Cukor, George: A Life–1930-1931

Cukor went back to New York after All Quiet.  But once he had tasted life on the West Coast, New York was not the same.  All of a sudden, the busy, congested streets, the noise, and the filth of the big city began to bother him.  He knew that eventually he would settle permanently in California.  It was just a matter of time.

Cukor directed no less than fifteen films in the l930s.  It was the most productive and, arguably, the most creative decade of his career.  Paramount had amended Cukor’s contract, increasing his salary to 1,000 dollars a week in July l930.

In 1930, Cukor was assigned to co-direct Grumpy, with Cyril Gardner, whom he had met during the filming of River of Romance.  This was the first of three films which Cukor would co-direct before being given the opportunity to make a film by himself.  Though elevated by Paramount to the position of co-director, Cukor’s work was not fundamentally different from what he had done as a dialogue director.  He handled the acting and dialogue, leaving the filming of the action sequences to the veteran director who had learned his craft in silent films.

When Paramount decided to remake Grumpy as a talkie, they called on Cyril Maude, who had originally brought the play to New York in 1913 with an English company. But even his expertness as the senile, testy, yet lovable old “Grumpy,” could not save the picture. By l930, the material was hopelessly outdated: The moral standards and the dramatics of the original piece could not keep pace with the changing times. For the sophisticated post-prohibition audience, the film’s crucial battles for honor were hardly worth talking about. The Variety critic wrote that the movie was “high grade in every respect, though without allure.”  The direction, however, was noted as legitimate and intelligent.

Cukor’s next assignment, The Virtuous Sin, co-directed with Louis Gassier, was appropriately described by Variety as an “average program flicker.”  Kay Francis starred in this old story of a dutiful wife, willing to make big sacrifice to save her husband,  a Russian soldier, but falls in love with the general who has condemned him to death.  Weak on theme, the film stands on Francis’ eloquent portrayal as the well bred heroine.  Francis was particularly strong in the climactic scene, when she goes to a brothel to meet the general.  Turning in her best performance to date, The Virtuous Sin helped Francis on her way up; after this film, Paramount exercised her contract option.

The film’s weaknesses were blamed on Cukor and Gassier. “The directing duo,” Variety’s reviewer complained, “have lingered over scenes which were not constructed to stand the amount of footage allowed.”  There was no excuse for the picture to run for 80 minutes, when 70 would have been plenty.

Royal Family of Broadway

Of the three films made in 1930, The Royal Family of Broadway,which Cukor was assigned to co-direct, again with Cyril Gardner, was by far the most important.  The division of labor between the two directors was clearly delineated: Cukor set-up the scenes and Gardner photographed them.  In many ways, this was an extension of the way he worked with Milestone on All Quiet on the Western Front, except that now he was responsible for the actual staging of all the scenes.  And he got credit for his work.

Herman Mankiewicz and Gertrude Purcell, who wrote the script, actually improved on George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s play. The gossipy, thinly disguised satire of the Barrymore-Drew acting dynasty was a Broadway hit in l927.  Paramount bought the screen rights for Fredric March, who recreated his stage role as the flamboyant matinee idol–clearly a caricature of John Barrymore.  Though his role is small (he is offscreen most of the time), March completely dominates the picture.

The zany plot outlines the wild fortunes of the Cavendishes, i.e. the Barrymores, Broadway’s First Family.  The hectic homelife of the incurably theatrical family provides riotous fun. March plays Tony Cavendish, who returns in a whirlwind to the Cavendish household, with reporters at his heels, after breaking the family faith and going Hollywood. Now “America’s Greatest Lover,” he is fending off an angry film director he struck in a moment of anger, and ducking legions of marriage-hungry females.  Tony dazzles his family with his colorful dramatics and outlandish conduct.

March, who had met John Barrymore, carefully studied his model.  In his clever impersonation, every lifted eyebrow, gesture, and mannerism of the noted star was imitated.  For an actor who generally lacked a sense of humor, March’s inventive lampoon of Barrymore was all the more remarkable. His bravura performance, which critics at the time described with such adjectives as “glamorous, lunatic, vital, spirited, boisterous,” garnered him his first Oscar nomination.

Ethel Barrymore, who was a good friend of Cukor, was initially livid about the gossipy material, regarding anything written about the Barrymores as “treason,” or at the very least an “invasion of privacy.”  Between the plays many clues, and  March’s exacting impersonation, there was little doubt as to who the film’s characters were. Ethel’s anger, however, was short lived.  After seeing the film, she forgave Cukor.

Though the film hosted a topflight cast, for Cukor, the major reward was working with his friend Ina Claire, an actress whose elegance he admired.  Claire was cast in the Ethel Barrymore role, as ­­­­Julie Cavendish, a woman who has long spurned marriage with her millionaire beau.  “Her whole career was dedicated to perfecting herself,” Cukor once said of Claire, “She learned that most difficult of arts, high comedy.”  Claire was a sophisticated stage comedienne, but she never blossomed onscreen.

The Royal Family was shot at Paramount’s Astoria studio in Long Island.  Edward Dmytryk who was assigned to cut the film, remembered making a poor impression on the young Cukor.  Cutters were known for being supercritical, examining every facet of a scene with a microscopic eye.  They often overlooked clever staging or effective acting to nitpick at some bit of mismatched action.

“Cutters had a tendency to act tough,” Dmytryk recalled, “and I was intent on playing the cutter.”  Dmytryk would usually first look at the dailies, then go down to the set.  Cukor would anxiously inquire about the rushes, but Dmytryk’s terse answers often left Cukor standing in stony silence.  Gardner, who had been a cutter, understood Dmytryk’s attitude. “He knew he had only to wait a little, and I’d soon be telling him everything he wanted to know.”  It would be years before Dmytryk realized that no director, regardless of his stature, was so secure that he didn’t welcome a reassuring word about his work.

According to Dmytryk, film directors were insecure with the dialogue, and stage directors were insecure with the camera.  Initially, Cukor felt uncomfortable in a medium where a look or a gesture could mean more than a spoken phrase, where upstage and downstage were replaced by camera right and camera left.  To solve the problem, they used co-directors.  The film person placed the camera and staged the scene physically; the stage man was in charge of the playing of the scene and the dialogue.

Static and stagebound, The Royal Family shows all the signs of an early talkie.  In one important scene, however, where March invites the whole family upstairs while he takes a bath, Cukor’s developing cinematic eye is evident.  Cukor suggested that the camera follow March all the way up the staircase.  The camera started at the base of the stairs, then tracked March and his entourage as they made their way upstairs, cutting as they followed him to the bathroom.  Huge, manually operated, cranes had to be used execute this shot.  The mobility and fluidity of the camera in this scene was the beginning of a breakthrough for Cukor as a filmmaker.

Coming from the theater himself, Cukor got a special kick from one funny moment that reflected a fashionable attitude toward movies within the theater world at that time.  Ina Claire and her mother are returning home from the theater in a taxi cab.  Passing through Times Square, the old matriarch glances out the window at a movie marquee and comments: “All singing, all dancing, all terrible!”

A Christmas release, The Royal Family opened to excellent reviews.  Bland Johnson, of the NY Mirror, singled out the “witty dialogue, brisk action, and eloquent direction which give the comedy a brilliant polish,” much of which was shaped by Cukor.

In the 1960s, when Cukor saw the picture again, he was struck but its conventional ideas about the theater.  “The smell of the greasepaint isn’t real,” Cukor told Lambert, “it’s plastic.”  Even in 1930, the film was dated and filled with cliches.  But it was a success d’estime, and enjoyed a long successful run. Showing the charming but childish side of actors, the film represented what people wanted to believe about the theater at the time.

The picture perpetuated the myth of the Barrymores as a crazy family, to whom nothing outside of the theater matters.  At the end, the aging matriarch, Fanny Cavendish (Henrietta Crosman), decides to embark on a tour to keep the family name alive.  But the thrill of applause brings on her fatal attack.  In the spirit of the show must go on, Julie decides to continue the tour in her mother’s place, once again rejecting her suitor.

For Cukor, The Royal Family was the first among many movies, in which he celebrated the magic quality of the theater and its performers.  Thematically, this notion would become the most prevalent in his work, as evidenced in What Price Hollywood? Sylvia Scarlett, A Star Is Born, Heller in Pink Tights, Let’s Make Love, and other films.  Coming from the stage and surrounded with actors as colleagues and best friends, Cukor’s admiration for the theater world was life-long.