Claudette Colbert (above) plays Zaza (1939) in Cukor's first foray at Paramount since the pre-code days of One Hour with You (1931) which he finished for Lubitsch during his own directorial apprenticeship.
If ever a movie could display the chasm between a fledgling director and a master of the medium it's this eight year gap from Cukor's beginnings to his artistic maturity. Cukor himself complained long and loud to Gavin Lambert about the censorship of the movie by the Breen Office which removed most of Herbert Marshall’s part, but along with Lambert, who commiserates from a well-judged distance in his major interview book, I agree Marshall is the one great weakness of the show. So the reduction of his part frankly makes near zero impact on the dramatic arc in the sense that Zaza's meeting with Marshall's child, prior to the last act, played by a superb 8 year-old actress, Ann E. Todd (not the Ann Todd of Hitchcock's The Paradine Case) basically finally tails the "illicit" romance to perfection.
The whole experience of going to Paramount should demonstrate irrevocably to anyone still in doubt the dead hand of the appalling old shitheap, Louis B Mayer at Metro, a studio that slid from interesting up to the Code year of 1934, to deadly dull, and underwritten by a totally hypocritical, nauseating "family Values" studio style. Metro was, through the 40s, a place where formerly great directors like Borzage and Sternberg with magisterial early careers, came to die.
Meanwhile Cukor got away with several near perfect accommodations, like the movies he made there with Joanie up to 1941. I would suggest a different take on his Hepburn/Tracy pictures there as emblematic of the worst excesses of overly refeened, turgid middlebrow. To my mind the wartime Metro period is also Cukor's rock bottom, with the all-time worst Joanies (Susan and God) and the absolute worst Hepburn/Tracy (Keeper of the Flame, a saccharine boiled down remake of Kane atrociously written by the once great Donald Ogden Stewart).
The one great exception to this torpor is Borzage's totally outrageous Strange Cargo from 1940 with Joanie and Gable and the open throated full bore depravity of miscegenation, homosexuality, adultery, murder, and then some, directed with the great hand of compassion by the great Borzo, in one of his last masterpieces.
Which leads us back to Zaza. The greatest shock, among several, of this barely seen masterwork, is Colbert's performance and the completely unexpected extension of her range. At one point, Cukor brought in Fanny Brice to help Claudette with her musical numbers, and the influence is palpable. If the movie resembles or signals forward to anything else in cinema it's Renoir and his 1954 French Cancan. In fact Zaza, along with Cukor's 1960 Sophia Loren stunner Heller in Pink Tightsconstitute Cukor's own version of The Golden Coach, his two most Renoirian tributes to the imaginative life of the theater. and the centrality to all his movies as auteur of the primacy of "character", of roles, impersonations and identities.
Zazahas a pace and energy, very much like Renoir's 1954 picture that could never have taken off on the Metro soundstages. The Paramount production arsenal gave him more than he could ever use for Parisian and theatrical authenticity, down to a Sternbergian level of layered sets, and medium shots which the great Charles Lang shoots with the highest degree of Paramount glam-realism.
Among the peaks of visual style, Edith Head's wardrobe, leaning heavily on the titanic Paramount master costumer, Travis Banton, visible in screen one with one of two incredible feathered gowns, this one white, which Colbert alternates with a similar black gown for the last fifteen minutes of the picture.
In the world of Zaza 83 minutes becomes in Cukor's hands and despite the Breen Office, the seemingly perfect duration for one of the great movies about performance, identity, transition, love and regret, all pulled together with music and staging which sits comfortably with Renoir's great French Cancan and Golden Coach as one of the primal movies about the life of the theatre.
The screens here were of necessity snatched from Google as this recent Universal Archive DVD VOD disc is challenging my PC and software apps to refuse to unstretch a forced 16:9 screengrab configuration to the correct 1.37 Academy Ratio. The source material looks near pristine to me, and I can only recommend viewers and collectors go foraging through US e-tailers for the absolutely breathtaking range of material that has made its way without announcement onto the Universal Vault catalogue.
As a footnote to the Renoir connection, the second last music cue we hear in Zaza is the band playing out “Quand l’amour se Meurt” as Colbert walks transversely across backstage, now in her black feathered outfit to peek out at Marshall through the curtains. The moment resonates with the great backstage moment in French Cancanwhen Françoise Arnoul peers at Gabin who is himself peering through the red curtains. The song was of course a Renoir favorite and he gives it to Jeanne Moreau to sing in his middle “episode” of Le Petit Théatre de Jean Renoir. The first time we hear the song in a movie is Dietrich singing it, in mandrag, in the sublime Morocco.