Oscar Directors: Cukor, George–Comedy Acting–Style

George Cukor had always had vivid memories of the stage production of Our Betters, which featured Ina Claire in the lead and Constance Collier as the Duchess.

But unfortunately, when he was to direct the screen version, he was unable to assemble a company equal to the demands of the form.  Only one actress, Violet Kemble-Cooper, as the Duchess, came close to the desirable technique and manner.

Cukor instructed Bennett to talk as rapidly as Claire did on stage, but he realized that she lacked the latter’s brilliant technique. Bennett’s gowns have been designed to make the most of entrances and exits; one critic complained that perhaps out of desperation Cukor gave her a mile-long cigarette holder, around which she molded her entire performance.

Cukor’s model for comedy acting was Ina Claire’s speedy, stylized delivery. On occasion, he admittedly “stole” Claire’s trick, using it as an advice to his friends.

Indeed, during a visit to London, Cukor saw Gladys Cooper in a Peter Ustinov play. He sensed something was wrong, but could not put his finger on the problem. The next night, he went back and realized that Cooper’s delivery was too slow. He went backstage and gave Cooper an amiable advice–speed up the tempo.  The actress was instantly rewarded as the audience applauded at the right places for the first time.

Eternally and endlessly concerned with speed, Cukor was ruthless with his performers on the issue of pace and tempo. From his first film, he had his actors talk much faster than they may normally do. And on his very last film, Rich and Famous, he was still screaming at Candice Bergen and Jackie Bisset, “faster, faster.”