Cukor, George: Major Director of Classic Hollywood Cinema–Part 2

Please read Part 1

Cukor, George: Major Director of Classic Hollywood Cinema–Part 1

Generous Collaborator

From the very beginning of his career, George Cukor subscribed to the notion of film as a collaborative art, with the director serving as a coordinator or supervisor of all the other contributors: writers, producers, actors, musicians, editors, cinematographers.

This great quality of being a generous collaborator worked against Cukor in the eyes of some critics.  Carey’s superficial book was unfairly titled Cukor and Co., as if Cukor’s collaborators were more responsible for the final look of his films than he was.  Hence, many critics continue to stress–rather unfairly–that “Cukor’s personality in film is subservient to that of his writers and actors, and his sensibility can best be grasped from the type of collaborators with whom he worked most felicitously.”

The paradox is that most critics agree there is a distinctive Cukor’s style, and that his movies display unique charm and look, but at the same time they have deprived him of the credit he deserved.  George Cukor thus demonstrates that, in the final account, it was Cukor, and Cukor alone, who devised and shaped his films, albeit with the assistance of others.  Indeed, he worked with numerous cinematographers and editors, which means that the “special look” of his films cannot be attributed to the work of one or few cinematographers.  The fact that Cukor’s movies display a consistent style, even though he worked with different cameramen and editors, shows that it was his idiosyncratic personality, taste, and technique which formed and shaped his pictures.

 

Versatility

Holding that all good directors have been versatile in their choice of subject matter, Cukor directed a wide range of movies with a good deal of success.  For example, he made forays into psychological thrillers (Gaslight) and film noirs (Keeper of the Flame, A Double Life), adaptations of literary classics (Little Women, David Copperfield, Romeo and Juliet), Broadway plays (Edward, My Son), and musicals (A Star Is Born, Les Girls).  However, he was at his best directing sophisticated comedies (The Women, Holiday, The Philadelphia Story), which became his defining genre and his most important contribution to the American cinema.

Contrary to popular notions, it is harder to direct comedies than action-adventures, Westerns, or war films.  And it is harder to make audiences laugh than to make them cry.  The originality of Cukor’s brand of comedy was based on what he once described as “the detached approach for comedy.”  “If you really look at anything,” he explained, “there’s always a comic note.  A painful note, too.  One brings the other to life.”  In his best comedies, these two aspects, the comic and the tragic, are so well fused that audiences, like the screen characters themselves, laugh and cry at the same time.

 

Characters Larger than Life

Most of Cukor’s protagonists are larger than life, but they are also imbued with extraordinary humanity.  This winning combination of traits made the characters in his movies eccentric and charming, but also brought them closer to their public and made them easier as objects of identification.  Consider Tracy Lord’s (arguably Katharine Hepburn’s very best performance) transformation of personality in The Philadelphia Story, and the change in audiences’ reaction to her at the beginning and at the end of the film.  Describing his work, Cukor acknowledged that “it was human.”  “Comedy isn’t really any good, isn’t really funny, without that (humanity).  First, you’ve got to be funny, and then, to elevate the comedy, you’ve got to be human.  That’s why anything that works as comedy, should also work as tragedy, and vice versa.”

Unlike other directors who came to Hollywood from the New York theater, Cukor’s work was not stagey or overly theatrical.  The camera work in his films was never too stationery.  “He is one of the few stage directors who really set out to study the motion picture as an art in itself,” said his colleague William De Mille.  For every film project, Cukor tried to find the most appropriate cinematic techniques to serve the original material, be it a novel, stage play, or short story.

Cukor liked to adapt literary classics to the screen by submerging his personality and serving these texts as best as he could.  This stands in sharp opposition to most directors today who choose material in order to flaunt their distinctive style and cinematic flair.  At the same time, Cukor often succeeded in imbuing these literary adaptations with a fresh, contemporary point of view so that they would appeal to current audiences.  “George Cukor, the classicist of the Metro studios, has retained the full flavor of the period,” wrote Frank Nugent in his review of Camille in the New York Times, “without drenching his film with the cloying scent of a hot house.  Camille under his benign handling is not the reverentially treated museum piece we half expected to see.  Its speech has been modernized but not jarringly; its characters beneath the frills and ruffles of the 50’s have the contemporary point of view, its tragedy is still compelling; for the Lady of the Camellias must eternally be a tragic figure.”

Summing up his own approach to filmmaking, and what he believed to be the movies’ greatest power, Cukor said: “Anyone who looks at something special in a very original way makes you see it that way forever.”  For example, his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, starring Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard, was a moderately commercial success, but still an achievement for a Shakespearean film.  Cukor described vividly his apprehension during a 1938 sneak preview in Riverside, California: “The people of that town are genuine American people, unpretentious, entirely middle class in the best sense of the phrase.  While the first reel rolled, they shuffled, coughed a little, wriggled in their seats. I sat there and stewed with fright. I knew that they were thinking, ‘Good Lord, two hours of this!’ I could feel the current of uneasiness through the theatre.  Then quite suddenly the story was clear to them.  They realized we weren’t trying to declaim–that on the contrary we were bringing them a beautiful tragic love story.”

 

Dialogue, Not Plot

From his very first film, Cukor showed primary concern with the quality of the dialogue–he did not care for plot or action.  “Give me a good script,” he used to say, “and I’ll be one hundred times better as a director.”  Which is one reason why he liked to work with the same screenwriters.  Cukor’s film work is marked by two lengthy collaborations with writers.

 

Donald Ogden Stewart

His first important collaborator was Donald Ogden Stewart, beginning with Tarnished Lady in 1931 and ending with Edward, My Son in 1949, their eighth film together.  Unfortunately, Stewart was blacklisted during the McCarthy era; his script for Keeper of the Flame (l947), one of Cukor’s few overtly political (anti-Fascist) films, was used against him by the House Un-American Activities Committee.  A true friend, Cukor continued to praise and defend the writer long after he was blacklisted.

Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon

The other significant collaboration was with the celebrity husband-and-wife team, Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon who, between them (singly or together), were responsible for seven scripts, beginning with A Double Life (l947) and continuing successfully with the Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy (Pat and Mike) and the Judy Holliday comedies (Adam’s Rib was the first).  Many of these screenplays were nominated for an Oscar Award, and some (A Double Life) won.  “For a filmmaker,” said screenwriter Garson Kanin, “Cukor had a rare respect for the text, striving always to provide entertainment for the ear as well as for the eye.”  Kanin recalled that when Cukor was shooting a screenplay of his, “he phoned me five times in New York from the set in Hollywood to request minor textual changes; once, a single word substituted; another time, a two-line cut.”

At present, when people complain that Hollywood movies lack the witty and poignant dialogue they used to have, their ideal models are still Cukor’s films.  For example, James Brooks’s Broadcast News, the 1987 smash box-office hit, was clearly influenced in its romantic triangle by Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story.  Which is another reason why his films may have aged, but not dated.

Asked to comment on changes in the American cinema, Cukor was quick to reply: “Film may be more advanced technically, but a good, witty script is still the basis for a great performance.”  And although he highly praised the great advancements made in special effects, Cukor’s clear preference was for simpler human stories.

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If you want to know more about George Cukor, please read my book: