Our Betters (1933): Cukor on Author Somerset Maugham

Our Betters, a farce about a free-spirited American social climber, was the only Somerset Maugham play Cukor directed for the screen.

The British atmosphere in Our Betters was nicely handled, though the movie was stagey. Cukor’s only attempt at bringing English high comedy to the screen, it was a form seldom successful with American actors, because they were not trained in vocal nuance. The material should have been–but was not–performed in the Noel Coward style, a style in which the frivolous is seriously taken.

Maugham’s play is darker than Coward’s high comedies–a bitter expose of expatriate American women who marry British nobility for the title. In this work, Maugham’s women are ambitious, catty, and adulterous. Cukor thought the material was too brittle, and in his direction softened Maugham’s harsh attitude toward women, achieving a tone that will be used again in The Women. Some of the dialogue was witty and sparkling, and it moved fast, considering the overabundance of conversation.

Our Betters stands as a crucial, personal work in Cukor’s oeuvre. 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, 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 a gay man, Cukor could personally relate to Bennett’s character, a flirtatious woman running her house as a salon, and to the Duchess, a declining woman who has to pay for sex.

As for the men, 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. Finally, the feature contains the only overt gay character in a Cukor film: A pansy dancing teacher, played by Tyrell Davis with rouge on his cheeks and painted lips. One 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 excelled 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 stage production, which featured Ina Claire in the lead and Constance Collier as the Duchess. But unfortunately he was unable to assemble a company equal to the demands of the form. Only Violet Kemble-Cooper, as the Duchess, came close to the desirable technique and manner.