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The George Cukor File – Part 1

The George Cukor File - Part 1

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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