Zaza (1939): Cukor’s Comedy, Hays Censorship, and Commercial Fate

On February 3, 1938, David O. Selznick agreed to lend George Cukor’s services to Paramount to direct the romantic comedy, Zaza.

Grade: C+ (** out of *****)

Cukor was then engaged in pre-production of Gone With the Wind, which took much longer than expected.  Though he made a lot of money during this waiting period, Cukor had plenty of free time on his hands, which made him restless and eager to work on another picture.

Under the loan-out terms between Selznick and the studio, Cukor would receive separate card credits on the main credit title, and his name would be in type at least 60 percent as large as the type used for the title.

Based on an old French play about the loves and sorrows of a tumultuous French music hall siren, Zaza had an illustrious history, serving as a star vehicle for generations. Back in 1889, the great French actress Rejane played the title role in Paris, and in 1920, the legendary diva Geraldine Farrar sang the role at the Metropolitan Opera.

The story was previously done twice as a silent feature, by Paramount in 1915 with Pauline Frederick, and in 1923 with Gloria Swanson.

Cukor perceived the Paramount remake as “terribly old-fashioned and terribly French,” what with “that endless exploration of unfaithfulness and the suffering that comes with love,” themes that he had dealt with more effectively in the 1937 romantic tragedy, Camille, starring Garbo and Robert Taylor.

In the end, Claudette Colbert was cast as Zaza, a music hall performer, who falls in love with a handsome chance acquaintance, Dufresne (Herbert Marshall), only to become heartbroken upon learning that he is married and has a child.

Zaza_3What intrigued Cukor was not the illicit affair, but the relationship between public and private life, the tension between life onstage and off.  In his movie, the audience got a real sense of a touring company’s daily life, where privacy was impossible; the whole troupe knows and talks about Zaza’s affair.

At Paramount, Cukor met with less resistance to the demands of a period film than he had at Metro. Hans Dreier, known for his atmospheric sets, came up with an interesting design for Zaza, creating an authentic outdoor cabaret complete with earth on floor. For Cukor, the period feeling was as good as Camille. The picture was photographed by Charles Lang, known for his ability to make women look ravishing–Zaza features stunning shots of Colbert in big feathered hats.

It may come as no surprise that very few children appear in Cukor’s films. “The idea of working with a child absolutely appalls me, as working with an animal appalls me.” Cukor understood that manipulation is the key to getting a good performance from children, and he hated that. Cukor was devastated by reports that Vincente Minnelli told Margaret O’Brien that her dog was dead in order to get her to cry in Meet Me in St. Louis.

Colbert seemed to be more personal and personable in Zaza than in her other recent films. Cukor thought that as a comedienne Colbert used only part of her talent and elegance; her range was wider than she was given chance to display.  Besides, Zaza was the only film in which Colbert had chance to display her pretty voice.

Zaza_2Cukor brought his friend Fanny Brice on the set to coach her, as Colbert told me, “It was wonderful, no other director would do such a thing. That’s going a long way and indicative of the kind of director he was.” Brice taught Colbert how to contact an audience, how to command the stage. “You know, kid,” she told Colbert in her heavy Brooklyn accent, “when you sing a ballad, if you touch your own flesh, it’s a kind of comfort to ya.” Brice placed her beautiful hands at the base of her neck, and showed Colbert how to make each member of the audience feel she was looking directly at him with her penetrating eyes and radiant smile. “When they calm down,” Brice said, “especially if it’s a serious song, I fasten my eyes right below the balcony, and I sing.”


Zaza_1When shooting ended, Zaza got an absolute turndown by the Hays office and cuts were demanded. “It was so stupid,” Colbert said, “because Zaza had been a big success at the turn of the century, and all of a sudden the Hays Office thought it was risque.” But morals in 1939 were so rigid and the authority of the Hays office so absolute, that most of the film’s pristine shock had to be expunged. “These long despairing scenes were all cut,” Cukor later lamented.

Despite problems with the Hays office, Paramount’s top brass thought that the film was one of studio’s best in years. With some confidence, the company traveled to a double preview, in Oakland and San Francisco. At the first night in Oakland, the preview began well and the film played beautifully for almost an hour, but then “all hell broke loose.”

In the story, Zaza goes to Paris, confirms her lover’s marriage without his knowledge, returns home and awaits his arrival.  She hopes everything will be the same, but as he enters, preceded by a huge bouquet of white roses, the audience began to hiss. “Not Friday-night students-at-the-flicks hissing, but the real hissing,” Dmytryk recalled. Though one of the film’s best scenes unrolled on screen, no one heard it, as the audience’s angry reaction continued right through the bitter end.

Shocked by this turn of events, a few emergency cuts were made the next morning. They now hoped that a more cosmopolitan San Francisco audience would find the film acceptable. The viewers were indeed somewhat younger and more sophisticated, but the reaction was the same. Audiences simply could not forgive the hero for deceiving Zaza, making a “loose woman” out of her. Interestingly, there was evidence that watching the film alone, a person would accept its morality, but that same person when surrounded by others, joined in a “mob” reaction. Zaza demonstrated that “censorship never led, it merely reflected the common attitudes of the public.”

The return to Hollywood was a “nightmare of despair.” according to Cukor.  The ending was reshot, and further cuts were made. But each time the film was tested with an audience, whether in or outside big cities, the reaction was similar.

There was little more that Paramount could do. By that time, Colbert was shooting Midnight, under the helm of Lubitsch, whoch would be a big success.

One day, Colbert’s brother came down on the set with news that he had just seen the final version of Zaza. “They’ve cut and ruined it,” he reported. “I was very upset,” said the actress, “In fact, I couldn’t see the film for a very long time.”

Cukor, too, was furious–the film that he made, his real take, would never be seen by the public.

It did not help that Zaza was released at a bad time, just after New Year’s, on January 5, 1939.  The film quietly opened, and just as quietly died at the box-office.

Negative reaction from the press, led by gossip columnist Louella Parsons, made things worse.  And the universal condemnation from local and state religious organizations “killed” the romantic comedy before it had a chance to play.

Zaza would become one of the few commercial flops in Cukor’s career, a frustrating experience that he would seldom talk about.

But the work process with Colbert was rewarding for both director and actress, and they remained friends for the duration of their lives, even after Colbert retired and relocated to New York City.


Running time: 83 Minutes


Claudette Colbert as Zaza

Herbert Marshall as Dufresne

Bert Lahr as Cascart

Helen Westley as Anais

Constance Collier as Nathalie

Genevieve Tobin as Florianne

Walter Catlett as Marlardot

Ann E. Todd as Toto

Rex O’Malley as Bussy

Ernest Cossart as Marchand

Rex Evans as Michelin

Robert Fischer as Pierre

Janet Waldo as Simone

Dorothy Tree as Madame Dufresne

Duncan Renaldo as Animal trainer