George Cukor: Just squeezing it out of other people

From hungarian-jewish family dinners, George Cukor acquired the lifelong habit of urging people to have a second helping, because that is, what his grandmother always did. Well, I think he sticked to it doing so not only during his famous dinners later in Hollywood but also while directing his actors. For me there is always a refreshing „little-to-much“ about his work that I always loved and felt close to. If you have the feeling that life out there ows you something, then the only way to get it is to become an artist. Literally squeezing it out of other people that cross your way. But Cukor was the kind that empowers and boosts the persons concerned and squeezing them afterwards, again. A richer harvest was the result. East Sixty-Eight Street was not a particulary Jewish neighbourhood, nor was George Dewey Cukor (1899-1983) raised in a devout religious fashion. I believe in the importance of historical and political backgrounds within certain artwork is developed and created. We have four fundamental conditions during Cukors earlier working years on stage and in filmbusiness: His teenage years while growing up in New York City in a jewish-hungarian family, WW I was clearly a topic (1914-1918); the prohibition in the USA (1920-1933); the collapse of the stock market in 1929 and last but not least the Hays code, starting lightly in 1930 before it turned to an obligatory basis in 1934 and faced its ending in 1967.

„In the beginning, alcohol brings you to life. And pretty soon the game starts and you think clear as crystal, but every move and every sentence is a problem. Well, that gets pretty interesting…“

New York City, 1933

With Cukor’s work we can take a look at the whole field of drinking, including problematic behaviours („I don’t have a problem with alcohol. It is them having a problem with me when I am drunk.“) and the full range of human sensitivities starting with drinking for fun, drinking of boredom, pretended conflict resolution, group affiliation, sadness and finally completing with self-distruct mechanism. In the manner of representation and the psychological factors Cukor is able to contemplate the absolutely not irrelevant gender differences when it comes to the delicate handling of drunkenness. Many of Cukor’s films feature chronic alcoholics: the director Maximilian Carey (Lowell Sherman) in What Price Hollywood?, the actor Larry Renault (John Barrymore) in Dinner at Eight, Ned Seton (Lew Ayres) in Holiday, a totally rattled Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) in The Philadelphia Story, we have of course the film star Norman Maine (Mason) in A Star is Born. Sybil Wren (Kay Kendall) does a few tragical scenes in Les Girls, but for me Alfred P. Doolittle (Stanley Holloway) in My Fair Lady is the ultimate „Cukor“-drunk.

„Oh, I have to live for others now, not for myself. Middle-class morality.“

Like costumes, make-up and setting, alcohol can almost play a part in a film, informing us about functional values in the plot and also about characterisations and class affiliations. It is easy to see that champagne is seen as a symbol of elegance and romance, you even need some elegant and slender glasses to drink it. Champagne got its aura of romance and european decadence. And because of its sweetness it seems mostly reserved for the female characters. So it is an interesting question which character in a movie is supposed to drink alcohol, because it is absolutely an additional layer of characterisation. Whiskey, I think is a little more tricky: the proper glasses are heavy and seem to be best placed smashed against a wall or into a fireplace, if not into faces. Whiskey is more on the nervous and „heavy side“, its colour is more visible and taking a sip of that throat-scatching liquid gives the actor or actress the opportunity to make faces and to stimulate and to prepare the next physical moves. Alcohol can have different meanings in delineating characters and plot. But also with Cukor the several aspects of drinking alcohol and how that is able to establish the spirit of a film are presented as explicit and conscious issues which does not necessarily represent „real-life conditions“.

„I thought all writers drank to excess and beat their wives. You know one time, I think I secretly wanted to be a writer.“

Dinner at Eight

Anyhow a character drinking alcohol can be introduced and seen as not fully and reliable in control of his or her behaviour. I would even go so far to submit that Cukor seemed to have a preference for watching „his characters“ loosing control. Of course Cukor is also interested in establishing a connection between drinking and sexual behaviour; alcohol is a very simple „escape artist“ and dynamic drive at te same time. Until the late 1920s any drinking woman was clearly established as immoral. So for Cukor, spending his years of apprenticeship on and behind stage it was easy to give his female leads the air of wickedness by letting them drink and as culmination: practicing the profession of an actress. The drinking of course had to be joined by smoking and dancing, if possible.

„I’m drunk – and I know I’m drunk but I know what I’m talking about.“

Obviously Cukor was aware of the fact that it is easy to laugh at the boozer, starting with the age of the silent movies, where the boozers with their rolling and reeling and staggering, and their unwieldness never failed to make the audience laugh lustily. Tipsiness in comedies is usually ment to be hilarious and drinking is seen as an escape from unswayable destiny or the inhability to major changes. Cukors drunks seem mostly to be real (he himself was known as a moderat drinker). If you would meet one of them on the street or in a bar you might still be laughing or at least smirking. But in A Star is Born we discover that those who have had to pick up after the likable drunk may have become immune to ones charmes, because „I got you out of jams because I was paid, not because I liked you“. It is not the only film where we can see the trait of ummunity to decorum picked up, often with strong negative reactions by sober participants in the scene. We have experienced Judy Garland as such a strong character that the shockeffect is tremendous when he slapped her into her face because of his drunken unfocussed self-pity. But watching her taking care of him and acting firmly in front of the dressed-up crowed we call that shock into question. But Cukor’s assured handling of dialogues gives the film a uniformity that is rare among productions of this period. If Garland can obviously handle it why shouldn’t I, me standing on the sidelines?

„I would sell my grandmother for a drink – and you know how I love my grandmother!“

Cukor was, so we can say, used to alcohol, surrounded by it in family affairs and later two of his closest friends happen to be alcoholics: Spencer Tracy and John Barrymore. Tracy shared with him the bitterness of their looks, both hated their own appearance and I call it wry humour that they both were so successful in a business where „looks“ and „beauty“ seem to be the most important thing. Tracy with his thick red hair, freckles all over white skin and bad teeth. Cukor himself was sparing in his use of liquor but struggled for much of his life with his weight and was subject to emotional volatility. But his own disruptive side of his personality he somehow managed to hold in balance. His understanding of the human psyche ensures that people are rarely reduced to stereotypes in his movies, but are three-dimensional human beings with unpredictable emotions and behaviour:

„Anyone who looked at something special, in a very original way, makes you see it that way forever.“