The George Cukor Story

Having mentioned him a couple of dozen times on this blog, today some attention for George Dewey Cukor (1899-1983). “Cukor” is Hungarian for sugar, an apt brand, given how so many of his movies are loved. Cukor’s middle name is the same as my grandfather’s, as it happens. In both cases, it was in honor of Admiral George Dewey, hero of the Spanish-American War.

Cukor was Jewish and grew up on the Lower East Side; his father was a lawyer. He was interested in the theatre from earliest childhood, and had an uncle who frequently brought him to see spectacles at Broadway’s most lavish venue the New York Hippodrome. As a teenager he worked as a super at the Met and began to set his sights on a life in the theatre despite his parents’ preference he study law. After brief military service at the end of WWI, he got a job as a bit player and ASM on a tour of The Better ‘Ole, a springboard for employment as a stage manager (and then general manager) for summer stock and touring companies throughout New York State in the early 1920s. By 1925, he’d formed his own company in Rochester, whose sometime members included Bette Davis, Frank Morgan, Louis Calhern, Benny Baker, and Reginald Owen. His first Broadway show as director was Antonia (1925) starring Marjorie Rambeau, followed by the original stage adaptation of The Great Gatsby (1926). Next came The Dark (1927) starring Calhern; Trigger (1927) with Walter Connolly, Minor Watson, and Natalie Schafer (Now best remembered as “Lovey” from Gilligan’s Island); then A Free Soul (1928) with Melvyn Douglas; The Furies (1928) with Laurette Taylor and Estelle Winwood; Young Love (1928) with Dorothy Gish; and Maxwell Anderson’s Gypsy (1929) with Calhern, Wallace Ford, et al.

By this stage, talkies were in full force in Hollywood and Cukor heeded the Siren’s call. He initially worked as a dialogue director, then co-directed a couple of features, and then became one of Hollywood’s most sought after and lauded directors. Kaufman and Ferber’s The Royal Family of Broadway was one of the pictures he co-directed in 1930, an apt beginning since he was to work with John Barrymore several times, and would later own Sargent’s famous portrait of Ethel. Cukor’s A Bill of Divorcement (1932) paired John with Katharine Hepburn (in her first film). Hepburn loved working with Cukor so much he would direct her in nine more features over nearly five decades.

A gay man, Cukor became known as a “Woman’s Director” for his sensitivity and understanding in working with female stars, although he resisted the characterization. His 1932 film What Price Hollywood? is often cited as the template for the many versions of A Star is Born. In 1954 he would direct his own musical version of the yarn starring Judy Garland. (He’d turned down the opportunity to direct the 1937 version). Other enduring classics from the ’30s that benefitted from Cukor’s sure hand included Dinner at Eight (1933), Little Women (1933), David Copperfield (1935), Romeo and Juliet (1936), Camille (1936), Holiday (1938) and Zaza (1938). In the incredible year of 1939 he worked briefly on The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, and was dismissed from both but went on to direct the all-star The Women (1939) and The Philadelphia Story (1940).

During World War Two, Cukor enlisted in the army, making training films at the old Paramount studio in Astoria Queens. Some of his later films include Gaslight (1944), Adam’s Rib (1949), Born Yesterday (1950), Pat and Mike (1952), A Star is Born (1954), Heller in Pink Tights (1960, although he disavowed the final cut), Let’s Make Love (1960), Something’s Got to Give (1962, Marilyn Monroe’s aborted final film), My Fair Lady (1964, for which he won an Oscar), Justine (1969), and Travels with My Aunt (1972). In 1976 he helmed the first U.S.-U.S.S.R. co-production, an all-star adaptation of Maeterlinck’s The Blue Bird. The 1979 TV movie The Corn is Green, was his last film with Hepburn. His own last film was Rich and Famous (1981), featuring Candice Bergen and Jacqueline Bisset, a remake of Old Acquaintance (1943), which had starred Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins.

We’ve mentioned Hepburn and Davis in connection with Cukor. Other female stars he was associated with include Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, and Norma Shearer. Some in his gay social set included David Manners and Richard Cromwell; and he is credited with discovering the immortal Nancy Kulp! That by itself would be legacy enough for a lifetime.

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