Cukor, George: A Life–1932–Discovering Hepburn

While at Paramount, George Cukor befriended David O. Selznick, an ambitious young man, who would have tremendous influence on the first decade of his career.

Selznick had taken Cukor in hand when he arrived at Paramount, fresh from the New York Stage.  When Selznick left paramount in the fall of 1931, to become RKO’s head production, he asked Cukor to come with him.  Because  Cukor was not popular at Paramount at this particular juncture, and was generally undervalued by studio executives, Selznick had little difficulty in getting him out of his contract.  Paramount executives were, in fact, relieved to see him leave.

When Selznick arrived at RKO, the fledgling studio was foundering.  RKO was the first major studio to be formed during the sound revolution.  The immediate problem Selznick faced was the lack of high-quality properties.  His one-year contract made him, as his wife Irene said, “a young man in a hurry.”

At RKO Cukor was given better material to work with.  The three films he made in l932 at RKO had short shooting schedules and small budgets.  With the exception of A Bill of Divorcement, they were not prestigious productions; RKO simply lacked the resources.

Cukor committed himself to direct eight films for Selznick at RKO.  But he wanted to explore opportunities outside the studio. In July 1932, he told Selznick that John Barrymore had spoken to Irving Thalberg at MGM about directing his old stage success, Reunion in Vienna.  “If, by any touch of fate,” Cukor noted, “he asks for my unique services, will you smile at the idea?” Thalberg, however, did not jump at the suggestion.

To tease him, Selznick sent Cukor a cautionary note with a message: “If you go into the moving picture business, be careful.”  The Russian art director Leonidov was sentenced to life imprisonment, and two others were sentenced to death.  They were all accused of spending money recklessly.  “Russia would be a dangerous place for some American movie experts,” Selznick noted, “We had all better kept out of Russia.”

Cukor’s first film at RKO was What Price Hollywood?, the story of a gifted movie director who helps an ambitious waitress to become a movie star while his career disintegrates into alcoholic ruin.  The project was dear to Selznick, who had a very romantic view of Hollywood.

As early as 1932, pictures about show business were becoming a staple, with most focusing on Hollywood’s eccentricities.  He and Cukor decided to produce an honest, accurate portrayal of their world with all its comedy, pathos and drama.  Two working titles, “The Truth about Hollywood,” and “The World, the Flesh, and the Movies,” were dropped, because they were pompous and failed to convey Selznick’s more realistic vision for the film. 

The inspiration for screenwriter Adela St. Johns’ story derived from the real-life relationship between silent star Colleen Moore and her producer-husband John McCormick.  But Sherman’s character also echoes the life of Marshal (Mickey) Neilan, a silent film director with a drinking problem.  Others suggest that it was based on John Barrymore (who would play a similar role in Cukor’s l933 Dinner at Eight).

Selznick originally commissioned the story for Clara Bow, holding the material needed an exciting actress to uplift it. He considered her ideal for the part. Bow’s career, however, was fading, and Selznick could not dissuade her determination to retire from the screen.  Constance Bennett was offered the role, and the story was re-written to fit her particular talents.  One of the first stars of the sound era, Bennett projected sophistication, glamour, and wit.

Lowell Sherman, a fine actor from silent films who never achieved stardom, was cast as the director.  Though playing a drunken and disagreeable character, Sherman succeeded in making the director’s bitterness sympathetic, and his suicide really touching. Sherman gave a prophetic performance; he died two years later.

Cukor’s handling of the climactic suicide scene was highly original for its time.  There is a quick succession of shots in which the director relives his life, from the early triumphant days to the more haggard and desperate ones.  The sequence is accompanied by an extraordinary sound effect –an eerie whirling sound, which soundman Slavko Vorkapich achieved by attaching a string inside a cigar box and spinning it around.  The impact of this scene was so compelling that Cukor urged Selznick to give a separate credit to Vorkapich, for “special effects.”

The small, incidental details of the picture are perceptively observed by Cukor.  His ability to draw the audience to the characters is particularly telling in an early sequence, in which he illustrates Bennett’s ambition and dogged determination to succeed.  Bennett has a small part in a film, a single throwaway line, but she is so nervous, that her performance is terrible and the director fires her.  She goes home and stays up all night rehearsing alone, trying to perfect her role.  Cukor lets the audience sees Bennett’s gradual improvement as she slowly regains her nerve.  When the film’s producer sees the dailies, he puts her under contract.  In her finished performance, seen in rushes, a star is born before the audience’s eyes.

But the quality of What Price Hollywood? is uneven.  The film was pushed into production too quickly, with a script that Cukor did not wholeheartedly approve of. The narrative is unfocused, shifting to an uninteresting and silly romance between Bennett and her polo-playing husband, which ultimately weakens the film.  Cukor fought to keep the story focused on the relationship between the star and the director, which later versions of the story did, but he was overruled by Selznick.  Selznick later admitted Cukor was right, and wished he had spent more time on the script.

The writing credits on What Price Hollywood? turned out to be problematic.  A number of writers, besides Adela St. John, worked on the shooting version of the script.  After being burned by Lubitsch, and remembering his experience with Milestone on All Quiet on the Western Front, Cukor was particularly sensitive to the issue of credits.  A committee from the Academy’s Writers Branch delved into the script, which was nominated for an Oscar, because a number of writers worked on it.  After reading all versions of the script, the committee stipulated that credit for the original story should go to Adela St. Johns and Jane Murfin, and that Robert Presnell should have also received credit for his share of the adaptation.[iii]

Cukor always showed great concern for the writing in his films, perhaps because he was a frustrated writer himself.  Of the various collaborators in the film production process, he always held the utmost respect for the writer–to the point of not allowing his performers to change one word, once the script was finalized.

“Although every artist has his ego,” Lambert commented, “George was not as egotistic as many directors I’ve known.” “For one thing, “he was extremely generous to writers.  George was generally modest, and that is one thing that delayed his just recognition for a long time.  He never publicized himself a great deal.”  Without doubt, Cukor’s career suffered because he was neither a writer nor a producer of his films.

What Price Hollywood?  Constance Bennett

Though Cukor held the highest regard for writers, he was much more dependent on the actors for establishing his own style.  He understood early on that his forte was working with actors, showing their unique qualities.  And because he was often assigned mediocre screenplays, over which he had little or no control, he placed special emphasis on casting the right performers.  Indeed, Cukor’s stature as an actors’ director rose with the performance he coaxed out of Constance Bennett in What Price Hollywood?  

“He is a rare thing,” said Bennett in 1933, “an unselfish director.  He doesn’t make a show of what he’s giving the actor.  He doesn’t specialize in so called ‘directorial touches,’ to emphasize his own activity.  he keeps himself in the background.  To him, the story–and consequently the people through whom the story’s being told–are the important thing.”  Actors trusted Cukor implicitly.  “You know that first and foremost it’s you and your part he’s thinking of,” Bennett explained, “So naturally, with a little shrug, you’ll work like a slave, because you realize you’re safer in his hands than in your own.”

Given a lavish publicity campaign, What Price Hollywood? opened in New York at the Mayfair Theater, and soon became one of the year’s top grossing films.  Walter Winchell, the influential columnist, gave the film a generous appreciation.  The grateful Cukor thanked Winchell in a personal note, an unusual deed for a man who never corresponded with critics or columnists.

What Price Hollywood? is one of Cukor’s most interesting films, despite its contrived ending and shifts in tone from satire to pathos.  The film still maintains a fresh and timeless quality in its observations about movie stardom.  This makes What Price Hollywood? one of the most enduring pictures about Hollywood.  Selznick later used the same story for the 1937 version of A Star Is Born, starring Fredric March and Janet Gaynor, which Cukor was offered to direct but turned down.  And Cukor himself would later use the same theme in his l954 musical version of A Star is Born, written by Moss Hart and starring Judy Garland.  Though both succeeding films are better constructed, What Price Hollywood? can still stand on its own merits.

During the course of this film, Cukor’s friendship with Irene Selznick, Louis B. Mayer’s daughter and Selznick’s wife, became more intimate.  Selznick encouraged their friendship; Cukor was no threat to their marriage and he knew that Irene needed friends of her own.  Cukor was also friendly with Irene’s sister, Edith, who was married to William Goetz, a top Paramount executive.  Cukor became Irene’s most personal confidante, which, given Selznick’s womanizing tendencies, put him in an somewhat awkward position.

Stories from the set of What Price Hollywood wafted across Hollywood.  Rumors circulated that Cukor was vituperative in a way that was not only amusing but got results; even his profanity was salutary.  Irene Selznick described the young Cukor as a man who had “invigorating viewpoint and original personality,” and was “full of beans, taste, and humor.”  Cukor also had a sharp eye for style, which made him natural choice to direct A Bill of Divorcement, his second feature at RKO.

A family melodrama, the film raised genetic questions about mental illness, and moral questions about granting a divorce on the grounds of insanity. The title refers to a bill for liberalizing divorce, which was placed before the British Parliament.  The story revolves around Hilary, a mentally unstable man who escapes from a mental asylum and returns home on the day his wife is to remarry.

Clemence Dane’s play was a great success in London in l921, and in New York in l928, where it made an overnight sensation of actress Katherine Cornell.  By 1932, when the play was optioned for the screen, however, the material was already dated.  Given its subject matter, the play was considered an unlikely property for Hollywood.  Selznick realized that authenticity and delicacy would be vital in successfully transferring the material to the screen.  And he wanted to avoid at all costs the static feeling of most screen adaptations of stage dramas.

John Barrymore was signed for the role of the husband-father.  Selznick was at first hesitant to pay Billie Burke the 2,500 dollars a week she requested for playing the wife-mother.  But knowing the actress and her work from the stage, Cukor demanded she be cast.

A small budget, under $300,000, precluded the casting of a big female star for the pivotal role of Sydney, the daughter.  Even RKO’s two female stars, Constant Bennett and Irene Dunne, were too expensive.  Dunne’s contract, for example, specified a salary of 50,000 dollars per film, which was out of the question.  Selznick and Cukor had little choice but find an unknown actress.

Cukor knew that Sydney was an extraordinary role for any actress, let alone a newcomer.  The search began at RKO, first among the contract players.  Anita Louis and Jill Esmond, Laurence Olivier’s first wife, were seriously considered–and Esmond was chosen.  Esmond and Olivier had been at RKO when Selznick took over the studio.   But Olivier, who had found little success in Hollywood at this point, persuaded Esmond to pass on the role and return with him to England.

Discovering Katharine Hepburn

Again the search was on.  It just happened that Merian Cooper, a director and longtime friend, brought by Selznick to RKO as a producer, was given a photograph of a promising new girl, Katharine Hepburn, who was then playing on Broadway in The Warrior’s Husband.  The critics were unanimous only in praise of Hepburn’s legs.  But Kay Brown, Selznick’s influential story editor in New York, looked into it. “She has done only three plays,” Brown wrote, “but her salary demand, 1,000 dollars a week, is too excessive.”  Selznick thought that it was inadvisable to spend money on a test, but Cooper insisted that the NY office make a test and send it to Hollywood.

When Cukor saw Hepburn’s test, a scene from Philip Barry’s Holiday, he was instantly taken by the actress.  Hepburn was quite unlike anybody Cukor had seen.  She was odd looking, and had a peculiar voice.  Though she had never made a movie, Cukor could see that Hepburn had good instincts about the camera.  Cukor’s eye lingered over a lyrical moment in her test, when she reached down to pick up a drink.  Though shot from the back, Cukor sensed enormous feeling in the way she executed this simple gesture.

With Cukor convinced that Hepburn was their leading lady, Selznick agreed to go ahead and take a chance, even though she negotiated a rather shrewd contract, demanding not only a high salary for a newcomer, but also the option of going back to the theater from time to time.

Hepburn set out by train for Hollywood, arriving in early July, 1932.  Her initial encounter with Cukor was anything but auspicious.  Along the way, something lodged in Hepburn’s eye, causing a terrible inflammation.  “I arrived in California with a steel filing in my eye,” Hepburn recalled, “and nobody paid attention, least of all George, that I was really quite ill.  I had two red eyes!”

Wearing a new, expensive outfit purchased for the occasion, Hepburn entered the room, where Cukor was waiting.  He greeted her with an odd, but cordial, look.  He immediately sensed her self-assurance. “I thought her rather la-de-da,” he later commented, “She was wearing a rather arty dress.”

Hepburn was actually shaky and a bit scared. “Mr. Cukor,” she said, “I have something in my eye.  Do you have a doctor?”  Ignoring her question, Cukor, who may have been as nervous as she was, said, “I want you to see the sketches,” and proceeded to showed her the designs of her costumes.

“What do you think of them?” asked the director.  Hepburn looked at them and said, “They are horrible.  I really don’t think a well-bred English girl would wear anything like that.” “What do you think of what you have on?” Cukor retorted.  Taken aback, Hepburn said, “Well! I’ve paid 350 dollars, and I think it’s very smart.” “Well, I think it stinks,” Cukor said, “You’re the damnedest looking girl I’ve ever seen, and that’s an awful outfit you have on.  What makes you think you know so much about clothes?”  Hepburn paused, and with great forced amiability said, “Oh, do you think so?”  “Now we can proceed to business,” Cukor said, taking Hepburn up to the hairdressing department, where they cut and styled her hair. “Those were my lines,” Cukor later confirmed, “and for once, Kate did not step on them.”

Cukor then went home for dinner, leaving Hepburn alone, her eyes still irritated, with no doctor in sight.  Fortunately, John Barrymore came in and helped her solve the problem.  Barrymore’s behavior was much more sensitive than Cukor’s.  “Miss Hepburn,” Barrymore said, “I’ve seen the test. You’re going to be a great star.”  When Cukor heard rumors that the much older Barrymore tried to seduce Hepburn, he was not surprised; he had expected it.

By July, they had a reasonably good treatment of Bill of Divorcement.  Screenwriters Howard Estabrook and Harry Wagstaff Gribble worked hard on the dialogue after Cukor’s persistent complaints that it was too long-winded and overwritten.  The quality of writing was one area in which Selznick trusted Cukor implicitly.  But when shooting began, despite Cukor’s efforts, the script was still barely passable.

Hepburn remembered her very first scene with Barrymore.  He came in, wearing a hat and a raincoat, and was fiddling around with some pipes on the mantlepiece.  He turned around and looked at her; she was standing off camera.  Watching him with the cold eye of youth, she thought he was overdoing it and was actually not very good.  With all these unkind thoughts passing through her mind, Hepburn was acting away, full of sincerity, tears streaming down her face.  She then realized she was doing a little too much herself.  When the take was over, Barrymore took her chin in his hands and said, “I’d like to do it again.”  Which he did, and his performance was entirely different.  Barrymore realized that Hepburn was a kid to whom the movie meant a great deal.  “The poor thing,” he must have thought, “I’d better do a little better here.”

Barrymore gave a restrained but touching performance in a subservient role.  Cukor had never worked with Barrymore before, but found him very open and accessible.  Cukor was sensitive, for Barrymore was an established star, whereas he was still a neophyte director.  They worked well together, even became friends.

During the shooting of Barrymore’s most crucial scene, when he returns home, he appeared beaten and seedy, pleading for love.  Cukor felt that Barrymore had hit the wrong kind of tension; it was too desperate.  “Jack,” he said, “the man is happy to be home, he doesn’t know they don’t want him.”  Barrymore understood Cukor’s insight at once and adjusted his acting, playing the scene softer.

Hepburn’s performance was striking and original.  One senses how well she and Cukor worked together.  Some of it was the part she was playing.  Hepburn identified with a girl who rebels against her middle-class family.  And some of it was her own personality–Cukor noticed immediately Hepburn’s impatience and directness, which he found electrifying. He always singled out Hepburn’s “quality of cutting through correctness.”

There is a short sequence, lasting only a couple of minutes, with no dialogue, which contains essential elements of the Cukor style.  He was a master at creating the right ambiance and the right mood for every scene, be it a dialogue or a silent scene.  Barrymore has escaped from the asylum and returned home.  His daughter is alone in the house when he arrives.  She hides halfway up the stairs and watches him wandering around the room, looking at photographs, noticing things that have changed.  All the daughter knows about her father is that he was shell-shocked during the war.  The audience, of course, knows that his wife is in love with someone else and wants to divorce him.  Cukor knew how to establish the appropriate tone of poignancy and tension for this particular scene.

There is touching scene in which Hepburn asks her aunt if insanity runs in the family.  Cukor forced her to do it many times, but after the 17th time, instead of getting peavished or bored, he came over to her. “Listen, kid,” he said quietly, “are you holding out on me?  Because if you are, you’re doing the lowest thing one human could do to another.” Hepburn actually didn’t hold out; she just didn’t understand what he wanted.  But taken by his honesty, that she made a heroic effort and got it right on the 18th take.

On the set, Cukor watched every move, every gesture, and every expression that crossed his actors’ faces.  He strove to inject into the material his imagination, but also his performers’ creativity.  Cukor held that Hepburn was marked by a paradox: she was hard and tender at the same time, cocksure about herself yet humble about her work.  She could be “straight as a knife and slippery as a snake.”       There was one scene in which Hepburn really excelled, proving her potential as a big movie personality.  She takes a pillow and lies down on the hearthstone–the audiences saw for the first time that she had a lovely figure and moved beautifully.  Then, suddenly she revealed a warm, forthright smile.

Hepburn was not really good in the movie, but her appearance was so angular and strange and her mouth a scar of suffering, that she was rivetting.  Inexperienced, her honesty shines through.  Hepburn didn’t try to woo the audience with her performance.  She hasn’t experienced yet an audience liking her, so she took risks that a known actress, with an established screen persona, might not.     Hepburn’s problem, Cukor said, was that she had “more brains than she knows what to do with.”  At first, she was a little “bumptious” and argued about everything.  She had to understand exactly what Cukor wanted and why. “She cannot do anything mechanically, just because she was told to,” Cukor said, “But when she understood, she’d do it like a saint.”  “Just because you don’t know what you’re doing,” she once told Cukor,”don’t take it out on us!  This remark hurt him very much.

Cukor was not above overt displays of anger.  In this film, he hit Laura Harding, Hepburn’s closest friend and companion.  Harding stood with her hand on a new post, waiting for someone to pick her up, and the ball on top of the post came off in her hand.  Not knowing what to do with it, she handed it to the boy who was dancing with her.  The actor was so startled that he yelled loud.  Cukor came over and hit her in a fury–she destroyed a wonderful take of a complicated shot.

Cukor’s use of music in Bill of Divorcement was shrewd.  There was a touching moment, when Hepburn sits down at the piano with Barrymore.  Barrymore’s musical gifts are coming back–he’s going to write a great sonata.  They play together and the music rises to a crescendo of bitter-sweet laughter as the film ends.  This scene wasn’t in the play, it was invented for the film.  The trick was so good that Cukor plagiarized from himself, using it again in Camille.

After a preview of Bill of Divorcement, Merian Cooper congratulated Cukor.  He reported that every woman he talked to actually cried during the screening.  There was some inappropriate laughter in the wrong places, which concerned Cooper, but two friends of his, who sat in the second row, said it came from some children.  Cooper did suggest to reshoot some of Hepburn’s close-ups.  Believing she was going to become a major star, it was a mistake to make her appear as badly as she did in some shots.

However, convinced she was “rotten,” Hepburn declined Cukor’s invitation to go to the preview.  Instead, she escaped to Santa Monica for the night.  Then, the glowing reviews came out.  “Miss Hepburn’s portrayal is exceptionally fine,” wrote Mordant Hall in the NY Times, “her characterization is one of the finest seen on the screen.”  “This picture makes history,” noted Photoplay, “Not since Greta Garbo first lashed before screen audiences in The Torrent, has anything happened like this Katharine Hepburn.”


Hepburn would have become a star without Cukor’s launching her career in Bill of Divorcement.  But the fact that it did happen in a Cukor film made a difference.  Cukor was always proud that even though he didn’t discover Hepburn, he was the one to have launched her career.  Cukor and Hepburn went on to make ten films together: eight feature films and two TV movies.  Hepburn also became his closest friend in Hollywood, though it would take another film, Little Women in l933, for their friendship to blossom.

Cukor directed Constance Bennett in two other quickies in l932, Rockaby and Our Betters.  In Rockaby, Bennett starred in a romantic tale of Broadway actress who is denied adoption because of her underworld connections. She redeems herself in a love affair with a presumably honest playwright (Joel McCrea), only to realize he is married.  The film contains some unusually rough physical passion between the two stars.  A contrived story of a woman who sacrifices her happiness for a man, the movie was targeted to female viewers.       Our Betters, a farce about a free-spirited American social climber who marries British nobility, was the only Somerset Maugham play Cukor directed for the screen.  The British atmosphere in Our Betters was nicely handled by Cukor, though the movie was stagy.

From the start, Cukor could not tolerate actors being late or  not knowing their lines.  Cukor complained to Selznick that Joel McCrea and Paul Lukas had a “God Damn nerve,” to be half an hour late.  He let them know he was “thoroughly annoyed” and made them

promise it would never happen again.  But he asked Selznick to scold them in no uncertain terms.  Cukor had no patience for this kind of unprofessionalism.

When McCrea complained to Cukor that his part was too small, the director sent him to Selznick.  Selznick reminded McCrea that he was under contract, receiving a weekly salary, and that “decisions as to what parts you will play will be made by us, and not by you.”  Selznick thought that his part was good, and also had “the advantage of Cukor’s direction, which he hoped McCrea has learned to value.”  o protest against a part because it is not a star part, Selznick told him, reflected “a ridiculous Hollywood attitude.”

Economy and efficiency were Selznick’s rules of the game.  In January, Cukor received a reminder from Selznick concerning the status of the film.  After 14 days of work, Cukor was four days behind schedule–he has shot 44.6 minutes, instead of the optimal 46.4 minutes.  Selznick asked Cukor to stick to the original plan, according to which his average footage per day was 3.2 minutes.

Selznick ruled his directors with a strong and frugal hand.  For example, they were told they would be assigned a combined secretary/script girl, who would act as secretary when not in production, and a script girl while shooting.  Selznick made an effort to accomodate particular choices, within the cost limits.

Our Betters was Cukor’s only attempt at bringing English high comedy to the screen.  It was a form of theater seldom successful with American actors, because they were not trained in vocal nuance.  It was written and should have been performed in the Noel Coward style, a style in which the frivolous is taken seriously.

Maugham’s play is darker than Coward’s high comedies–a bitter expose of expatriate American women who have married British for

their titles.  In this work, Maugham’s women are catty and adulterous

social climbers.  Cukor thought the material was too brittle, and in his direction softened Maugham’s harsh attitude toward women,

achieving a tone that is similar to his later work, The Women.

The clever satire on the English nobility gave Constance Bennett an ideal role that fit her like a glove; it was her supreme performance to date.  “It is a natural for the ladies, detailing the scandal atmosphere of the snooty titled set of London.  Some of the dialogue was witty and sparkling, if a little slow in spots, due to an overabundance of conversation.

Cukor was unable to assemble a company equal to the demands of the form.  Only Violet Kemble-Cooper, as the Duchess, had the right technique and manner.  Ina Claire, who played the Constant Bennett role brilliantly on stage, talked as rapidly as possibly, but Bennett lacked that style.  Bennett’s gowns have been designed to make the most of entrances and exits; she strikes poses out of Vanity Fair.   One critic complained that, perhaps out of desperation, Cukor gave her a mile-long cigarette holder, and, out of desperation, she molds her performance around it.

Eternally concerned with speed, Cukor was ruthless with his performers on the issue of pace.  On his very last film, Rich and Famous, Cukor was still screaming at his actresses, Candice Bergen and Jackie Bisset, “faster, faster.”  Cukor’s model was Ina Claire’s speedy delivery.  On occasion, he admittedly “stole” Claire’s trick and used it as an advice to his friends.  During a visit in London, he went to see Gladys Cooper in a Peter Ustinov play.  Cukor sensed that something was wrong, but  could not put his finger on the problem.  The next night, he went back and realized that her delivery was too slow.  He told Cooper to speed up, and the actress was immediately rewarded; the audience applauded for the first time.     Aiming at getting peer recognition, Cukor invited director King Vidor to a preview of Our Betters.  Vidor was one of the most respected directors at the time, having directed The Crowd and Hallelujah at MGM.  Vidor complemented Cukor for his work, but was honest. He said he would never tackle a subject with so “little locomotion,” but he conceded that Cukor had the faculty of keeping it interesting in spite of this obstacle.  Vidor felt that the picture was a bit static but, focusing on the dialogue, Cukor somehow got away with it beautifully.

Vidor’s comment reinforced Cukor’s commitment to the quality of the text, knowing that his real forte was in staging the dialogue and working with the actors.   Indeed, there is very little action or conventional plot in Cukor’s best films.  But they are all noted for their strong characterization and witty dialogue.