George Cukor | Subjects | Structure and Story Telling | Visual Style

Films: Tarnished Lady | Our Betters | Camille | Holiday | Keeper of the Flame | Gaslight | 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

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George Cukor

George Cukor: Subjects

Women and Men: Relationships and Society: Politics: Modernity: Media: Crowds:

George Cukor: Structure and Story Telling

Documentary aspects of fiction films:

George Cukor: Visual Style

Architecture: Camera Movement: Color: Black, White or Gray Costumes in Color Films: Costumes:

Tarnished Lady

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 developed.

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

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.

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

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 some spectacle:


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.


Camille (1936) is a version of the famous play by Alexandre Dumas, fils.


Robert Taylor looks better in Camille than in any other picture. What causes this?

Cukor was a gifted artist. The directors of Taylor's other pictures were often more artisans or craftsmen, MGM contractors who lacked Cukor's artistry.

1930's clothes for men in the USA were awful looking, in my judgement. Clothes from the last years of the 1930's and the 1940's were vastly superior. I have read articles suggesting I am not alone in this view. The 1940's film noir clothes for men still look really sharp. Those awful 30's suits make men looked trapped in the Depression. Taylor was stuck in such suits during much of his alleged glamour boy early career. Camille got him in period costume: a much superior look. (Similarly, Tyrone Power's studio had him in endless period dramas. His period costumes in Suez or The Mark of Zorro still look great. He thus evaded those lousy 30's suits for men.)

The mustache that often afflicted Taylor was also one of those awful styles. Taylor, liked James Craig, looked handsome without mustache and silly with it.

In the 1960's, comic book artist Gil Kane used movie stars as models for the super-heroes he drew. Paul Newman was the model for Green Lantern. Robert Taylor was the source for The Atom.


A Gender Reversal

The male hero of Holiday (1938) undergoes many experiences more typically linked with women in Cukor's films:

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.



Gaslight (1944) doesn't seem to be a political film, on its surface.

But an evil, powerful man who lies and lies, might be meant to evoke such sinister dictators as Hitler and Stalin. Both put out tons of lying propaganda, meant to deceive.

The original play by Patrick Hamilton debuted in December 1938. By that time Hitler and Stalin and their lies were a source of major public concern. They had reached worldwide condemnation, such as by the Dewey Commission formed in 1937.

Gaslight also seems to question the mystique of Home as a wonderful place. Th heroine is safe outside her home, and in terrible danger within it. The playing by the street vendor of "Home Sweet Home" offer an ironical comment on this.

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

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:

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

Visual Style

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.

Multi-Level Areas

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 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.

The Actress

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 is impressive.

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 World

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 pinstriped, 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.

Camera Movement

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 films.

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.

Multi-Story Architecture

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

New Media

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. The pan 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.

Pinstripe Suits

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 untrustworthy.

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

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

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 life-approaches.

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.

Visual Style

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 floor levels.


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.

Steve Forrest

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. In between these two films, in the mid-1960's James Drury worn a jacket like this on his TV series The Virginian.

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


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 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.)

Camera Movement

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 films.

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).

Embassy Ball

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 (1954).

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 an entertainer.