Saturday 7 October 2017

Bruce Hodsdon continues his series on Star Actors and Auteurs in classical Hollywood: (5) George Cukor: the reluctant auteur

George Cukor (1946)
George Cukor was brought to Hollywood with others from the New York stage in 1929 to help facilitate the transition to sound, in his case as “a dialogue director.”  His stage career, as Carlos Clarens notes, helped shape his film style: “his command of actors, his sense of dramatic nuance, his intimate approach, the inventiveness of his stage 'business', (and) the ensemble quality of the acting.” These coalesced in a crucial phase of his development as a film director from Little Women (1933) through David Copperfield (1935), Holiday (1938), and The Women (1939), to The Philadelphia Story (1940), successfully marking him as an emerging, distinctive stylist.

He learned his craft in a system based on division of labour, the merging of Fordism and the creative processes in the pursuit of profitable entertainment. Even scope for directors to set up their own projects, which had more currency in later decades, hadn't begun in the thirties. Directors, like actors, were type cast to assignments. Given Cukor's 'typecasting' based on perceived skills and experience in the theatre, his statistics below show how soon Hollywood asserted its reduced dependence on screenplays adapted directly from stage plays[i]. Not that a sophisticated theatricality is necessarily 'uncinematic' as Lubitsch and Cukor were amongst the first to show. 

Early Cukor, WC Fields, Freddie Bartholomew
David Copperfield
In adapting a stage play to the screen it is necessary to “find a new movement,” said Cukor, ”and that starts with the writing.”  Clarens comments on Cukor's overlaying of the recurring thematic concerns in his work – “the outsider breaking into an alien closed circle and the heroine stirring into awareness” - without once upsetting playwright Philip Barry's dialogue in Holiday and The Philadelphia Story so attuned were they to each other. “They are also,” Clarens points out, “the basis of the postwar comedies written by the Kanins.”

Cukor avoided the big statement. In this he was seemingly comfortably attuned to a dictum then current in Hollywood circles that “messages are for Western Union.” Perhaps his awareness of the extent to which any open display or admission of his homosexuality at this time placed him on or outside the fringes of society and the law even in the relatively tolerant  Hollywood community[ii]. This may have made him wary of any active social or political engagement which would leave him vulnerable. He was always impatient with the suggestion that he was something more than an engaged and gifted craftsman, adroit in his direction of actors. By implication, progress for Cukor was not to be pursued through the canvassing of big issues but in the grace that can be reflected by the meeting of the demands of an emotional life, tragedy in the refusal or inability to meet those demands. This was given fullest expression in his productively overlapping collaborations with Katharine Hepburn and with the gifted husband and wife partnership of Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin.

Cukor and actors
James Mason, Judy Garland, A Star is Born
Cukor said that he didn't like “to talk the part too much with actors.” He still talked but tried to do so “in an immediate way”  creating his “own language and... own image” avoiding anything that could be seen as “theoretical.” Others have complained of Cukor's excessive talk (often laced with expletives) on the set. James Mason found it difficult to adjust on A Star is Born to “his non-stop flow of talk … a funny way of translating the lines into modern terms  - 'this shit', 'what the fuck'.”  Despite the frustrations of her often impossibly erratic behaviour, Cukor coaxed the performance of a lifetime from Judy Garland in A Star is Born. He described how he tried to create an image on the set for a character by employing a phrase or a story aimed to keep up the actor's intensity between scenes. He said that he never rehearsed the emotions of a scene, only the mechanics, allowing the emotions to happen when the camera's running, if necessary for a long time, while the actor is finding things out for his/herself.  Garbo liked to work this way. Judy Garland did, in several highly charged emotional scenes in A Star is Born as James Mason also did in the suicide scene. This seems a variation on the Method's “digging into one's own life.”

Cukor talked about acting at close range, silent cinema's breaking away from stage acting where there were no spoken words only faces up close. Some of this he saw as having been lost with fashionable editing and effects, pretentious suffering rather than “sincere acting with very few tricks, someone like Gary Cooper,” often dismissed as non-acting, in other words the tenor of Nick Ray's 'naturals'. Cukor spoke of the freshness of comedy performance which can only be achieved by rehearsal not improvisation except occasionally in moments within a scene, something Spencer Tracy had a gift for doing. He criticised the over emphasis on psychoanalysis in playwriting from the Group Theatre to Arthur Miller and acting schools like the Actors Studio. Many of the qualities Cukor looked for in an actor he summed up as “professional.”

Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Sylvia Scarlett
With Sylvia Scarlett Patrick McGilligan detects the clear emergence of a pattern in Cukor's work: his deep identification with the actress. “Through her he saw himself (functioning) for him on the screen as an idealized alter ego.”  Katharine Hepburn made ten films with Cukor, 1932-79, co-starring with Spencer Tracy in three. At the time she made her first film appearance in A Bill of Divorcement (1932), Cukor admitted that he immediately took her to task.  “She was opinionated...I told her then that I couldn't take her seriously. But from the moment she played her first scene she was at home, so striking and original, she was completely there already.” Hepburn was called “a natural rebel” with an impatience and directness or what Cukor described as “cutting through correctness.”  She was without self-consciousness, “born for the movies although she didn't (then) know it, coming as she did from the stage. She was an immediate success.”

Katharine Hepburn, Little Women
Cukor's second film with Hepburn was Little Women (1933), his first major success, in which she plays the non-conforming Jo. Their third film Sylvia Scarlett (1936) was the director's acknowledged favourite picture, perhaps partly as a consequence of the rejection of the risk-taking involved, taking on what has been well described as “a humorous as well as serious personal allegory about sexual awakening” (McGilligan). It is also remains one of Cukor's recurring if most striking evocations, comparable to those of Jean Renoir, of a world halfway between theatre and life. The dramatic and comedic cross-gender implications of a young woman masquerading as a boy encountering Cary Grant in a troupe of itinerant actors, were apparently too perplexing for both the audience and the critics. The film was a resounding flop, fuelling the notion amongst the nation's theatre managers that Hepburn was “box office poison.” Cukor spoke of Sylvia Scarlett as “Cary Grant's picture: he had a special quality that no film before had managed to capture. He was both charming and crooked, very romantic, giving him the image he needed.”

Hepburn, Grant, Holiday
Hepburn co-starred with Grant again in Holiday (1938). The couple gradually come together through Cukor's typical restraint. The Philadelphia Story (1940) was her successful comeback from public rejection which Cukor attributed to the way she always challenged the audience (clearly the case with Sylvia Scarlett) which he said wasn't then the fashion. Philip Barry had written both plays (adapted to the screen by Donald Ogden Stewart) especially for her. Cukor's direction, apparently at the service of the players, is skilfully paced with the same mastery of comic tempo displayed in Holiday. Both Hepburn and Cukor received Oscar nominations.

The Keeper of the Flame (1942) is a political allegory made in the charged atmosphere leading up to the war.  Cukor said they didn't actually know what it was all about, “a picture Metro wished they had never made.” He identified Hepburn's role, living in the shadow of  'a great man', as an uncharacteristic part for her and “too contrived as written.” In his first film with Hepburn, Spencer Tracy played a dogged reporter. For Cukor there is greater stylistic engagement  in Gaslight (1944) played out largely within the confines of an extensive single set but with an elaborate texture, dark and claustrophobic, maintained in the mise en scène throughout. 

Spencer Tracy, Hepburn, Adam's Rib
At the end of the forties during which he was mainly off-track with the projects assigned to him, Cukor returned to comedy with Adam's Rib (1949) in his three picture collaboration with Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin (plus several more separately with each), their writing at its peak. Hepburn and Tracy star with Judy Holliday coming straight from Broadway into her first film role. All worked to put her at ease in front of the camera as, through nervousness, she struggled to remember her lines to the point of handing out tickets to the play she was in to the crew so that they could see for themselves that she could act. Holliday soon graduated to handling one of Cukor's several very long takes in the film, a five minute scene in two shot, Hepburn delivering the lines driving it although apparently, back then at Kate's insistence, the camera remains trained throughout on Holliday's responses. Holliday went on to make three more films with Cukor.

Cukor was most attuned to films in which the emotional life is based on love and friendship. The rapport between actors, director and the writers, with Adam's Rib, produced a perfectly rounded comedy which, as with such comic masterpieces, rarely dates. The success of the director-writing team was such that they were given a completely free hand on these films by the studios, Columbia and Metro. Harry Cohn actually gave the Kanins a $100,000 blank cheque to write any script they wanted. They were full of ideas about every stage of the productions which Cukor readily assimilated.

Hepburn and Tracy were a fascinating combination of opposites. According to Cukor, while Kate liked to talk and always had lots of ideas, Tracy was one of those “naturally original actors that didn't let you know what he was doing” and would take no part in Cukor-Hepburn-Gordon-Kanin read-throughs and conferences. On the set they were very deferential to each other in contrast to the battle of the sexes being played out on the screen, something which the director needed to override which he did very successfully. In Adam's Rib and the companion collaboration, Pat and Mike (1954), the emphasis is on characterisation over plot, the couple interacting at their most relaxed on the theme (also in the Judy Holliday films), to quote Molly Haskell, of “the delicate equilibrium between a man and a woman and between a woman's need to distinguish herself (from) the social demands on her.”

Hepburn, Laurence Olivier, LoveAmong the Ruins
It was two decades before Cukor made another film with Hepburn, an “exquisitely mounted” production filmed in England for TV, Love Among the Ruins (1975), in which he finally realised his wish to direct Laurence Olivier. Hepburn  had a major hand in conjuring up the project for Cukor who in the decade since My Fair Lady (1964), with the collapse of the studio system, had only completed Travels with My Aunt (1972), a maverick production and a major Cukor film, on a par with Sylvia Scarlett as his most personal and experimental work about “a restless theatrical spirit (played by Maggie Smith) as Cukor liked to imagine himself.” The two central characters played by Maggie Smith and Alec McCowen can be seen as two sides of Cukor himself. McGilligan adds that, although ostensibly it had its origins in a Graham Greene novel, it is actually based almost entirely on the script by Hepburn with the lead intended for herself but, after much prevarication, played by Smith. McGilligan comments that “Cukor's self was always channelled through Hepburn in all his films with her. In the studio age she had been a stand-in, for him, of the poetic yearning and sexual ambiguity in Sylvia Scarlett” and through their other major films together – Holiday, The Philadelphia Story, Adam's Rib and Pat and Mike.

 Cukor's films in colour, most notably A Star is Born (1954) also in CinemaScope followed by Bhowani Junction in 1956  (colour but non Scope), Les Girls (1957), colour and Scope and a unique western, Heller in Pink Tights (1960), and later Travels with My Aunt, both with their links to Sylvia Scarlett, in a sense amounted to Cukor's 'swan songs'. These five films each presented a challenge which stimulated his engagement with mise en scène. This was the beginning of his on-going collaboration with an innovative photographer George Hoyningen-Hume (as colour consultant) and his longtime aide-de-camp Gene Allen (on set design) while also taking on CinemaScope with cinematographers Sam Leavitt and Robert Surtees [iii]. This is a subject I hope to return to in a later post on Film Alert 101.

[i] Nineteen of the 26 films (73%) that Cukor directed from 1930-44 were based on stage plays while between 1944-64 there were only four (21%) adapted from the stage.

[ii] Homosexuality was prevalent in certain of the creative crafts in the industry and film people, especially those from a theatre background, were generally accepting. As a director at the top of the industry Cukor was almost unique. Only a few frontline if less high profile directors - James Whale, Mitchell Leisen, Charles Walters – were openly known to be gay. Cukor shocked a friend when he told him that 'only two things really interested him: sex and his work'.  “He pursued sexual gratification with the same fervor that he applied to his career.” (see McGilligan 114-126).

[iii] Gene Allen spoke of how Cukor's stubborn insistence on going outside Hollywood channels for his pictorial consultants, dating back to Little Women, often put him offside with studio department heads whose staff were frequently as good as Cukor's 'imports'.

Main Sources:  Gavin Lambert,On Cukor (1973); Carlos Clarens, Cukor (1976); Patrick McGilligan, George Cukor;A Double Life (1991).

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