One Hour With You (1932): Cukor’s Authorship Battle with Lubitsch

Following Girls About Town, director George Cukor was assigned his most important–and as it turned out his most problematic–film to date, One Hour With You, with two of Paramount’s major stars, Maurice Chevalier and Janet MacDonald.

A remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle, the film was originally to be directed by Lubitsch himself, but when other obligations made it impossible, Cukor took over with the understanding that the film would be shot under Lubitsch’s supervision.

The prospect of working closely with a director the caliber of Lubitsch, then at the peak of his career, was very attractive to Cukor. And it was going to be his movie: he made the screen tests and was consulted about the story, sets, and costumes. The actual production commenced in early 1931 with a good deal of excitement by both Lubitsch and Cukor. In the first week, Cukor directed without much input from Lubitsch, consulting with him only sporadically.

In the second week, however, things began to change, when Paramount’s Schulberg called Cukor to his office for a conference. Lubitsch wanted closer contact with the production, Schulberg explained, since the material was so close in treatment to the director’s unique style. The manager thus asked if Cukor would consent to Lubitsch spending more time on the set. Realizing it was an unusual request, Schulberg tried to smooth over the awkwardness of the situation by repeatedly praising Cukor’s generous cooperation and good sportsmanship.

Cukor considered it perfectly natural for Lubitsch to take an active part in the project: He was a distinguished director, a master of his craft, and the material was right up his alley. But in actuality, he had little choice. Cukor consented to confer with Lubitsch about each scene. The two directors would discuss a given scene, then rehearse the actors together, or Lubitsch would watch Cukor rehearse them. Lubitsch would then express his ideas about what needed to be changed, and after reaching a consensus they would proceed to shoot the scene.

As shooting progressed, Lubitsch divided his time between editing his other movie The Man I Killed and supervising One Hour with You. Though awkward, the arrangement was tenable, and the film proceeded without major problems–until the evening of January 26, 1932, when studio executives were invited to the first screening.

It was customary for the director to be present, but Cukor was not even notified of the screening. Two days later, he received a letter from Schulberg, expressing his regret at the oversight. Schulberg claimed that he simply took for granted that Lubitsch would tell Cukor about the event. “I am not passing the buck to him for this apparent slight, for, undoubtedly, he had as much reason for assuming that I would tell you as I had for assuming that he would.” Asking for Cukor’s forgiveness for the unintended affront, Schulberg then assured him that the studio heads were delighted with the picture. Lubitsch also apologized to Cukor for the oversight.

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Two weeks later, on February 9, a public preview was held at the Uptown Theater in Los Angeles, for an audience of 2,100 people, including studio officials. The main title, an Ernst Lubitsch Production, was in letters four times as large as those used for Cukor’s credit. Moreover, it was followed by another card in large type: Personally Supervised by Ernst Lubitsch. The predominance of Lubitsch’s name in the credits was disconcerting to Cukor, but the film was well received, and Cukor was given a complementary write up in The Hollywood Reporter.

Events took a turn for the worse when, on February 11, Schulberg asked Cukor for permission to take his name off the picture. It was an unpleasant duty, but Lubitsch had told Schulberg that if Cukor’s name were not removed, he would ask for the withdrawal of his name. Shocked by the demand and incapable of making a quick decision, Cukor told Schulberg he needed a day to think it over.

Cukor didn’t sleep that night at all, debating what line of action to take. Apart from the fact that withdrawing his name would be an embarrassment, Cukor concluded that it would also damage his professional reputation. The next morning Cukor informed Schulberg that he refused to remove his name from the picture. Schulberg was shocked by the director’s feisty attitude, not expecting one of Paramount’s newest directors to have such strong voice. He warned Cukor that if he did not consent, he would become the laughing stock of the profession. Schulberg even threatened to cancel Cukor’s contract, as a man who showed little judgment and sanity about screen credit should not be entrusted with the direction of a major production.

To make matters worse, Schulberg proceeded to read excerpts from a note sent to him by Lubitsch, which further infuriated Cukor. Apparently, after reading the Hollywood Reporter article and hearing reports around the lot, Lubitsch feared that One Hour With You would be considered Chevalier’s best picture, surpassing Lubitsch’s solo efforts with the star. He thus noted that viewers and critics unfamiliar with the inside story would probably attribute the better direction to Cukor.

Lubitsch was overly sensitive to the whole issue, because with the completion of One Hour with You his contract with Paramount expired. On February 13, 1932, Cukor received a letter from Lubitsch himself. “I cannot tell you,” he wrote, “how uncomfortable I feel in this situation, but there was really no other choice for me. I would honestly prefer to have my name taken off the picture entirely than to allow my reputation as a director to suffer.”

Initially, Cukor was determined to go to court. In a prepared statement, he stressed the importance of a director’s work being recognized on the screen. “Screen credit is as vital a part of the compensation which I am entitled to received under my contract as is the salary,” Cukor wrote. Credit was therefore essential in promoting his status as a director. “My professional reputation and prestige probably will be enormously enhanced,” Cukor explained, “and I will be able to demand and receive a much higher salary than I am receiving at present.”

At the heart of the matter was Cukor’s belief that One Hour with You was much more his movie than Lubitsch’s. He was perfectly satisfied to have Lubitsch’s name dropped from the picture, and, as he wrote, “perfectly willing to bear the full responsibility” of the result of his production.

In the end, however, Cukor lost the battle: The film was released as directed by Lubitsch, with Cukor’s contribution practically unacknowledged.

In some press releases, Cukor received credit for “assisting” Lubitsch.  More important, however, was getting the right to break his contract with Paramount and move to RKO to direct What Price Hollywood? which became a critical and commercial success.