Edward, My Son: Cukor, First American Director to Work in UK after WWII

With his next assignment, Edward, My Son, George Cukor became the first American director to work at the Metro studio in England since the War.

Arriving in London a few weeks before shooting began, Cukor spent an amusing time with his friends. He went out to the country, where he saw some wonderful houses. But as soon as filming began, he had to say goodbye to “the great social world.” He now hoped to finish the movie in August and go to Paris for a vacation.

Based on Noel Langley’s hit play, the movie concerns an egotistical father (played by Spencer Tracy) who ruthlessly drives his son to suicide and his wife to alcoholism. Cukor proved once more that he could turn a theatrical work into effective cinema. Edward, My Son is not only an underrated work, but stands out in Cukor’s repertoire for featuring a male protagonist. Most of Cukor’s films before and after this one featured strong female protagonists. Which was the main reason why his label, a woman’s director, persisted. Stylistically, Edward My Son boasted long, uninterrupted sequences, that would distinguish Cukor’s later films.

The part of the alcoholic and bitter wife was assigned to the young British actress, Deborah Kerr. Despite initial reservations, Cukor was soon taken with Kerr, who showed a knack for acting with a “disarming reality.” Cukor predicted that, despite Kerr’s young age, she would be extraordinarily good, healing the “scars” of her two lousy MGM pictures.

There were some problems with casting the part of Eileen, the secretary. It was not a big enough part to tempt a star, yet it was a good part and Cukor felt it had to be played by someone who could command the screen. Because Katharine Hepburn was in London with Tracy, there was some talk of her playing the secretary. But intriguing as the idea was, Cukor saw two obstacles. Tracy and Hepburn didn’t want to act together too frequently. And, more importantly, by putting such an important star in the part, Hepburn’s participation would throw the picture off balance and also be “unfair” to Kerr. The part was finally cast with Leueen McGrath.

Two Cukor gimmicks marked this movie: Tracy addresses the camera directly, and the title character, Edward, never appears on screen. “It was a very clever piece of theater,” Kerr recalled, “You get a remarkable picture of the son, without ever seeing him.”

Unfolding in a succession of brief scenes, the film was actually “stolen” by the actors who played the smaller parts, instead of being illuminated by the central character. In fact, Cukor knew that the father’s role was quite superficial. Moreover, in its transfer to the screen, the story became safer and tamer. For censorship reasons, there is retribution in the film, which didn’t exist in the play–setting fire to his shop to collect insurance, the father goes to prison.

Shooting started on time and progressed smoothly. In fact, on the eighth day, Cukor was one day ahead of schedule. Always partial to his own work, this time Cukor thought the rushes had exceptional vitality and freshness. By July 14, Cukor was ahead of schedule four days, which was no small accomplishment, for English picture-making was at a much more leisurely rhythm than the American. “It has been said by my enemies that I am a very slow director,” Cukor quipped, “but no more!”

Cukor worked extensively with Kerr on the development of her character from a young woman to an old and sad drunken lady. “George had a wonderful way with actors,” said Kerr, “He would talk and talk about a particular scene, and do it over and over again. Then he would say, `Now forget everything I’ve said and go and do it your way.’ This was very clever psychologically, because everything he had said had already gone into your head.” Kerr had tremendous admiration for Cukor’s ability to convey what he wanted, without actually saying, “I want you to do this or that.”

“George helped me with being aged,” Kerr said, “he was always encouraging. He was open to ideas, but I was very young and very much in awe of him.” Cukor put the shy actress at ease with his disarming humor. “I was just a school girl starting out, but I enjoyed getting to know him. I only wish I had more chances to work with him.” “He was an enchanting man,” she elaborated,” “he was absolutely one of my favorite directors, and I worked with some wonderful directors, John Huston, Fred Zinnemann.”

“We had the same understanding about particular scenes,” Kerr said, “we got on with each other because we agreed enormously on that.” The ambience on set was friendly, with everybody working very hard. At times, Tracy wasn’t happy playing his part, but one could feel, Kerr said, “that George and Spencer had worked together and knew each other a great deal.” “I was extremely young to play that woman, it was tremendously exciting to have gotten my first Academy Award nomination so guickly after going to Hollywood.” Indeed, in one film, Cukor succeeded in establishing Kerr as one of Hollywood’s most important leading ladies.

Before coming to London, Tracy told Cukor he was nervous about his ability to function in a foreign country. Tracy put Cukor under pressure, because he wanted to spend as little time in London as possible. But it turned out that this was the first film in years during which Tracy wasn’t sick from nerves and wasn’t drinking much.

Cukor knew that Tracy had to carry the whole picture–he appeared in almost every scene. But Tracy had become such an assured actor that Cukor was able to do long scenes, five pages at a time, in one take without cutting. Cukor did fewer takes than the usual, adapting himself to Tracy’s new assurance.

Cukor urged Tracy to encourage the less experienced actors. There was one scene where Kerr, as a grayed plumped-up and sad-looking lady, had to pour a drink for herself. Tracy stood in the background, as she sipped the drink. “George,” he suddenly said, “do you mind if I tell her something” “No, of course not,” Cukor said, “whatever you want to say.” “You know darling,” Tracy then told Kerr, “when you’re an alcoholic, you don’t sip, you just throw the whole thing down.” “Being young and not alcoholic,” Kerr said, “I didn’t know that.”