As The Discreet Charm of George Cukor, our fifty film retrospective featuring the work of Oscar-winning director George Cukor, continues its run at the Film Society through January 7th, some of us have been wondering which films are considered the crème de la crème. Cukor has worked with Hollywood royalty, from Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Judy Holliday and Anthony Quinn to Greta Garbo, Jane Fonda, Elizabeth Taylor and Ava Gardner (and many more). He has been nominated for five Academy Awards — for directing Little Women, The Philadelphia Story, A Double Life, Born Yesterday and My Fair Lady — and was the recipient of a 1981 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Directors Guild of America. A constant workhorse, Cukor directed films in six different decades. With so much to choose from, which ones stood the test of time?
FilmLinc Daily recently decided to ask some of the nation's top critics, filmmakers, curators and Cukor fanatics to help us with this question, surveying them on which of the director's films were the absolute best. As you will discover below, it was difficult to make such a choice, and in doing so, many writers were quick to point other notably famous works from the director's filmography to keep in mind. Although some of the titles included are more well known than others, each represents a writer's distinct encounter with the exquistite work of George Cukor. It goes without saying that we received some very passionate and thoughtful responses.
I don't know if Sylvia Scarlett is my absolute favorite Cukor (I could also contemplate Bhowani Junction, or the best parts of A Star Is Born), but this underrated experiment is something I continue to cherish for its mixtures of gender and genre (with accompanying switches in speed and emotional tone anticipating those of such early New Wave touchstones as Shoot the Piano Player and Breathless), not to mention its special uses of period, Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Edmund Gwenn.
David Copperfield tends to get a bum rap. It’s rarely mentioned in the same breath as the later British adaptations of Charles Dickens novels—yet the screenplay by Hugh Walpole and Howard Estabrook neatly (and seamlessly) condenses the author’s weighty book, and the casting is exceptional. In a wide-ranging narrative, Cukor maintains the perfect tone from scene to scene, and even allows W.C. Fields to shine as Mr. Micawber without throwing the film off-balance. This is Hollywood studio filmmaking at its zenith.
Presuming others will name Little Women, Camille, Holiday, Sylvia Scarlett, Adam's Rib, The Marrying Kind, A Star Is Born, It Should Happen to You and Les Girls — which are among my favorite Cukes — I choose Girls About Town. An early example of the Mantrap Movie, this sophisticated cousin of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is based on the play by Zoe Akins (who also wrote The Greeks Had a Word for It, later the basis of How to Marry a Millionaire). A passionate brunette (Kay Francis) and a pragmatic blonde (Lilyan Tashman) are best chums. One scouts for a fiancé (will it be dishy Joel McCrea?) and the other a financier (could it be Eugene Pallette?) Cukor doesn't judge his characters, he delights in the complement of comedy and romance.
What Price Hollywood? was the first filming of the imperishable Star Is Born storyline, with a crucial difference: The central relationship is not a romance, but a friendship, between rising star Mary (Constance Bennett) and alcoholic, self-destructive director Max (Lowell Sherman). “”The public don't understand relations like between you and Carey,” Gregory Ratoff's producer tells Mary at one point, and indeed this male-female friendship, based on loyalty and respect and not sex, still feels daring. Cukor guided Bennett to her greatest performance, and Sherman (also a director) is superb. The most famous scene is Max's suicide (designed by Slavko Vorkapich) but this early Cukor film has other dazzling moments, such as Mary's first entrance in the studio, done as a series of tracking shots dissolving one into another. Made in 1932, and all the Cukor strengths are in this movie in abundance.
Romeo and Juliet was nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award, and the lion's share of credit goes to Cukor for his down-to-earth directing. No auteur was more affectionate toward screenwriters than Cukor, who felt dialogue was no less important than acting and visual style; when I interviewed him in 1979, he said screenwriters are the real “authors” and the director is mainly a “kibitzer.” And he worked with some of the best, Shakespeare included. The drama was “arranged for the screen” by Talbot Jennings, who trimmed it to about 120 minutes, keeping a little less than half of the original text — which works nicely, since the Prologue for this play famously refers to “the two hours' traffic of our stage.” The result is classic Shakespeare à la Hollywood, full of famous MGM faces and tasteful to a fault.
Unfairly maligned upon its initial release, if George Cukor's Rich and Famous were released today, I have no doubt it would wind up on numerous critics' top 10 lists. Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen are a fiery match as warring old college pals, and their volatile spats — one of which culminates with a punchline involving vomit, an apt metaphor for the way they spew out Gerald Ayers' dialogue — has the staccato momentum of a great screwball comedy. But the movie is sexy, too — a sequence that cross-cuts between airplane bathroom sex and the plane's landing gear is just outlandish enough to work. Only a daring filmmaker could marry the chemistry of these leads with energetic style, and Cukor did just that with this final project, which he completed in his eighties.
Fully out of its mind, The Blue Bird, an oddball cine-fantasia – it's not really a film – got its hold on me early on when I discovered it on a family trip to L.A. on Z Channel. After ten viewings in four days, life itself became a storm of madcap Russian dancing, softened only by the glittery fabric endlessly floating around Ms. Taylor and her whispering philosopho-poetic baubles too precious and mysterious for my young ears. The story still remains a mystery to me, as a Soviet-inflected answer to The Wizard of Oz must, I suppose. Halloo!!
Holiday is a very special movie, a magic movie, a movie that believably insists that you can create your own world with your friends. And it might not have worked. The Philip Barry play it is based on is always on the verge of becoming brittle and precious. But Cukor and Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant make it into the ultimate party movie for outsiders. There is one shot in Holiday that is emblematic of all Cukor's work: when Hepburn's Linda turns her toy giraffe to profile and says, “Looks like me!” It's the most cheerful disclosure of freakdom in all of cinema, and it says, “Just admit you're a freak. And then have your fun.”
As a young filmgoer, I would have chosen the superb Holiday as my favorite Cukor; but over the years the endearingly strange Sylvia Scarlett moved to the front of the pack. (I could have chosen favorite Cukor films from many other decades – A Woman’s Face from the 40s, A Life of Her Own from the 50s, Heller in Pink Tights from the 60s, Love Among The Ruins from the 70s, Rich and Famous from the 80s – but the 30s still stand as Cukor's richest period.) There's always a tension in Cukor between the desire to splash larger-than-life emotions all over the screen, and the shrewd ploy of making his characters their own audience and their own censors with momentary attacks of acute, beguiling self-awareness. Somehow the wacky story of Sylvia heightens this tension instead of sending the film off into the stratosphere of fancy: Hepburn was never more emotionally full-bodied, nor supplied with more reasons to check or hide or question her emotions.
I should probably say Holiday, which is fantastic, but I'll be honest and go with A Star Is Born, a super-predictable choice. It's extremely outsized and deeply personal, although I was a touch shocked to discover, years after seeing this the first time, that the phantasmagoric climax was shockingly similar to the William Wellman one from 1937. James Mason and Judy Garland were robbed.
I saw Camille when I was 20, and it became my obsession for the next year. I saw it at the Regency, and then it played on WCBS's late, late show, and I ended up watching it on my top-load VCR so many times that I can still recite most of it. Cukor got the career best performance from a great actress — she's so extreme in it, and yet so psychologically truthful. Rex O'Malley is also quite lovely, and Robert Taylor is good enough, which is good enough. You've put me in the mood to see it again.
Closing with one of the most arresting monologues, in which a character brutally verbalizes the tar black misfortune of the protagonist's future, A Life of Her Own practically shocked me when I saw it at the Locarno Film Festival this year where it played as part of a complete Cukor retrospective. As an expressive look at the vapidity and self-hatred in the New York model industry, this is one of the best. George J. Folsey's cinematography is immaculate and Lana Turner is devastating as the protagonist orbiting this disturbing world.
My favorite George Cukor film is Rich and Famous because it contains one of the most openly gay scenes he ever shot (i.e., Jackie Bissett doing the hunky Matt Lattanzi in the hotel room).
Holiday charmed me instantly. It convinced me that I much prefer films where Katharine Hepburn is paired with Cary Grant rather than Spencer Tracy. Hepburn and Grant only worked together early in their careers — they were quite young in Holiday as Linda Seton and Johnny Case, and that's part of the fun. Cheery even in their more serious moments, they bring all the lightheartedness and optimism of youth to the screen, promising that life can be bright if you have the right playmate.
It may not be the most original answer, but my favorite George Cukor film is My Fair Lady. There's just something so appealing about the story (which itself is based on Pygmalion), which isn't surprising considering that movies and television keep coming back to retell it again and again. The movie won eight Oscars, and while I wouldn't have voted for it, it does say something that voters chose the film and Cukor over Dr. Strangelove and Stanley Kubrick…
The Philadelphia Story is the movie that introduced me to the comedic talents of Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart. It also introduced me to the splendors of screwball comedy, showing that a fast tongue and clever speech could produce as many laughs as physical humor. Later, I realized it also proved that stage-to-screen adaptations could work beautifully. To this day, I still credit that movie with my love of Cary, screwball and adaptation. There can never be another one like it.
Set in the Old West when traveling was a rather arduous task, Heller in Pink Tights is an ode to theater companies touring the country and trying desperately to make a living. In need of monetary support, the group often borrows some cash and heads across state lines to avoid lawmen desperate to collect what they're owed. Anthony Quinn plays the company's artistic director and Sophia Loren, looking as radiant as ever, is his leading lady, lover and — in the case of a dangerous scene with a horse — stuntwoman. The film has a colorful cast of characters: a mischievous gunslinger who collects Loren as property after winning a card game, a Mama Rose/Baby June duo who can't stop arguing, and a theater owner who holds his town's values above his establishment's artistic credibility. The dialogue is wittier than you might expect, and the final third features both a con and a fight sequence that are cleverly staged; it's nice when you're given characters you can truly root for. Shot in Technicolor and featuring elaborate costumes from Edith Head, the film proves that the show must go on under any circumstances.
What’s the matter with everyone all at once anyhow?” asks socialite Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) a day before she’s to be married in The Philadelphia Story. And who can blame her? A couple of Spy magazine reporters, Macaulay Connor (James Stewart) and Liz Embrie (Ruth Hussey), snoop around her estate with an eye towards exposing the pettiness of a spoiled upper class. And Tracy’s ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) puckishly jabs all the players in what seems like the inevitable direction this romantic comedy must go. Think of Haven as a screen stand-in for director George Cukor who adroitly allows each character to have their moment in the spotlight while still herding the ensemble towards one of the most satisfying resolutions ever to a sophisticated farce. Macaulay puts it best when he says, “The prettiest sight in this fine pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.”
The problem I face when attempting to target a single Cukor film to recommend is that, of those I've seen, I seem to like them all for wildly different reasons. Regardless, my mind always seems to end up back at Holiday, so it's Holiday I'll choose, especially given the current season. The 1938 Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn comedy is a dependably delightful highlight in Cukor's filmography, with probably my favorite Hepburn performance as the black sheep sister of a wealthy family. If you're looking for a deeper cut, the 1957 Gene Kelly musical Les Girls will look pretty stunning on a big screen with its glorious colors in CinemaScope, and I'm looking forward to checking out 1969's “Justine,” which Cukor took over from Joseph Strick and sports the intriguing combination of a script co-penned by Andrew Sarris and a role for Anna Karina.
Based on Patrick Hamilton’s play of the same name, Gaslight opens with the death of world-famous opera singer Alice Alquist who has undoubtedly been murdered. Her jewels absconded and her slayer having escaped, the film, adapted on screen by Cukor, stars Charles Boyer as the conniving Gregory Anton, tormentor of Paula, played here by Ingrid Bergman. A true thriller, as the gaslight dims and brightens we are introduced to the insidiousness that lurks within Anton’s dirty past, giving name to the great psychological phenomena that roots from it’s namesake. Gaslight is masterful and a true beauty that tackles the struggles of marriage and the lies that accumulate from artful depravity.
Do you agree with our contributors' choices? Have you seen them all? This holiday season, perhaps it's time to catch up with one of Hollywood's greatest filmmakers. With fifty films to choose from, we hope you're ready to experience some worthwhile memories and some discreet charm.
“The Discreet Charm of George Cukor,” our complete fifty film retrospective of the great Hollywood director, is currently running through Wednesday, January 7th. To learn more about our five film package (5 for $25) and basic ticket information, feel free to consult the series page here. Head to our YouTube channel to check out a series of fun trailers for the retrospective and read more on Cukor over at Film Comment.