Zaza (1939): Interview with Claudette Colbert, Star of Cukor’s Romantic Comedy

With no clear idea of when shooting of Gone With the Wind would begin, David O. Selznick and director George Cukor discussed a new assignment to succeed the Katharine Hepburn-Cary Grant comedy, Holiday.

If you want to know more about Gone With the Wind and why George Cukor was fired, please read my biography, George Cukor: Master of Elegance.

On February 3, 1938, Selznick agreed to lend Cukor’s services to Paramount to direct a movie called Zaza. Under the loan-out terms, Cukor would receive separate card credits on the main credit title, and his name would be in type at least 60 percent as large as the type used for the title.

Zaza was based on an old French play about the loves and sorrows of a tumultuous French music hall siren. The play had an illustrious history: In 1889, the great French actress Rejane played the title role in Paris, and in 1920, the legendary diva Geraldine Farrar sang the role at the Metropolitan Opera. Cukor perceived the Paramount remake as “terribly French,” what with “that endless exploration of unfaithfulness and the suffering of love.”

Even so, he was delighted to work for the first 9and only) time with Claudette Colbert, a subtle actress, best known for her Oscar winning performance in the 1934 Best Picture smash hit, It Happened One Night.

Colbert was cast as Zaza, a music hall performer, who falls in love with a handsome chance acquaintance, Dufresne (Herbert Marshall), only to become heartbroken upon learning that he is already married and has a child.

What intrigued Cukor was not the illicit affair, but the relationship between the domains of public and private life, the tension between life onstage and off.

In this movie, he wanted to convey to the audience a real sense of a touring company’s daily life, where privacy was practically impossible; each member of the whole troupe inevitably knows and delightfully talks about Zaza’s affairs.

At Paramount, Cukor met with less resistance to the demands of a period film than he had at Metro.  Production designer Hans Dreier, known for his atmospheric sets, came up with an interesting design for Zaza, creating an authentic outdoor cabaret complete with earth on floor. For Cukor, the period feeling of Zaza was as good as that of Camille, a highlight of the late 1930s, starring Garbo.

The picture was photographed by cinematographer Charles Lang, known for his ability to make women look ravishing.  Zaza features stunning shots of Colbert in big and elegant feathered hats.

Colbert was not the first or original choice for the lead. In fact, shooting had begun with a good Italian actress, Isa Miranda, but the latter’s accent was so heavy that she could hardly be understood.  Cukor wasn’t happy about the situation, and after a week demanded the casting of a new, preferably American actress.

Colbert, who was under contract to Paramount, told me that the incident caused quite a stir on the lot–a scandal. Cukor was after all not a Paramount contract director. Colbert recalled: “George came to my dressing room, telling me what a great play it was, how it had always been for the big star of the day, and blah, blah, blah. He really knew how to talk you into things.”

Cukor and Colbert had never worked together, but they had met years back socially, when they both were working in the New York theatre. According to Colbert, Cukor was a very personal director and, owing to his stage experience, he was particularly good with actors.

She elaborated: “In my whole experience on screen, I never felt there was enough rehearsal to discuss things with the director. The camera was given much more time than the actors. But with George Cukor, you really felt you had worked your part out. He went into deeper explanations than other directors about the character you played.”

Cukor was “a whiz with dialogue,” said Edward Dmytryk, the film’s editor, who later became a distinguished director on his own. “But was never quite at home with the camera.” During shooting, Cukor would rehearse and stage a scene, block the performers’ movements, and then allow Dmytryk to work out the specific camera setups.  “Once the cameras were rolling, Cukor was again in charge, guiding his actors.

Cukor always knew what he wanted, and he would continue shooting until he got it. “He took quite a few takes,” Colbert conceded, “but he never took unnecessary takes.  He knew when it was good and when it was bad.”

Unlike other directors (William Wyler), who demanded endless takes, Cukor held that there comes a time when the scene is really done, and you have to move it on.  Said Cukor: “At some point, you have to let it go, for that’s going to be as good as it’s going to be.  You accept it as such and don’t beat it to death, because it can only get worse.”

Occasionally, Cukor failed to get the results he wanted. Colbert recalled a scene where Zaza, dressed in her finery, gathers up the courage to go to Dufresne’s house, and his daughter answers the door. “The child was very beautiful,” Colbert said, “but not a good actress. George said to her, ‘Here is this beautiful lady, and I’ve got to see what you think.’ So I knocked on the door, and she opened it and just looked at me. And George said, ‘No, no, no, you’ve got to show me that you have never seen a lady dressed like this.’ We did it so many times, and the girl would open the door with this blank expression on her face.” After a dozen takes, realizing he wasn’t getting what he wanted, Cukor sent his star home so that he could work with the child alone.

The next day, Colbert went to see the rushes over lunch, as was her practice. “I laughed so much,” she said, “Here is the little girl and you could only hear George’s voice as he said to the cameraman, ‘Don’t cut, we’ll just keep doing it a few times, while I talk to her.’ But the same thing happened again and again. He said, ‘here is this beautiful lady,’ and there was this very blank look.’ Finally he said, as she opened the door, ‘Look, I’m a Christmas tree, I’m a Christmas tree, and I’m covered with silver balls you have never seen before!’ The little girl gave him the same blank look.” Desperate, Cukor finally gave up, forced to use a long shot of this scene.

It may not be a fluke or an accidend that very few children appear in Cukor’s films. He was known to be saying: “The idea of working with a child absolutely appalls me, as working with an animal appalls me.” Cukor understood that manipulation is the key to getting a good performance from children, and he hated that. Cukor was devastated by reports that director Vincente Minnelli told Margaret O’Brien that her dog was dead in order to get her to cry in the 1944 musical Meet Me in St. Louis.

As a result of their chemistry, Colbert seemed more personal and relaxed in Zaza than in other comedies.  Cukor thought that as a comedienne Colbert used only part of her talent and elegance, that her range was wider than she was given a chance to display.

Zaza was the only film in which Colbert had chance to display the range of her rich and pretty voice.

To assist Colbert, Cukor brought his friend Fanny Brice on the set to coach her. Colbert recalled, “It was wonderful, no other director would do such a thing. That’s going a long way and indicative of the kind of director that George was.”

Brice taught Colbert how to communicate more directly and expressly with a live audience, how to claim, command, and own the stage–for a while. “You know, kid,” Brice told Colbert in her notoriously heavy Brooklyn Jewish accent, “when you sing a ballad, if you touch your own flesh, it’s a kind of comfort to ya.”

Brice then placed her beautiful hands at the base of her neck, and showed Colbert how to make each member of the audience feel as if she was looking directly at him with her penetrating eyes and radiant smile. “When they calm down,” Brice said, “especially if it’s a serious song, I fasten my eyes right below the balcony, and I sing.”

Recalled Colbert: “When I did out and out comedy with Lubitsch (“Midnight”), it was heaven, because I understood comedy, Lubitsch understood comedy, and he was very funny himself.” But Zaza was not really a comedy. And there was a big difference between Cukor and Lubitsch, though Colbert was “crazy” about both of them. “Lubitsch was a complete personality in his own way,” she said, “he always had a piano on the set and he would play and make jokes between sets. George was not that type. His humor was with you, personally, just talking; he was too efficient to spend the day entertaining his whole cast.”

Herbert Marshall

If Colbert was ultimately perfectly cast, Cukor didn’t think that Herbert Marshall, skilled as he was as an actor, was right as the married lover.  Marshall was too stuffy, too much of an English gentleman, which meant that his adulterous duplicity was not believable.  Indeed, the film’s weaker scenes are those in which Marshall appeared, and the duo never worked again.