Our Betters (1933): Cukor’s Personal, Gay Movie Starring Constance Bennett

Our_Betters_posterOur Betters, a Pre-Code satire about th social and sexual mores of  a free-spirited American social climber, fearures star Constance Bennete in one of her most seductive performances.

Unfortunately, it was the only Somerset Maugham work (play or book) that George Cukor directed for the big screen, despite their wish to work together, based on lifelong friendship. (Their later effort to collaborate on the 1946 The Razor’s Edge failed to materialize).

The British atmosphere in Our Betters was nicely handled, though the movie was too stagey–there was no effort to open it up.

It was Cukor’s only attempt at bringing English high comedy to the screen, a form that was seldom successful with American actors, because they were not trained in the vocal nuance and subtle mannerism that their British counterparts were known for.

The text should have been–but was not–performed in the Noel Coward tradition, a style in which the frivolous and minor detail is taken seriously by the players, but not by the viewers.

Maugham’s play is darker than Coward’s high comedies–a bitter expose of expatriate American women who marry British nobility for the title and the luxurious life style that goes with it.  In this, and other works, Maugham depicts women as ambitious, catty, and adulterous creatures who would do everything and anything to promote their positions in the social hierarchy.

Cukor thought that the material was too brittle for American viewers of the early 1930s, and in his direction softened Maugham’s harsh attitude toward women and toward the American class system.  He managed to achieve a more varied and balanced tone , which he would continue to perfect in future comedies about gossipy women, such as the 1939 The Women.

After the reading the script, he quickly realized that its forte was in the witty and sparkling dialogue, and decided that it needed to move briskly, since there was not much of a plot–it was all about intimate conversations and forbidden interactions.

Detailed Synopsis

After her wedding, American hardware heiress Pearl Saunders (Bennett) overhears her husband, Lord George Grayston, telling his mistress that he only married her for her money.  Disillusioned, she grows hard and cynical.

Five years later, she has made herself a desirable presence among the British upper class by throwing lavish parties. Among her friends are divorced Duchess Minnie, gossip-loving Thornton Clay, philanthropic Princess Flora, and Arthur Fenwick, her wealthy and adoring lover.

Arthur discreetly provides her with a much-needed regular allowance, as her now absent husband has squandered most of her fortune.

Pearl introduces her younger sister Bessie to English aristocracy, especially to eligible young bachelor Lord Harry Bleane, and Bessie is naturally seduced by the glamour of high society.

When former fiance Fleming Harvey comes to see her, it’s clear that she no longer loves him.

Harry proposes to Bessie, and she accepts, though she tells him franklyy that she only likes him.

Pearl’s social circle spends a weekend at the Grayston country estate. There, Minnie’s gigolo, Pepi D’Costa, privately woos Pearl. Eventually, she has a rendezvous with him in the detached teahouse. However, this is detected by Minnie, who maliciously sends an unsuspecting Bessie to fetch her purse, whereupon Bessie sees too much.

Her suspicions confirmed, Minnie denounces Pearl before the others, and Arthur is furious and disheartened.  Pearl’s feelings are not hurt, but she is concerned about it becoming known.

Pearl delays Minnie’s departure for London and, through her wiles, manages to make up with both Minnie and Arthur. Minnie even forgives Pepi, finally agreeing to marry him. She then persuades Minnie to stay another night and learn the latest tango steps from effete dance instructor Ernest.

When Bessie expresses disgust with her sister’s behavior, Pearl is finally and truly hurt. Having second thoughts now, she persuades Harry to break the engagement.

In the end, Bessie asks a delighted Fleming to take her away.

In retrospect, Our Betters stands as a crucial, personal work in Cukor’s large oeuvre of 51 features, a film that bears some resemblance to other gay-inflected movies he would make.  (Despite being openly gay, Cukor had never made an explicitly gay-themed picture, though a subtler gay sensibility often prevails in the tone and subtext of his stories).

Its gallery of screen types would appear time and again in Cukor’s future movies. As Lady Pearl Grayston, the American beauty who turns to gold-digging, Bennett embodied a role that Cukor understood well: A sophisticated, sharp-tongued woman of the world (“femme du monde,” as the French say), a femme disillusioned with bourgeois marriage and bored with conventional behavior.

The Duchess was another disenchanted woman, desperately clinging to her cheating gigolo, who undergoes one public humiliation after another.

As an openly gay man, Cukor could personally relate to Bennett’s charcater, a flirtatious woman running her house as a social and cultural salon, and also to the Duchess, an aging and declining woman who has to pay for sexual favors with younger men.

Our_Betters_1As for the male characters, Grant Mitchell played an expatriate, who hopes nobody would detect from his speech that he was born in America.

There is also the genuinely virile American, a “straight,” proud of his nationality and practicality.

Most importantly, the feature contains one of the few overtly gay characters in a Cukor film: A pansy dancing teacher, played by Tyrell Davis, wearing rouge on his cheeks and flaunting explicitly painted lips. At the time, 0ne shocked critic noted that he was “the most broadly painted character of the kind yet attempted on the screen.”

Dealing with the lascivious affairs of the upper class, Cukor excels in bringing out the typically English drawing-room banter and the wickedly nasty humor of characters who show no sign of repenting or changing their ways.

His direction was described as “smart,” particularly in handling a teahouse sequence (to which Bennett goes with the Duchess’ gigolo), “which suggests everything and shows nothing.”

Cukor had vivid memories of the play’s stage production, which featured Ina Claire in the lead and Constance Collier as the Duchess, two actresses he admired and would befriend and work with in the future.

But unfortunately he was unable to assemble a company equal to the demands of the theatrical form. Only Violet Kemble-Cooper, as the Duchess Minnie, came close to the desirable technique and manner.

Cukor instructed Bennett to talk as rapidly as Claire did on stage, but he realized that she lacked the latter’s brilliant technique. Bennett’s gowns have been designed to make the most of entrances and exits; one critic complained that perhaps out of desperation Cukor gave her a mile-long cigarette holder, around which she molded her entire performance.

Cukor’s model for comedy acting was Ina Claire’s speedy, stylized delivery. On occasion, he admittedly “stole” Claire’s trick, using it as an advice to his friends. Indeed, during a visit to London, Cukor saw Gladys Cooper in a Peter Ustinov play. He sensed something was wrong, but could not put his finger on the problem. The next night, he went back and realized that her delivery was too slow. He told Cooper to speed up. The actress was instantly rewarded; the audience applauded for the first time.

Our_Betters_2Aiming at getting peer recognition, Cukor invited King Vidor to a preview of Our Betters. Vidor was one of the most respected directors at the time, having made The Crowd and Hallelujah. Vidor complemented Cukor, but also honestly conceded that he would never tackle a subject with so “little locomotion.” Vidor felt that the picture was static, but that Cukor somehow had the faculty of keeping it interesting inspite of this obstacle.

Vidor’s comment reinforced Cukor’s commitment to high-quality texts, knowing that his real forte was in staging lengthy dialogue scenes. Indeed, there is very little action or conventional plot in Cukor’s best films, which are rather noted for their sharp characterization and keen dialogue. The typical Cukor film revolves around a strong character, almost always a woman, faced by a personal-moral dilemma. This dilemma precipitates an inevitable chain of events that necessitate the heroine’s self-examination and reevaluation of her values.

Our_Betters_3As will become clear in the future, Cukor’s great talent–and unique mise-en-scene–entailed the stylized orchestration of complex set-pieces, involving half a dozen characters whose “action” consists of sharp dialogue. Compared with American movies of the present, it’s amazing to realize how much talk there is in Cukor’s films. At their best, Cukor’s features are talking pictures about personal relationships, evoking what he described as “the climate of comedy.”

Producer David O. Selznick hired gossip columnist Elsa Maxwell, famous for her social parties, to serve as a consultant for the film’s costumes, which were officially credited to the designer Hattie Carnegie.

CAST

Constance Bennett as Lady Pearl Saunders Grayston
Violet Kemble-Cooper as Duchess Minnie
Phoebe Foster as Princess Flora
Charles Starrett as Fleming Harvey
Grant Mitchell as Thornton Clay
Anita Louise as Bessie Saunders
Gilbert Roland as Pepi D’Costa
Minor Watson as Arthur Fenwick
Hugh Sinclair as Lord Harry Bleane
Alan Mowbray as Lord George Grayston
Harold Entwistle as Pole
Tyrell Davis as Ernest
Virginia Howell as Mrs. Saunders
Walter Walker as Mr. Saunders