Cukor, George: Director of Mass Intelligent Entertainment

For George Cukor, the first and foremost function of movies was to entertain the public.  “The primary purpose of movie making,” he believed, “is to capture audiences and not to try to be arty and pretentious.”

Sensing his honest respect for them, moviegoers have been extremely loyal, enthusiastically embracing his work.  Cukor is one of the few directors to have made sophisticated, highly intelligent films, which were also commercially successful, some smash box-office hits.

For example, Little Women, Dinner at Eight, Camille, The Philadelphia Story, Born Yesterday, and A Star Is Born were all top-grossing films in their respective years.  Only one director of his generation, Hitchcock, the master of suspense, had managed to produce high quality films which also commanded mass audiences.

Though vastly different in philosophy and style, Cukor and Hitchcock shared some similarities in common.  They were both born in 1899, and both cultivated careers that spanned over five decades, with an output of over 50 features.

Many of Cukor’s films have acquired cult status, particularly Dinner at Eight, The Women, and The Philadelphia Story.  These films are repeatedly shown in revival houses and on television.  Many moviegoers are familiar with the texts as well as the subtexts of these movies; some of their scenes are so familiar (the last sequence of Dinner at Eight, for example) that movie fans can recite them line by line.  The public screenings of these movies often became sort of audience-participation shows.

Cukor said he would like to believe that his films had some influence on their viewers, which is why he was extremely sensitive to their opinions.  “You must never underestimate the audience,” he told an interviewer in 1966, “the audience is, after all, always right.”  But unlike other directors who have stated it, Cukor meant his motto and put it to practice in his oeuvre.  “You must interpret their reactions calmly and correctly,” he reasoned, “you must know cause and effect.”  “You must be detached and look at your children from a distance…you must be patient and loving.”

 

Cukor the Man: Witty, Sophisticated Gentleman

Cukor’s homosexuality was one of the best-kept “secrets” in Hollywood, showing that when gossip columnists Huda Hopper and Luella Parsons liked and respected someone they also made efforts not to invade their privacy or damage their careers.  Yet, beyond being an interesting biographical fact, Cukor’s homosexuality has never been used as an interpretive factor in explaining his choice of subject matter and attraction to favorite stories.  And it can also help understand his unique approach to filmmaking, his preference for some (and not other) players, his grand style, and superb taste.  “If there is such a thing as a ‘Cukor style,'” he once remarked, “I guess it arises out of two principal factors: my own personalized perception of the world and my ability to deal professionally with actors.”  George Cukor draws on Cukor’s Jewish-European origins and homosexuality to further understand his perception of the world (as reflected in his movies) and his cinematic style.

The book also “straightens” the record by establishing the factuality (or lack of) of other rumors circulating in Hollywood for many decades.  For instance, there have been contradictory reports as to why Cukor was fired from the set of the most famous movie ever made, Gone with the Wind, after three weeks of shooting.  One report mentioned that Cukor himself wanted to quit because of basic disagreements with producer David O. Selznick.  And another source claimed that Clark Gable, playing Rhett Butler, was instrumental in firing Cukor, because he reportedly resented the director’s reputation as “a woman’s director.”

However, in the gossipy Hollywood Babylon II, Kenneth Anger notes that the initial antagonism between Cukor and Gable was based on the latter’s fear that the director might reveal sensational stories from his past, including an alleged homosexual affair with William Haines, a gay actor, who was fired by MGM because of his openly gay lifestyle.  According to Anger, the whole issue was “of such a scandalous and highly confidential nature that all copies of Selznick’s memos concerning the firing of Cukor were destroyed!”  Significantly though, after Cukor was fired, the two female stars of Gone with the Wind, Vivien Leigh and Olivia De Havilland, moonlighted at his house for coaching, trusting his advice much more than the one provided by the new director, Victor Fleming, who was personally chosen by Gable.

Vivien Leigh liked Cukor the minute she saw him because, as she described, he “smelled” of theater and was “imaginative and intelligent.”  She was therefore extremely angry at Selznick’s decision to dismiss him.  “Cukor was my only hope of ever enjoying the film,” she wrote to a close friend.  Vivien described her daily three hour rehearsal with Cukor as “my favorite part of the day.”

In a characteristic manner, Cukor tried to take the whole thing in stride and with a sense of humor.  “There is no great stigma to being replaced as a director,” he said in later years, “it has happened to me, and not only on that famous occasion (Gone with the Wind).  Indeed, he was also fired from an MGM picture, Desire Me (l947), starring Greer Garson and Robert Matchup; the new directors (Mervin Le Roy and Jack Conway), could not help the movie either and it died miserably at the box office.  “When I arrived at the studio the next morning,” Cukor recalled, “I was amused by observing who spoke to me and who did not.  I said to myself, ‘now I know who will come to my funeral.'”

Cukor’s personal file of Gone with the Wind at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Library includes rare documents of his and Selznick’s reactions to the numerous screen tests taken by just about every actress in Hollywood whose age ranged between 20 and 35.  This illustrious list included: Katharine Hepburn, Susan Hayward, Joan Fontaine, Lana Turner, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and many others.  This file also reveals to me important and new information of the tensions and conflicts between Cukor and Selznick during their work on Gone with the Wind.

Cukor’s career is associated with other important or interesting episodes in American film.  There have been enough scandals in his career to fill the pages of many gossipy books.  For example, he directed Garb in her last movie, Two-Faced Woman in l941.  Rumor has it that Garb decided to retire from the screen because of the film’s critical and commercial failure.  But others attribute her retirement to the Second World War, when her movies could no longer be shown in occupied Europe, where she has always been more popular than in the United States.

MGM’s other movie queen, Norma Shearer, also quit her screen career after appearing in Cukor’s Her Cardboard Lover in l942.  By contrast, Joan Crawford, the third MGM female star at the time, gave one of her most impressive performances in Cukor’s l941 film, A Woman’s Face.  Cukor also directed Marilyn Monroe in her last, unfinished, movie, Something’s Got to Give in l962.  After three weeks of shooting, Monroe was fired, and a few months later she was found dead.

A man of magnetic charisma, Cukor exuded tremendous warmth and was one of Hollywood’s best-liked figures.  His opulent house, in the Hollywood Hills above Sunset Boulevard, was one of the “famous show places” and a “showcase mansion” in the film colony.  Originally it was a small house, but Cukor rebuilt it entirely in 1935.

“The rooms are more or less the way they were when William Haines decorated them,” Cukor said in 1978, “but that is not to take away from my personal taste and knowledge.” He always liked to boast: “The house suits me perfectly, and I know that I belong here.”  Interestingly, the house, which had seven living rooms, contained only one bedroom, because, as one reporter put it in the l940s, although the director was a celebrated host, he disliked entertaining anyone overnight….

The furnishings of his house, like the sets and costumes of his movies, were an elegant mixture of modern and antique styles.  His collection of paintings, selected with meticulous discrimination, ranged from Grant Wood to Renoir.  One staircase wall was closely hung with works by such prominent artists as Rouault, Matisse, Picasso, Goya, and Dali.  Cukor also had a large collection of Han dancing figures.  There was a feeling of lively elegance in every room of the house, each containing mementos.  A silver cigarette box, with an endearing message, signed by Marilyn Monroe.  And a beautiful Renoir on the table easel–a gift from Vivien Leigh.  A bronze head of Tallulah Bankhead rested on an inlaid demilune table in the lower hall.  And a gallery of familiar faces, ranging from Ethel Barrymore to Laurence Olivier to Garbo, looked from the walls.  Displayed against an early nineteenth century puppet theater proscenium were figures of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, two of his frequent players and dearest friends.

Cukor was particularly proud of the autographed photograph he received from President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy.  After Kennedy’s assassination, Cukor helped his brother, Robert Kennedy, in his elections campaign, despite the fact that he was never explicitly involved in politics.   A letter from Robert F. Kennedy, of March 28, l968, expresses “many thanks for supporting my candidacy.”  “It’s great for me to know,” wrote Kennedy, “that you are with us.  I’m sure that signing the “Citizens for Kennedy” Ad will influence your many fans and I’m very grateful.”

“The best times of my life I remember having right here–in my own house,” Cukor told an interviewer.  “It’s been an intimate part of my life, my work, my friends–a great many friends indeed.”  “We used to work six days a week,” he reminisced, “and usually on Sundays, I don’t know how I managed it all, but we had lunch here.  There were the regulars, like Katharine Hepburn, Irene Selznick, and Vivien Leigh, when she was in town.  Through the years, particularly during the War years, everyone seemed to come here.”  “The regulars would sit at the end of the table,” Cukor recalled, “and when I had new people, they sat close to me.”

Cukor’s friendship with Vivien Leigh was one of the most intimate in his life, one that endured for over three decades–until her untimely death.  In her visits to Hollywood, Vivien usually stayed with Cukor.  Over the years they looked for appropriate material to work on; Cukor suggested Romeo and Juliet, with Vivien’s then husband Laurence Olivier, but it never materialized.

On February 16, 1967, a year before her death, Vivien wrote to Cukor: “Of course, I want to do a play–of course I want to do a film.  I read and read, but you know how damned difficult it is to find the right thing.  Why have you no part for a veteran actress who adores you?”

After Vivien’s death, Cukor arranged a small memorial service for her in his Hollywood home, where she’d often come to relax from “those grueling days” on the set of Gone with the Wind.

Cukor also took active part in Hollywood’s celebration of Vivien’s life and art, on March 17, 1968, on the campus of UCLA.  The sponsors of the event were “Friends of the Libraries,” who had honored other close friends of Cukor: Aldus Huxley, Somerset Maugham, Cole Porter.  Cukor paid tribute to Vivien, alongside speeches with Greer Garson, Gladys Cooper, Judith Anderson, and Stanley Kramer.  The evening was extremely successful; at one point, Cukor fell off his chair out of excitement.  Greer Garson was asked if she could get to the stage (to introduce a clip from Waterloo Bridge), without falling over Cukor.

Tallulah Bankhead

Another close and long-enduring friendship was with Tallulah Bankhead–despite some potential strains.  One of these strains occurred early on, when Tallulah insisted on testing for the part of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. Gossip columnist Luella Parsons was so annoyed by the notion of this casting that she warned her readers: “George Cukor, her friend, is going to direct, and Jack Whitney, another friend, is backing it.  So I’m afraid she’ll get the part.  If she does, I personally will go home and weep, because she is not SCARLETT O’HARA in my language, and if David O. Selznick gives her the part, he will have to answer to every man, woman, and child in America.”

Though Cukor feared Tallulah might be wrong for the part, he helped her get a chance to demonstrate her skills.  “Take it easy, Tallulah, relax,” he told her on the telephone, when she called from the airport to let him know her flight to Los Angeles got delayed.  “We’re going to take two tests by two different cameramen.  We’ll shoot one tonight, the other tomorrow.”  She ended up taking three tests.  She liked the first, but Cukor wanted a second one, with better lighting.  The third test, in color, was disastrous; neither she nor Cukor liked it.  In a characteristically diplomatic manner, Cukor later said: “Tallulah just wasn’t fresh enough.”  This was his way of saying that Tallulah was too old and too harsh to play Scarlett O’Hara, in what is still the best known and best publicized Hollywood movie ever made.

But Cukor and Tallulah remained intimate friends until her death, in l968.  He often escorted her to the famous parties that Dorothy Parker gave in New York.  In one such party, when Tallulah misbehaved, i.e. was too noisy and bitchy, Cukor told her secretary and friend, “in the interest of tranquility, send her home.”  Tallulah recalled her social life with Cukor with great fondness: “Katie (Katharine Hepburn) and I used to go nearly every Sunday to George Cukor’s for lunch, as nearly everybody did in Hollywood at one time or another.  We were so different that it used to kill George,” but “we liked each other very much.”

After her death, Cukor described Tallulah as “a truly magical creature.”  “I have a very warm and loving feeling about her,” Cukor wrote,  “And I’m very grateful for the enormous amount of fun I had with her.  She was sensitive, diverting, and touching, and she would do anything to get a laugh.”   As a token of their friendship, Cukor was willed by Tallulah a portrait (by Ambrose McEvoy), which he had admired for years.

Cukor became friends with most of the actors and actresses he had worked with.  He used to joke about the fact that most of his friends were film artists–they were mischievous, he said, and in many respects naive and childish, which he found charming.

Cukor proved to be the most loyal friend when he was needed, as his friendship with Ingrid Bergman attests.  Ingrid received her first Best Actress Oscar in a Cukor film, Gaslight, in 1944.  “I am still in a haze about my Oscar,” wrote Bergman to Cukor on March 18, l945, “and I can hardly express myself in any language, but I wanted to tell you how grateful I am to you for your help and understanding of my poor Paula in Gaslight.”

Their friendship was particularly important to Ingrid while she lived in Italy with director Roberto Rossellini and suffered vicious attacks by the press and congress for her allegedly immoral behavior (leaving her husband and young daughter, Pia Lindstrom, to work with Rossellini).  Cukor was in close touch with Pia (Ingrid’s daughter from her first marriage, now NBC’s film and theater critic), serving as liaison between her and Ingrid.  In a letter of July 30, 1952, Ingrid wrote: “I am very happy about the outcome in court regarding Pia’s vacation.  Now more than before, I appreciate your letter describing how happy she was to talk about me and receive my presents.  I know it isn’t Pia herself who says these awful things about me in court.”

Cukor kept in touch with most of the stars he had directed, all of whom wished to work with him again.  Indeed, his friendship and correspondence with Jane Fonda continued through the years she was in Paris, where she met and married French director Roger Vadim.  In l968, for example, Jane wrote to Cukor, whom she considered a close friend: “You are the godfather of a seven and a half pound female genius named Vanessa.”

Cukor loved New York City with all its energy and aura of sophistication: “It never occurred to me that I could live in California.  I was a New Yorker and came here with the talkies.”  But once he set his foot in Hollywood, he immediately took liking to the city and enjoyed his life there.  “I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” Cukor said in reference to California, “I’m not a sun worshipper, but here I live close to my work, in country surroundings.” True, unlike other “émigrés” from the East Coast, the transition in lifestyles was smooth, with no major adjustment problems.  “It bothers me when people disparage Los Angeles and say that they miss the culture of New York and that New York is so stimulating.”  His response to this snobbish criticism was: “Well, if you’re not dull yourself, you’ll find it just as stimulating here.”

Cukor:  The Raconteur

A witty personality, Cukor was a buoyant raconteur, whether he talked about his favorite actresses (Garbo and Hepburn), or his nine cocker spaniels.  One journalist noted that when he talked, he tended to use his mouth, hands, and “every terminal part of his body.”  But above all, Cukor treasured the value of friendship, always considering himself to be lucky to have so many intimate friends.  “Friendships are of enormous importance to me,” Cukor said in an interview, but every friendship was handled according to its own logic, which he described as: “You must maintain the relative position of the first meeting.”  To illustrate his point, he used his friendship with Ethel Barrymore: “When I first met Ethel, I fell on my face. We became good friends. She was very dear to me. But when she stayed here, it was always the same. She’d contradict me; she’d say go here, go there.”  On the other hand, he said: “there are people I meet, and they’re young and you always think of them that way–no matter how distinguished and successful they become in the future.”

In addition to being a great conversationalist, Cukor was an omnivorous reader and loved to travel.  He was so eager to read The Queen and the Hive, that he skipped every one of the introductory pages.  Noel Coward, a dear friend of Cukor, had to point out that Edith Sitwell actually dedicated the book to him.  “He was a marvelous man,” Cukor said about Coward, “very kind, very sweet.  He was a good friend to everybody, and everybody liked him.”  Coward used to stay in his guest room, when he was in California.  The shelves in Cukor’s huge library contained many books inscribed to him by their authors: Aldus Huxley, Anita Loos, Christopher Isherwood, Somerset Maugham.  Cukor was befriended by many literary celebrities, who held the highest respect for him as a director and as a friend.     For example, Cukor received books from Aldus Huxley with personal inscriptions.  Huxley was interested in writing the screenplay for the biopicture Madame Curie, with Cukor as director and Greta Garbo in the title role.  This project failed to materialize.  In l944, it was made into a film by Mervyn Le Roy and starred Greer Garson.  Huxley wrote the script (in collaboration with Jane Murfin) of Pride and Prejudice (l940), based on Jane Austen’s famous romance, which Cukor was initially assigned to direct, with Norma Shearer and Robert Donat in the leading roles.  The movie was directed, however, by Robert Z. Leonard, with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier.

Somerset Maugham

Another dear friend, a member of Cukor’s British colony in Hollywood (which included Noel Coward, Vivien Leigh, and others) was Somerset Maugham.  Cukor and Maugham’s long-enduring friendship began in as l923, when Cukor served as a stage manager for Maugham’s three one-act farce, The Camel’s Back on Broadway.  There is a large file of letters which they exchanged, spanning decades.  In one, dated June 15, l946, Maugham wrote: “A rumor has reached me that you have made a new arrangement with MGM which will give you an enormous salary and, at the end of the period, a huge pension.  I cannot make out why I did not become a movie director instead of a struggling author.”

Cukor was most interested in directing Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, on the condition that he would write the screenplay.  Maugham had sold the book to Darryl Zanuck, head of Twentieth-Century Fox, for 250,000 dollars.  Zanuck commissioned a script from one of his contract writers, Lamar Trotti, which no one liked.  Cukor continued to insist that Maugham write the script, though Maugham was too expensive for Zanuck.  A telephone call from Cukor made Maugham agree to write the script for nothing.  But Zanuck did not like the idea of “gratis” work.

The following conversation took place between Cukor and the noted producer:

Zanuck: Would he like some nice cuff links?

Cukor: He’s got some nice cuff links.

Zanuck: Would he like a gold cigarette case?

Cukor: He’s got a gold cigarette case.

Zanuck: Would he like a car?

Cukor: He’s got a car.

Zanuck: Well, what the hell would he like?

Cukor: I think he’d like a picture.

Zanuck authorized 15,000 dollars for Maugham, who was thrilled to “spend so much on a painting.”  (Maugham bought his first impressionistic painting by Pissaro).  In a typically Hollywood manner, Maugham wrote a wonderful script which was never used.  The movie was made in l946 by Edmund Goulding, based on the initial Lamar Trotti script.  This was a severe blow to both Maugham and Cukor, but it did not strain their friendship.

During the Second World War, one of the most prestigious literary “salons” in Los Angeles was held at the Viertels (Solka, a screenwriter, and her husband-director Berthold).  All the who’s who in Hollywood’s literary and cultural elite were there on Sundays: Huxley, Anita Loos, Garbo, Thomas Mann, Brecht, Schoenberg, and Cukor.

Cukor was a great admirer of humor: “I think the element of fun is the most wonderful element in friendships, as well as in working relationships.”  “I don’t mean the mechanical laugh,” he explained, “but a kind of humorous sense of fun–a sense of absurdity.  It’s not pompous, and it makes everything much more enjoyable.”

Rising to six feet, he was bulky and, though, not attractive in a conventional way, his appearance was pleasant and congenial.  A gourmet, he often had to go on diets to lose weight.  Yet good food was always important to him.  Indeed, while he directed The Blue Bird, the first American-Soviet co-production (in 1975), his biggest “problem” was not financial or even ideological, but rather culinary: the food was so terrible he gave orders to ship his food from London’s “Fortnum and Mason.”

During the Depression, Cukor proposed that the film industry cooperatively produce one film a year for the benefit of the old and the needy of the industry, and volunteered to direct the first film.  He also suggested to establish a school of acting to which all the studios could send their promising young talent.  Unfortunately, nothing came out of these suggestions. A generous man with an eye for the future, Cukor decided to do it on his own.  In the l960s, he contributed to the enhancement of dramatic and cinematic education in colleges: he endowed an annual scholarship at Brooklyn College, as a tribute to his origins in New York, and a graduate fellowship at the University of Southern California.

With his long period of inactivity, from My Fair Lady in 1964 to Justine in 1969, rumors started to circulate in Hollywood that Cukor was on the verge of retirement.  But he vehemently denied these rumors: “I never considered that I had stopped making pictures. I simply worked on a number of projects that never turned out.”  Cukor continued to lead a busy life with an active schedule to the very end of his life.  Throughout his life, he never lost his great passion for film; he loved movies–not only as a director, but also as an avowed moviegoer.  He always maintained his zest for life and sharp curiosity about film, willing to see anything that promised to be interesting.  “I wish the pictures today weren’t so hopeless,” he said in the l970s, “I wish they could get you more involved emotionally; you see some pictures where you don’t really care if anybody lives or dies.”  But he neither despaired nor condemned the younger generation of filmmakers.  This was his nature: to seek the best in everything he did or saw.  His companions always marveled at his ability to single out some achievement–even in bad films.

 

Conclusion

George Cukor: Master of Elegance assesses all of the director’s movies, though a special emphasis is placed on the more distinguished ones: Little Women, Dinner at Eight, Camille, The Women, The Philadelphia Story, Born Yesterday, A Star Is Born, and My Fair Lady.  Each of these eight movies is not only a classic, but a masterwork in its own right representing the best, not only in the director’s oeuvre, but in the American cinema in general.  The making of these films, their reception by critics and audiences of the time, and their status as film art today, are described in detail.

The book showed that one could see the best performances in Hollywood’s classic movies in George Cukor’s work.  Indeed, in my interview with Katharine Hepburn, a four-time Oscar Award winner, she singled out Cukor for this very reason: “The only really important thing I have to say about George Cukor–because I worked with quite a few of the so-called famous directors–is that all of those directors “starred” themselves.  George Cukor “starred” the actor.  Now, that’s very different.  From the beginning, that’s the way he saw it.  He wanted the actor and the story to be fascinating.  He did not want them to say, ‘This great director.’  He wanted them to say, ‘This great actor.’  Many stars were made by George Cukor.  He presented the people, he did not present himself.  I don’t think it was a result of his modesty; I think that’s just what interested him.  He loved the theater and he loved to see an actor be brilliant.  In life, you either star yourself or you star somebody else.  He starred somebody else.  John Huston starred himself.  David Lean really starred the motion picture camera.  George Cukor was brilliant on the performance.”

The work of Cukor is particularly missing in Hollywood of the 1980s, with its emphasis on the teen market, neglect of serious-adult entertainment, and its focus on violence and special effects–all at the expense of dialogue and characterization.  Moreover, Cukor’s films continue to serve as models for younger filmmakers.  For example, Legal Eagles (1986), starring Robert Redford and Debra Winger, was more than lightly influenced by Cukor’s l949 picture, Adam’s Rib.  And The Big Easy (l987), starring Dennis Quad and Ellen Barking, uses many plot elements and stylistic devices from Cukor’s comedies with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, most notably the l952 comedy, Pat and Mike.

The recently reconstructed version of A Star Is Born, made by Cukor in 1954, showed again not only what a great director he was, but how much has Hollywood changed (some say declined) in the ensuing three decades.  Presented at the Radio City Music Hall on July 7, l983, Cukor’s original film was the most stirring event of that season.  And while there were disputes about the genuine worth of the 27-minute-footage, which Warner Brothers had trimmed from the original l8l minutes, there was no doubt about the film’s overall quality and impact.  David Danby, film critic for New York magazine, represented many reviewers when he lamented: “childishly, I thought that if the studio heads could only see this–6,000 adults concentrating on a 30-year-old film that meant something to them emotionally–they might feel some distaste for the movies they have released this summer.”  “This kind of directorial bravura and self confidence,” Danby elaborated “this kind of emotionally saturated narrative, with its darkly neurotic compulsions, its cynicism and sentiment, its svelte, easy, inside-show-business knowingness, music of this quality composed freshly for a movie–such glories have all but vanished from the American cinema.”

George Cukor shows that there is still a lot of truth in critic Richard Shackle’s assessment: “Cukor’s movies can be appreciated–no, liked–at one level or another by just about everyone.”  This statement captures the uniquely warm and intimate relationship which always prevailed between Cukor and his audiences.  The proof: go and see the next screening of The Women, made almost half a century ago, and still fresh and funnier than most comedies today.  When people lament that Hollywood does not make such movies anymore, they usually think of the Cukor kind of entertainment.  Cukor’s films are still shown with great success on television and in art houses, demonstrating their unfailing appeal among younger generations of moviegoers.  The VCR Revolution, DVD and blu-ray, and streaming have all resulted in a broader release of most of Cukor’s films, earning him numerous new fans–and assuring the immortality of his films.