Winged Victory: Judy Holliday’s First Role

George Cukor’s Winged Victory was just a chore for him, and unsurprisingly, it is one of his least distinguished endeavors. Moss Hart, who wrote and directed the stage version, wanted to acquaint the public with the Air Force’s indomitable spirit. To gather material for the play, Hart put on a cadet’s uniform and set out on a jaunt by bomber that covered every phase in the training.

Lon McCallister, who was cast as one of the aviation cadets, recalled that the picture was a trying experience for him as well as for Cukor. “We were both replacements,” he said, “William Wyler had originally been announced to direct, but Cukor was released from the army before Wyler returned to civilian life.”

In May, 1944, the Broadway cast moved from New York to Hollywood to make the movie. The entire crew was recruited from army ranks, including technicians, set designers, and musicians. But the studio decided they needed extra box-office insurance so they added Jeanne Crain and McCallister to the cast, after the success of their film Home in Indiana that year. McCallister was the only actor who had not been in the original show.

There was nothing set for Cukor to direct at Metro, and Hart’s script was ready to go into production. Cukor thus came into the project with very little preparation. “It would have been a better picture is he had been given time to work with Hart,” said McCallister, “The brilliance of A Star is Born, in l954, proved the value of their complete collaboration.”

There were very few roles for women in the film, mostly mothers and sweethearts. One of those was played by Judy Holliday, who in the next decade would become Cukor’s quintessential actress, appearing in five of his movies.

The first time Cukor heard about Holliday was when Fox’s Darryl Zanuck mentioned “these clever kids,” Al Green, Betty Camden, and Judy Holliday, from the Village in New York. But Zanuck couldn’t convince anyone to use them. Tested for one of the housewife roles, Holliday was heavily made up and dressed in what she thought a movie star would wear. Pretty in an odd way, Cukor thought she was decidedly not the “motion-picture type.”

Cukor asked Holliday to read for a small, uninteresting part of a tragic wife. He had seen the scene done in a more conventional way by other actresses. Holliday had little acting experience, but her phrasing was poignant, moving, and intensely personal. “Can you do this again asked Cukor. “Yes,” said Judy. She landed the part.

The premiere, held at the Graumann’s Chinese Theater, on December 27, l944, was attended by high rank officers. One thousand grandseats, the largest ever, were erected in the forecourt of the theater for the festive gala, with anti-air-craft searchlights used to augment the regular studio lights. Hosted by top Navy officers, all the profits went to Army charities.

Fond of Moss Hart’s stage work, Cukor wanted to work with him again. Periodically, Cukor would send Hart a note, reminding of his promise to give him preference over other directors in filming his plays. It took another decade for Cukor and Hart to work together again, but they would produce a masterpiece, A Star Is Born.