George Cukor – Spit and Gloss Entertainer
He is perhaps one of the most celebrated of all Hollywood directors. A figure of solid soapstone in a landscape of shifting sands, some very dirty clay and other offensive unmentionable filth, he somehow managed, thanks to his talent. Pluck and “wiv a little bit of luck” as one of the characters in his magnum opus would sing, to create some gems of pure ray serene. Trapped inside the gilded cage of the eccentric establishment that was Hollywood, he succeeded in flying free to breathe in the ozonic air of cinematic creativity.
During a career of fifty years and more, George Cukor directed outstanding movies – a resplendent record, enough to earn him a permanent seat in the hall of fame of world cinema. As Gavin Lambert puts it, “There are artists whose work is basically a release from personal tension and there are others for whom their work is an extension rather than a tension, a mode of pleasure and a way of expressing curiosity about the world; Cukor is of the second kind!”
George Cukor was born in New York on 07 Jul 1899 and was of Hungarian origin. His family was fairly well off by the standards of the times and Cukor had all the comforts of an affectionate home. He had an uncle, a very successful New York lawyer and not so surprisingly his family wished to see Cukor study law and follow the footsteps of the kindly uncle. But destiny had obviously other plans for young Cukor.
His parents had been regular theater goers and Cukor often accompanied them. Young and impressionable, he loved the exciting world of red plush curtains and footlights, and the theatre bug bit into him deeply and he decided to make theater his life-time love and occupation. A person of strong will and steadfastness of purpose, Cukor stuck to his ground and followed his whim despite parental pressure.
Gaining a name for himself by directing plays like ‘The Great Gatby’ and ‘A Free Soul, he noticed the growing popularity of the eighth art – the cinema. And then sound came to the movies towards the last years of the twenties and movies began to talk and sing. Hollywood rocked with chaos with the advent of sound. Many stars of great repute fell on the wayside and thus a new profession was born – dialogue director!
And so in 1929, the year of the Great Crash that rocked America to the roots, Cukor went to Hollywood to work as a dialogue director for Paramount. He became co-director in 1930 and worked on three films during the year – ‘Grumpy’, ‘The Virtuous Sin’ and ‘The Royal Family of Broadway’. Cukor received a good deal of praise and pats that led to his promotion as an independent director with ‘Tarnished Lady’ (’31).
‘Tarnished Lady’ is about a woman who struggles hard to keep up with the Joneses after her family has bid goodbye to its fortunes. An original screenplay, the film is more cinematic than most of the sound stage-bound Hollywood and glue patch-work stuff that Hollywood churned out regularly during the tumultuous Thirties. The camera is more mobile and many scenes were filmed on actual locations. Cukor, always one for authenticity, chose to shoot on location like streets of New York. This he did in his very first film some forty years ago before long-haired film buffs of the screaming Seventies claimed on-location shooting as modern.
After making ‘Girls About Town’ the same year, which did just well, Cukor was assigned to direct ‘One Hour With You’ with Jeanette MacDonald and that enchanting Frenchman, Maurice Chevalier. Ernst Lubitsch, another Hollywood great had done the script for the film but he had other movies to finish and that’s how Cukor came into the picture. When shooting began, trouble reared its ugly head. Cukor found he could not get on with Chevalier. His no-nonsense attitude and the Gallic casual air clashed fiercely. So Lubitsch was asked to take over and while making Cukor stay and coach the performers on dialogue. When the film was finished, Cukor was left out in the credits. Young and perhaps idealistic like many of that age, Cukor took it as a personal affront and sued Paramount for breach of contract and joined RKO where David Selznick gave him a handsome contract.
His first film for his new boss was ‘What Price Hollywood?’ (1932), an outside view of Hollywood, looked through very rose-tinted glasses. It presents the place as a romantic haven where goodness prevails and virtue begets many rewards besides itself. Perhaps it is far away from solid truth but masses of the Thirties loved such cotton-candy and sugar-loaf view of things and ‘What Price Hollywood?’ clicked in a big way at the box-office. Constance Bennet’s malt-and-marmalade performance as an actress proved popular.
Next he made during the same year ‘A Bill of Divorcement’ a tale of tangled emotions and tensions of a couple, and the daughter who watches helplessly, her shell-shocked father being sent away to an asylum while her mother and her lover plan their future. To play the role of the daughter Cukor chose a girl in New York. She had never faced a movie camera before and yet she gave a brilliant performance and Cukor saw in her, her expression, gait, a great artiste and under his guidance and tutelage a star was born and she went on to make screen history. Her name, Katherine Hepburn!
With the release of the picture she hit the headlines and Cukor’s reputation went up by a few more notches. Within three years he had made himself known and in 1933 he made a movie which established him as a Hollywood great, a reputation given to a few. He undertook to convert Louisa May Alcott’s best-seller and perennial favourite ‘Little Women’ into a fascinating film. A warm, interesting story of a New England middle class family life stressing the higher and eternal values like character, sacrifice, austerity, loyalty and purity, Cukor made it a ‘wonder’ film. A firm believer in such values, he imparted the film with tremendous vitality and sincerity. Katharine Hepburn again showed her genius in the pivotal role and Cukor was not surprised when ‘Little Women’ turned out to be a grand winner, financially and artistically.
‘David Copperfield’ (1935) his next creation, was another hit which further brightened his image as a serious successful movie maker. Re-creating a classic in another medium is always a tricky affair and has ruined the reputation of many a clever director. Cukor’s task of bringing the famous Dickens novel proved a challenge and undaunted he rose to the occasion with characteristic boldness and sincerity. Before exposing a single frame he went to England to do research on the origins of the novel. He engaged Hugh Walpole, the well-known English novelist to write the screenplay so that the dialogue in the film might ring true in dialect, accent and inflection. The result of all the care and hard work was a movie classic and W. C. Fields, the zany comedian playing Mr. Micawber gave a wonderful performance which still ranks as one of the finest screen characterisations of all times.
A thief, getting on in years needs help in his chosen profession to work after dark. His good looking daughter takes up the job. Disguised as a boy she scales walls and picks locks. Problems arise when both men and women fall in love with her! Naturally the situation has terrific possibilities as a film especially in hands of a director, like Cukor. The result was ‘Sylvia Scarlett’ (1935) and the film generated heated controversy regarding the choice of the theme. Obviously Cukor was ahead of the times and in spite of a fine performance by Kate Hepburn as the he-she thief and Cary Grant as the man falling in love with her, the film proved a commercial disaster.
It was revived recently by Underground Cinema in the USA where it quickly achieved the status of a cult classic. Incidentally it was in ‘Sylvia Scarlett’ that Cukor discovered the comical talents of Cary Grant, a facet of this great actor, earlier hidden to the world.
During 1936 Cukor directed ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Camille’. The Shakespearean saga of smashed love, starring lovely Norma Shearer, Leslie Howard and Basil Rathbone was a popular movie while ‘Camille’ based on the period play of Alexandre Dumas still ranks as one of the great period pictures to roll out of Hollywood. Greta Garbo, then a rage all over the world, gave a scintillating performance. Then followed films like ‘Holiday’ (1938‘), ‘Zaza’ (1938), ‘The Woman’ (1939), ‘Susan and God’ (1940) and ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (1940).
‘Gaslight’ (1944) his next major film, is considered by critics as one of the best Hollywood melodramas and one of Cukor’s best works. Starring inimitable Ingrid Bergman and celebrated Charles Boyer, it is a beautiful period piece about 19th century London. As usual Cukor spent long days and nights on research and walked the streets of London and other British towns looking at all the delightful old houses. He breathed in the sombre, grey atmosphere of the British scene and transferred all his impressions on to celluloid in ‘Gaslight’. Ingrid Bergman’s superb performance as a lovely woman, nervous and full of fears won her an Academy award for best acting. Cukor also introduced Angela Lansbury as a smart maid in ‘Gaslight’.
The post-war years found Cukor active and he concentrated on social comedies like ‘Adam’s Rib’ (’49), ‘Born yesterday’ (’50), ‘The Marrying Kind’ (’51), ‘Pat and Mike (’52) and others. Box-office-wise most of them were hits and Cukor’s reputation as one of the best directors spread far and wide, all round the globe.
In 1956 he made a movie with an Indian locale, ‘Bhowani Junction’ based on a controversial novel by John Masters.
A sensuous story of an Anglo-Indian girl who has affairs with three men – an Anglo Indian youth, a Hindu and a British Colonel with whom she falls in love, the film ran into controversy and censor trouble.
One of the characters calls Gandhiji a four-letter name and it created a political storm! Cukor’s handling of the crowd scenes, like political agitators lying across railroad tracks as a form of protest, in spite of being beaten up by British Indian cops was visually terrifying and emotionally disturbing.
‘The Chapman Report’ (’62), based on the torrid fast-selling novel by Irving Wallace, was another controversial film directed by Cukor.
A satire on the Kinsey Report, the film probes the sexual problems of a group of respectable women. Sexual aberrations, after-dark amours, hangups, gang bangs, Cukor dealt with them all! Claire Bloom wore no bra in the film, something unheard of during the Sixties. David Selznick deleted many scenes and thereby emasculated the film. And not surprisingly it was a flop!
The biggest achievement of Cukor came in 1964 when he made ‘My Fair Lady’ (won Oscar for Best Director).
A brilliant film starring the great Rex Harrison, Audrey Hepburn and Stanley Holloway, it made movie history and proved to become one of the biggest money-spinners of all times. Beautiful sets, amazingly true period decor, the lovely costumes, lilting music, stunning performances by Harrison and Hepburn.
It was not always roses for Cukor. In spite of his talent and fame he had the rug pulled off from under his feet. In 1939, he had begun work on a film based on a runaway best-seller.
After he had shot some length, Selznick unceremoniously fired Cukor and Victor Fleming stepped into his shoes. Whatever Cukor had shot was fully used in the film and he got no credit, not even a whisper. And the film made screen history and touched the pinnacle of filmic glory. That was ‘Gone with the Wind’.
One of the first openly gay directors, Cukor’s work has been called ‘glossy entertainment’ and one leading critic wrote that his films epitomize Hollywood at its most stylish.
Some labelled him as the women’s director’ perhaps because most of his films highlighted a woman’s problems. But then such a label is only partly true. Cukor has proved he could handle men’s as well as women’s themes. His directorial brush has drawn many different paintings of several kinds, a telling proof of his versatility and rare talent. Cukor died on 24 Jan, 1983.