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The George Cukor File - Part 1

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by Peter Bogdanovich
November 16, 2013 1:55 PM
15 Comments
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For the next few blogs, we are going through all the George Cukor-directed pictures in my 1952-1970 card-file of comments on movies I saw during that period, as I went from age 12 1/2 to 30 1/2.  Cukor's name is attached to some of the best acted pictures ever made during Hollywood's Golden Age. He began as a Broadway stage director and was lured West as sound took over and the studios began looking for directors who had experience with dialog. Of all those who made that journey, George was by far the most talented and had the longest, most productive career. He was equally adept at doing comedy or drama, thriller or musical, though he tended more toward sophisticated comedy.

Cukor was not an especially visual director, in that his camera was there mainly to service the actors, and yet his work in widescreen was quite striking, and he certainly was dead-on in camera placement. In person, he was charming, witty, gracious and candid; he swore like a sailor, but it always sounded chic coming from him. (You can read my published interview with Cukor in my 1997 directors book, Who the Devil Made It, available through Amazon, Bookfinder, or as an e-book.) The modulation of performances, the interplay among actors, the rhythm of a scene---these were his greatest strengths---and contributed to some of the most purely entertaining pictures made in America, and a number of my personal favorites, such as Holiday, Adam's Rib, Pat and Mike, or on a darker level, Gaslight.

If the date after the title is the same as the date on the picture's first comment, it means that I saw the movie during its first run. Running through the titles, then, you can see how many older Cukor films I saw between the new ones he was making.


THE MARRYING KING (1952; d: George Cukor).

1952: (If this was meant as a sequel to Born Yesterday, it's an utter failure; but, taken as just another movie, it has its comic moments and tender ones too, mostly thanks to Judy Holliday.)

Added 1962: Excellent* (This is a serious and bitter comedy of marriage, sharply and incisively written, beautifully played by both Judy Holliday and Aldo Ray, and directed with rare insight and honest sensitivity and skill. Actually far superior in every way to Born Yesterday [see below], a funny, sad, hard and deeply touching work, one of the finest and most unusual bittersweet comedies ever made.)

A DOUBLE LIFE (1947; d: George Cukor).

1952: Excellent* (Superbly acted, directed, and written split-personality psychological thriller; taut, suspenseful, and dramatically sound; a truly fine piece of work.)

Added 1962: (Ten years --- I wouldn't have thought it --- I remember this superb film so well. Cukor's handling of what could have been a pretentious, clumsy, and stagey work is stunning, smooth, and articulate. The script, acting and camera are expert and deceptively simple. Also: I have never seen such beautiful backstage atmosphere. Cukor, undoubtedly, is a master.)

IT SHOULD HAPPEN TO YOU (1954; d: George Cukor).

1954: (Funny, delightful little comedy-satire: the script is intelligent, the acting is excellent, particularly Judy Holliday. It is not as good, however, as the Cukor-[Garson] Kanin-Holliday picture, Born Yesterday.)

Added 1961: Excellent- (Cukor's graceful, expert handling of this sophisticated comedy about a girl who rents a number of huge billboards and has her name, Gladys Glover, painted on them in an attempt to "make a name" for herself, is surer and more cinematic than Born Yesterday. Not as flashy a script, but in a sense, more personal to Cukor, and therefore perhaps a great deal better. Jack Lemmon is particularly good in his first screen role.)

Added 1964: (Judy Holliday's performance is a shimmering delight, filled with subtleties and exquisite moments; Lemmon has never been more convincing, and Cukor's handling is sure and precise and sensitive; an altogether charming movie.)

Added 2013: This delightful comedy, originally titled with the much better "A Name For Herself", has some of the best ever New York City shots, as do all Cukor's N.Y. pictures. And the interplay between Holliday and Lemmon is absolutely perfect. Now that Warhol's prediction about everyone having 15 minutes of fame has come true, this movie seems ever more prescient and insightful.

GONE WITH THE WIND (1939; d: Victor Fleming; & uncredited: George Cukor, Sam Wood).

1954: Good* (Gigantic, overwhelmingly produced, and excellently acted epic saga of the Civil War and its effect on the South. Huge in concept, intricate in plot, the picture is by now a revered classic, yet it is almost anything but a great film. As a spectacle, it is exciting, and as magazine fiction, it is more than effective. It also manages to hold one's attention steadily for almost four hours, no mean achievement. As an example of [producer David O.] Selznick's perseverance, the picture is monumental; it is also a perfect example of Hollywood in its hey-day.)

Added 1962: (Really it is Vivien Leigh's consummate performance and breathtaking beauty as Scarlett O'Hara that holds this incredibly long picture together. And since Cukor is reputed to have worked with her extensively, it is not surprising. Too bad he wasn't allowed to direct the entire film. As it is, Gone With the Wind is fun in its way, but could not even be called a poor man's The Birth of a Nation.)

Added 2013: This picture seems to be beyond criticism by now, but Vivien Leigh certainly is the reason it still works despite everything else that may be corny; and Clark Gable is perfect in the role that fans insisted had to be played by him.

A STAR IS BORN (1954; d: George Cukor).

1954: Exceptional (Elaborately produced, moving, excellently acted, strongly written (by Moss Hart) and directed version of the old [Janet] Gaynor-[Fredric] March vehicle about the decline of a movie star and the rise of another; songs added for Miss [Judy] Garland. Completely absorbing, all three hours, and quite memorable.)

Added 1960: (Particularly impressive is Cukor's brilliant use of color and CinemaScope as well as Garland's extraordinary performance. Although the 28 minutes that have been cut hurt Cukor's overall conception, it still comes off as this director's major work, a masterpiece.)

Added 2013: Actually, the 28 minutes that were cut from the version I was lucky enough to see when it first opened in 1954 did quite a bit of damage to the picture, and every version since (with some footage restored) remains crippled. Cukor was heartbroken about the cuts, as was Judy, with just cause; it was a crime to chop into such a brilliant, majestic piece of work.

CAMILLE (1937; d: George Cukor).

1955: (Dated, often stilted romantic drama: teary, rather dull, but well directed, convincingly acted by [Greta] Garbo.)

Added 1962: (This is not among Cukor's best, but it's a good deal better than I thought eight years ago. Next to Ninotchka, this is Garbo's best performance, Cukor's impeccable guidance keeping her subdued, eloquent. He also handles the story of Marguerite Gautier with grace and an exquisite knowledge of style and atmosphere; the tale is just a bit too old.)

Added 1966: Good* (Garbo is excellent, but [Robert] Taylor is a real drawback, and some other scenes are overdone; it's really a story for [director Frank] Borzage, but Cukor brings it off well.)

Added 2013: I don't agree with my younger self at all. I've seen this more recently, and Garbo is transcendently sublime; her final scene is breathtaking and so touching that a stone would cry. Also Robert Taylor is properly callow and very young, but he plays it just as it should be played. It is a triumph for Cukor, no way around it.

BORN YESTERDAY (1950; d: George Cukor).

1955: (Garson Kanin's hilarious play has been superbly transferred to the screen; the performances --- especially Judy Holliday's brilliant Billie Dawn --- are all expert; and Cukor's work is smooth, convincing and tasteful.)

Added 1963: Very good- (Remains an affecting and very funny movie: not among Cukor's best, as is, for instance, The Marrying Kind, another Cukor-Holliday-Kanin combination.)

Added 1966: (The play has dated a bit, and [William] Holden hasn't quite the charm to pull it off, but Judy is still magnificent.)

Added  2013: I have a sentimental attachment to this picture, I suppose because my parents loved it, and I saw it first with them when it came out in 1950. Judy's classic original stage performance is somewhat over the top for movies, yet you can't help but love her anyway. And I now pretty much like William Holden in just about everything.

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930; d: Lewis Milestone; dialogue director-associate producer: George Cukor).

1955: Good* (The famous pacifist novel by [Erich Maria] Remarque, filmed with honesty and truth: a moving, compassionate outcry for an end to war. Rather dated in technique, but generally well photographed, acted, written.)

HOLIDAY (1938; d: George Cukor).

1955: Exceptional (Wonderfully funny, entertaining, witty and delightful high comedy: about the black sheep of a millionaire's family and the "radical" young man who wants to take a holiday and find out why he's working. Brilliantly acted, expertly written and directed --- a thoroughgoing pleasure.)

Added 1961: (Cukor is a positive master at this sort of thing, and Holiday is one of his finest, most representative works.)

Added 1964: (The acting of Grant, Hepburn, [Edward Everett] Horton, [Jean] Dixon and [Lew] Ayres, the scintillating script, the subtle and perfect direction combine to make this one of the most genuinely thrilling comedies ever made; no doubt also because the script is such a marvelous wish-fulfillment in its denouement.)

Added 1966: (Hepburn has the slightest tinge of over-playing in her final scene, but it certainly doesn't spoil the general perfection of the execution; and Grant is magnificent.)

Added 2013: No, Kate doesn't overact at all---I was wrong in 1966---and, in fact, this is among my most favorite films, one I come to love even more every time I see it, until now I won't stand for any negative comment about it at all: to me, it's just perfect. So there.

BHOWANI JUNCTION (1956; d: George Cukor).

1956: (Absorbing, but laughably melodramatic romantic adventure saga centering on India-British conflicts after World War II; well directed and filmed, acted with chin-up seriousness.)

Added 1964: Good (The story of a half-caste girl caught in the midst of racial conflict is something less than profound, but Cukor's handling of the color and CinemaScope is exciting and talented, making up considerably for the script's deficiencies; also Ava Gardner is beautiful and quite good.)


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15 Comments

  • Barry | December 6, 2013 3:01 PMReply

    And, of course, it should be "there" not "their". Sorry. Might have omitted a comma or so as well.

  • Barry Lane | December 6, 2013 2:58 PMReply

    Just an observation, or a few, re Cary Grant, and his reading for Cukor.

    While Grant and Cukor did make four films together, they made a grand total of none after 1940. My feeling about this goes to Grant's unwillingness to continue the professional relationship. Possibly a parallel to the number of films described as being prepared with Grant in mind by Billy Wilder: The Major and The Minor, Sabrina, Love In The Afternoon, possibly another in their, and yet, no collaboration.

    The most important point, particularly regarding A Star Is Born, is that the part is in support, and that of a weak character. I submit that with the possible exception of In Name Only, also done prior to 1940, Cary Grant doesn't support anyone (even though he took second position to Irene Dune several times -- this was neither weak nor support) and that, of course, no matter how talented Judy Garland hadn't worked in several years prior to A Star Is Born and would not work in film again until Judgment at Nuremberg -- 1961.

    So, if Cary Grant did read for Cukor, which I find incredible to accept, it is and was unrealistic to think this man would come on board. So, whatever he did, or did not do, was out of respect not theatrical consideration.

  • Kristian Nomedal | November 26, 2013 5:25 PMReply

    Hello PB

    I have not seen so much of the films by Cukor. However, I'm curious and wants to check out more of his films.

    Which films do you recommend me to start with? Just read your book - Peter Bogdanovich On the Movies. What a great book, I loved reading every chapter. I have also finished Harry Carey's A Company of Heroes - a very moving and fine writings on John Ford.

    Best Regards

    Kristian Nomedal

    from Norway

  • Blake Lucas | November 26, 2013 2:15 PMReply

    Your mention of "Meet Me in St. Louis" in context of what I was talking about (prewar vs. postwar MGM) could not be more apt. If I elaborated the argument, a lot of it would focus on the presence of Vincente Minnelli at the studio. Though it would probably be too much to say he transformed it, it's apparent that, as he himself said, he did prevail in a fight with the powerful Cedric Gibbons, whose approach he didn't like, and transformed the art department. It may be especially apparent in his own films but seemed to have a ripple effect too (again, postwar Cukor at MGM generally compares just fine with films he made elsewhere). Even in Louis B Mayer days, Minnelli made great films (an impressive start with "Cabin in the Sky" and "Meet Me in St. Louis" is one of the best movies ever made, then "The Clock" "The Pirate" "et al.) and was given even greater range in genres/types of movies when Dore Schary took over, and so enjoyed a completely satisfying evolution as an artist there. I will say I like the whole period of MGM while Minnelli was there, meaning many films by many different directors. Thanks for your kind comments, Peter.

  • PB | November 26, 2013 12:05 PMReply

    Blake, as usual, all your comments are valuable and impressive. And I'm happy to say that I agree with you on almost everything. And even when I'm not totally sold (Garbo vs. Gardner), I
    certainly can understand where you're coming from, and don't have the urge to argue very much. I see your point about pre-war MGM being vastly inferior to post-war MGM, and it's an extremely interesting view; yes, the studio improved after the war, no question about it: all
    those great musicals (except "Meet Me in St. Louis") were made after World War II. I'm busy cutting my new movie (a semi-screwball comedy called "Squirrels to the Nuts"--a reference I'm certain you'll guess), otherwise I would go on at more length here about all the fine points you make on the various Cukor masterworks. By the way, the Film Society of Lincoln Center is doing a complete Cukor retrospective in Dec.-Jan. and have asked me to introduce a couple, and I will, if time allows. Unfortunately, my absolute favorite Cukor, "Holiday", plays while I have to be in
    LA. Cukor-Part 2 coming as soon as I can catch my breath. Thanks so much for all your invaluable insights, Blake.

  • Blake Lucas | November 22, 2013 5:27 PMReply

    Finally, since I don't think anyone is going to argue about HOLIDAY as one of the most moving of all romantic comedies, I guess I'll throw in my two cents on A STAR IS BORN, which I will stand by as Cukor's masterpiece even though in some ways it's difficult. I have to say, Peter, I am so envious of you or anyone who saw the three hour version before the cuts were made. I did see it at the end of 1954 but alas, the cuts had already been made. Still, this movie was always so emotionally powerful for me and remained so in that version for many years--as glad as I am for what is in the Haver restoration I find it frustrating too that it still isn't complete, and that so much is covered by those stills and have only seen it a few times. I really think the problem started even before the three hour version was cut though--that long "Born in a Trunk" sequence Cukor didn't direct is too much meaning too little in the middle of the film. Yes, we want to hear Judy Garland sing, but the Arlen/Gershwin numbers in the rest of the film are all dramatically relevant and contribute to the whole film, especially "The Man That Got Away" but "A New World" is very poignant and the others good too. If this hadn't been there ever, it would have been a little shorter, would have flowed well, and maybe never been cut. It's sad to think about. Still, if people can get behind "The Magnificent Ambersons"--a movie that is more seriously mauled than this one--I still feel I can stand behind it despite any imprefections. For one thing, it completely gives the lie to Cukor being some kind of theatre director making movies--the use of space in CinemaScope is consistently brilliant, the use of color maybe even more so, and as with all great films, the actors are not just what they are able to bring to their performances but what they are able to give to a choreography that is defined by the fact that it is a film and not a play, so he is masterly with all those things. I also want to add that I know that James Mason was far from first choice for his role--and I don't doubt for a moment the stories about the brilliant reading of it Cary Grant gave at Cukor's house before rejecting it--but I'm really glad it fell to Mason. He has great chemistry with Garland (unexpectedly maybe but there it is) and they are so moving together, and he's just so compelling in that role. More than all of its evident artistic strengths--that seem to have survived every hazard--I guess it is the way it taps the deep reserves of emotion in Cukor's vision of life that keep it on top for me.

  • Blake Lucas | November 22, 2013 5:08 PMReply

    The other four Cukor movies you covered in this group I consider masterpieces are A STAR IS BORN, HOLIDAY, THE MARRYING KIND and IT SHOULD HAPPEN TO YOU. (And my sixth favorite which I guess will come up in another group is LITTLE WOMEN). But of my runner-up six you only wrote on one this time A DOUBLE LIFE (I'd say the others chronologically would be SYLVIA SCARLETT, PAT AND MIKE, THE ACTRESS, HELLER IN PINK TIGHTS, and late career gem TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT), and I hasten to add I was especially pleased to see you take up for A DOUBLE LIFE as you did because it always seems to be so underrated, and has such a rich visual style, especially, as you say, in the backstage/rehearsal/theatre scenes that are so beautifully done. I especially love the Cukors written by Kanin/Gordon, separately or together--the only one I don't like too much is BORN YESTERDAY, so I was interested that over time you also came to like those other Judy Holliday movies more; in those, all of Cukor's strengths are evident, just the acting, but the shifts of mood and tone (striking especially in THE MARRYING KIND) and thoroughly cinematic organization; you don't have to be showy to do cinematically beautiful things (as you and others have noted his long takes, for example, are exceptionally graceful) but I believe you have already made this point. As for BORN YESTERDAY, I don't know why it's so much less for me than the other Kanin/Gordons (not to mention most of the other movies in Judy Holliday's sadly small filmography--she's an actress I absolutely adore). It's not so much that it's more stagey but that it's all so much more obvious than those other movies, especially her character, and though I'm fine with William Holden I kind of wish Paul Douglas had repeated his stage role as the other male lead--he could have brought just an edge of sympathy that Broderick Crawford, however capable in many things, simply does not have for that role.

  • Blake Lucas | November 22, 2013 4:55 PMReply

    I'm enjoying reading these cards, as always, and you actually covered five of my six favorite Cukors in this first group and I'm glad to say rated four of those very high and I agreed with everything you said about them. The exception--BHOWANI JUNCTION. If a movie is "melodramatic" can't that simply be because it is in fact a Melodrama? Very simply, I think that's the case here, and within the melodrama is a crisis of identity theme that I find plenty profound and that Cukor was well-suited for. I know this was to an extent a compromised movie--cut scenes and things that frustrated Cukor, but that's true of a lot of great movies that come over well anyway (A STAR IS BORN is a pretty obvious case). If one didn't know of the director's dissatisfaction, one could just judge it as it is. So, for example, Cukor wanted Trevor Howard for the male lead, but that doesn't mean Stewart Granger is not just fine, as he generally was with a good director. And I have to say, comparing this to the "classic" CAMILLE that one of many reasons I love this more is that I think Ava Gardner is a much greater actress than Greta Garbo, more soulful and genuine (and more beautiful too) and only in MOGAMBO was she ever better than this. But re CAMILLE, honestly, my one problem with Cukor is that I don't much like his prewar MGM films (though love many of his postwar MGM ones, when I feel it had become a better studio). The prewar Cukors I love most were made at other studios. Mostly, I just don't like prewar MGM--that airless feelings and false air of toniness and prestige those movies have--and feel it was hard on even the best directors. Of course, there are exceptions--it's hard to believe FURY was made there, and Borzage did do some beautiful films there (especially THE MORTAL STORM). And I must admit THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER, already mentioned in these comments, is one of the best movies ever made for me, a movie I never get tired of saying is one of the few most perfect movies, but even though I guess you can see ways it was made at the studio, I think Lubitsch had it all his own way with this, even in the feeling of the sets or at least the way the action is staged within them, his own favorite screenwrite Samson Raphaelson, perfect cast playing Lubitsch's style perfectly, and so on. It's just not an accident to me that HOLIDAY, made for Columbia, is one of Cukor's masterpieces, but THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, for just the reasons you said when you wrote about it, is kind of a false classic, basically unappealing however well-done it may be.

  • JD | November 21, 2013 6:04 AMReply

    Thanks or another great file!
    Will look into Cukor's film some more. Many sound great.
    It's fun to read how you warm to quite a few films that you were more critical to in your younger days, yet not Gone With the Wind. I guess it's not your kind of picture. But with other films, nostalgia prevails, ha ha.
    I've got a film review blog that you may want to look at, although the oldest film reviewed on the main page at the moment is only from 1970, (Dario Argento's excellent debut, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage), a mere baby compared to your specialities:
    http://filmexcess.blogspot.com/

    Keep posting. It's great and inspirational reading.
    JD

  • MAK | November 20, 2013 3:58 PMReply

    PB -

    Nice to see all your comments on the visuals in Cukor. His considerable style is often overlooked, possibly because some of his more famous films (PHILADELPHIA STORY; BORN YESTERDAY; MY FAIR LADY) are so studio-bound. Yet to see, say, the opening two reels of A STAR IS BORN, especially when compared to the flatness of so many other early WideScreen efforts is a real eye-opener. And all that NYC location shooting going back to the late '40s. How he got M-G-M and Columbia to allow it is a wonder.

    Recently saw his Ruth Gordon bio-pic THE ACTRESS on the big screen and it too is loaded with visual interest, but it's all completely embedded in the general texture and never sticks out in a showy manner. There must be five or six single take shots that go on for four, five or six minutes, one in the little kitchen is simply a wonder. I think Harold Rosson was the superb DP.

    Back in the days of the college cinema clubs, HOLIDAY always brought 'em in. It speaks in a modern manner that Barry's other Hepburn films (PHIL STORY; WITHOUT LOVE) don't.

    MAK

  • Carol Cling | November 18, 2013 7:27 PMReply

    Love all your reelin'-in-the-years comments, but your assessment of "Holiday" in particular struck a chord, because it perfectly reflects my feelings about this wonderful, one-of-a-kind movie ... probably tied with Lubitsch's "Shop Around the Corner" as my all-time favorite romantic comedy, the kind of movie that (alas) nobody knows how to make anymore ...

  • PB | November 19, 2013 11:49 PM

    That's funny, Carol, "The Shop Around the Corner" is, with "Holiday", among my five favorite
    romantic comedies too. Aren't they just wonderful? Don't you feel sorry for people who haven't seen them? Or who don't get it about them? How much they are losing...
    Thanks for the great vibes!

  • Barry Lane | November 18, 2013 1:22 AMReply

    Your thoughts, all fine, of course. I think Gone With The Wind better than you think it is. Gable and Leigh are fine, but I believe without Gable's performance it would hold a lot less continuing interest. Oh, and Selznick for all his flaws, is the personification of great producer. Bhowani Junction seems to have drifted out of Cukor's hands. Wonder if that is so. Stewart Ganger, who is fine seems to have been handed an assignment as narrator. Was that intended prior to production, or an afterthought to add clarity...? It requires, for all its strengths, a lot of work from its audience.

  • PB | November 19, 2013 11:54 PM

    Barry, I agree that Gable is at his best in "Wind," but without Vivien there's no picture. About
    "Bhowani Junction"---it was recut against Cukor's wishes, the narration added to fill holes
    created by the recutting. It's a bit of a mess, and I know George was quite upset about it.

  • Richard Knight, Jr. | November 16, 2013 4:23 PMReply

    Great read of your insightful comments. Love that you are noting how your opinion has changed over the years and repeat screenings. I think it's this way with every movie yet critics are often forced to defend their stated opinion years after offering it -- even when it's often changed. Looking forward to Part 2 and hope you'll consider a series -- Vincente Minnelli next please!

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