Zaza (1939): How Cukor Directed Bert Lahr for the Camera

George Cukor had a wonderful habit of using older, declining actresses in need for a job in his movies.

One of these, Mrs. Zimmerman, an elderly stage actress, was always on the set of the romantic comedy, Zaza, starring Claudette Colbert.  She was quite a character, according to Colbert, wonderful woman but very foul, even mischievous.

Bert Lahr, who played Cascart, Zaza’s faithful manager, was very annoyed by her. “Bert was a great comedian,” Colbert said, “but he was playing a straight part, and Zimmerman didn’t like what he was doing. She would sit under that camera like a little Buddha, and everything would show on her face.” When they were rehearsing, Cukor was did not see her, but Lahr couldn’t avoid looking at her.

Finally, Lahr said to Colbert, “She’s driving me crazy, I’m going mad.” “Oh, just ignore her,” said Colbert, “don’t look at her, she’s Russian, she’s got her own ways.'” Lahr then said, “I’d like to ask her if she can do a time step.” To which Colbert replied, “Bert, don’t ask her, from what I’ve seen she might be able to.”

At this point, Cukor, who had overheard the whole conversation between the actors, burst out laughing.

Cascart, Lahr’s first dramatic effort, became his breakthrough. “Cukor edited me,” Lahr later said, “He would take me aside and say, ‘Act simple, Bert, simple. Cut it down to half. You’ve got a microphone above you. You don’t have to kick it out and project to an audience of a thousand people.  Let the camera do the work for you.”

Cukor was the first director to help Lahr adapt to the specific requirements of film medium, and the actor always remembered Cukor’s advice, which boiled down to “less is more on screen.”

As always, Cukor’s direction was very precise. When Cascart is encouraging the depressed Zaza, Lahr has to deliver the line, “Oh, come now, you’ll cry your eyes out over a dozen worse fellows yet.”

During rehearsals, Lahr had difficulty making the scene work. “When you see that she is unimpressed,” Cukor suggested, “you try some other way to cheer her up. Use that funny laugh from your act.”

Lahr then ran through his repertoire of laughs until Cukor singled out the one he liked, which was appropriate for the tone of the scene.  But later, when they shot the scene, Cukor noticed that Lahr’s laugh was somehow different than the one agreed upon. Cukor stopped the cameras, and insisted on reshooting again and again, until Lahr gave him the “right” laugh.