George Cukor: Master of the Big Picture

By David Raether

Whenever I think about George Cukor, I start thinking about Old Hollywood. Several images come to mind. The glitzy premieres with an enormous spotlight lighting up the night sky. The glittering gowns and sleek tuxedos. The nightclubs filled with fancy people drinking martinis and laughing at tables filled with movie stars and studio execs. The sound stages packed with movies in production. The directors in dress shirts and ties and perfectly-fit blazers. In my version of Old Hollywood, it’s glamorous and vaguely regal. It’s certainly not the desperate and dangerously apocalyptic 1930s Hollywood found in Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust.

George Cukor was an American film director who was a sort of apotheosis of Old Hollywood. His career stretched from 1930 to 1981, but the golden years for Cukor were the mid-1930s through the late 1950s. He directed some of the biggest pictures in Hollywood history: Dinner at Eight (1933), The Philadelphia Story (1940), Gaslight (1944), Winged Victory (1944), Adam’s Rib (1949), Born Yesterday (1950), A Star is Born (1954), and My Fair Lady (1964).

His movies had the biggest stars, and many were “prestige projects.” His specialty was adapting classic books like David Copperfield or Little Women for the big screen.

Cukor was always impeccably dressed and well-mannered. In interviews near the end of his life, he said his goal was always to have a calm set. That way, he said, actors would feel freer to try things. In interviews, Cukor comes across as a man entirely comfortable in his own skin. This is who I am. I’m charming. I am well-dressed. I am polite and tolerant but have a clear sense of what I want, and I will get it. In the reactionary times he worked in, where a whispered allegation of homosexuality was a death knell for a career, Cukor was openly gay.

In the pantheon of great American mid-century film directors, Cukor is clearly up there with the likes of John Ford and John Huston.

George Dewey Cukor was born in New York City on July 7, 1899, to parents who were immigrant Hungarian Jews. His father, Viktor, was an Assistant District Attorney for the City of New York. His mother, Helen, was a housewife. The family was largely irreligious. When Cukor started attending temple as a boy, he learned Hebrew phonetically, without any sense of the meaning of the words being sung. He was ambivalent about his Jewish heritage and disdainful of the traditions of the old country.

As a teenager, he grew infatuated with the theater, and he would frequently cut classes to catch matinees on Broadway. His father expected him to follow him into a career in law, but Cukor dropped out of City College of New York after only a few months. And that was the end of his formal education. He spent most of his late teens and early twenties involved in theater, both on Broadway and off.

In the mid-1920s, Hollywood began recruiting talent from Broadway to come out west and make movies. Cukor jumped at the chance and signed a contract with Paramount in 1928. He settled full-time in Los Angeles and remained there for the rest of his life.

In 1930, Cukor directed four films for Paramount. During the filming of One Hour With You (1932), he got into a protracted conflict with Ernst Lubitsch, who was producing the film. He finally left the project and was later credited as Assistant Director.

He later joined RKO Pictures to work with legendary producer David O. Selznick, who had been a mentor to him years earlier in the world of New York theater. Cukor developed a reputation as a director who could pull special performances out of his actors.

In 1936, Selznick hired Cukor to direct Gone With the Wind (1939). He spent two years on pre-production, including a long battle with Selznick over whom to cast as Scarlett O’Hara. Cukor wanted Katharine Hepburn, but Selnick was opposed. Eventually, he said he would consider her if she was willing to audition. Uh, no, came the tart reply from Hepburn.

After being dumped from Gone With the Wind, Cukor was free to direct other projects. He turned out the classic comedy / melodrama The Women (1939) and followed that with The Philadelphia Story (1940), now considered one of the best romantic comedies of all time.

Cukor is also noted for the week he spent working on The Wizard of Oz (1939). He convinced the studio to ditch the blonde wig they had insisted Judy Garland wear and insisted she also act more naturally. He also made changes to the hair and makeup on the Tin Man and the Wicked Witch of the West. These may seem trivial to note, but can you imagine Judy Garland as a blonde? I didn’t think so.

With World War II in full swing, Cukor enlisted in the Army Signal Corps. He was then stationed at the old Paramount Studios in Astoria, Queens. He didn’t stay there, as he was allowed to bunk at the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan. Of course! A person has standards, and who would voluntarily bunk at some musty and abandoned old studio facility when the St. Regis is just across the East River?

After the war, he met and began a long and fruitful collaboration with the screenwriting team of Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordonthe latter of which is probably best known as Maude in 1971’s Harold and Maude. Gordon was one of the funniest screenwriters of all time, a real “regular riot,” as Jackie Gleason might say.

In 1954, Cukor directed a remake of A Star is Born. He turned it into a musical that starred Judy Garland and James Mason. It was a troubled production, particularly in casting the male lead. Cukor had wanted Cary Grantbut Grant refused, despite reading the entire script with Cukor and agreeing that it was, in his own words, “the role of a lifetime.”

Over the next ten years, he directed a number of films, most of which were comedies. In 1964, he directed the screen adaptation of the Lerner and Loewe musical, My Fair Lady. It was an enormous success and garnered him his first Academy Award as Best Director.

After My Fair Lady, his output slowed dramatically. Notable films from that period were two television films with Katharine Hepburn: Love Among the Ruins (1975) and The Corn is Green. In 1981, he directed his final film, Rich and Famouswhich co-starred Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergin.

Cukor was a noted host for parties and dinner parties, drawing in all sorts of people for these events. There weren’t just movie stars; He was always sure to invite writers and artists to join. Everyone loved Cukor’s parties; they were what he enjoyed the most over the years. For decades, his home was considered the capital of the gay subculture in Hollywood.

Cukor made so many good movies that it’s hard to pick just five. Here are my favorites, but don’t be afraid to wander off this list. He worked with the biggest stars and the best writers, designers, and costume makers. You’ll always find much to enjoy in a George Cukor film.

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