On December 13th of last year, the Gay Guru of Cinema scurried over to Lincoln Center for the kick-off of The Discreet Charm of George Cukor, its film society’s 26-day retrospective of the director’s films, the first complete New York screening of his cinematic canon in over 30 years.
While slotting 45 out of the 50 films being shown onto his calendar (see below) won’t provide the Guru the chance for an intense dissection of any one film, it certainly doesn’t prevent him from sharing his thoughts in miniature for each of the films. So, please, stay tuned over the coming weeks for a running commentary (in no particular order) of every cinephile’s dream!
Despite its well-known status as a pillar of must-see movie-going for gay men of a certain generation, and despite its all-woman cast, the film — in the end — seems more Booth Luce than Cukor. Yes, the film glides along effortlessly, a trait that one always expects when the lights go down at a Cukor film, but this time around the director seems content to simply get out of the way of his actresses rather than using the camera to enhance the narrative in any meaningful way. When that performer is Rosalind Russell, dazzling us with a comedic tour de force, or Joan Crawford, removed from the shackles of those oh-so-heavy dramas and clearly having fun here, that’s not a problem. On the other hand, when center stage is ceded to Norma Shearer, an actress who always seemed to take herself much too seriously, one just sits in one’s seat patiently marking time, hoping that that whirling dervish named Russell won’t keep you waiting too long for her return. GRADE = B
The Chapman Report (1962)
A little-known Cukor, the Gay Guru himself only became aware of the film a little over a year ago via the invaluable Warner Archives Collection. Based on an early Irving Wallace novel, The Chapman Report revolves around four suburban California women — Claire Bloom, Jane Fonda, Glynis Johns, and Shelley Winters — who agree to participate in a Kinsey-like survey on their sex lives.
There are many extraordinary things about The Chapman Report — Cukor’s use of color, his mise-en-scène, or the performances of his four leading ladies, in particular the astonishing Ms. Bloom — that the Guru could wax poetic over in a longer post. Yet, given its undeserved obscurity in the Cukor canon, he sadly has to wonder whether he’ll even have the chance to see it again on the big screen during his lifetime. And, even then, would it be the same ghastly, washed-out print that the Film Society unspooled on opening night? As the Gay Guru later emailed the powers-that-be at Lincoln Center, it does a great disservice to Cukor to screen such a compromised print. And, for anyone who cares about film as art, it gives them pause. While for every warhorse of the repertory circuit that the studios will be keen to protect — see My Fair Lady — how many equally valuable works like The Chapman Report, mistakenly branded as “minor,” will be ignored, its elements locked away in a vault somewhere, slowly being allowed to disintegrate? It is a matter of grave concern. GRADE = B+
Why it took the Gay Guru so long to turn to finally catch up with Camille, a masterpiece by any legitimate critical yardstick, is anyone’s guess. It’s not like its story of a woman who sacrifices everything for love doesn’t have its celluloid footprint planted squarely in melodrama, that glorious genre that so often stirs the Guru’s heart.
Yet, having now rectified that cinematic sin, the Guru can happily report to his beloved readers that Cukor’s Camille is one of those magical but too infrequent Hollywood moments where everyone involved in its production was clearly firing on all cylinders. Yet, it is Garbo — and Cukor’s inspired direction of her — that most remain in the memory long after the final frame of the film flickers to dark.
With all due respect to Marlene, Garbo was, in the Gay Guru’s humble opinion, the most natural of the Hollywood stars to emerge from its classical age, an actor who never seemed to rely on technique but, seemingly, just existed already in the worlds her directors created for her. Cukor seemed to understand that. One need only bear witness to Camille‘s first major set piece — set in a theater, a locale that will become a prominent fixture in the director’s canon — to witness a master class being put on by these two artists. Cukor’s use of a series of elegant tracking shots to follow Garbo as she effortlessly navigates the male-dominated hallways of the Paris theater immediately signals the audience that her Camille is actually the one in control here. The eventual cut to Garbo’s timeless face — whether the playful one dallying with a smitten admirer with no hope of ever capturing her love or the rapturous one bestowed on the Robert Taylor character who will becomes her holy grail — simply confirms what Cukor has already established with his camera.
Camille will eventually sacrifice all for love — the Gay Guru is not letting the proverbial cat out of the bag here, the signals are there quite early on — and getting to that moment is surely one of the most exquisite journeys Hollywood has ever taken us on. It’s widely considered Garbo’s greatest performance and, while the Guru hasn’t yet caught up with all of her other ones yet, he can report that since this one reduced him to a puddle of tears by the time that last frame turned to dark, he’s not likely to ever disagree. GRADE = A+
Two-Faced Woman (1942)
Rich and Famous (1981)
Susan and God (1940)
A Bill of Divorcement (1932)
A minor film in Cukor’s oeuvre, A Bill of Divorcement nevertheless shows a director not just learning a craft but crafting a signature as well. The Gay Guru need only direct his readers’ attention to the opening crane shot that tracks Katherine Hepburn as she is introduced to the guests at her family’s Christmas Eve ball (as well as to us, the audience) to illustrate the point that Cukor certainly already knew what he was doing when he climbed into that director’s chair on the set.
That shout out to George notwithstanding, the film is most noteworthy today — and the sometimes contrarian Guru won’t argue here — for being the Great Kate’s screen debut. Even here, Hepburn clearly has “IT,” that largely undefinable quality that makes an audience sit up and take notice and, as such, she carries much of the picture on her back. If it falters, and the Guru is of the opinion that it does, the blame lays squarely at the feet of its other leads — John Barrymore and Billie (Glinda, the Good Witch) Burke — who hijack significant portions of the film, threatening to capsize it with their hambone performances.
At day’s end though, what one takes away from the film is that Kate and George were obviously meant to find each other: only a year later, they joined forces on Little Women, Cukor’s first masterpiece. Six more films would then follow in the next 20 years, including The Philadelphia Story, which helped to resurrect Hepburn’s career after she was labeled box office poison. Then, a quarter of a century later, a pair of made-for-television movies in the mid to late 70s — the Emmy-winning Love Among the Ruins and a remake of The Corn is Green — would bring down the curtain on this most prodigious of partnerships. We are all the richer for it. GRADE = B-
Sylvia Scarlett (1935)
David Copperfield (1935)
Little Women (1933)
Edward, My Son (1949)
Dinner at Eight (1933)
Romeo and Juliet (1936)
A Double Life (1947)
My Fair Lady (1964)
After four losses over the previous two decades, Cukor finally struck Oscar gold on his final nomination as he steered the smash 1957 Broadway musical My Fair Lady to the screen. While certainly a crowd pleaser — as evidenced by the largest crowd to date at the Film Society’s retrospective — it is, from the Guru’s humble perspective, one of the least interesting entries in the Cukor canon.
Was it perhaps the case of a director playing it safe and simply getting out of the way of material with an already proven track record? That certainly can’t be it as Cukor does some quite lovely things with the Ascot Gavotte, Get Me to the Church on Time, and Wouldn’t It Be Loverly? numbers not to mention the luscious tracking shots he employs throughout the embassy waltz sequence. No, it’s actually that damn house at 27A Wimpole Street that seems to stump Cukor. Apart from a brief moment during the second act number You Did It, when the director utilizes shadows to demonstrate that Eliza Doolittle may finally be grasping the rather seedy undertones of her arrangement with Henry Higgins, the musical scenes that play out there (which comprise a majority of the film’s score) feel airless, as if they’ve been hermetically sealed. A case of a camera that — apart from that one moment in time — feels like it’s more an observer of the action rather than a participant in it.
But the film got Cukor that career Oscar and although his nominated work on Little Women, The Philadelphia Story, and A Double Life is far superior, not to mention his unrecognized work on Gaslight and A Star is Born, I can’t really begrudge the fact that a great artist finally got his due. GRADE = B
Let’s Make Love (1960)
What Price Hollywood? (1932)
A Star is Born (1954)
Every time the Gay Guru of Cinema revisits this title — one of the most infamous examples of a studio’s butchery of a director’s vision — he exits the theater content in his knowledge that, despite those ill-conceived efforts, it’s all still there for the world to see in glorious Technicolor: the tremulousness of Garland that seems to be a real-life, high-wire act, one wrong step away from a complete nervous breakdown, the greatness of Mason who, seemingly without effort, anchors the film in a harsh reality when a lesser actor could so easily have allowed it to spin off into mere histrionics, and the nimble direction of Cukor who finds room enough for both of them, often in the same frame.
And yet, there too are the same miscues. Garland’s seemingly interminable Born in a Trunk number (in the film-within-the-film that makes her Vicki Lester a star) that brings the film’s first half to a close with a resounding thud. Cukor did not oversee this footage — he had already left for vacation when studio heads demanded reshoots — and why anyone felt the need to demonstrate again to the audience the astounding talent of the Garland character has always left the Guru scratching his well-coiffed head. For, most certainly, the privilege has already been ours, as well as Norman Maine’s, much earlier on during The Man That Got Away, a scene so exquisitely performed by Garland and so gorgeously framed by Cukor in CinemaScope that it immediately finds a home in that pantheon of great movie moments. And, then, what is one to make of Someone At Last, a musical number which finds Garland donning both a lamp shade and a leopard rug while Mason, for once, looks completely lost at sea?
Yet, miscues aside, it remains a classic. Garland and Mason were nominated for Oscars. Cukor was not. And, most inexplicably, The Man That Got Away lost the race for Best Original Song to Three Coins in the Fountain. Go figure. GRADE = A
The Blue Bird (1976)
Cukor had just helmed Life Among the Ruins the year before, receiving in the process rapturous hosannas from critics and an Emmy Award from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences so he was still clearly capable of delivering the goods at the age of 76. Yet, just one year later, he unleashed The Blue Bird on the world. It’s a genuine oddity, more fantasia than narrative film, and almost nothing in it works.
Based on a 1908 French play which, in turn, seems to be a Gallic riff on Frank Baum’s 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the film follows two peasant children who go on a quest to find the Blue Bird of Happiness only to discover in the end that the bird was in their own backyard all the time. At the time, the film was meant to be an American/Soviet co-production designed to exist as a sort of artistic détente between the Cold War superpowers but the disastrous nature of the project — suffice it to say that no one spoke the other one’s language requiring Cukor to direct via an improvised form of sign language — is now the stuff of legend. Given that, it really is a miracle that anything in it even works but the short sequence when those Blue Bird-seeking innocents visit their long-dead grandparents — and, yes, the Guru is keenly aware of how ghoulish that sounds on paper — is actually quite touching, a fact due entirely to the performances of Will Geer and Mona Washbourne who, against all odds, pull it off. Alas, it is just a brief respite from the storm. GRADE = D
A Life of Her Own (1950)
The Actress (1953)
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Born Yesterday (1950)
In 1950, two actresses gave performances for the ages: Bette Davis’ Margo Channing in All About Eve and Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Although both scored Academy Award nominations, neither won. This bit of Oscar history has always left the Gay Guru perplexed and — truth be told — put him into a bit of a mood as he settled into his seat for the screening of Born Yesterday, the Cukor film that propelled its star, Judy Holliday, to the podium that year. And, yes, after it had unspooled, the Guru was more secure than ever in his belief that a grave injustice had been done.
He does not wish, however, for this to be seen as a criticism of Ms. Holliday. Just four years earlier, the role of Billie Dawn was a breakout one for her on the Great White Way and it is not difficult to see why. She applies her God-given crackerjack comic timing to great effect and her performance is easily the best thing about the film. No, it’s the limitations of the role itself, as written, that should have kept Ms. Holliday from the podium that night in 1951. In truth, Billie is a character that remains stubbornly stuck in the same gear. For all the strides she makes, she is essentially the same woman the audience met in the first reel, albeit one who’s acquired a little more book knowledge along the way.
Nor does it help matters that the film as a whole hasn’t aged particulalry well. Indeed, the biggest laugh that the Gay Guru unleashed — when the William Holden character defends the integrity of Congres — could not have been what the playwright Garson Kanin had in mind when he first put pen to paper.
There are, of course, compensations: Cukor and his cinematographer Joseph Walker open up the play nicely with some location shooting in our nation’s capital that makes one positively nostalgic for a time when everyone seemed to move at a more leisurely pace and, as always, it is a pleasure to watch Cukor move his players effortlessly around his cinematic “stage” without ever revealing the proscenium arch. And, of course, there is Judy.
Alas, there is also Broderick Crawford, who is way too much here, and Bill Holden, who isn’t nearly enough. All in all, one of the Guru’s least favorite films in the Cukor canon. FINAL GRADE = C+
Les Girls (1957)
Cukor’s first film, a truly minor piece in his overall cinematic jigsaw puzzle but a still quite pleasant affair, Grumpy is already establishing themes and demonstrating techniques that will come to define the director over the next half century.
Ostensibly a mystery about a stolen diamond, its main concern instead resides with the roles people assume in order to achieve their goals. From Camille to My Fair Lady, from Gaslight to Rich and Famous, it’s a theme that runs throughout Cukor’s entire body of work.
No less important, Cukor is also already demonstrating a distinctive visual style in his debut feature. A scene introduced via a shot through the keyhole of a door is a clear signal of the visual panache that would become commonplace in his films. As for his legendary use of mise-en-scène — a fancy French word that basically means how a director places his characters in the frame in relation to each other as well as as to the objects around them — well, that also announces itself here.
But the Guru will leave it that. He doesn’t want to overburden Grumpy. The film represents the baby steps of an artist who, in time, would become one of Hollywood’s premier directors during its Golden Age. Nothing more, nothing less. GRADE = B
The Royal Family of Broadway (1930)
It Should Happen to You (1954)
The Model and the Marriage Broker (1951)
Despite his passion for all things Cukor, the Gay Guru of Cinema is the first to admit that not every one of his films lends itelf to intensive scrutiny. The Model and the Marriage Broker, a pleasant enough trifle with a rare lead performance from Thelma Ritter — a superlative character actress who had exploded onto the celluloid landscape just the year before in All About Eve — is surely one of them.
That’s not to say that those delicate Cukoresque moments the Guru so treasures don’t pop up from time to time. They do. And, as is always the case with the films from this particular era, he thoroughly grooves on the outdoor location shooting that showcases a long-since-vanished New York.
Despite these not inconsequential pleasures, and the fact that Ms. Riiter is more than up to the task of carrying the picture and, as was her wont, bringing down the house on more than one occasion with her now legendary world-weary delivery of some choice one-liners, the film seems content to merely percolate on a back burner for too much of its too-long 103 minutes. It certainly doesn’t help matters that Scott Brady and Jeanne Crain, while visually appealing, are entirely too bland as the romantic leads or that top-notch comedians Zero Mostel and Nancy Culp (in her screen debut) are wasted in quite unappealing roles.
Is it any wonder then that for his next two pictures, both released the following year, we find George back working with Ms. Holliday on The Marrying Kind or with Hepburn and Tracy on Pat and Mike? FINAL GRADE = B-
Love Among the Ruins (1975)
The Virtuous Sin (1930)
Tarnished Lady (1931)
Girls About Town (1931)
Bhowani Junction (1955)
A Woman’s Face (1941)
Her Cardboard Lover (1942)
Wild is the Wind (1957)