George Cukor | Tarnished Lady
| Our Betters | Holiday
| Keeper of the Flame
| A Double Life | Born Yesterday
| The Marrying Kind | Pat and Mike
| The Actress | It Should Happen to You
| A Star Is Born | Bhowani Junction
| Les Girls | Heller in Pink Tights
| My Fair Lady
Classic Film and Television Home Page
Some common subjects in the films of George Cukor:
- Heroines who want to develop themselves
(Tarnished Lady, Our Betters, Little Women, Born Yesterday,
Pat and Mike, The Actress, It Should Happen to You,
Let's Make Love, My Fair Lady)
- Triangle stories, with one man a virile, well-dressed businessman,
the other a dreamy artist or intellectual, critical of society
(Tarnished Lady, Gone With the Wind, Born Yesterday,
Pat and Mike, The Actress,
It Should Happen to You, Les Girls, My Fair Lady)
men who combine the businessman and intellectual (Our Betters, Les Girls)
a man who must choose between being a businessman and intellectual (Holiday)
- Men who hire women for long-term relationships
(What Price Hollywood,
Camille, Born Yesterday, A Star Is Born, Les Girls, My Fair Lady)
Women who marry for money or prestige (Tarnished Lady, Our Betters,
The Women, Les Girls)
Men who marry for money (Holiday)
- Marriage as a trap or prison for women (Gaslight, Pat and Mike, Bhowani Junction)
- Women with groups of uniformed men (marriage: Our Betters, heroine and police: Pat and Mike,
Judy Holiday surrounded by Air Force men: It Should Happen to You,
waitress and motorcycle gang: Les Girls, heroine and firing squad fantasy: My Fair Lady)
- Women presented to Society at balls - and committing faux pas
(Our Betters, Gone With the Wind, My Fair Lady) and a man (Holiday)
- Women playing tennis (Our Betters, Pat and Mike)
indoor sports arenas (Pat and Mike, The Actress)
- Horseback riding (The Women, Keeper of the Flame, Ascot race: My Fair Lady)
- Attempted seduction scenes that end in comedy (It Should Happen to You, Les Girls)
- Courtroom scenes: comic battles of the sexes (Adam's Rib,
Les Girls, Love Among the Ruins)
- Cross dressing (Hepburn: Sylvia Scarlett,
Robert Taylor in nightgown: Her Cardboard Lover)
- The problems of alcoholism (What Price Hollywood, Holiday,
A Star Is Born, Les Girls)
- Underdogs defiant of authority (It Should Happen to You, Bhowani Junction)
- Concern for racial minorities (fascists stirring hatred against blacks and Jews: Keeper of the Flame,
Indian Independence: Bhowani Junction, Jewish, gay authors: Rich and Famous)
- Mediocrities running and harming society (upper class worthless elites: Our Betters,
rich mediocrities, failures in business supporting fascism: Keeper of the Flame)
Documentary aspects of fiction films:
- Media of communication (ticker tape: Tarnished Lady,
home movies, color film for fashion show: The Women,
sports, walkie-talkies, broadcasters: Pat and Mike,
just invented telephone, magazines: The Actress,
16mm film, documentaries, live television: It Should Happen to You,
linked souvenir photos of heroine, sound effects: Heller in Pink Tights,
speech, recording: My Fair Lady)
- Theater (Rockabye, Sylvia Scarlett, A Double Life, The Actress,
benefit show: A Star Is Born, Les Girls,
Heller in Pink Tights, Let's Make Love)
- Hollywood film (What Price Hollywood, A Star Is Born)
- Newspaper photography (Our Betters, The Philadelphia Story, Pat and Mike)
- Women writers of fiction (Jo: Little Women,
novelist heroine and girlfriend: Rich and Famous)
- Writers (boyfriend: Tarnished Lady,
reporters: The Philadelphia Story,
war correspondent hero: Keeper of the Flame,
reporter hero: Born Yesterday)
- Documentary sequences (New York theater district locations: A Double Life,
National buildings: Born Yesterday,
women's sports: Pat and Mike, Post Office: The Marrying Kind,
small town: The Actress,
Central Park, Columbus Circle: It Should Happen to You)
- Cameos of people as themselves (woman athletes: Pat and Mike,
TV panelists: It Should Happen to You,
Bing Crosby, Milton Berle, Gene Kelly: Let's Make Love,
party guests: Rich and Famous)
- Vertical pans, to roofs of theaters (The Actress, A Star Is Born)
shots of ceilings (skylight: Gaslight, Capitol: Born Yesterday, temple: Bhowani Junction)
related (pan up to TV monitor showing commercial: It Should Happen to You)
- Open, high staircases (mansion: Holiday, Born Yesterday,
apartment lobby: It Should Happen to You, Bhowani Junction, Les Girls,
embassy ball: My Fair Lady) related
(fall from high bridge: Keeper of the Flame)
- Other multi-story architecture (Gaslight, The Actress)
- Suite of interconnecting rooms on multiple levels (hotel suites: Born Yesterday,
railway offices: Bhowani Junction, apartment: Les Girls)
related (exteriors on multi-levels: Pat and Mike,
apartment and lobby: It Should Happen to You,
"I Could Have Danced All Night" on stair landings: My Fair Lady)
- Fronts of houses with discussions in the street (house and square: Gaslight,
apartment building: It Should Happen to You, Professor's house: My Fair Lady)
- Opening crowd scenes (Gaslight, A Star Is Born, Bhowani Junction,
Les Girls, My Fair Lady)
- Crowd scenes throughout film (Pat and Mike, Bhowani Junction)
- Backstage chaos making elaborate visual spectacle (A Star Is Born,
television shows: It Should Happen to You, Les Girls,
Heller in Pink Tights)
- Pans, often through 90 degree angles, and sometimes combined with tracks
(A Double Life, Pat and Mike, It Should Happen to You,
Bhowani Junction, My Fair Lady)
- Red/orange and blue: color scheme (A Star Is Born)
- Black-and-white costumes in color film musical numbers ("Les Girls" musical number: Les Girls,
Ascot: My Fair Lady)
- Businessmen in pinstripe suits (It Should Happen to You, Les Girls, Rich and Famous)
with open-topped cars (The Actress, It Should Happen to You)
- Black leather jackets (motorcycle gang: Les Girls, Lou Gossett: Travels with My Aunt)
related (leather lapels of Western jacket: Heller in Pink Tights)
- Formal daywear in gray (Ascot: My Fair Lady, Travels with My Aunt)
related (formal suits in 19th Century: Heller in Pink Tights)
Businessman Vs. Artist
Tarnished Lady (1931) is the first film for which Cukor
earned solo directing credit. It already shows Cukor's key characters,
quite fully developed:
These three characters, and the romantic triangle
they form, will appear in picture after Cukor picture, always
with interesting variations. They show up even in films that Cukor
adapted from literary sources. For example, in Gone With the
Wind (1939), virile businessman Rhett Butler, dreamy, gentlemanly
Ashley Wilkes and heroine on the make Scarlet O'Hara are Cukor's
familiar trio. Ashley is not involved with the arts, and is not
especially critical of society, but otherwise these are Cukor's
standard characters. I have no idea how Cukor does this. Around
90 billion people have seen Gone With the Wind, and almost
all are convinced that Cukor simply adapted the characters from
the novel. Still, the personalities they so strongly convey on
screen seem to come from inside Cukor, not from the pages of a
book. Similarly, the characters in Tarnished Lady are richly
- The virile, socially successful, well dressed businessman.
- The dreamy, not very forceful man in the arts, gentle and romantic,
a man who is critical of the society around him.
- The heroine, eager to make something of herself.
The heroine eventually
decides that the man she has married for money is a better person
than the boyfriend she rejected. This boyfriend is a wimp. Like
the later Ashley, he seems entirely lacking in any sort of drive.
Some later versions of this artist character will be much more
dynamic, notably Jack Lemmon's filmmaker in It Should Happen
to You (1954). Lemmon will get the girl, something that many
of Cukor's earlier dreamy characters do not.
Cukor's film is especially rich in character revelation. Each
scene brings some new facet of the characters and their personalities
to light. The people in this movie are complex, and so are their
reactions to the situations around them. Cukor is very clear in
his exposition: we always know what the characters are feeling,
and the storytelling is logical and well constructed. It is also
full of surprises. Its careful construction reminds one of mystery
stories, and their equally careful, logical and detailed plotting.
Triangle dramas were a well established screen genre,
long before Cukor's debut in motion pictures in 1930. It is similar
in its basic architecture to Jacques Feyder's
The Kiss (1929), for example:
Another film in something of the same mode:
Clarence Brown's Possessed (1931).
These films were probably considered "women's films"
in their day. They still seem extremely absorbing: watching them
I got caught up, fascinated by what was going to happen next.
- Both have famous woman stars
at their center: Greta Garbo and Tallulah Bankhead, respectively.
- Both mainly deal with these ladies' romantic encounters, which
produce melodramatic triangles.
- Both involve both soap opera style
suffering, and plenty of pleasant escapist wish fulfillment fantasy.
- Both have some Art Deco sets, although this is true of many Hollywood
films of their era.
Liaison for hire
Also typical of Cukor: the way the heroine marries the businessman
for money. This is the first of numerous liaisons in which a young
woman will sell herself to an older, successful man, who will
look out for her and try to promote her career or interests. Cukor
is unusually sympathetic to such relationships, sometimes suggesting
they are good for people, not bad. Usually the man is worldly
wise, and the woman is very naive.
The title of this film is hard to understand: there is nothing
especially tarnished about the heroine. The early 1930's were
full of heroines who walked the Street of Sin, always to support
a sick relative or husband. The title presumably led audiences
to expect something of the sort. However, nothing of the kind
takes place - our heroine is virtuous throughout the entire film.
Our heroine does marry a rich man for his money, to support
her spendthrift mother and get her out of debt.
Cukor had a life long interest in other media. This film contains
a shot showing info coming in over a stock ticker. We also see
a shot of the New York City skyline, filled with skyscrapers,
while the businessman discusses the office building he hopes to
create. The fact that it is the businessman who is involved with
other media is one way in which Cukor generates audience sympathy
for him. It is always the man most responsive to new means of
communication that has Cukor's sympathies.
Our Betters (1933) is based on the 1917 stage play by
Somerset Maugham. It is a drawing room comedy,
full of corrosive wit and satire. It is also very well acted, showing
Cukor's great skill with directing performances.
Many of Cukor's early 1930's films are set in High Society backgrounds;
after censorship came in in 1934, he tended to shift more towards
adaptations of literary classics. This film is quite racy, in
the pre-Code manner.
Spectacle and Cukor Traditions
It is hard to tell how much of Our Betters is Cukor, and
how much is Somerset Maugham. Several scenes look like additions to
Maugham's stage play, designed to open out the action and add
- One shot of women playing tennis reminds one of Pat and Mike (1952).
- Another scene at the
beginning shows Constance Bennett being presented to the Queen;
this reminds one of the embassy ball in My Fair Lady (1964).
In both films a social outsider is being presented; in both the
question is whether our heroine will do something "not done",
not in keeping with social tradition. In Our Betters the
heroine deliberately wears a black dress, thus causing a mild
sensation. In My Fair Lady, Eliza fully passes her test
and does nothing wrong, although earlier she manages to flunk
out at Ascot due to her conversation and language. One also remembers
Scarlett being in red in Gone With the Wind (1939), causing
a similar scandal.
- The heroine's elaborate marriage ceremony
at the start, where she walks through a line of highly polished
Guardsmen. This reminds one of the scene in It Should Happen To You
(1954) where Judy Holiday is surrounded by Air Force men.
The heroine's sister has to choose between a titled Englishman,
and the young American suitor she left behind as too "ordinary".
Cukor casts against type here by making the American not only
better looking, but much better dressed than the English aristocrat.
Not only is this guy much more virtuous than the aristocracy,
he also offers much more romance and just plain fun. All he lacks
is a title, the one thing these social climbing women are looking
for. He is definitely not the dull boy back home. He is also more
cultured than his aristocratic rivals, going to the National Gallery,
something Maugham's satire implies that none of Britain's social
elite would do. He combines in one character the "intellectual"
and the "successful businessmen", two types that in
later Cukor films will often be different and rival characters.
Like most of Cukor's intellectuals, he is in a position of dissent
from the society around him. Like most of his businessmen, he
is very well dressed.
The lead character played by Constance Bennett has many characteristics
of Cukor protagonists. Like many of Cukor's women, she has transformed
herself and achieved a new position in society. But she also has
attributes that later would be found more often in Cukor's male
leads. She is the character most conscious of the structure of
society around her, most knowledgeable about its faults, failings
and hypocrisies. She is able to maintain a sustained critique
of its contradictions throughout the film. This makes her similar
to Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady, and the Jack Lemmon
role in It Should Happen To You. Also like these male leads,
she is given to elaborate gestures and body postures, dramatizing
and making clear her feelings at all times.
A Gender Reversal
The male hero of Holiday (1938) undergoes many experiences more
typically linked with women in Cukor's films:
- While women often choose between a businessman and a free-spirited artist,
in Holiday the hero has to choose whether he will become
a businessman or a free spirit.
- The hero's decision is linked to a marriage choice between two women,
just as Cukor women often have to choose between two men.
- The hero has to mold his behavior and fit in at a huge Society ball,
just like many Cukor heroines.
- The hero's relationship with the Society women is creepily similar
to Cukor women who sell their sexual services to a rich older man. For marrying her,
her ultra-wealthy father will reward the hero with a lucrative job. The father
will also guide, train and mentor the hero, just as James Mason does to his
sex-protege Judy Garland in A Star Is Born.
Staircases and Multi-Story Architecture
The gigantic staircase at the mansion is an example of the multi-story
architecture that appears in Cukor. The huge open staircase is dizzying
and terrifying. It also has a landing, floating high in space, like the overpass
in Bhowani Junction.
Keeper of the Flame
Keeper of the Flame (1942) is a political drama with thriller aspects.
The washed-out bridge recalls the high open staircases in other Cukor. Like them,
it has a very high open platform, from which people could fall.
We see it from far below, like Cukor staircases.
The discussion at the end of who is supporting this fascist campaign specifies
the type of people who do. They are upper crust people who have been failures in their endeavors:
rich people who can't get elected to office, ex-military men who've
failed in business and who want their old prestige back, etc. The film is insistent
that these are rich mediocrities who think they should run society - but who are failures
at practical achievement. This theme echoes Our Betters, and
its satiric look at the incompetents in the British elite.
The film is also insistent about naming the minority groups the fascists
are stirring hatred against: Jews, black people. This anticipates Rich and Famous,
and its explicit interest in the achievements of Jewish and gay novelists.
A Double Life
Cukor's visual style in A Double Life (1948) is consistent
throughout the film. Many of the shots involve a pan from one
composition to another. Both the start and end compositions are
elaborate and visually beautiful. The pan is often approximately
90 degrees. It often follows the characters as they move from
one position to another. The mid sections of the pan are graceful,
but they are less elaborately composed than the beginning and
ending compositions. The pan adds a lot of movement, and hence
liveliness, to Cukor's shots. But it is not especially obtrusive.
A pan is the camera equivalent of a "glance around".
It is less forceful than a tracking shot, which propels the viewer
through a scene. Cukor's pans seem graceful to viewers, and it
is possible that they are even "invisible" to naive
viewers of the film. But they also have many of the merits of
camera movement. They establish unified spatial coordinates of
a set or location. They let the viewer visually explore the environment.
They add visual excitement and complexity to the film.
The pans are not 100% pure. Cukor sometimes adds a very small
track in or out. Oftentimes this seems like a device to adjust
the composition to its ideal format, with the right distance from
the actors, and precisely the right amount of action framed on
the screen. At other times, the camera movement lends a small
bit of emphasis to the drama, and the emotions being expressed
by the characters.
A Tracking Shot
Cukor adds a genuine tracking shot after the murder. It concludes
with the revelation of the body, viewed for the first time after
the crime. This tracking shot is not propulsive, either, unlike
the typical tracks of say, Sternberg. It moves at an angle, not
a straight line, and seems close in spirit to the 90 degree pans
in the movie, but simply more elaborate, dramatic, and complex.
Its purpose instead is to show another view of the room: it pulls
back to show a global view of the crime scene, a summing up of
what has just happened, so the viewer can get a total picture
of the murder. It has the effect of summing up and hence climaxing
the murder scene, as if to say: "here is the total, final
result". It is a much more sophisticated version of that
cliché ending of TV shows, where the camera pulls back
and up to withdraw viewers from the drama.
Andrew Sarris has aptly said that Cukor's camera "glides
through his interiors". This is a good description. The camera
motion is very gentle, but very rapid and graceful. It seems non
intrusive and non emphatic. It seems designed to explore and view,
not penetrate or reorganize.
Born Yesterday (1950) is a comedy, with some serious themes.
The heroine of Born Yesterday is that familiar Cukor character,
the heroine who wants to develop herself. She takes some serious prodding
from men, like the heroine of My Fair Lady, and is not one of Cukor's
self-starters. She faces a choice between two men, who are also more-or-less familiar
Cukor types: a businessman, and an intellectual critical of society.
The businessman (Broderick Crawford) is far from being the sort of well-dressed
smoothie one often sees in Cukor business types, however. He is a real roughneck.
Architecture and Documentary
Settings in Born Yesterday also link to Cukor traditions:
- There are documentary sequences interspersed in a fiction film: here of buildings
- The Capitol sequence has a pan up to the domed ceiling, like other such shots in Cukor.
- The Library of Congress has a high, open staircase.
- The hotel suites connect on multiple levels, and are inter-visible through windows.
The Marrying Kind
The Marrying Kind (1952) is better in its comic first half, with the second part
wallowing in grim soap opera.
Its two best scenes take place at the Post Office, where the hero works.
They show the back room conveyor belts and hampers used to process the mail.
Cukor's scenes have a documentary fascination. These are the only scenes
in The Marrying Kind that have much camera movement; the
camera follows the conveyor belts.
The second scene at the PO is a comedy dream sequence, in the tradition of
George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly's play Beggar on Horseback (1924).
This is a nice bit of fantasy in an otherwise realistic film.
There will also be fantasy sequences in Cukor's next film, Pat and Mike.
Pat and Mike
Pans. Pat and Mike (1952) continues the panning technique of
A Double Life. It adds to it several tracking shots, that
forcefully accompany Katherine Hepburn on her entrances into playing
fields. Some of these tracking shots then turn into pans themselves.
The pans are less regular and less all pervasive than in the earlier
film, however. They often seem to be cut off abruptly, or after
a fairly small arc.
Cuts. Cukor's editing technique here involves fairly
dramatic changes of view. These transitions seem designed to show
all angles of a sporting event. First a shot will show a golf
course or tennis court from one direction. Then a dramatically
different camera setup will immediately follow, often nearly 180
degrees different. One gets a sense of the golf course as a complex
three dimensional place. However, there is also a sense of dizzying
visual excitement to this cut, as exhibiting maximum visual ingenuity
in showing the same location from two such different points of
view. It suggests the world of golf tournaments is a visually
complex place, and full of interest. Such a cut also suggests
an upbeat spirit, and more free will than in the earlier film.
A Double Life is a tragedy, and the panning shots indicate
the characters are embedded in a rigid world. The constant cutting
in the comic Pat and Mike suggests the characters can bust
out of their molds, and take on new points of view.
Geographical Orientation. The viewer
is less absolutely sure of the real life coordinates of the scene
than in the earlier film. If one were forced to draw a map of
a golf hole, linking up all the shots of it, it would involve
some mental challenge and difficulty. One does not feel lost,
but there is a pleasant feeling of slight disorientation.
Long Shots. Cukor also cuts between what would be long shots in most films,
showing the central character surrounded by many onlookers, to
really panoramic long shots, taking in great sweeps of a golf
course or arena. The more medium kind of shots are often more
tightly framed around the characters, with little background showing.
None of the shots look rigidly composed, but the film is full
of tremendous visual interest throughout, and never more so than
during the athletic matches. It is a splendid visual achievement.
Many Cukor films feature interiors that are on many levels, interlocking
through stairs. Pat and Mike is unusual in that it contains
exteriors that are on multi-levels:
These multi-level scenes are especially in the first half of the movie.
- The opening shows two campus buildings, whose fronts contain
complex multi-level stairways and porches.
- Many views of golf courses show multiple level holes, or hilly
locales outside clubhouses.
- The water hazards and sand traps allow individual golf holes
to contain multiple levels.
- A broadcaster's car has a platform on top, and a ladder up the side,
adding multi-levels to a golf hole scene.
- Crowds move down and up through a ditch, at one point in a golf course.
The hero moves over a bridge.
The shots are frequently somewhat overhead, at an elevated angle. This
produces map-like shots, of the complex layouts at the golf course.
Cukor gets compositional mileage out of crowds, especially on the golf courses.
He shows them both standing still and in motion. They can form one group,
or break down into several independent groups, or just be a torrent of
individuals. Cukor will soon make another film with splendidly
constructed and composed crowd shots, Bhowani Junction.
A Documentary on Women's Sports
Cukor loves scenes with documentary value. In A Double Life
he liked to go backstage, to a wig making shop, and other visually
complex locations. This is pushed to an extreme in Pat and Mike,
which serves virtually as a documentary on women's sports of that era.
The cinematographer is William Daniels, who excelled at the documentary location
photography of New York in The Naked City. Pat and Mike forms
a similar documentary, with location shooting at interesting locales, and crowd scenes.
New Gender Roles
Pat and Mike is exhilarating in the way it explores new gender roles
for the characters. It opens with the heroine stuck in a traditional coupling
of the 1950's, with a chauvinist man who regards her as a helpmate in his business career.
She gradually breaks free, and joins up in a free partnership instead with
men who are interested in her talent.
Pat and Mike is another Cukor story of a woman who wants to develop herself, and
a man who is a career mentor.
The chauvinist wants to marry the heroine. This is another Cukor film that presents marriage
as a frightening trap for women.
The two men are variants on Cukor's archetypal male rivals. The boyfriend is
like Cukor businessmen, a virile looking man in good suits. Tracy's character has
the rival's role, which is usually that of a free spirited artist-intellectual.
Tracy is neither an artist nor an intellectual. But he is a rumpled non-conformist,
and he is a highly individual person who is not much like anyone else in society.
He resembles Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady to come, in that he develops the heroine,
trains her, and shows her off in public events.
The boxer (Aldo Ray) is plainly in love with his promoter (Spencer Tracy).
This is disguised as naivete, his not being very bright, etc. But actually,
he is just plain in love. It is a gay character, in full view.
Cukor is always interested in media. In Pat and Mike, we see
broadcasters at the golf course, using walkie-talkies. And newspaper photographers
are common, taking both candid and staged shots of the golfers.
The film also includes a swipe at comic books, something common in mid-1950's films.
Cukor is less venomous than Artists and Models (Frank Tashlin, 1955)
or While the City Sleeps (Fritz Lang, 1956), however.
Several Cukor films have scenes of a woman surrounded by a group of uniformed men.
Pat and Mike offers a variant, in that both the heroine and the hero wind up
in the police station. The scene is more plot-oriented and character
rich, than many such Cukor scenes. The woman is plainly the star here, and the finale
shows that the Police Captain is impressed with her: a delightful touch. The casting of
Chuck Connors (in his film debut) as the Captain is typical of the richly appealing
casting throughout Pat and Mike.
A Woman who wants to develop herself
The Actress (1953) is not one of Cukor's better dramas,
but its themes and characters do seem personal for him. It is
based on an autobiographical play by Ruth Gordon, telling about
her decision to become an actress, while being a star struck teenager
in turn of the century New England. Cukor's films are full of
young women who want to transform themselves. There are the sisters
in Little Women, determined on careers in the arts; the
woman athlete heroine of Pat and Mike; the heroine who
wants to be a celebrity in It Should Happen to You; the
aspiring singer of A Star is Born; the struggling actress
of Let's Make Love; and the Cockney trying to become a
lady in My Fair Lady. All of these films take their heroine's
aspirations with seriousness. They definitely can be considered
as feminist. The heroine of The Actress has to make a huge
struggle to persist in her profession. She also gives up a chance
at romance for her career, something rarely done by heroines in
the movies. This dogged determination in the face of social obstacles
By contrast, a limitation of this film is the restricted view
of what an actress is. The heroine's view of acting consists of
striking glamorous poses on stage in tenth rate musicals. There
is no evocation of classic theater. This is a heroine who seems
never to have heard of Shakespeare, and who has no real interest
in any sort of real acting. She just wants to exude "feminine"
glamour. In this, she is more like the celebrity-status seeking
heroine of It Should Happen to You, than the serious professionals
of Pat and Mike or Let's Make Love. She also resembles
the heroine of My Fair Lady, in that mainly she wishes
to project a glamorous personal image. This is not much of an
ambition. Still, the film treats it seriously, and she makes serious
efforts to achieve it.
The Actress especially feels like a dry run for My Fair
Lady. It is full of the period costumes of the later film.
The heroine constantly tries to exude the gamin like charm that
is expressed so effortlessly by Audrey Hepburn in the later tale.
The Actress also shares a period setting in New England
with Little Women, although it is set at a later date.
The characters in both films are among the youngest heroines in
Cukor, being teenagers still living at home in both works. Both
films are in extreme good taste, and seem to be considered as
"family films". Cukor himself came from a middle class
background, like the heroines of these films, and he too had an
early interest in theater and the arts. So there is perhaps an
autobiographical feel as well here.
The Man with an interest in the world
The Actress and My Fair Lady pair the heroine with an
intense, irascible older man,
here Spencer Tracy. In both films he is very difficult to deal
with; in both he turns into the ultimate opportunity for the heroines
to realize their dreams. Both Spencer Tracy's former sailor, a
man who sailed all over the world, and Rex Harrison's professor,
are men with a bunch of specialized knowledge, on which they are
constantly lecturing others. Both are themselves out of place
in the bourgeois society of their time. Both men's deep displacement
from society, and specialized skills, mark them out as unusual
characters in film as well. Spencer Tracy's poverty and life of
hardship give him a pathos lacking in Rex Harrison's upper class
professor, however. He gets none of the social respect awarded
Harrison's character, either.
The Custard Apple. Tracy's character is constantly talking about things he has seen
around the world, and lamenting that he will never see them again.
His remembrance of eating custard apples in Africa, and knowing
he will never eat one again, is a telling moment early in the
play. Today, one can get custard apples (Annona) in many
grocery stores in the United States, where they are frequently
labeled as "cherimoyas". This is a reminder of the huge
technological strides that have been made in transportation in
the last hundred years. They are a genuinely exotic looking fruit,
resembling a large green pine cone. In Ruth Gordon's play,
Over 21, metaphors center around apple pie - so her writing
often uses fruit to illuminate ideas. Despite the similarity in names,
apples and custard apples are unrelated fruits.
Media. There is much in The Actress
about the brand new invention of the telephone; Cukor's characters
are often interested in new machineries of communication. Magazines
also get discussed here, and Spencer Tracy's nautical spyglass
plays a role in the plot.
The Boy-Friend: A Younger version of the Cukor Businessman type
A limitation of The Actress is its casting. Jean Simmons
and Spencer Tracy have never been favorites of mine, and both
seem more grating than charming throughout here. The film does
pick up with the brief appearance of Anthony Perkins, here in
his film debut. Perkins plays the sort of smooth, beautifully
dressed juvenile love interest, that is a standard Cukor type:
a role that will later be essayed by Jeremy Brett in My Fair
Lady. He seems far more upper crust than the heroine. Nothing
is made of this class difference in the film, but it is supposed
to indicate his romantic appeal, as a conventionally marriageable
young man. Unlike many other charming but duplicitous upper class
boyfriends in Cukor, Perkins' character here is a genuinely nice
guy, and completely sincere. But as in most Cukor films, such
men are distractions from the heroine's serious goals, and ultimately
have to be rejected by them.
Perkins is given a spectacular fur coat, courtesy the film's great
costume designer Walter Plunckett, who specialized in ornate,
uniquely glamorous men's clothes. In it, he looks more like a
potentate or a prince, than a small town college student. Under
the coat, Perkins is wearing the sort of elegant suit often sported
by Cukor charmers. However, Perkins' suit is not pin-striped,
and does not have a "businessman" feel, unlike those
of many less sympathetic upper-class Cukor deceivers. Instead,
it looks like festive wear for a young man. Perkins also drives
a fancy car with an open top, like the Peter Lawford character
to come in It Should Happen to You. In both films, the
performer drives the car to the front of the building in which
the heroine lives.
The Actress opens with a performance of a musical in a
large theater. Cukor pans up the boxes, ultimately showing people
in an upper box, and the theater ceiling over their heads. Cukor
will recreate this shot in the opening sequence of A Star is
Born the following year. In both films, this shot is beautifully
composed, and a great example of visual style. The shot in the
later film will be even richer, incorporating both color, and
an angled, titled view of the box.
Also rich: the scene in the parlor between Perkins and Simmons.
This scene consists of just three takes. The third and final take
is especially long and rich. It is full of changes of mood and
event, and shows the most delicate progression of feeling among
the actors. It is also full of complex camera movements of every
sort, as Cukor's camera prowls along the parlor. This shot should
be considered as one of the classic long take sequences in traditional
Like other Cukor films with aspiring heroines, we also get a complete,
nearly documentary look at the heroine's milieu. There is a brief
but graceful look at the town in which the characters live, that
recalls the Central Park sequences in other Cukor films of this
period. These exterior scenes involve frequent pans, following
the heroine as she walks through the town.
We also go to an indoor arena for an athletic exhibition; this
recalls the indoor tennis arena of Pat and Mike. The characters
are seated in a balcony above the arena, leading to the sort of
shots filmed on two levels that run throughout the film. These
also include the early theater shots and their high balcony; and
the nocturnal sequence outside the Tracy home, where Tracy is
on a second story porch, while Perkins is below in his car.
It Should Happen to You
It Should Happen to You (1954) shows Cukor's interest in
new media. The film explores both the 16 millimeter hand held
camera filmmaking used by the documentary filmmaker played by
Jack Lemmon, and the then new world of live television broadcasting.
Cukor is clearly fascinated by both of these new kinds of filmmaking,
even though both are alternatives to Hollywood's hegemony of production.
Cukor will incorporate "fake" examples of both of these kinds of filmmaking within his own movie.
Similarly, in Pat and Mike we see many examples of sports
events, a kind of modern day "theater". Cukor would
also incorporate newspaper photography in The Philadelphia
Story and Our Betters.
Later, Cukor will be one of the few Hollywood directors to interest
himself in the underground films of the 1960's and 1970's, praising
the works of Paul Morrissey.
The first two television sequences work that Cukor speciality
"backstage chaos making elaborate visual spectacle". These black-and-white
scenes are a bit less complex than some of the spectacles in Cukor's color films,
though. Th pean up to the monitor showing the commercial in the second TV studio sequence,
recalls a bit the pans up to roofs in other Cukor films. The monitor is
on a high wall, not a roof, unlike other Cukor films. But it is awfully high up.
It Should Happen to You contains some beautiful panning shots.
Our first view of Columbus Circle is a pan that takes in its whole geography,
culminating at a look at the billboard.
And when the heroine goes to the billboard agency for the first time,
she get a shot that encompasses two pans. First she enters by one door,
then the camera pans with her to the left, while she is hesitant in the other door.
The camera is stationary while she revolves in this left
hand door, then pans once more to the right, from a different
fulcrum, while she moves to the elevator. The whole shot transports
the heroine through a complex camera move, giving a sense of her
motion and the camera's motion as one combined fluid flow.
The apartment building incorporates two Cukor tropes:
"the high open staircase" and the "building full of interlocking rooms
on multiple levels". We see many shots up and down the huge lobby staircase.
And Cukor combines scenes of the hero's room, the heroine's rooms, the
staircase and the lobby. These locales are on just two levels, not quite
the multiple levels found in other Cukor interior environments. But still, the
building is somewhat in this tradition, even if it is a bit simpler.
Outside, several scenes are staged all over the steps, areaway and sidewalk
in front of the apartment building. These relate to Cukor scenes "in front of homes".
The building is a multi-family dwelling, not a private home, though.
New York City
This film is like A Double Life, in that both serve as
a documentary on the New York City of their era. Cukor would soon
depict Hollywood in A Star is Born.
One can see a continuing semiotics of dress in Cukor's films,
in the pinstripe suit worn by Lawford when his character is attempting
to seduce Holiday's. One is reminded of Jacqueline Bisset's airline
seducer in Rich and Famous (1981), who is another young
businessman similarly dressed in a pinstripe suit. Like Lawford's
character, this young man will also turn out to be appealing but
A Star Is Born
The Theater Opening
A Star Is Born (1954) opens with a stage show at the Shrine
Auditorium in Los Angeles. It is one of the major spectacle scenes
in Cukor. Such scenes were rarer in his early work, but became
more common in his later years. This is perhaps the most complex
of them all. Cukor's ideas on spectacles have at least two ancestors.
One is the films of Cecil B. De Mille, which were famous for their
super-productions and beautifully staged spectacle scenes. Cukor's
scene here is in the De Mille tradition, with all sorts of entertainers,
audience members and stage technicians blending into a large and
harmonious whole. As in De Mille, there are a large number of
elements involved, and the spectator is delighted by the sheer
magnitude of it all. But also as in De Mille, the spectator is
never crowded. Everything always looks beautiful, everything is
always staged with a gorgeous effect. Both in De Mille and Cukor,
such staging takes major artistic gifts.
The other ancestor here are the films of Orson Welles,
and their baroque back stage sequences. Welles included a look
at an opera production being rehearsed in Citizen Kane,
and there are other backstage spectacles in his unproduced (by
him) screenplay The Big Brass Ring. Welles' technique is
quite different from Cukor's. There is so much movement among
Welles' characters that it creates a uniquely kinetic effect.
His opera singers are virtually besieged by stage hands, who are
thrusting scenery all over the place among the singers. It is
like a rehearsal in Grand Central Station. Cukor's approach is
far gentler. Still, his work is in the same genre of back stage
effects milked for complex visual patterns.
Cukor also faced some unique challenges. A Star Is Born
is in wide screen and color, and its compositions are adjusted
to both. No one should ever dream of watching A Star is Born
except in a letter boxed version; pan and scan trashes everything
Cukor has accomplished.
The Color Scheme
At least in current prints, many of the later scenes in A Star
Is Born show a consistent color scheme. The shots are built
around a contrast between red-orange and blue, frequently employed
against a neutral toned or gray background. This is precisely
the scheme that will show up consistently in the work of later
directors, especially Pedro Almodóvar, Gus Van Sant and
Danny Boyle (Trainspotting). In fact, this color scheme,
so fresh and fascinating in the work of Almodóvar, now
seems in danger of becoming a cliché of modern cinema,
being used mechanically by lesser directors. A similar color scheme
was employed by William Castle in Masterson
of Kansas (1954) the same year; I do not which filmmaker has
priority. It also is featured in Vincente Minnelli's
Some Came Running (1959).
Bhowani Junction (1956) is a political drama, set in the last days
before Indian independence in 1947.
The Choice between Males
The heroine is faced with a choice between three men. The plot is both like Cukor's
familiar story of a heroine choosing between an intellectual and a businessman,
and also unlike it. There are three men in this tale, rather than Cukor's
usual two. And none of the three can really be considered as an artist-intellectual,
nor as a businessman. Two of the men in Bhowani Junction work in a railway office,
the third is a soldier assigned to guard the railway. Nor do the trio show the
distinguishing marks of Cukor's males. None of the three wears the expensive,
pinstripe suits of a Cukor businessman. And none of the men expresses the social
critique associated with Cukor's intellectuals. The Indian man comes the closest, being
a strong supporter of Indian independence. Even here, however, this point of view
is a mainstream, widely shared view among Indians, and not the outsider criticism often
expressed by the raffish, bohemian intellectuals in Cukor.
If the "choice between men" plot is a distinct variation on Cukor's typical characters,
Cukor's perennial "man who buys woman's sexual favors" plot is completely absent from
Bhowani Junction. None of these men are wealthy, the heroine does not seek money
from them, and the heroine has a job of her own, being an officer in the Army.
Bhowani Junction resembles Gaslight, in depicting marriage as a trap
or prison for a woman. Both potential marriage partners in Bhowani Junction,
the two railway workers, would lead the heroine into a seriously constrained,
limited life. As in Gaslight, the heroine will decide she has more freedom
with a government official: the policeman in Gaslight, Stewart Granger's
Army officer in Bhowani Junction.
The politics of India in Bhowani Junction directly echo those of the United
States in 1956. Bhowani Junction is heavily concerned with relationships
between races, like the burgeoning Civil Rights movement of the era.
And the film's powerful depictions of non-violence reflect not only India's struggles, but also
the Civil Rights protests in the United States. Soon, other Hollywood directors would also
film non-violent protests: see Joseph H. Lewis, and his
Terror in a Texas Town (1958) and the impressive
episode The Deserter of The Rifleman (1960). There are also comic,
but still memorable, looks at mass protest in Rally Round the Flag Boys
(Leo McCarey, 1958) and The Great Race (Blake Edwards, 1965).
As a gay man, Cukor perhaps identified with the Anglo-Indians in the film, as
members of a group subject to discrimination and social animosity. The film's strong
anti-Communist politics are notable, too. Once again, this might reflect in part
the anti-Communist feelings of most gay people in this era - gays were much opposed and
persecuted by Communist regimes.
The outdoor staircases and overpasses at the railway station recall the high, open
staircases that run through several Cukor films.
The railway office is on several levels, with Granger's inner office being some steps up
from the anterooms, and the roof outside (where people also walk) being on a
higher level than the inside rooms. The rooms and roofs can be seen through doors,
windows, and inner partitions. A multi-level, windowed-from-room-to-room
architecture will return, in the Paris apartment in Les Girls.
There are quite a few pans in the exteriors in Bhowani Junction. They tend to be mixed
in with static shots.
Les Girls (1957) combines one of Cukor's favorite milieus,
backstage life among a theatrical troupe, with courtroom scenes involving
a comic battle of the sexes: also a Cukor tradition (Adam's Rib,
Love Among the Ruins).
The arrival at the courthouse opening, recalls the arrival at the theater
beginning of A Star Is Born. And the European streets throughout
also anticipate the London milieu of A Star Is Born.
The first of the three stories in Les Girls is the best. This tale
develops a standard pair of Cukor characters: two men, rivals in love,
one of whom is a free-spirited man in the arts (dancer Gene Kelly) and
successful, socially proper and well-dressed businessman (Jacques Bergerac).
The tale also shows the dancer hiring a woman dancer, whom he soon turns
into his mistress. This is another "woman hired to be a girlfriend" in Cukor.
As in A Star Is Born, the man also gives training to his hired girlfriend,
in show biz skills.
By the end of the film, Kelly's character has suceeded at both
the businessman and artist roles, with a string of orange juice stands and a TV
dance program. This is unusal for a Cukor character: Kelly is one of the first
since Charles Starrett's young businessman in Our Betters to combine both
The second episode has a woman hoping to marry an English aristocrat, as
in Our Betters. And the woman tries to cope with a life-ruining
problem with alcoholism, as in Holiday.
The third episode is the gloomiest. But it has some welcome comedy relief,
with the scene of Mitzi Gaynor entertaining Kelly at home. As in the
Lawford-Holiday attempted seduction scene in It Should Happen to You,
the woman does something richly comic, that undercuts the romantic mood in
a funny way.
The opening episode is the most visually rich of the three. The backstage scenes
use the progress of many performers through crowded corridors and staircases, to create
complex visual patterns. These recall the visually splendid backstage scenes
in the opening of A Star Is Born. The staircase, three stories high,
is another Cukor use of multi-story architecture.
The overhead shots of Parisian streets, also involve multi-storied architecture.
So, to a degree, does the complex layout of the apartment, with its different
The costumes worn by the women in the "Les Girls" musical number, anticipate
the elegant Edwardian clothes in My Fair Lady. Their black-and-white design
anticipates the Ascot number in that film. So, a bit, does the revolving
choreography of the women dancers.
The rival businessman wears a spectacular pinstripe suit, often the mark of a Cukor
businessman. He will turn out to be rather sneaky and deceptive,
like the similarly pinstriped seducers in It Should Happen to You
and Rich and Famous.
The men's clothes in the motorcycle gang number, echo those in The Wild One. Both films
feature men in similar black leather motorcycle jackets, with white lettering. And
both films have the bike gang leader romancing a waitress in a cheap restaurant,
although the waitress costume in Les Girls is infinitely more chic.
The leather jackets in Les Girls form a team uniform, and this scene is
another instance in Cukor of a woman with a group of uniformed men.
Heller in Pink Tights
Heller in Pink Tights (1960) is a show business saga set in the Old West.
It resembles a bit The Golden Coach (Jean Renoir, 1953).
Both films deal with a seedy but gung ho troupe of travelling players in a remote region
in a historical era. Both star a spitfire of a heroine, played by a famous European actress.
Forrest's character Clint Mabry is a macho brute, sexy because he's so tough.
This is an odd type for Cukor, who usually likes gentlemanly leading men.
Forrest plays one apex of Cukor's familiar love triangle, the one usually reserved
for virile businessmen. Clint Mabry is as sneaky as some Cukor businessmen, and he is
frequently appareled in a suit.
Anthony Quinn has the more standard Cukor part of the rival and free-spirited intellectual in the arts.
Like Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, he is older than the heroine.
Clint Mabry seems like a prototype of Robert Redford's star making turn in
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969). Especially in terms of visual
appearance. Both cowboys have thick blond hair, and a blond mustache.
Both wear sport coat type jackets with leather lapels - both films have costumes by Edith Head.
Redford's appearance was considered limitlessly sexy in 1969.
Here it is, at an earlier date. Forrest did not become a star then. He had to wait until
the success of his TV series, S.W.A.T. (1975), where he played an equally macho male.
Finale: Links to Pat and Mike
MILD SPOILERS AHEAD
The finale recalls that of Pat and Mike. In both films:
This gender role reversal is both comically charming, and a feminist plot development.
- The hero directs a troupe of travelling performers.
- The heroine is a member of the troupe.
- The heroine rescues the hero, getting him out of serious professional difficulties.
- The heroine is responsible for the success of the troupe.
- After the rescue, the heroine proposes marriage to the hero.
The finale also recalls a bit that of Born Yesterday, with the heroine
winding up in financial charge of affairs.
My Fair Lady
I first saw My Fair Lady on its release in 1964. I disliked
it very much then, except for the Ascot scene. Other Cukor champions,
such as Andrew Sarris and Gavin Lambert, had similar reactions.
But when I saw it recently in its beautiful new Technicolor restoration,
I loved it. I have no idea why I did not appreciate this film
more at the time. Today it seems just delightful. (This is not
intended as a slam at Sarris and Lambert, both of whom have written
so much and so intelligently about Cukor. Instead, it is merely
intended to record that I was not alone in my opinion at the time.)
My Fair Lady (1964) is full of pans. Sometimes these
are Cukor's classic 90 degree turns. For example, when the characters
leave the house to go to the embassy ball at the climax of Part
I of the film, we see them first leave Higgins' study, then the
camera pans 90 degrees to watch them go down a second corridor
to the street door. This is a very fitting climax to the first
half of the film. The characters are exiting the screen, and Cukor
is watching them with one of his most personal visual signatures.
But Cukor's panning technique in this film shows variations. Higgins'
study contains a spiral staircase which he frequently ascends
and descends as part of the staging. Cukor pans vertically to
follow Higgins on these journeys. One shot pans down as Higgins
descends the staircase, then pans to the right after the camera
reaches ground level, to take in more of the action on the main
floor of the study.
Another key kind of camera movement in My Fair Lady is
the backward track. The camera often moves back towards the audience,
revealing more of the scene in front of the camera. Often, actors
on screen either press forward, or enter the new screen space
from the side, filling it. The effect is one of actors moving
in or forward, pushing the camera back. A pure scene of this type
occurs early in the film, showing various vendors in Covent Garden.
The camera keeps pulling back, then stopping, while new actors
emerge, then magically "freeze" on camera. The whole
process involves several cycles of backward motion, then stopping.
It is a charmingly choreographed scene, and presumably involves
full cooperation with Hermes Pan, the great choreographer of the
film. Pan was Fred Astaire's collaborator on most of his classic
Most often in My Fair Lady, Cukor combines his backward
tracking and his pans into one large, complex camera movement.
These camera movements become fabulously complex. However, they
are so carefully "motivated" by the action that they
can seem almost invisible to naive viewers. The camera moves backward
as characters move forward; the camera pans to the side as the
action moves to the side. Particularly dazzling complex camera
movements occur in the "With a Little Bit of Luck" number.
Stanley Holloway keeps moving to the side and back, while he is
crossing over a zone filled with workmen. Cukor's camera pans
back and forth with him. Meanwhile, Holloway is gradually but
steadily moving forward through the huge set, and the camera is
tracking backwards, revealing more and more of the set as it goes.
The combination of the two types of movements is done with a smooth
mastery, born both of artistic talent and Cukor's many years of
practice with camera movement. Cukor does not include an "establishing"
shot at the beginning of this scene, showing the set as a whole
in long shot. Instead he prefers to surprise the viewer, gradually
revealing more and more of the set as the camera moves back. There
is a sense here that Cukor is exploring an unlimited world here,
in the Bazinian sense; the viewer has no idea how far the camera
can go, and feels he is on a moving journey through a complex
reality. There is no sense of a predefined destination, just a
constant exploration of London streets.
Cukor employs cutting as well in My Fair Lady. The camera
often seems to cut to put us at a new distance to the action.
Cukor can finish one shot, then all of a sudden move us in closer,
to see more details of the action. Or to reveal a different part
of the set. Camera movement is frequently employed, but more for
the dynamic effect it produces, then as a consistent form of staging
without cuts, as it is used in some films by some directors.
Other scenes in My Fair Lady explore montage. The Ascot
scene is a triumph of stylization. Cukor cuts his shots here right
on the beat of the music, just as later music video directors
will do. Pan's choreography here, in collaboration with Cukor's
staging, also shows a music video like breaking down into separate
sections or temporal zones. For example, before the first race,
the characters are all standing stock still. After the race, a
section follows in which they are all revolving in place, with
a circular motion. Such different principles of motion in different
sections of the scene remind one strongly of music videos,
for example, Stephen R. Johnson's "Road to Nowhere".
Opening Crowd Scene
The film opens with a crowd scene - as is common in Cukor. Large groups
are seen streaming out of Covent Garden opera theater, down staircases
and out the door. The shots anticipate the end of Russian Ark
(Alexander Sokurov, 2002).
The huge double staircase resembles a bit the high, open stairways in other Cukor.
I Could Have Danced All Night
Much of "I Could Have Danced All Night" is staged on the staircase at the Professor's.
It resembles a bit the multi-level suites of rooms in other Cukor films.
It is a bit different: those tend to be different levels all on the same floor,
or near it, while these are on different floors. Still,
the staircase has numerous landings, on different levels,
with people staring from one level to another: just like the multi-level environments
in other films.
Characters in Cukor's Films
One can now see personal meanings in Cukor's characters here.
The triangle of the Professor, Eliza and Freddy seems similar
to the triangle of the characters played by Jack Lemmon, Judy
Holiday and Peter Lawford in Cukor's It Should Happen to You
Both the Lemmon character and the Professor are eccentric
intellectuals, full of comic turns, dramatic body postures and
gestures, and richly intellectual speaking patterns. Both defy
social convention, express scorn for money and worldly success,
and pursue intellectual professions. Both have considerable technological
equipment related to the media: Lemmon's film equipment, the Professor's
sound recording devices.
The Judy Holiday character and Eliza
are both naive but spirited young women from modest backgrounds,
who transform themselves into public sensations through a process
of exploration and transformation. Both are models of virtue,
and insist on their personal rectitude and chastity. Both are
kind hearted and friendly, and are the audience point of view
characters throughout their struggles.
Peter Lawford's character
and Freddy are both rich young men, the epitome of conventional
good looks, marriagibility, and romantic attractiveness. Both
are very well dressed in expensive suits, that emphasize their
wealth and social status. Both have strong down sides, however,
and are eventually rejected by the heroine, but only after she
is considerably attracted. Both young men are superficial, and
without much individual personality or intellectual accomplishment.
Both have a lack of compassion. Freddy is the young man who treats
Eliza callously when she is a flower girl at the opening, suggesting
that his character is fundamentally flawed. Lawford's character
has what Holiday's rejects as a sense of "entitlement".
Similarly, Yves Montand's businessman in Let's
Make Love (1960) will only appeal to Marilyn Monroe's kind
hearted singer, when he invents a new identity for himself as