Cukor, George: A Life–1929-1932–Making of Movie Director

In the earlier days of sound, because the technology was new, a dialogue director–who would work directly with the actors–coaching them scene by scene–was sometimes present on the set.  Stage directors were a logical choice for such a job.  With the advent of sound in Hollywood, there was a sizable influx of theater directors interested in working in talking pictures.

Cukor was brought to Hollywood from Broadway, in early l929, as a future film director.  He followed the path of Rouben Mamoulian John Cromwell and other stage directors from New York.  Salisbury, an official of Paramount Famous Lasky Corporation, approached Cukor with the offer “to direct the dialogue and to assist supervisors and directors.”  He was not entitled to receive screen credit during the first six months.  This was considered to be an apprenticeship for the purpose of enabling him to observe the manner in which motion pictures are made.

Cukor’s first agreement at Paramount was signed on December 19, l928.  Walter Wanger, then General Manager of Paramount, started Cukor on a six month contract at 600 dollars a week.  In July l929, his contract was extended for another six months, at 750 dollars.

His first assignment in 1929 was as dialogue coach for director Richard Wallace on Paramount’s River of Romance.  Based on Booth Tarkington’s play, Magnolia, the movie deals with the Southern code of honor of the l840s.  The star of the film was Charles (Buddy) Rogers, who had appeared in the l927 Oscar-winning film Wings, and was then nicknamed “America’s Boy Friend.” Rogers plays a young Southerner who returns to his hometown after getting education in Philadelphia.  The Big City has presumably made him so peaceful that he commits the unpardonable sin and refuses to fight a duel.  When his father casts him off, he starts out down the Mississippi (thus the title River of Romance). Duels interested Tarkington, especially the casual way in which young men, who went to Eastern colleges, were labeled cowards in their own towns.

Despite the potential awkwardness of what amounted to two directors, Cukor and Wallace worked well together, without conflict. The actors felt no loyalty pulls to one or the other, according to the film’s star, Mary Brian, who would later be in Cukor’s The Royal Family of Broadway.  “George was subtle,” Brian said, “he knew what he had to contribute–not just dialogue, essence too.” “George was more articulate than Wallace,” she recalled, “he was really good in communicating his ideas.”  Bringing his cumulative experience as a stage director, Cukor worked with the actors on their important scenes.  Brian remembered the film as one of the “great learning experiences” of her career.

Easy to work with, Cukor engendered great commitment in his actors.  He knew exactly what he was after, and had a very specific way of getting it. When an actor was headed in the wrong direction, Brian said, Cukor would read the scene himself and illustrate his point.  Brian remembered his readings to be “always on the mark.”

But these early pictures were also an education for Cukor, whose aspirations went well beyond being a dialogue coach.  During the shooting of River of Romance, Cukor often spoke with Wallace about the technicalities of movie making, absorbing all he could about the exciting new medium.  Cukor was using his time to learn and formulate his own techniques.  “Some directors are the outdoor type,” Brian said, “others are good with dialogue.”  “Cukor had complete control, with a well-rounded input to his pictures.”

Cukor was serious, but not really formal, in his work.  This was also reflected in the way that he dressed for work.  Unlike other directors, Cukor did not wear a suit, just a jacket and a tie. Brian recalled that he was round, “a bit fat,” because he loved to eat.  Unself-conscious about his appetite, Cukor was spontaneous and laughed about his excessive eating. “One day,” Brian recalled, “there was a strange sound on the set–it turned out to be Cukor’s tumbling, his stomach growling from his lunch.”

On the set of this film, Cukor met editor Cyril Gardner, who soon would become a director himself. In those days, editors were present on the set.  Cukor would listen carefully to the conversations between Wallace and Gardner about camera set ups, angles, and cutting.  He began to acquire not only the technical skills but the movie jargon that went along.


Over at Universal, All Quiet on the Western Front, a big-budget prestige film, was in preparation. Carl Laemmle Jr., the studio’s young head of production, was building his reputation on making quality films on a grand scale.  Laemmle committed 1.25 million dollars to put Eric Marie Remarque’s famous pacifist novel of World War I on the screen.  For the late twenties, this was a staggering budget, and a major risk for the studio.

Lewis Milestone was signed to direct through his agent Myron Selznick, the older brother of David O. Selznick, who at this time was executive assistant to B.P. Shulberg, the General Manager of Paramount.  Milestone, who had originally been a film editor, was an expert with the camera, but had limited experience with sound.  Myron Selznick, who also represented Cukor, convinced Milestone to bring the young dialogue coach onto the picture to work with the actors.  Though Cukor knew nothing about filmmaking, he understood acting and dialogue from his years of directing for the stage.   David Selznick informed Cukor in the fall of 1929 that he was being loaned to Universal at Milestone’s request.

A bleak portrayal of trench warfare, the film follows a group of German soldiers initially excited by the glories of war, but then find  disillusionment and death on the battlefield. The film is a stinging indictment of the inanity of war, transcending any political ideology.  In keeping with its anti-war theme, All Quiet officially went into production on Armistice day, November 11, 1929.  It took seventeen weeks to shoot the picture. Interior scenes were filmed on the lot at Universal, but the extensive exteriors were shot at various locations around Southern California:  the RKO-Pathe Studios in Culver City, Malibu Lakes, and Sherwood Forest in the San Fernando Valley. The crucial battlefield sequences were shot on the Irvine Ranch (now the University of California at Irvine) which, in those days, was mostly barren rolling hills, and a perfect setting for a war film.

Though Cukor was consulted, Milestone handled principal casting.  Bill Bakewell, Louis Wolheim, Russell Gleason, and Owen Davis Jr., were among the young men cast in the lead roles.  But it was Lew Ayres who gained “overnight” stardom and prominence for his sensitive portrayal of the disillusioned soldier, Paul Baumer.  Cukor was against casting Ayres in the lead.  The young actor had only been in the film industry for about a year, and Cukor felt he was too inexperienced for the lead role in such a major film.  “I felt Cukor was doubtful about my capacity,” Ayres noted, “but we didn’t have any trouble because of it.”

On the first day, Milestone introduced Cukor to the cast.  “Now, there’s a man out here from New York,” Milestone said, “who’s going to be the dialogue director.  This is his first time out here.”  They all knew that Cukor had been successful in the New York theater and had a renowned stock company in Rochester.  But beyond that, they didn’t know what to expect.

Cukor had a disarming charm which tended to win people over right away.  But on first impression, he was markedly unattractive. “He was quite plump in those days,” Bakewell recalled, “with a gargoyle-like face, black curly hair and horn-rimmed glasses.”  Cukor was extremely sensitive about his looks.  Living in a town that adored good looks and working with a bunch of handsome young men made him more self-conscious.

Critic Gavin Lambert, who befriended the director in the l960s, said, “I suppose anybody would be (sensitive), wouldn’t they? You are sensitive to the fact that you are not as good-looking as you would like to be.”  Never one to be self-pitying, Cukor didn’t talk about his looks–but he did, throughout his life, talk about his weight.  “Cukor’s real fat period was in the l930s and l940s,” according to Lambert. “Then, he took steps: He had a trainer, who made him exercise, and carefully watched his diet.”

Bakewell remembered that Cukor was also sensitive about his Jewishness.  “He would say with his very biting and caustic wit, ‘You boys are ashamed of me because I’m a Jew.'” Bakewell hastened to add that Cukor was only kidding, but most of Cukor’s friends confirm that Cukor shied away from his Jewishness.  “Unlike a lot of American Jews,” said Lambert, “who talk about it, and sort of make fun of it, ‘well you know that’s a classic Jewish syndrome, George never had that at all.”  In fact, Cukor preferred not to discuss his ethnicity.  He made an effort never to talk as a Jew.  “I don’t know whether he was uncomfortable about it,” said Lambert, “but he did not have an innate solidarity with the American Jewish movement.  Perhaps, he was embarrassed.”

“I can say,” Lambert elaborated, “that maybe he would like not to have been a Jew, but he was not going to make a big thing about it.  He was just going to play it down.  This attitude, according to Lambert, stemmed from living in Hollywood in the l930s, the time Cukor’s attitudes took shape.

“There were so many things in George that were covered,” said Lambert, “things that were never discussed, but of course he must have felt about.  Obviously, George was in many ways an enormous outsider in his time.  He was an outsider as a gay person, as a not-attractive gay person, and as a Jewish person.  All these things he had to contend with.”  In Lambert’s view, Cukor contended with them with incredible eloquence.  “Cukor was basically optimistic about life,” said Lambert, “These are innate qualities, that one either have or don’t have.”

There was also the issue of his homosexuality.  Though Cukor had been in Hollywood a year, his sexual preference was not a secret in the Hollywood community.  Bakewell recalled, “People said, ‘You guys be careful, watch out this man, he is queer.'”  One evening, Cukor asked Ayres to his Hollywood apartment for some extra work.  Ayres was extremely nervous about it. “If anything happens,” he told Bakewell, “you can forget it.”  Of course, nothing happened. “George never, ever tried or did anything like that,” Bakewell recalled, “He was too intelligent, too nice a guy.  He couldn’t have been straighter.  He was not effeminate or swishy, though you could detect maybe a little.”  

Once All Quiet was cast, Cukor immediately took the actors in hand and began working with them.  They started rehearsing two weeks before shooting began. Cukor had his work cut out for him.  The cast was young and green, and they were playing German characters.  Cukor wanted to eliminate any dialectic localism.  He was particularly concerned about the dialogue sounding too Midwestern, and worked long and hard with the actors to purify and soften their speech.

“I don’t think there was ever a director who was more qualified to direct dialogue,” said Bakewell. “George was an absolute genius as far as dialogue was concerned. We rehearsed, over and over again. He was a perfectionist, we could never please him.”  Ayres’ repeated complaint to Bakewell was, “I don’t think I can ever please him.”

Cukor was on the set every day throughout the picture. He soon became much more than a dialogue director, an invaluable assistant to Milestone.  Milestone was the kind of director who would say, “All right, now you’re coming into this scene, you’re cold and hungry, you’re angry or you’re happy.  Go and do the scene.”  But not Cukor.  “Cukor analyzed the lines thoroughly,” Ayres said, “he went on way beyond what you could even hope to remember.  He analyzed psychological motivation and meaning in every line and every word.  He had an incredible capacity for analysis, more than many of us really wanted to hear.”

Because Ayres played the leading role in the picture, and was less experienced than the rest of the cast, he was often the brunt of Cukor’s tireless perfectionism. The fact that Cukor had not initially supported Ayres’ casting only compounded the situation.

In retrospect, Ayres acknowledged the value of Cukor coaching, but at the time he was not happy about getting so much attention.  Ayres never encountered another director who could analyze a script to the degree that Cukor did.  Perhaps that, postulated Ayres, is why actresses were so drawn to him.  “Actresses may enjoy lots of direction,” Ayres suggested, “but men do not want so much. Women have a greater aptitude for learning their lines than most men.  Their gift in language is greater than men’s. It has to do with the fact that they are doing a great deal more talking.”

Cukor often stopped a scene to work on the reading of a specific line, persisting until he was satisfied with the tone of each word.  He would sit with Milestone beside the camera, literally mouthing the lines with the actors, a practice he continued throughout his career.

Bakewell recalled that even during the shooting of the battle scenes, Cukor, with a white kerchief over his head underneath a German steel helmet, to protect his hair from flying dirt, would sit behind the camera mouthing the lines of the actors, and making “sort of gargoyle faces.”  Cukor was so funny that the actors had to fight breaking out in laughter each time they looked off camera.

Ayres would work with Cukor again, eight years later, on Holiday, this time with Cukor directing. “Generally speaking,” Ayres said, “George worked in the same way, though in Holiday, he was not as meticulous as he had been on All Quiet.  That was his first job in film, and he wanted to make a statement about his capacity. When you’re a director, you’re concerned with many other things, you don’t have the time to be so specific with the dialogue.”

Principal photography was completed in the last week of March, and the film was released later that year.  All Quiet proved to be box-office hit, Universal’s biggest success to date.  The movie went on to win the l930 Oscar Awards for Best Picture and Director.

     All Quiet on the Western Front was Cukor’s first major work in Hollywood, the real beginning of his career in motion pictures. His contribution to the success of the film was formidable, but because Cukor’s name did not appear in the credits, his work never received the recognition it deserved.  Few people were aware that he was the film’s dialogue director.  

At the time, Cukor didn’t say a word, but he was quite offended.  Years later, while dining at Ayres’ house, with Bakewell and his wife in attendance, Cukor was reminisced about how the studio gave him a handful of “dreadful boys” to whip into shape.  The fact that he was not given screen credit for his work still bothered him.  “That’s the only ignoble thing I ever recall Millie doing,” Cukor said.  Cukor never knew whether it was deliberate or not, but for him Milestone neglected to share his kudos.

Cukor developed on-going friendships with Mary Brian, Bakewell and Ayres.  This became a prevalent norm with him: every film he worked on, resulted in new and long-lasting friendships.  When Bakewell was about to leave the military after four years in the Army during WWII, he received an invitation from Cukor for lunch.  “He wanted to find out what I had in mind for the future and all that,” Bakewell recalled.  Cukor remained good friends with Ayres and Bakewell through the years.  In fact, both were asked to speak at a memorial for him.