George Cukor often seems like the great Hollywood auteur hiding in plain sight, obscured on the one hand by international icons such as John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock and, on the other hand, by cult heroes such as Raoul Walsh and Allan Dwan. A filmmaker of greater refinement than many of his contemporaries, he made elegant, sophisticated films with an unmistakable visual style. This week the streaming channel FilmStruck moves Cukor front and center as its featured director, offering up a generous selection of his films; we’ve bypassed the three most iconic (The Women, The Philadelphia Story, and A Star Is Born) in favor of five others that demonstrate his artistry and range.
What Price Hollywood?
Cukor’s 1932 film is often counted as a prototype of A Star Is Born with its story of a director (Lowell Sherman) who sinks into alcoholism as his discovery (Constance Bennett) rises through the Hollywood ranks. It’s one of Cukor’s most interesting early films, effortlessly shifting from satire to pathos. Sherman, a director in real life (he won an Academy Award for Katharine Hepburn with Morning Glory), gives a wrenchingly prophetic performance; he was to die two years later. 88 min.—Dave Kehr
The Dumas story of a tubercular courtesan is a classic only in its unrelenting morbidity, but Cukor makes it work, accenting the oozing romantic fatalism with marvelously fresh open-air sequences and lively playing (1936). Garbo, away for once from the stultifying Clarence Brown, gives her most vivid, intimate performance; she’s no longer part of the elegant MGM decor but a human being with a life of her own. Cukor gives her the close-ups she deserves: immaculately lit and framed, but loose enough to give her some breathing room, to let her exercise an independent will. With Robert Taylor, Lionel Barrymore, and Henry Daniell; photographed by William Daniels. 109 min.—Dave Kehr
Cukor carefully avoids the obvious effects in telling this story of a husband (Charles Boyer) attempting to drive his wife (Ingrid Bergman) insane; instead, this 1944 film is one of the few psychological thrillers that is genuinely psychological, depending on subtle clues—a gesture, an intonation—to thought and character. Boyer and Bergman are superb, and Angela Lansbury makes her debut as a cunning cockney maid. It’s also one of the few films to expand the use of offscreen space, not simply to the sides of the frame, but to the areas above and below the image as well. With Joseph Cotten and Dame May Whitty. 114 min.—Dave Kehr
Cukor’s gracious 1949 comedy about a lady lawyer (Katharine Hepburn) married to a district attorney (Spencer Tracy) and what happens when they find themselves on opposite sides of a shooting trial. The film is a classic, and deservedly so: the conjunction of Tracy’s sly listlessness and Hepburn’s stridency defines “chemistry” in the movies. Nor are there any slouches in the supporting cast; it includes Tom Ewell, Judy Holliday, David Wayne, and Jean Hagen, all superb. 101 min.—Dave Kehr
Andrew Sarris has called this 1957 semimusical, adapted by John Patrick from a Vera Caspary novel, Cukor’s version of Rashomon. As in the famous Kurosawa film, flashbacks relate alternate versions of the same story—which involves the relationship of three show girls (Kay Kendall, Mitzi Gaynor, and Taina Elg) to hoofer Gene Kelly in a Paris setting. Nicely handled, and one of the better examples of Cukor’s flair for ‘Scope framing (after A Star Is Born and Bhowani Junction), although the Cole Porter songs aren’t very memorable; Kendall is a particular delight. 114 min.—Jonathan Rosenbaum