, which contributed to Cukor’s reputation as a director who could handle the most eccentric and strong-willed stars in Hollywood.

Tarnished Lady launched one of the most enduring friendships in Cukor’s life.  In l981, celebrating his golden anniversary as a filmmaker, Cukor recalled his solo directorial debut with a typically self-deprecating humor: “I could have fallen flat on my face–but with Tallulah’s help it was quite a success.”  Bankhead and Cukor never worked together again, but they remained close friends until her death, in l968.

Cukor once again found himself in Astoria, New York for the filming of Tarnished Lady.   About half of the scenes were shot on location, giving the film a ring of authenticity, which, for 1931, was innovative.  Bankhead’s proposal scene, for example, was shot on the actual terrace of a New York apartment.  Cukor also attempted to keep the interior scenes from becoming too stagy.

The film, however, was criticized for its inferior photography and production values.  Though more cinematic than The Royal Family of Broadway, Tarnished Lady failed to draw audiences at the box office.  Credited as sole director, Cukor was blamed.

Despite the failure of Tarnished Lady, Cukor’s career was right on track.  On February 16, l931, Paramount negotiated a new contract, five months before the existing one was to expire.  Cukor’s salary jumped from 1,000 to 1,500 dollars a week, with a weekly expense account of 125 dollars.  At the expiration of the fourth option period, in July 1931, his weekly salary was increased again to 2000 dollars.  In less than two years, Cukor’s income had quadrupled.  His earnings from Paramount for l931 amounted to 73,500 dollars, a nice income for a former stage director.

While Cukor never chose filmmaking for its glamour and financial rewards, once he got used to getting paid high fees and living luxuriously, his commitment to Hollywood and his new lifestyle became stronger.  Security-oriented, Cukor seldom took big risks with his money.  With a soaring income and a sizable amount of cash on hand, Cukor began to invest his money, buying $11,000 in stocks of the National City Bank, which in l931 was a sizable sum.      Cukor had not yet invested in a house, which later would claim much of his income.  At this time, he was renting a house above Hollywood Boulevard, paying 2,000 dollars a year.  His business affairs were handled by his secretary-manager, Elsa Schroeder, who had worked for him in New York. 

Girls About Town

The fall of 1931 marked the premiere of Girls About Town, which would be Cukor’s last picture at Paramount for almost a decade.  An inconsequential romp, in the “gold diggers” comedy tradition, the story concerns two smart girls, acting as “professional” entertainers for out-of town millionaires.  One of the girl falls in love and goes straight, while the other sends her friend back to his wife and returns to her profession.

Tarts in the big city were not new ground for writer Zoe Akins. Fearing censorship in Hollywood, however, Akins bathed the film’s heroines in a charming innocence.  The women had lovely wardrobes, lots of money, and a succession of rich men, but at the end of an evening, they smiled and said good night–as if this was the extent of their activities.  Cukor realized the audience would never buy it, because something was basically wrong. “Where the hell do they get all those clothes?” was Cukor’s sarcastic comment.

But the film was deftly directed with a light touch, and its comedy sequences were sharply paced.  In one of the better scenes, the girls attempt to raise money by auctioning off their ill-gotten clothes and jewels.  A rowdy scene results which, in its tone and catty sophistication, looks ahead to later and better Cukor comedies, particularly The Women in 1939.

Despite the underlying dishonesty of the material, Cukor finessed a highly polished acting from his cast, which ultimately saved the film.  Lillian Tashman’s excellent performance, reminiscent of Jean Harlow, was particularly surprising. Tashman usually played heavies. Before Girls About Town, she had never been given the opportunity to tap into her real personality which was lively and outrageous.  Cukor saw this; his eye for casting was already well hewed by his years in the theater.  Through his direction, Cukor was able to relax Tashman, allowing her to be as amusing on screen as she was in life.  Cukor was good at facilitating this kind of transformation.  He enjoyed bringing out Tashman’s lighter side, something he was unable to do with Tallulah Bankhead in Tarnished Lady.

The rest of the cast was more than adequate.  Kay Francis’s natural elegance (she wore clothes well) contrasted well with Tashman’s vigor.  The young and attractive Joel McCrea played the lover who won’t fall for careless girls unless they reform.  And character actor Eugene Palette, in the role of the old Michigan millionaire, was funny too.

But aside from good acting, Girls About Town marked the emergence of what would become Cukor’s distinct cinematic style: Elaborately staged scenes that were fresh and unobtrusive.  In a scene where Francis and McCrea go to the zoo, for example, Cukor’s camera tracks their stroll past the various cages with a long dolly shot, interrupting their dialogue from time to time with a casual look at the animals.  This smooth and fluid camera work conveyed a natural quality to Cukor’s work.

Although The Royal Family of Broadway enjoyed much more prestige when released, Girls About Town and Tarnished Lady, which at the time were considered routine films, hold up much better–based on original screenplays, they were unencumbered by the conventions of the stage.

One Hour With You

Following Girls About Town, Cukor was assigned his most important and most problematic picture to date, One Hour with You, starring two of Paramount’s major stars, Maurice Chevalier and Janet MacDonald.  The film, a remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle (l924), was originally to be directed by Lubitsch himself.  When other obligations made this impossible, Lubitsch chose Cukor to take over, with the understanding that the film would be shot under his supervision.

The prospect of working closely with a director the caliber of Lubitsch, then at the peak of his career, was very attractive to Cukor.  And it was going to be Cukor’s movie: he made the screen tests and was consulted about the story, cast, sets, and costumes.  The actual production commenced in early l931 with a good deal of excitement by both Lubitsch and Cukor.  In the first week, Cukor directed without much input from Lubitsch; he consulted only sporadically with the senior director.

Cukor Vs. Lubitsch

In the second week, however, things began to change.  Schulberg, the general manager of Paramount, called Cukor to his office for a conference.  Lubitsch wanted closer contact with the production, Schulberg explained, since the material was so close in treatment to the directors unique style.   Schulberg asked if Cukor would consent to Lubitsch spending more time on the set.  Realizing that it was an unusual request, Schulberg tried to smooth over the awkwardness of the situation by repeatedly praising Cukor’s generous cooperation and good sportsmanship.

Cukor considered it perfectly natural that Lubitsch wanted to take an active part in the project: He was, after all, a distinguished director, a master of his craft, and the material was right up his alley.  But in actuality, he had little choice.  Cukor consented to confer with Lubitsch about each scene.  The two directors would discuss a given scene, then rehearse the actors together, or Lubitsch would watch Cukor rehearse them.  Lubitsch would then express his ideas about what needed to be changed, and after reaching a consensus, they would proceed to shoot the scene.

As the shooting progressed, Lubitsch divided his time between editing and finalizing his movie The Man I Killed and supervising One Hour with You.  Though awkward, the arrangement was tenable, and the picture proceeded without major problems–until the evening of January 26, 1932, when studio executives were invited to the first screening of the film.

It was customary for the director to be present, but Cukor was not notified of the screening.  Two days later, he received a letter from Schulberg, expressing his regret at the oversight. Schulberg claimed that he simply took for granted that Lubitsch would tell him about the event.  “I am not passing the buck to him (Lubitsch) for this apparent slight, for, undoubtedly, he had as much reason for assuming that I would tell you as I had for assuming that he would.”  Schulberg asked for Cukor’s forgiveness for the unintended affront, and assured him that the studio heads were delighted with the picture.  Lubitsch also apologized to Cukor for the oversight.

Two weeks later, on February 9, a public preview was held at the Uptown Theater in Los Angeles, for an audience of 2,100 people, including studio officials.  The main title, an Ernst Lubitsch Production, was in letters four times as large as those used for Cukor’s credit.  Moreover, it was followed by another card in large type: Personally Supervised by Ernst Lubitsch. The predominance of Lubitsch’s name in the credits was disconcerting, but the film was well received, and Cukor was given a very complementary write up in The Hollywood Reporter.

Events took a turn for the worse when, on February 11, Schulberg asked Cukor for permission to take his name off the picture. It was an unpleasant duty, but Lubitsch had told Schulberg that if Cukor’s name were not removed, he would ask for the withdrawal of his name from the project.  Shocked by the demand and incapable of making a quick decision, Cukor told Schulberg he needed a day to think it over.

Cukor didn’t sleep all night, debating what line of action to take.  Apart from the fact that withdrawing his name would be an embarrassment, Cukor concluded that it would damage his professional reputation.  The next morning Cukor informed Schulberg that he refused to remove his name from the picture.  Schulberg was shocked by the director’s feisty attitude.  He didn’t expect one of Paramount’s newest directors to have such a strong voice.  Schulberg warned Cukor that if he did not consent, he would be the laughing stock of the profession.  The manager even threatened to cancel Cukor’s contract, telling him that a man who showed little judgment and sanity about screen credit should not be entrusted with the direction of a major production.

To make matters worse, Schulberg proceeded to read excerpts from a note sent to him by Lubitsch, which further infuriated Cukor. After reading the Hollywood Reporter article, and hearing reports around the lot, Lubitsch feared that One Hour With You would be considered Chevalier’s best directed picture, surpassing his solo efforts with the star.  The spectators and the critics, not familiar with the inside story, Lubitsch noted, would probably attribute the better direction to the help of Cukor.  If it were not possible for him to get full credit for his hard work, at least he should not get any damage out of it.

Lubitsch was overly sensitive to the whole issue, because with the completion of One Hour with You his contract with Paramount expired.  On February 13, l932, Cukor received a letter from Lubitsch himself.  “I cannot tell you,” he wrote, “how uncomfortable I feel in this situation, but there was really no other choice for me.  I would honestly prefer to have my name taken off the picture entirely than to allow my reputation as a director to suffer.”

Initially, Cukor was determined to go to court.  In a prepared statement, he stressed the importance of a directors work being recognized on the screen. “Screen credit is as vital a part of the compensation which I am entitled to received under my contract as is the salary,” Cukor wrote.  He maintained that credit was like advertising, something essential in promoting his status as a director.  “My professional reputation and prestige probably will be enormously enhanced,” Cukor explained, “and I will be able to demand and receive a much higher salary than I am receiving at present.”      At the heart of the matter was Cukor’s belief that One Hour with You was much more his movie than Lubitsch’s. He was perfectly satisfied to have Lubitsch’s name dropped from the picture, and, as he wrote, “perfectly willing to bear the full responsibility of the result of this production.”  Cukor, however, lost the battle.  The picture was released as directed by Ernst Lubitsch, with Cukor’s contribution unacknowledged

 

As the shooting of One Hour with You was nearing completion, Cukor was notified that his next project would be a film with Carole Lombard.  Cukor asked to be relieved, because, following One Hour with You so closely, he would be unable to adequately prepare.  But as a contract director, Cukor was not idle long.  A week after the completion of One Hour with You, he was assigned another film, this time starring his old leading lady from Rochester, Miriam Hopkins. Much to Cukor’s disappointment, this film was never to materialize.  Cukor and Hopkins would never work together in Hollywood.

Though the Lubitsch scandal was finally settled out of court, the whole affair soured Cukor’s relationship with Paramount.  Not pleased with the level of material assigned to him, he became more and more restless. He felt he was not properly treated, and that the caliber of his talent was not appreciated by the studio executives. Cukor often joked that he might have fared better had he dropped the “C” from his name and added a “Z,” nurturing whatever confusion there might have been between he and Paramount’s powerful president Adolf Zukor, another Hungarian Jew.