Cukor, George: A Life–1935-1937–Dickens and Shakespeare

Selznick had taste for great literature, and made a habit of keeping lists of possible literary classics he might want to eventually film.  Novels which had withstood the test of time, he believed, were a welcome change from Hollywood’s conventional formulas.  Selznick decided to push for an adaptation of Dickens’s novel, David Copperfield.  Though no one at MGM was silly enough to suggest modernizing the Dickens masterpiece, he encountered the same kind of opposition he had at RKO over Little Women.

David Copperfield

Selznick’s contract stipulated that he had control over story selection, but the MGM top brass was adamantly opposed to highbrow literary adaptations, claiming they were expensive and risky in terms box office appeal.  In a February l934 memo to the Loew’s sales and distribution executives, Selznick noted that the public was tired of hackneyed and standardized movies that Hollywood producers were grinding out with workmanlike efficiency. Realizing that the classics had to be carefully handled, Selznick emphasized that there were few producers with sufficient understanding and few directors with sufficient taste and talent to transcribe them with an “accuracy of spirit and mood.” Selznick finally convinced the studio heads that he had the understanding and Cukor had the taste and talent to tackle David Copperfield.

Bringing Dickens to the screen would ultimately change MGM’s attitude toward literary classics.  The studio’s last and possibly its greatest release in l935, David Copperfield was both an artistic success and a financial bonanza–despite its huge price tag.  With its 69 day production schedule, the movie cost over a million dollars.  Cukor made a lot of money on this film–his directorial fee amounted to 113,585 dollars.

With several pictures behind them, Selznick and Cukor had established a good working rapport.  With Cukor, this always included a heavy dose of humor, much of which was reflected in their constant stream of correspondence.  On February 9, l934, for example, Cukor reminded Selznick that it was a very important consideration in his contract to have free access to the cans on the first floor.  But, in direct violation of his contract, Selznick had locked the door on his side.  Unless this was rectified immediately, Cukor “threatened” to notify his agent, Myron Selznick, David’s brother.  Cukor hoped that Selznick would see his point and realize that his memo was not sent in an “unfriendly spirit.”  On another occasion, Cukor asked the producer to stop making cracks about his fat behind

Adapting such a monumental novel, with so many characters, was not an easy task.  Howard Estabrook worked on the screenplay’s structure, but Cukor thought that Hugh Walpole, the respected English novelist, would do a better job with the dialogue.  Walpole didn’t know anything about screen writing technique, but he understood Dickens and the tone that was needed.  His contribution was not in dramatic terms, but in giving the characters their authentic voices and right sound.

Selznick suggested at one point to make two pictures out of David Copperfield, which would cost only a hundred thousand dollars more than the cost of one picture.  The idea was to produce two pictures that, while interrelated, would also be complete in themselves.  Selznick toyed with the idea of exhibiting the two films on successive weeks (or nights), but this idea was dropped for practical reasons.

David Copperfield enjoyed a great barrage of advertising.  “America makes a British epic,” read the headline of one newspaper.  Originally, the movie was going to be made with an entirely British cast.  The plan was for Selznick and Cukor to prepare the script in Hollywood, then cast and shoot it entirely in England.  Mayer and Eddie Mannix supported the idea, hoping it would boost the film’s grosses in the British Empire, and also revitalize MGM’s British company.

Once it was decided to shoot the film in England, Cukor became impatient, demanding to know “when the hell,” they were leaving for London.  Here was his great opportunity to go to England, the world’s theater capital, which he had been wanting to see for years–but either lacked the time or money to do it.

On May 8, l934, Selznick, Cukor and Estabrook arrived in London to look for authentic types and scout locations.  Cukor got to meet the British literary elite — Hugh Walpole, J.B. Priestley, and John Masefield, all of whom attended a special lunch for the filmmakers.  Selznick told reporters that an American Micawber or Dan Peggotty “simply won’t do.”  “We won’t dare,” he said, “but anyway, we don’t want.”

In London, Cukor got in touch with the head of the Charles Dickens Society, who told him about every place associated with the novel.  Cukor later recalled that he carefully went all over the ground traveled by the protagonist.  In the end, however, they used only one second-unit shot, a charming view of the young David walking to Canterbury.

David Copperfield was not destined to be shot in London. The alternative was to make the film in Hollywood, but still use English actors.  Cukor was lucky that there were many good English actors in Hollywood at the time.  Thus, Elsa Lanchester played Clickett, Roland Young managed to look like Uriah Heep, and Basil Rathbone was cast as Mr. Murdstone.

Early on, Cukor decided that Charles Laughton would be a perfect Mr. Micawber.  Having just won an Oscar Award for The Private Lives of Henry VIII, Laughton would be the most prestigious name in the large cast.  But the capricious actor was not very interested in the role and had to be persuaded to take it.  Selznick, too, thought Laughton was a good choice, and was willing to do whatever necessary to sign him.  At the same time, he wanted to avoid delaying the production because of one actor’s ego.

Laughton finally agreed to play Micawber, but then a new set of problems arose.   Laughton had always been insecure about his acting.  “If Charles had his way,” wrote his wife Elsa Lanchester, “he never would have acted at all, because in every part he ever played, after the first two or three days’ work, he tried to get out of the picture.”  On the set of David Copperfield, the situation was worse than usual–Laughton lost his confidence completely.  He considered Micawber a ham actor who was always “on.”  If he was to play a ham actor, Laughton reasoned, he would have to make his own comments on the character.  But Dickens’ characterization was so complete that Laughton felt he had nothing to add.

Initially, he and Cukor got on very well, despite Cukor’s fears of encountering the actor’s alleged prejudice against Jews.  Laughton’s physical embodiment of the character was right, down to the meticulous makeup of his own devising.  But Laughton’s insecurities were too close to the surface.  And he began exhibiting strange habits on the set.  Laughton needed offstage noises to get himself into an acting mood, and he was the first actor Cukor ever encountered who prepared himself for a laughing entrance by walking around making “ha-ha!” sounds for hours.

Deep down, Laughton felt that he wasn’t right for the role.  Soon Cukor himself sensed that Laughton lacked the geniality that the part needed.  After one week of work, Laughton withdrew from the picture–and Cukor gave a long sigh of relief.

Selznick went to Paramount and made hasty arrangements to borrow W. C. Fields.  As anticipated, Fields jumped at the chance to play Micawber.  Physically, he wasn’t right, but his spirit was ideal.  “This is the first time in my life I ever played a real ‘character’ part,” Fields told the press, “I’ve always gone over my dialogue and made it fit my style.”

Some of the cast members were worried about Fields stealing the film, but Cukor reassured them there was nothing to worry about. “He dreamed up nothing,” Cukor said, “For the first time in his career, he followed the script, because of his admiration for Dickens.”  Cukor thought he was born to play the part, it was that rare combination of a personality and role meshing perfectly.

At first, Fields was a little wary about playing Micawber, but as soon as he got into the part he, too, knew it was made to order. “I’ve been playing Micawber all my life,” the actor said, “under a lot of different names, and never knew it.”  His performace is masterful.

Finding an actor to play the young David Copperfield was the production’s major problem.  Louis B. Mayer wanted to cast Jackie Cooper, whom he held in great affection after his performance as Wallace Beery’s son in The Champ.  Cooper was a big star and an appealing child, but Cukor shuddered at the thought of the snub-nosed American youngster as David.  Selznick and Cukor dug in their heels and told Mayer they wouldn’t cast an American, however appealing, to play such a famous English character.

An extensive search spread out on both sides of the Atlantic. Maureen O’Sullivan, who played Dora in the film, recalled that her husband-to-be, director John Farrow, was sent by the studio to scout for a young actor to play Copperfield.  “It was before we were married,” she recalled, “we went to Canada and London, but we didn’t turn up anybody.”

On their trip to England, Cukor and Selznick came upon an  attractive kid named Feddie Bartholomew.  Bartholomew’s qualities–his stage experience, charming personality and distinctly English manner of speech–made him a strong possibility in Selznick’s eyes.  But because there were problems with his parents, the search continued.  Bartholomew’s father gave interviews to the English press, implying that the boy had already been hired, falsely putting the studio in the awkward position of trying to violate English law against exportation of children for labor.

Selznick was determined not to employ the child without permission of the British government, even though the delay was costly for the studio, as the rest of the cast had been engaged.    Convinced that the British government would give their permission if matters were properly handled, Cukor and Selznick made their case, promising that the child’s schooling would not be affected, and claiming his future would, in fact, benefit by having money for his higher education.  Cukor also argued that the English public would resent seeing an American child cast as David Copperfield.

Climaxing an eight month search, the eventual casting of Bartholomew was highly publicized.  The boy was brought to Hollywood with his aunt, but problems with his father continued.  A drunken, vindictive man, Mr. Bartholomew resented the fact that the boy’s aunt was earning 50 dollars a week to look after him.  Claiming rights to his son’s earnings, he threatened to come to America and take Bartholomew home.

Cukor thought it would be a terrible disaster if the child should have to go back to his revolting parents.  The whole situation seemed to him right out of Dickens; it made Copperfield’s plight in the book light-hearted by comparison.  But the “ordeal” was well worth it.  Bartholomew gave a good performance, except for an air of British schoolboy noblesse oblige and a difficulty in crying–two problems that Cukor dealt with effectively.

Cukor had his own rules about literary adaptations.  Getting to the essence of the original, determined the picture’s style.  But, as with Little Women, this involved accepting the weaknesses in the source material.  Cukor knew that there was too much melodrama in David Copperfield, and that dramatically, the resolution of the story was unsatisfactory.  When people chided him that the second half of the film is not as good as the first, he would say, “Well, the second volume of the novel is not as good as the first.”  Cukor considered it a pity that Copperfield grew up to be such a “bore” and a “typical young Victorian.”  Though weaker, the second part did not actually let the picture down.  David Copperfield was charming, because it had vitality and its feeling was right.

Cukor understood that the “essence” of Dickens is the characters, particularily the secondary characters.  His challenge was bringing these characters to life, making them slightly grotesque yet human, funny yet frightening.  Once again, Cukor relied on his eye for casting, but he also made sure that his highly eccentric performers work as an an ensembl.  Working two dozen principals into a unified panorama, Cukor saw to it that no one, especially Fields, slipped into his routine act.     

So many unfavorable stories circulated about Fields that Cukor prepared himself for displays of capricious behavior.  But they never happened.  Even Fields’ alleged trademark–hatred for children–was not in evidence.  Fields treated the eleven-year-old Bartholomew with kindness and respect.  They spent some time together; Bartholomew became like Fields’ own son.

Fields, in fact, was charming to work with; his suggestions and ad libs were usually sound, and always in character.  In a scene in which he had to sit at a desk writing, he asked Cukor if he could have a cup of tea on the desk.  When Micawber got agitated, he dipped his pen into the teacup instead of the inkwell.  In another scene, sitting on a high stool, he asked for a wastepaper basket so that he could get his feet stuck in it.  Cukor found Fields to be cooperative and dignified (a great complement from Cukor) in every way.

To simulate the White Cliffs of Dover, Cukor used locations around Betsy Trotwood’s house near Malibu.  When he eventually saw the real cliffs, he preferred his own. “Our cliffs were better,” he commented, “whiter and cliffier.”  “A director creates things artistically,” he quipped, “and then he finds them happening in real life.”  As usual, Cukor found the research process stimulating, because there were always surprises, the result was never quite what was expected. “When you really look at things, you reeducate your eyes and your sensibilities.”

If the acting in David Copperfield and its mood were right, the art direction was uneven and incoherent, hovering between realism and stylization.  Cukor held that the more artificial the film, the better it would be.  He wanted everything to be more stylized, like the shipwreck scene.  But under pressure from the studio, the picture was less coherent and more compromising than Little Women at RKO.

David Copperfield launched another long-enduring friendship, this one with Maureen O’Sullivan, cast in the ingenue role. According to the actress, Cukor didn’t think she was very good in the film. “I didn’t quite understand what he wanted and I felt I wasn’t doing it right,” she confessed.  “I didn’t really want to do the picture.”

O’Sullivan and Cukor did not see eye to eye about Dora.  “I went for hair-dressing tests,” she recalled, “and I came back to the set to show George my hairdo, which was exactly the same as the one I’d worn in The Barretts of Wimpole Street. I’d rather fancied myself in that, and had pictured Dora as being a more fiery character, which was completely opposed to what George had in mind.  George seemed very disappointed. ‘Oh, he said, ‘I thought you were going to come up with a lovely new hairdo.'”

But Cukor was clearly in control of her characterization. “George told you explicitly what line reading he wanted,” she said, “He was very adamant about exactly what he wanted you to do. He told you where to stand, how to move.  He wasn’t really open to suggestions.  I didn’t make any, because I was in awe of George. He was not dictatorial or fussy, he just knew what he wanted.”

O’Sullivan narrowed Cukor’s major qualities as a director down to his deep understanding of the material and his tremendous sense of humor, which he used to get what he was looking for.  In one scene, O’Sullivan had to dance with a dog.  “I had just done a Tarzan film,” she recalled, “and I couldn’t get this dog to face the camera.”  Cukor came over and said, “Maureen, pretend you’re in the Tarzan film.  Just wind that damn dog up and get his face on the camera–just twist it around.”

Cukor’s methods, however, were not always so benign. “During my death scene, he didn’t quite like what was coming through.  Off camera, George twisted my feet, turning them this way and that way.  It was rather painful and I was in agony, but he got the right expression on my face.”  Cukor would use the same trick, twisting Olivia De Havilland’s feet, in her birth-giving scene in Gone with the Wind.

O’Sullivan’s father was visiting from Ireland at the time, and came to the set to watch. Cukor was very gracious to him, offering him a chair with a good vantage point.  Her father never forgot Cukor, whom he referred to as “that fat boy”–Cukor was then in one of his many overweight periods.  “Whenever he would write,” O’Sullivan mused, “he’d say, ‘give my love to that fat boy.'”

Cukor and O’Sullivan remained life-long friends–Cukor was asked by the actress to be the godfather of her daughter, Mia Farrow.  Cukor kept in contact with O’Sullivan and Farrow until he died.


The film that Selznick delivered had a running time of two hours and 13 minutes–long by standards of the day.  Nicholas M. Schenck, president of Loew’s (MGM’s parent company), had serious misgivings about the final version, reproaching Selznick for letting the film run so long, for not better organizing it. “How long can it be?” Schenck pleaded.  “How long is it good? Selznick replied.  Schenck had to concede that it was good all the way through.

Cukor was ill during the first three previews, arising from a palet of pain for the fourth.  “They were hectic, confusing times,” he later recalled, “Everybody urging different things, to cut some of the stories, to release the picture in two parts.”  But to Selznick’s credit, he insisted adamantly that the picture be released in its present form.

A huge hit, David Copperfield grossed nearly 3 milllion in its 86 week run, doing exceptional business abroad.  Selznick was right in his prediction that British would respond well to the picture.  The Commonwealth countries would contribute 25 percent of the film’s grosses; 54 percent would come from the U.S. and Canada, and 21 percent from other foreign markets.

The film was nominated for three Oscar Awards, including Best Picture, but lost in all catagories.  For some mysterious reason, Cukor failed to receive a Best Director nomination–John Ford took the honors in 1935 for directing The Informer.

The reaction of Cukor’s peers in Hollywood was fantastic.  It was the “most magnificent” picture Zane Grey, the noted author of Westerns, has seen.  “People who have wanted clean pictures have been wonderfully vindicated.”  And Joseph Breen, of the Production Code, who Cukor would come into conflict with often in the course of his early career, noted that he had not seen a picture in a long time that appealed to him more than David Copperfield.

For the British premiere, a Copperfield luncheon was organized, with celebrities like Hugh Walpole, Sir Frederick Macmillan, J.B. Priestly, Frank Lawton (who played the mature Cooperfield), Alfred Noyes, and two of Dickens’ granddaughters in attendance.  The British press came ready to attack the film, but everyone was charmed by what they saw.

Walpole, who also played the parson in the film, praised David Copperfield, particularily its cutting, which was also nominated for an Oscar.  Walpole very much wanted to work with Cukor again, and tried to find the right English classic for them to tackle.  Though another literary friendship began, they never managed another collaborationn.  A few years later, Walpole dedicated his “Head in Green Bronze” and other stories to Cukor.  “Dearest George,” the inscription read, “these are yours, love from Hugh.”

Cukor’s version is arguably the purest Dickens film ever made– Cukor could never bring himself to see the new David Copperfield, filmed in London with a sensational cast.  But when it came out, in l970, most people acknowledged how right Cukor was.  The new version, Cukor said after seeing it years later, “unfortunately zeroed in on the depressing parts, and they didn’t get the virtues.”  “To get the strength of a movie,” he repeated,”you’ve got to do some of the weaknesses.”  Refusing to “correct” Dickens, Cukor just went with the “vitality” of the book.

Thirty years later, Henri Langlois, the founder of the French Cinemateque, reviewed David Copperfield in a most perceptive critique, which he then submitted to Cukor.  “Your words were music to my ears and eyes,” wrote Cukor.  “It was touching and heartening the way a directors work is treated in Europe, especially in France. “I don’t mean to sound disloyal to the place where I work; I am very happy to work here. But we are not given the thoughtful consideration and regard that directors are given abroad.”


Hollywood House: 9611 Cordell Drive 

Meanwhile, Cukor was busy remodeling the house he had purchased at 9611 Cordell Drive, back in l931.  Nestled in the Hollywood hills, above the raffish squalor of the Sunset strip, the house would become the center of Cukor’s social universe.  Originally a small house, Cukor rebuilt it with the assistance of architect Michael Delina.  The house had one of the most famous swimming pools in Hollywood, and a large terraced garden graced with Italian statues which were lit by tinted rays from concealed spotlights.  Imposing ivy-covered walls which surrounded the estate insured privacy, and conveyed the sense of a midevil castle.  Cukor lived behind the high walls of a “miniature palace, a bachelor pleasure-dome,” as one journalist put it.

William Haines–an actor, later designer, and longtime friend of Cukor–designed the interior.  It took Cukor almost two decades to bring the house to its desired look. The restructured house had several living rooms, but only one bedroom.  As one reporter put it, although the director was a celebrated host, he disliked entertaining anyone overnight!

The furnishings, like the sets of some of his movies, were a curious mixture of modern and antique styles.  In each room hung pictures and paintings selected with meticulous taste and discrimination.  Cukor owned several Picassos and Toulouse-Lautrecs,  a superb Rodin bronze, and works by Braque, Rouault, Renoir, Sutherland, and Henry Moore.  One staircase wall was closely hung with works by such prominent artists as Matisse, Picasso, Goya, and Dali.

And a gallery of familiar faces, ranging from Laurence Olivier to Garbo, looked from the walls.  The photographs in his house were mostly of female stars; there were none of Cukor alone.  He particularly liked a gracious Sargent drawing of Ethel Barrymore, bequeathed to him by the actress herself.

Cukor had a passion for Chinoiserie, and collected Han dancing figures. “George is galvanized by objects” said a friend, “They perpetually astonish him.  He adores possessing them, and if he catches you looking covetously at something he owns, he’ll grasp it almost vengefully.  Then, he may give it to you for Christmas.”

In l934, the house was coming along beautifully, though its size and luxuriousness terrified him.  “I’ve had to go to the Jews to begin to pay for it,” Cukor confessed to a friend, “and I’m afraid I shall have to work the rest of my life to pay it off completely.”  Maureen O’Sullivan recalled that after Cukor bought the house, he told her all the things he was going to do with it. “My Lord,” said the actress, “that’s going to cost you a lot of money.” “Yes, he said, “Irving Thalberg told me, ‘Go ahead George, spend a lot of money, I love to have directors who are in debt, because it forces them to work harder.”

Cukor purchased Grant Wood’s “Near Sundown” from the Freargil Gallery, in l935, for a modest 750 dollars, in a frame desiged by the artist himelf.  The dining room was then designed at great expense around the Wood painting!

Other works of art were not obtained so cheaply.  Cukor bought a much sought after Renoir from the Guthrie S. Courvoisier gallery, at a cost of 3,500 dollars.  Saddled with California taxes, Cukor didn’t have the cash on hand to pay for the painting, and sent a first payment of only 500 dollars, promising more appreciable sums of money in the future.   Cukor’s opulent house became one of the famous places in Hollywood,  a “showcase mansion” in the film colony.  “The house suits me perfectly,” Cukor would boast, “I know that I belong here.”  “The rooms are more or less the way they were when William Haines decorated them,” Cukor said in l978, “but that is not to take away from my personal taste and knowledge.”

There was a feeling of elegance in every room, each filled with mementoes.  In later years, there would be a silver cigarette box, with an endearing message from Marilyn Monroe, and a beautiful Renoir on the table easel–a gift from Vivien Leigh.  A bronze head of Tallulah Bankhead would rest on an inlaid demilune table in the lower hall.  And displayed against an early nineteenth century puppet theater proscenium, figures of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, two of his frequent players and dearest friends.

Given his new, lucrative contract at Metro, Cukor could afford to spend money on his house.  On October 21, l934, Myron Selznick terminated the “Selznick contract,” and replaced it with a five year contract, with no options, at a good salary–an extraordinary deal for Cukor.  There was a big to-do about the new terms of his contract.  Cukok now hoped to achieve financial independence within the next five years.  He also wished to maintain complete control of any loan outs; he wanted the power of choice, in the event Selznick would go to another studio and wanted Cukor to direct a picture.

Whether working or not, Cukor was meticulous in his correspondence with friends.  No event, be it a birthday or opening night, ever passed without acknowledgement.  For example, on December 21, l934, he sent a telegram to the Lyceum Theater in New York, congratulating Ina Claire for her new show.  “I’m thinking of about you every, every, every moment.”

There was also a steady flow of requests from his friends for favors of one kind or another. In l935, his friend, Laurette Taylor, sent him a play she was writing as a possible movie for Jack Barrymore.  She also shared with Cukor her idea for a ribald play about a mermaid, that thought would make a marvelous picture for Marlene Dietrich; her wonderful legs and detached humor were perfect for the part.  Taylor hoped that Cukor would help her break into films, either as an actress or a screenwriter.  Unfortunately, it never happened.

As she grew older, Taylor was losing her confidence as an artist and was easily offended.  She complained to Cukor about a young director, who asked whether there would be a part for her in her new play.  She became fully conscious of the loss of confidence in her amongst producers and directors.

Over the years, many of Cukor’s friends would ask for his help in getting into the film business.  He did help whenever he could.  Lenore Ulric, a former David Belasco star, was cast by Cukor as Olympe in Camille.  Ulrich was not an accomplished actress–and was not good in the role–but Cukor felt loyalty to her as one of his oldest friends from New York.  In later years, struggling for her livelihood, Cukor supported her.

Sylvia Scarlett: Personal Film

After David Copperfield, Cukor returned to RKO, which he owed one more movie, to direct Sylvia Scarlett.  A commercial and critical failure when released, in January l936, Sylvia Scarlett is nonetheless one of Cukor’s most personal and original films.

Cukor was intrigued by the book, the story of petty crooks on the run, who give up crime to become a troupe of vagabond actors. With three strong characters–Henry Scarlett (Edmund Gwenn), a hard-luck embezzler forced to flee France; his daughter Sylvia (Hepburn) who disguises herself as a boy to help him; and Jimmy Monkley (Cary Grant), a raffish Cockney who joins them–Cukor thought the material would make a fresh and offbeet film.

Looking at the film today, one can see the eccentricities that must have attracted Cukor.  Sylvia was a most suitable part for Hepburn’s boyish quality.  Playing a young chap for most of the picture; both men and women fall in love with her.  When a rural artist (Brian Aherne) is attracted to her as a boy, he says, “There’s something very queer going on here.”  Then a maid finds her attractive and kisses her.  In its day, the narrative’s sexual ambiguities and misunderstandings were most daring.  Unfortunately, audiences didn’t see the humor in the film’s cross-dressing and mistaken identities.

Neither did producer Pandro S. Berman, who disliked the “freak picture,” as he called it, from the beginning.  “I hated it as a book,” he recalled, “but George and Kate were both crazy about it, and they ganged up on me, I’d never seen them so enthusiastic about a project.”

Cukor and Berhman also disagreed about some of the casting.  From the onset of his career, Cukor held strong opinions about the quality of his scripts and casting the right actors for his films. Berman wanted Errol Flynn, then an unknown dashing Australian, as the rural artist, Hepburn’s love interest.  But after meeting Flynn for only a few minutes, Cukor dismissed the idea, and the role was assigned to Brian Aherne.

At the special request of his old friend, actress Elsa Maxwell, Natasha Paley, a bona fide Russian princess, was cast as Aherne’s love interest, even though her English was not good.  Paley had fallen on hard times, and Maxwell was concerned for her financial welfare.  In the process, Maxwell also took the liberty of asking for a role herself, should the director come across “a high comedy Marie Dressler part.”

But perhaps the most significant piece of casting was Cary Grant, featured here in a pivotal role which would change the course of his career.  Under contract at Paramount, Grant was typed as a conventional romantic leading man, cast in relatively unimportant parts.  It was not until Cukor directed him in Sylvia Scarlet, his first important role, that Grant’s flair for screwball comedy emerged.  “George taught Cary how to be funny,” Hepburn said, “he brought out the Archie Leach in him.”  “George saw that he was not really a trained actor, that he was wooden, but he helped him to discover he was a comedian.”

Grant, who had been a circus stilt-walder in his childhood, was familiar with his character’s raffish personality.  As a Cockney trickster, Grant stole the picture, and went on to a triumphant career as a romantic wise guy.  Cukor would periodically remind Grant that he got his breakthrough in his movie.

Cukor persuaded John Collier, a writer whose short stories he liked, to come to Hollywood and write the screenplay.  The final script, credited to Collier, Gladys Unger and Mortimer Affner, however, was a curious story, burdened by a jumbled plot and labored dialogue.

Cukor’s treatment of the material was in part whimsical, in part allegorical.  Some of the film was really good, like the sequence when they join up with the traveling players and there is a rural pagan feast.  But certain scenes were difficult to do.  It always worried Cukor, when a scene didn’t play itself.  “A good scene somehow falls into place and carries itself and everything else with it.

Hepburn was lovely in the film’s first part, which was funny. As the awkward heroine, the way she handles her body, the way she runs, her hair-cut, were all appropriately boyish.  Hepburn’s painful vulnerability, her romantic and sexual longings, were as apparent in this film as they were in other movies she made with Cukor (Little Women).  But Hepburn was affected in the second part of the film, partly as a result of the script.

When they finished shooting, Cukor thought they had “something really fine,” until the infamous preview at Huntington Park.  Cukor and Hepburn had an early supper with Natasha Paley that evening.  They were all convinced that Sylvia Scarlett would be a great success. “I can quit the business now,” Cukor joked, “and rest on my laurels.”  “Wouldn’t it be funny if the picture would flop,” he added, certain this was out of the question.

During the screening, Hepburn realized that something was wrong.  No one was laughing, even though it was supposed to be a comedy.  Half of the audience walked out, and those who remained began to talk.  “It was an absolute agony,” Hepburn recalled, “the audience had no idea what the film was about.  I thought they were going to lynch me.”

The preview was a nightmare, with people walking up and down the aisles, others rushing out!  Hepburn went to the ladies room at one point, where, to her dismay, she saw a woman lying on a sofa.  “What’s the matter,” asked Hepburn, “was the picture so bad? did it finish you off?”  The woman just rolled her eyes up, never answering her questions.

As Hepburn and Cukor were leaving, she banged her head getting into Cukor’s car.  “Thank God,” she said,, “I’ve knocked myself out.”  Hepburn remembered the evening as “a total disaster, a most ghastly thing.”

After the preview, they all went back to Cukor’s house.  “Pandro, scrape this one,” said Hepburn, “and we’ll do another picture for you for nothing!”  But Berman looked at them coldly and said: “I never want to do a picture with either of you again.” (Note: Berman did work with Cukor again, as the producer of Bhowani Junction in l955).

Usually, Cukor could count on kind words from his friends, even about his weakest films.  But when Fanny Brice saw the film, she responded with characteristic bluntness.  At the end of the screening, she gave Cukor and Hepburn a discouraging look and said, “What the hell were you two thinking about making that picture.”

Even Hepburn later admitted that during the scene, when she was reciting a poem, she began to lose confidence in the material, and wondered if Cukor had lost his.  She thought the picture ended too abruptly, and again accused Cukor of not finishing the book, which she herself was guilty of.  “We’ve worked on other books we’ve never finished,” was Cukor’s teasing response, referring to Little Women.

Cukor went on the limb with Sylvia Scarlett, and got clobbered, but he refused to indulge in self-pity.  He was fond of Brice’s dictum: “If ya stay in the game long enough, the deal comes round to you.”  Failure was not a pleasant experience, but Cukor believed it was better to forge new paths than to sit back and watch.  Both he and Hepburn, as he later put it, had “many kicks in the ass” since then.  Cukor’s answer — “get on with something else.”  But the failure Sylvia Scarlet  made Cukor more cautious. “It slowed me up,” he told Lambert, “I wasn’t going to be so goddamned daring after that.”

At the time, though, Cukor didn’t have any inkling of disaster.  It wasn’t pleasant to have a flop, but it really didn’t injure him.  His direction even got some good reviews.  The movie damaged Hepburn’s reputation much more seriously.  Owning a percentage of the production, she lost money because the movie has never recouped its budget.

Cukor later realized that it wasn’t the daring part of Sylvia Scarlett that failed; it was when they tried to play it safe!  The opening scene, after Sylvia’s mother has died and she cuts off her hair to sell it–was put in later.  Originally, the story started on board the ship to England–when Hepburn is already disguised as a boy.  The prologue was tacked on as a sympathy device–poor girl, her mother died, what else could she do?  The ending was also weak and contrived; its sole purpose was to get Hepburn away from Grant and back to the artist.  Worse yet, the subplot of Natasha Paley, Aherne’s older girlfriend, almost drowning and Hepburn saving her, had nothing to do with the rest of the film.

A commercial flop, Sylvia Scarlett disappeared for some years, then began to acquire an underground reputation, even becoming a minor cult film.  The picture never stopped playing at the art theaters.  Cukor like to use Sylvia Scarlett as an litmas test, to see whether people were in their right minds.  If they liked the film, he would think to himself, “they’re a little batty.'”  Years later, when Judy Holliday told him, “I loved that picture!” Cukor responded: “Now, I know about you, your mind is not too good.”

Once the initial shock was over, Cukor and Hepburn’s attitude about the movie softened.  They often joked that it took them “a mere 35 years” to come into their own with Sylvia Scarlett.  Both continued to have real affection for the picture.  Nothing delighted Cukor more than the critics’ complaint, that Sylvia Scarlett was ahead of its times.  It was a great compliment for a contract director.

Romeo and Juliet

Cukor’s next film, Romeo and Juliet, also turned out to be an interesting flop.  Though faithful to Shakespeare, it succeeded niether as a passionate romance nor as costume drama.

In June l935 Thalberg announced his intention to make Romeo and Juliet with his wife Norma Shearer, who only days before had given birth to their daughter.  Cukor was to direct Shearer in a movie that was supposed to surpass her great success in The Barretts of Wimple Street.  Once again, Louis B. Mayer and Eddie Mannix were against the idea.  Mayer reminded Thalberg that neither he nor Cukor had experience with Shakespeare, and more to the point, the public did not want to see a Shakespearean film.  Thalberg argued convincingly that a good production of the classic would enhance the studio’s prestige.  The film was approved, but Thalberg was urged to keep the budget down.

The casting of Romeo proved to be difficult.  When Cukor’s first choice, Fredric March, declined the role, he suggested Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who was young and could project a passionate lover image, but Selznick was not excited.  Both Laurence Olivier and Robert Donat were considered, but the chances of getting the English actors was slim.  Franchot Tone was also a possibility, but Selznick had doubts about his romantic appeal.  Cukor and Selznick finally settled on Leslie Howard, though he was not the fiery youth everyone wanted.  Cukor was not happy about the two leads: He did not believe that either Howard or Shearer could convincingly play the passionate young lovers–they were too old and too stodgy.

Knowing her limitations, Shearer was intimidated by the part, but fueled with Cukor’s enthusiasm, she labored diligently on her diction.  Cukor suggested that she work with actress Constance Collier, instructing her to read poetry out loud every day.  He wanted her to grasp the cadence of Shakespeare, without speaking in an artifical classical manner–to make the language real and comprehensible to contemporary audiences.  Cukor managed to get Shearer’s readings clear but, not much of a dramatic actress, her performance never rose above adequacy.

But once again, as in David Copperfield, the casting of the smaller parts was sheer genius, particularly Basil Rathbone as Tybalt and C. Aubrey Smith as Capulet.

It was Thalberg’s idea to cast John Barrymore in the role of Mercutio.  But because Barrymore had been drinking heavily, Thalberg insisted that during the filming he live at Kelley’s Rest Home (for alcoholics) in Culver City, and assigned a team of studio police to guard him.  Despite precautions, Barrymore showed up for the first days shooting hours late–and drunk.  He told Cukor, who had been waiting all morning for him, he had lost his voice.  Trying to make the best of the situation, Cukor decided to shoot the duel scene first, thinking it might be easier for Barrymore to handle.  There were a few harrowing moments, however, when Barrymore almost hit Howard during the duel.

As usual, Barrymore was hard to handle. He started playing around with his lines, making jokes out of Shakespeare text. Barrymore’s reading of the line “He hearth not, he stirreth not, he moveth not,” included the phrase “he pisseth not.”  When it reached the point where Cukor could not control the actor’s shenanigans, Thalberg was brought to the set to straighten the actor out.  In the next take, Barrymore said his lines correctly. Not taking any chances, Cukor ordered, “Print!”  With all his ranting and grimacing, Barrymore gave an audacious, if atrocious, performance, missing the opportunity of being a great Mercutio.

A grand scale production, Romeo and Juliet was Cukor’s biggest assignment to date.  Cukor took great care in planning the medieval sets and costumes.  But the prestige of the literary source (the first and only Shakespeare he ever directed), made Cukor nervous–he gave an extremely meticulous attention to the play’s poetic dialogue.  Playwright Thornton Wilder was going to do a treatment of Romeo and Juliet, with samples of dialogue in modern adaptation.  In the end, however, Talbott Jennings prepared the script, with a Cornell professor brought in as an adviser “to represent the interests of the author.”

Short on passion, the whole picture was inhibited by MGM’s concept of “literary prestige.”  The movie was visually attractive, but too stately.  Cukor considered it his fault that the film lacked a “more Italian” look.  It was one picture, he said, that if he had to do all over again, he’d get the “garlic and the Mediterranean” into it.

Cukor failed to get his way at Metro about how a costume picture should look until Camille, his next movie.  There was a tug of war about the picture’s style.  On the one side were costume designer Adrian and resident art director Cedric Gibbons, and on the other were Cukor and Oliver Messel, who did the sets.   The result was an incoherent look, pleasing neither side.  Original at few moments, like the ball scene, which was choreographed by the young Agnes DeMille, Romeo and Juliet was conventional at most others. Messel’s ideas were severely bullied by the studio’s art department, which claimed he knew nothing about costume pictures.  Cukor later regretted not being more forceful and combative with MGM, though he lacked the clout for that.

Other than the style issue, Cukor trusted Thalberg’s feelings completely.  Indeed, once he moved to MGM, Cukor got closer and closer to Thalberg, which Selznick resented.  Cukor’s respect for and trust of Thalberg was implicit–generous and gentlemanly, Thalberg’s arguments with Cukor were intellectual and always congenial.  In Cukor’s view, Thalberg displayed better taste, literary and cinematic, than Selznick.  The wonder kid was much better read than Selznick, who Cukor began to perceive as pretentious and a bit superficial.

Thus, when they did the parting scene, Cukor thought it was quite moving, but Thalberg thought the actors were too glum.  “But Irving,” Cukor said, “they’re partying in the morning.”  “No,” said Thalberg, “it could be done with a smile.”  Cukor immediately saw his point–what Thalberg meant was tenderness, a more romantic way of saying goodbye.

Curiously, one of the best and most complex scenes, the potion scene, was done with the least amount of trouble.  It was shot in one take on a Saturday morning, while Thalberg had gone to the desert to work on another script.  The understanding was that nothing would be filmed during his absence.  Thalberg insisted upon seeing every important scene rehearsed before it was shot.  But that Saturday morning, the set scheduled for shooting was not fully dressed, and the only one ready was Juliet’s bedroom.  Cukor asked Shearer, “How would you like to try the potion scene?  “What about Irving?” she said, quite concerned.  “Let’s just knock it off and see what we get,” Cukor said.

The suicide scene was done as one long, uniterrupted shot, from the point Juliet’s mother leaves the room, through Juliet’s long soliloquy, to the taking of the potion.  Though the sequence hadn’t fully rehearsed, Shearer was up in her lines, and Cukor decided to go ahead and work out the complex cuing and camera movements.  Then, just for luck, they did only one take.  “Okay, print it!” Cukor said, “We’ll let Irving see it on Monday.”  The stagehands were stunned by Cukor’s gutsy determination.

Thalberg was a bit angry that Cukor shot the scene without his permission.  But when he looked at the rushes, he agreed that the  footage had spontaneity and intimacy that could not be improved upon.

On the set of Romeo and Juliet, Cukor met child-actor Lon McCallister, who later became one of his closest friends.  It was McCallister’s introduction to moviemaking.  “I had been trying unsuccessfully to break the stage barrier,” he recalled, “and when the moment finally happened, it was my great good fortune to begin at the top, with Shearer, Howard, Barrymore, and Cukor.”

Only eleven, McCallister was a choirboy extra, but he remembered Cukor’s kindness and patience, qualities that never varied throughout their long-lasting friendship.  “George shot a close-up of me singing with the choir,” he recalled, “Fortunately, we had pre-recorded the music, because when he said ‘action’, I lost my voice. ‘Pretend!’ said Cukor.  That was the first piece of direction I ever received in movies.”  After they had become friends, Cukor confessed that the close-up was not his idea–he shot it at Oliver Messel’s insistance.  Years later at a gathering at Cukor’s house, McCallister was able to thank Messel in person for his gallant gesture.

McCallister didn’t really get to know Cukor during Romeo and Juliet.  “He was on the highest ring,” he said, “and I was on the lowest.”  He continued to address him as Mr. Cukor up until l944, when they worked again on Winged Victory. “George was a presence and I respected him,” he explained, “My six years as an extra taught me to be very courteous to directors.”

Shooting wrapped on May 7, l936 and the picture was released on August 20.  It was another long movie, running over two hours.  The negative costs of the opulent production had skyrocketed to over two million dollars, way above Thalberg’s original $800,000 estimate.  With added costs of advertising and distribution, the film lost money at the box-office.  But the response of the more literate viewers was favorable.  Cukor and Thalberg felt the effort was justified; Mayer just kept quiet.

Still, Cukor wished he had given the exteriors of Romeo and Juliet a more Italian flavor, and also made its interiors a little more intimate.  Unlike other pictures he directed, Cukor continued to feel uncomfortable about the movie–it was an incomplete experience, there were too many things he would have liked to change.  But back in 1936, they were caught up in what he described as “production gloss,” which meant giving the film a stately look. As a result, the picture suffered; there was too much of the old Hollywood in it.


If Cukor regretted being unable to film Romeo and Juliet in Italy, he felt the same way about not filming Camille in Paris.  Garbo was under contract for two more pictures, and Cukor was given a choice: Anna Karenina or Camille.  He chose Camille, guiding Garbo to her greatest performance in the role of Dumas’ doomed heroine.  In Camille, Cukor brilliantly created a psychological portrait of victim, trapped in her specific milieu.  The movie represented another achievement for the young director–Camille was the first film he was able to get his way at Metro about how a costume picture should look.

Selznick was apprehensive about his first venture with Garbo, due in part to her stature in Hollywood, and, more to the point, the commercial disappointment of her historical film, Queen Christina.  Intially, he was inclined to film Dark Victory with Garbo, provided they could purchase the Broadway play at a reasonable figure, and get Philip Barry to write the script.  Cukor agreed that Dark Victory was a better vehicle for Garbo than Anna Karenina.

A few years back, John Hay Whitney had approached Cukor to direct Dark Victory with Tallulah Bankhead.  Cukor found the play touching, and was convinced that Bankhead would be great, as she possessed the “reckless heartbreaking quality” that the part needed.  Unfortunately, he was busy shooting David Copperfield and could not take the assignment.

Selznick assured Garbo that Cukor would put his best efforts into making a fine film out of Dark Victory, one that would “dissipate the obvious pitfalls of the subject from the viewpoint of her millions of admirers.”  For these reasons, Selznick requested Garbo to permit them to switch from Anna Karenina to Dark Victory, promising that she will have a most enthusiastic producer and director.  In the end, Selznick decided not to do Dark Victory at MGM; a few years later, Bette Davis scored one of her biggest successes in a Warners film.

Over the years, Cukor had seen Garbo at MGM, but he had not formally met her and didn’t get to know her until Camille.   He was finally “treated,” as he put it, to the divine Garbo in l935. Cukor’s first impression was not great.  He found her to be nice and sweet, but devoid of any humor and rather pretentious.  Garbo was also depressing, carrying “all the sorrows of the world around her.”  “Real lesbians,” he told his friend Hugh Walpole with unusual candor, “are a little heavy handed.  They are so god-damned noble.  I’m so glad you’re not one any longer.”  Cukor made jokes about all the suffering and agony that Garbo projected–onscreen and off.

Walpole was anxious to know how Cukor was getting on with Garbo.  Was she rude to him?  Richard Boleslawsky (The Painted Veil) and other directors who had worked with Garbo have all recommended being tough with her.  Teasing Cukor for being too gentlemanly and kind, Walpole feared Garbo would bully him.

Given the subject matter of Camille, censorship problems were expected.  The Breen Office decreed flatly that “the heroine is definitely an immoral woman,” and demanded to clean up the story.  Stipulating that there should be no ‘courtesans’ in the film other than Marguerite, they recommended that Olympe be married to the old Duke, instead of being his mistress.  They also suggested that the film indicate that Marguerite has no thought of resuming her old life of a courtesan after breaking with the Baron.  Cukor was at once bemused and outraged, when the censors suggested to inject a stronger note of repentance and regeneration in the film.

“You have put too much emphasis,” Breen wrote in June l936, “on the point that living as a mistress is a highly profitable enterprise.  We would like to see you establish the point and then forget all about it.  They wished to see the movie tone down the flavor of Marguerite going about the business of procuring a master in a cold-blooded way.  Breen also advised that it would be better if Marguerite did not go at midnight to Armand’s apartment.  Why not play this scene in the cafe?  And was it really necessary to show that Armand lives with Marguerite in the country house?

Cukor knew that Camille was a hackneyed piece of theater which could only be elevated by an extraordiary portrayal of the central character.  With Garbo, it was a happy meeting of a gifted actress and the perfect part.  A reigning star in Hollywood for twelve years, Garbo had made 20 films. But Camille  was her most widely publicized screen performance.  For the first time, the press touted, an actress has successfully challenged the immortals of the theater, Tallulah Bankhead, Ethel Barrymore, and Eva Le Galienne.  Both Garbo and Cukor knew that comparisons would be inevitable with Norma Talmadge, Nazimova, and Theda Bara, who have tried their luck with Camille on screen.

For Cukor, the movie’s fakiest scene was how easily the father talks Marguerite out of seeing Armand.  It was a most difficult scene for modern audiences to comprehend, not so much the dialogue as the situation itself.  “Armand is the world’s worst part,” Cukor said, “the only way for it to work was to cast a young man in the role.”  Armand was considered an uninteresting role, only because he was played by a middle-aged actor, and one can’t forgive an older man for being so foolishly weak.

Though it was not his idea, Cukor was satisfied with the casting of Robert Taylor as Armand.  The fact that Taylor was really young (six years younger than Garbo) and passionate, made Armand more appealing.  Taylor also had the added advantage of projecting a romantic image.  For many viewers, it was the most credible Armand they’ve ever seen.  A leading man, Taylor possessed classical beauty, displaying in the film his great profile. “One practically forgets the meaning of real beauty,” Cukor said in reference to the actor “or what true beauty should really represent.”

Under Cukor’s direction, Garbo played a big, most demanding, role.  Camille consisted of 156 scenes, of which she had 57. Cukor’s challenge was to provide continuous stimulation for Garbo.  “With Garbo,” Cukor said, “you must make a climate in which she trusts you.  You watch carefully what she’s doing, you make suggestions, but you let the impulse come out of her.”

Indeed, after seeing the rushes of the first few days, Thalberg said: “George, she’s awfully good, she’s never been so good.”  “But Irving,” Cukor said in wonder, “she’s just sitting in a theater box.”  “She is relaxed and she’s open,” the producer said.  That night, Cukor ran some of Garbo’s previous movies.  He then realized what Thalberg meant: there was a new, unguarded quality about Garbo she hadn’t shown before.

Cukor found Garbo to be a most imaginative actress.  She moved gracefully, as she showed in the scene with the farmer–when she sank to her knees and put her hands on the table.  Her performance was built out of small but inventive gestures.  Like the way Garbo responded when Taylor says, “No one has ever loved you as I love you!” “That may be true,” Garbo replies with a casual smile, “but what can I do about it?” When Garbo burst out into tears, it wasn’t an actress crying; she caught the viewers unaware.

Garbo’s previous tendency to flatness and lugubrious drone was absent from Camille.  Revitalized, she went beyond her vocal limitations.  Garbo’s deathbed scene was truly heartbreaking.  Cukor’s mother was dying just before shooting began.  While visiting her, he noticed certain facial expressions and gestures, which he later used in Camille.  “Part of me is always clocking something I can use,” he once described his always being observant.  It was Cukor’s idea that Garbo play her death scene in a whisper.  In her last scenes, Garbo didn’t speak in her natural voice–her whisper was magical.

Cukor didn’t subscribe to the view that Garbo’s main asset was her “physique,” that she was mostly a photogenic wonder.  For him, Garbo registered deep feeling and thinking on the screen.  During the film, she categorically refused to speak to Robert Taylor. Garbo was distant, but not because she didn’t like Taylor–she wanted to safeguard her love for the personality he portrayed.  In this fashion, she retained the illusion that Taylor was Armand, her uncompromising lover.  Garbo knew that if they socialized, Taylor would become just another actor.

One of the film’s most erotic scenes–Garbo and Taylor conveying passion and impatience for each other–was filmed without any instructions from Cukor.  Cukor let Garbo use her own ideas.  Garbo just leaned over, but her body didn’t touch Taylor, giving him small kisses all around the face.  That was more erotic than what audiences could see in modern nudity films.

In one scene, she had to walk through a theater lobby.  Cukor instructed her to walk slowly, so that the men would have time to examine her.  But instead, Garbo walked very fast.  She knew instinctively that a beautiful woman does not have to walk slowly to get attention.

“Garbo has a magic that can’t be defined,” Cukor said at the time. “She is a rare creature who touches the imagination and no one will replace her,” he added after her untimely retirement in l942.  She submits herself to the camera, and retains her privacy before it.  For Cukor’s, Garbo’s greatest, undecipherable quality was her mysteriousness on screen. “Garbo had this rapport with an audience,” Cukor once said. “She could let them know she was thinking things, and thinking them uncensored.”

Cukor admired the gambling scene, where Garbo drops her fan and  Baron De Varville makes her pick it up.  Garbo makes a remarkable movement, almost like Isadora Duncan.  She doesn’t kneel to pick it up–bending down would surrender her dignity.  Instead, she leans sideways in the most natural way.  In the scene where she gives up Armand, Garbo surprised Cukor when she slowly sank to her knees and threw her arms over a table.

Garbo was also a most pragmatic actress.  She would leave at a certain hour, not because she was indifferent.  After long hours on the set, she would get nervous, and she wanted to look fresh the next day.

There were certain things Garbo demanded, conditions under which she worked well.  Privacy was one of them.  She didn’t like people standing and staring at her.  “If visitors come,” Cukor said, “I always move the actors away from the view;  most actors find it disconcerting.  Cukor once asked Garbo, “Why do you mind people looking at you?” “When people are watching,” Garbo answered, “I’m just a woman making faces for the camera.  It destroys the illusion.”

Unlike most actors, Garbo never watched her rushes.  Challenged by Cukor, she simply said: “I have some idea of what I am doing, and every time I see it, it falls so short that it throws me.”

Garbo didn’t talk an awful lot about what she was going to do, because that would let some of the magic out when she actually performed.  Instead, she held it in.  Cukor would rehearse her in the mechanics of the role, but often, when the cameras were turning, she would add something totally new.  Cukor also learned that Garbo was very good in the first five or six takes, but then she would lose her freshness.

In later years, accused of perpetuating Garbo’s mystery, Cukor’s response was summed up in one word, “Bullshit.”  Offscreen, Garbo was actually a simple girl.  When Cukor’s friend, Hungarian playwright Molnar (The Guardsman) visited in New York, he asked Cukor to arrange for a meeting with Garbo.  Garbo went to see him at the Plaza Hotel and they talked about doing one of his plays.  Their meeting was so awkward, that the disappointed Molnar complained to Cukor that Garbo was really a dull woman.

Cukor immersed himself in the period of Camille, researching the sets and costumes.  The “Can Can” dance, meant to evoke Degas and Toulouse Lautrec, was an approximation of the dance that Alexander Dumas saw in l847, and was later forbidden by the Paris police.

Cukor had many discussions with Bill Daniels, Garbo’s favorite cinematographer, about the lighting.  They used a shallow depth of field and a lot of backlighting.  Cukor gave the film a sense of the period by employing lush, romantic lighting.  Karl Freund completed the cinematography when Daniels got sick, but the film maintained a coherent visual look.

The film’s music had an exceptional emotional impact on the story.  Cukor instructed Henry Daniell, cast as the nasty Baron De Varville, to play the piano louder and louder, when Armand is ringing the doorbell and Garbo stands agonized beside him.  He chose to end the scene that way.  And when Taylor is carrying Garbo in the barn, the background music is from the popular song “Whoopee.”

Cukor introduced a new scene in Camille where Henry Daniell and Garbo were to laugh.  They were both worried, because neither laughed easily on screen.

Cukor thought the scene at the casino was lacking something, even though it had been planned and approved by him.  It was getting late, six o’clock at night, and they were going to shoot on the set the next morning.  But at 9 am the next day, to his surprise, there was a huge statue of the Goddess of Chance at the center of the set.  It was precisely what was needed.  Resources like that made life much easier for directors during the studio system.

Thalberg died in September, in the midst of the work on Camille.  On the last day of shooting, October 27, l936, Eddie Mannix called Cukor.  “This is Irving’s last picture,” he said, “Is there anything you can do which will improve it?”  “There’s always something one can do,” said Cukor.  He then asked for three more shooting days, to make some fine points.  All in all, there was a great spirit in the studio about this film.

The loss of Thalberg was so heavily mourned that the Los Angeles premiere of Camille became a veritable regatta wake, opening up the corral for celebrity demonstration. Even Garbo showed up–not a minor achievement.  Norma Shearer was thrilled by the results Camille.  “I think it is something to be really proud of,” she told Cukor, “I am so grateful for all you contributed to dear Irving’s life.”

The word of mouth of Camille was so good that it alarmed Cukor, fearing its potential effect upon the reviewers.  “Now you’ll go to see it,” he told a friend, “and just sit there and grit your teeth and wonder why any one should have said so much about it.”  Cukor took the film to New York and showed it to a distinguished audience that included Tallulah Bankhead and Noel Coward.  At the end of the screening, while some viewers were still sobbing, Coward got up and announced that Garbo’s was “the finest performance ever put on the screen.”  He declared it in such way, that his words had a great deal of weight.

If MGM announced “Garbo Talks” for Anna Christie and “Garbo Laughs” for Ninotchka, they could now publicize Camille as “Garbo Acts!  Garbo gave an ironic performance: Her Camille was too intelligent for the frivolous life of her character, too generous for her historical circumstances.  But it was consistent with the whole film, which presented a romantic view of the courtesan’s life.  Garbo was so good that Cukor violated his habit of not seeing his movies more than once; he saw Camille several times.  Arguably her greatest screen performance, Garbo won a well deserved Oscar nomination and was singled out by the New York Film Critics as best actress of the year.  Garbo was obviously very pleased, but she never said a word to Cukor. This upset him very much.

Most of the stunning reviews talked at length about Garbo’s splendid work.  “Through the perfect artistry of her portrayal,” wrote Frank S. Nugent in the NY Times, “a hackneyed theme is made new again, poignantly sad, hauntingly lovely.  Garbo has interpreted M. Gautier with the subtlety that has earned her the title, ‘first lady of the screen.’ Howard Barnes concurred in the NY Herald Tribune: “It is likely, that Miss Garbo still has her greatest role to play, but she has made the Lady of the Camellias, for this reviewer, hers for all time.”

When Camille came out, however, it didn’t cut a great swath. Cukor was not given any particular kudos for either the film or Garbo’s work.  Often called Garbo’s finest picture, some critics feel that it is time Camille should be recognized as Cukor’s greatest picture.