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Cukor, Georgelocked

(07 July 1899–24 January 1983)
  • Jonathan Kuntz

Cukor, George (07 July 1899–24 January 1983), motion picture director, was born George Dewey Cukor in New York City, the son of Victor Cukor, a lawyer and assistant district attorney, and Helen Gross; both were immigrants of Hungarian-Jewish origin. Cukor graduated from De Witt Clinton High School in 1917 and at age nineteen got a job working backstage on touring productions for the theatrical producers Klaw & Erlanger. In 1920 he began working in summer stock in Rochester, New York, and by the summer of 1922 had become general manager of the Lyceum Players in that city. This led to a position as stage manager of East Coast tryout tours and Broadway productions for the Charles Frohman organization. By 1925 Cukor was directing plays on Broadway, among them, The Great Gatsby (1926).

In the late 1920s experienced theater personnel were sought by the Hollywood studios to write scripts and to assist actors in speaking dialogue. Paramount signed Cukor in February 1929, brought him to California, and gave him a job as dialogue director. Cukor was loaned out to Universal to serve in this capacity on the prestigious production of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Paramount promoted Cukor to the role of co-director, in charge of a film’s actors, in 1930. His third film, The Royal Family of Broadway, based on an Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman play, led to a salary increase, a contract extension, and promotion to full director. Cukor’s first solo effort was Tarnished Lady (1931), starring Tallulah Bankhead; it was the first of seven collaborations with screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart. Girls about Town (1931), a prototype for later Cukor films, is a romantic comedy about a group of gold-digging women whose desperation lurks just below the surface.

In 1931 Cukor was assigned to direct One Hour with You, a chic musical comedy starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. Ernst Lubitsch, the film’s producer, participated extensively in the production and was awarded sole director credit. The resulting acrimony allowed Cukor to terminate his contract and move to RKO. Cukor completed six films at RKO over the next four years, three each with Constance Bennett and newcomer Katharine Hepburn. What Price Hollywood? (1932) parallels the rise to movie stardom of a naive actress (played by Bennett) with the decline of her mentor, a veteran director. This Pygmalion-like theme of an experienced teacher leading the education and transformation of a younger protégée is a virtual standard in Cukor’s film career. Cukor himself became a mentor, to Hepburn, in A Bill of Divorcement (1932). This motion picture marked her film debut as well as a collaboration that extended to ten films over the next fifty years, the longest director-star relationship of the Hollywood studio era.

In early 1933 producer David O. Selznick abruptly left RKO for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and arranged for Cukor to sign a two-year contract with MGM provided that he return to RKO later to complete two more pictures. Cukor immediately began work on a highly successful film version of another Kaufman and Ferber play, Dinner at Eight, which follows a stylish group of dinner party guests. That same year, back at RKO, Cukor directed a film version of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, with an Academy Award–winning script by Victor Heerman and Sarah Y. Mason. The film, starring Hepburn as the independent and imaginative Jo, was RKO’s most-successful moneymaker of the era, and it received Academy Award nominations for Cukor as best director and for best picture. Cukor directed another adaptation of a literary classic, David Copperfield, for MGM and Selznick in 1935. The lengthy motion picture was a box office success; it also received a nomination for best picture and was the third straight Cukor-directed film to make Film Daily’s Ten Best list. Cukor fulfilled his obligation to RKO with Sylvia Scarlett (1936), starring Hepburn and Cary Grant. For part of the film Hepburn’s character is disguised as a boy, a challenge to traditional gender roles that Cukor and Hepburn would explore again in their postwar films.

In 1935 Selznick left MGM to form his own independent production company. Cukor signed contracts with both Selznick and MGM that guaranteed him $4,000 per week. In 1936, assisted by MGM’s Irving Thalberg, Cukor directed Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Camille, the latter starring Greta Garbo. These films received respectful reviews and, in the case of Romeo and Juliet, a best picture nomination.

After Thalberg’s death, Cukor returned to work for Selznick. They spent 1937 preparing to film Gone with the Wind, doing research and casting, with Cukor shooting numerous screen tests. Amid much publicity, filming on Gone with the Wind finally commenced in December 1938. Pressures resulting from an expanding budget and an unfinished script frayed the long-standing relationship between producer and director, and Selznick dismissed Cukor from the film after less than two months of shooting. The few scenes Cukor completed remain in the picture.

Cukor, who had often been referred to in studio publicity and the press as a “woman’s director” owing to his special rapport with such talents as Hepburn and Garbo, returned immediately to MGM to direct The Women (1939). Another romantic comedy with desperate undertones, the film exemplifies Cukor’s preoccupation with the imaginative lives of his characters; men are much discussed and fought over but never seen on screen. Philip Barry’s play The Philadelphia Story had marked Hepburn’s victorious return to the stage. For the 1940 MGM film, which starred Hepburn, James Stewart, and Cary Grant, Joseph L. Mankiewicz produced and Cukor directed. Another Cukor portrayal of crumbling relationships against a backdrop of high society, the film received six Academy Award nominations, including ones for best picture and best director. Comedic moments and the hopeful ending balance the pessimism in one of Cukor’s most popular films.

Cukor’s first “film noir” was A Woman’s Face (1941), which featured Joan Crawford as a scarred outcast who is remade by a surgeon into a beauty and challenged to stop her criminal ways. The Pygmalion theme is repeated here but with the most horrifying slant it would ever take: Crawford’s character must be dissuaded from murdering a child. Cukor’s next two films were the final films for two of MGM’s biggest stars. Two-Faced Woman (1941), starring Garbo, was a complete disaster; the critics dismissed it, the Catholic church condemned it, and European audiences, so important to the Swedish-born actress, were preoccupied with the war. Her Cardboard Lover (1942), based on a play that Cukor had previously staged on Broadway, was a quieter failure; it featured Norma Shearer.

At the end of 1942 Cukor enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army Signal Corps; he directed a training film and was discharged after six months. (He had wanted an officer’s commission but did not receive one, so he was entitled to a discharge on account of his age.) MGM then signed him to a seven-year contract, and in 1944 he directed Gaslight, his most successful film of the era. Previous Cukor themes—a collapsing marriage, a plush but confining mansion, and a Pygmalion relationship—turn sinister in this story of a husband who tries to drive his wife crazy. Ingrid Bergman won an Academy Award for her performance. The next few years were marked by several unsuccessful projects; Cukor left Desire Me (1947) before its completion and after extensive preparations was unable to shoot The Razor’s Edge.

Edward, My Son (1949), shot in Britain, was Cukor’s most extreme cinematic stylistic attempt. Following Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), Cukor shot the film with extended long takes in a series of flashbacks that trace the rise of a ruthless industrialist who destroys his personal life while acquiring an empire. The title character is never seen. That same year Cukor shot Adam’s Rib, a film in which he found the perfect material and collaborators. Written by Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon and introducing Judy Holliday, the film, starring Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, concerns husband-and-wife lawyers on opposite sides of a domestic dispute case. The humor and imagination of the script balance the more serious elements of attempted murder, divorce, and suicide. Adam’s Rib, which deals directly with the issue of women’s rights, was a minor hit at the time but has since become one of the most meaningful comedies of the studio era.

Cukor received his third Academy Award nomination for Born Yesterday (1950). Adapted from a play by Kanin, the film was a smash for Columbia. It too tells a kind of Pygmalion story; here, the “dumb blonde” mistress (played by Judy Holliday, who won an Academy Award) of a crude tycoon is educated by a reported into fighting against corruption in Washington, D.C. As in Adam’s Rib, the film’s serious elements, including political corruption and brutality, are complemented by wit, style, and optimism. In 1952 Cukor directed two other Gordon and Kanin original screenplays, The Marrying Kind, for Columbia, again with Holliday, and Pat and Mike, for MGM, with Hepburn and Tracy. Both films combined a realistic shooting style with dream sequences as well as serious drama with comic elements. The Actress (1953), which Gordon scripted from her own autobiographical play, starred Jean Simmons as a World War I–era stage-struck youth who dreams of a theatrical career. The desire to be famous was also at the heart of It Should Happen to You (1954). From a Kanin script for Columbia, the film, which introduced Jack Lemmon, was the last of Cukor’s small, personal, black and white comedy-dramas.

As the studio era ended, film companies turned to gimmicks and blockbusters in an attempt to draw audiences away from their television sets and back into movie theaters. A Star Is Born (1954), Cukor’s first completed film in color and widescreen as well as his first musical, was expected to be a smash hit and singer Judy Garland’s comeback. Warner Bros., however, drastically shortened the finished film, and it enjoyed only mild success, though Cukor did receive an Academy Award nomination. With a new contract from MGM, Cukor directed another widescreen, color film, Bhowani Junction (1956), with an obligatory cast of thousands, on location in India. Les Girls (1957), also in widescreen and color and shot primarily in Europe, was Cukor’s second musical film; it featured MGM’s dance star Gene Kelly and an original score by Cole Porter.

Wild Is the Wind (1957) was Cukor’s last film in black and white. In it, Anna Magnani’s character comes from the old country to marry her sister’s widower (played by Anthony Quinn), a sheep rancher in Nevada. Shot in a neorealist style, the film begins Cukor’s examination of aging lead characters, where coming to terms with the past is as important as finding a partner. Heller in Pink Tights (1960), with Quinn and another Italian legend, Sophia Loren, was Cukor’s only western. From a story by Louis L’Amour, the film has the classical elements of gunfighters and Indian attacks, but the action is seen through the experiences of a traveling theater troupe.

Cukor’s unparalleled reputation for bringing the best out of actresses no doubt landed him his next film, the musical Let’s Make Love (1960), with Marilyn Monroe. This was followed, also in the early 1960s, by two unsuccessful projects, Lady L and Goodbye Charlie, both of which were later filmed by others. The Chapman Report (1962), from a fiction bestseller that sensationalized the Kinsey Report on sexual activity, was heavily cut and not a success. This was followed by a complete disaster; Cukor began Something’s Got to Give for Fox, but it was abandoned with the dismissal and subsequent death of Marilyn Monroe.

Now in his sixties, and with few recent successes, Cukor seemed to be at the end of his creative career. Yet there was one more triumph, My Fair Lady (1964), Cukor’s bona fide Pygmalion story. Produced by Warner Bros. as exquisitely and artificially as any from the studio era, the film swept the Academy Awards, including Oscars for best picture, best actor (Rex Harrison), and best director.

Cukor suffered through the longest unproductive period of his film career after My Fair Lady. His contemporaries from the studio era had all departed the scene, and the American film industry appeared moribund. He did complete Justine (1969), based on the novels by Laurence Durrell, for Fox and Travels with My Aunt (1972), from the novel by Graham Greene, for MGM. The latter film, shot on location in Spain, received four Academy Award nominations, winning for best costumes. It illustrates many of Cukor’s characteristic preoccupations, including the Pygmalion situation and a Sylvia Scarlett–like journey in which social roles are less confining and sexual experimentation is permitted. Travels with My Aunt was the first of three late Cukor films to examine old age and its particular problems involving sexuality and failing powers, memory and regret.

Cukor became one of the few veteran theatrical feature film directors to work in made-for-television movies, shooting Love among the Ruins for the ABC television network in 1975. Laurence Olivier plays a lawyer who defends aging star Katharine Hepburn in a breach-of-promise suit. In this ironic reversal of the standard gold-digging plot the courtroom becomes the stage on which subjective visions of beauty and sex appeal vie to be called the truth. The film received an Emmy Award. The Corn Is Green (1979), another television movie, was Cukor’s last collaboration with Hepburn, who plays an aging mentor to a talented youth. It was also Cukor’s last treatment of the Pygmalion situation. His final film, Rich and Famous (1981), shot for MGM, made Cukor Hollywood’s oldest working filmmaker. He died in Los Angeles two years later.

Of the Hollywood directors whose careers began with sound, Cukor is unique. For five decades he directed memorable films with noted performances. He was MGM’s leading filmmaker throughout the studio era, and he made use of all the major cinematic trends of the poststudio era. His collaborations with actors and writers were some of the most productive in the history of Hollywood. Cukor’s characteristic situations, his focus on the role of women in society, and his exploration of questions of sexuality from youth to old age have kept his films relevant to modern audiences. Able to balance a surface of romantic comedy with an underlying treatment of serious personal and social issues, and exemplifying a traditional, sophisticated style but willing to adapt innovative technique and technology, Cukor exemplified the virtues of the classic Hollywood filmmaker of the studio era.

Bibliography

Cukor’s personal papers and letters are on deposit at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. George Cukor, A Double Life (1991), a biography by Patrick McGilligan, is the best source on his film career; it also examines his private life and includes a well-researched discussion of his homosexuality. Cukor is the subject of several book-length studies, including Gary Carey’s Cukor & Co. (1971); Carlos Clarens’s George Cukor (1976); Gene D. Phillips’s George Cukor (1982), which contains the most-detailed discussions of the films; and Emanuel Levy’s George Cukor, Master of Elegance (1994). James Bernardoni, George Cukor: A Critical Study and Filmography (1985), analyzes eight films from throughout Cukor’s career. Allen Estrin, The Hollywood Professionals, vol. 6, Frank Capra, George Cukor, Clarence Brown (1980), presents the director’s themes concisely and briefly discusses many of his key films. Cukor was interviewed on numerous occasions; Gavin Lambert’s On Cukor (1972) has the most-complete published interview. Jonathan Kuntz, “The Films of George Cukor” (Ph.D. diss., UCLA, 1982), contains a detailed discussion of virtually every one of Cukor’s films.