Archive for George Cukor

The Sound of Beau Belle

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 23, 2022 by dcairns

Rewatched MY FAIR LADY and loved it up until that ending.

(Beautifully designed, of course, by Cecil Beaton, and Rex Harrison on top form, and Audrey I think is GOOD but it’s a shame her singing is dubbed. Incredibly, they get away with having her sing a bit in her own voice, then go through a door and Marni Nixon is pouring out of her throat on the other side. And it sort of works.

Still, Audrey must have been looking at Sexy Rexy and thinking, How come he gets away with speak-singing his lines, and I have to be revoiced by a complete stranger?)

Looked back at Asquith’s PYGMALION and it’s the same, only different.

Asquith made his film while George Bernard Shaw was still alive. Shaw was adamant that Eliza Dolittle shouldn’t end up with Professor Higgins. He had his reasons worked out. Higgins, he wrote, had an impossibly strong and perfect mother, and no lover or wife could hope to live up to that. But, though the Higgins mother is indeed impressive when we meet her, I don’t think we necessarily draw that conclusion. Our objection to the romantic pairing is mainly that Higgins has treated Eliza abominably and there’s little reason to think he can change. And there’s no indication that Eliza LIKES being treated like a dog. It doesn’t have the shuddersome taboo quality of MARTHA or even THE SEVENTH VEIL.

On the other hand, the audience is strongly influenced by the fact that the two spend the whole film sparring, and in the romantic comedy genre that usually means they end up together. Both titles, that of the original play and that of the musical, imply that this is to be a love story. Eliza has another, arguably more suitable romantic interest, but he gets very little time to make an impression, so we are tempted to file him under S for schnook. Even when he’s played by the highly suitable Jeremy Brett and gets a glorious song, The Street Where You Live, it’s hard for him to acquire the necessary weight. He’s also somewhat ineffectual, but in Shaw’s mind, that was why he’d be a good match for the powerhouse that is Miss Dolittle. She could run him efficiently, which is what he needs. But the audience doesn’t necessarily make the leap to that conclusion.

So neither partner seems quite suitable. It’d certainly be difficult for a rewrite to make Higgins seem like a reformed character, and while GBS was on the scene, such a thing was unthinkable. In this light, Asquith’s solution was pretty clever.

He has Eliza (Wendy Hiller) return to Higgins (Leslie Howard). Higgins, taking her return entirely for granted, tells her to fetch his slippers, like a dog. Asquith shoots this from Eliza’s point of view, so the film ends on the back of HH’s head. We never see her reaction.

SOMEHOW Asquith got GBS, who had script approval on all films of his work, to sign off on this. I think he managed it b reusing the slippers line from earlier in the play, so there are no words here GBS hasn’t written, and by not showing Eliza’s reaction he could argue that it’s entirely possible that she storms off in a huff two seconds after The End fades out. It’s highly unlikely that most audience members would reach any conclusion other than that HH and ED were to be married, but a tinge of plausible deniability has been preserved.

George Cukor, filming MY FAIR LADY, doesn’t go in for ending on close-ups, and certainly not close-ups of the backs of people’s heads. One of his great qualities is his withholding of clpse-ups for the longest possible time, so that they really have an impact, but another of his great qualities is his theatricality. He ends the scene with a wide shot Audrey Hepburn standing in the doorway, Rex sitting smugly in his armchair, waiting for the curtain to fall. Audrey steps slowly towards him, accepting her fate. The fact that we’ve seen Rex’s self-satisfaction rather than the back of his hat, and his head tilting the other way, and Audrey’s look of docile adoration, changes this from a cunning bodge to a full-fledged betrayal of GBS’ intentions and an endorsement of male supremacy. Rex must have been happy about that, and I guess Audrey just went with the flow.

So I think that ending isn’t likely to be a popular one anymore, it certainly felt like a cold slap to us. A lot of really enjoyable old movies end with unacceptable pairings. We just watched BEAUTY AND THE BOSS, and rooted for the girl to wind up with David Manners, only for her to go for Warren William, on a double bill with CROONER, in which we rooted for the girl to wind up with Ken Murray, only for her to wind up with David Manners.

There’s a good modern dress Dutch film of PYGMALION, made the year before Asquith’s. At the end of this one, when HH gives Eliza (the excellent Lily Bouwmeester) an errand, she has a ready reply:

MY FAIR LADY stars Holly Golightly; Julius Caesar; Pendlebury; Crabbin; Mrs. Henry Vale; Sherlock Holmes; Rance Muhammitz / Dave; Matron – Staff; Angelica Muir; Ayesha; Garbitsch; Mrs. Cratchit; Alfred the butler; and Og Oggilby.

Hollywood and/or Bust

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on January 1, 2022 by dcairns

Lowell Sherman, something of a forgotten star (he died too young) is wonderful in Cukor’s WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD?. So is Constance Bennett, who is better remembered, if not necessarily for the right film/s. Neil Hamilton does everything right except having any kind of charm or charisma. He’s actually very capable, but we couldn’t like him, which is maybe the defining distinction between an actor and a star.

The story was by Adela Rogers St John, who knew the Hollywood scene inside out as journalist and scenarist. And then you can add Rowland Brown, who also directed a few great pictures, the first writer-director of the sound era, excepting Chaplin; and Gene Fowler, Hollywood animal, and five other people. It definitely definitely doesn’t take eight people to write a good movie. It might help if you’re making a terrible movie, but this isn’t a terrible movie. It is a little uneven, and declines in interest whenever Sherman isn’t about, but the behind-the-scenes view of Hollywood is fantastic. Even this little stair leading between screening room and projection booth feels completely real. It easily could be, of course, but I bet they built it, because after all, this is Hollywood.

Lots of good lines, but every now and then there’s something better than a good line, something truer, like when Sherman is advised to stop drinking: “And be bored all the time?” he asks.

Visually, it still feels a lot like a pre-boom movie, tied to the microphone, but it isn’t, not in 1932. And the angles are better, because it’s a single-camera job and so they’re able to shoot everything from the proper spot, instead of compromising. There are only a half-dozen or so camera moves. But it’s not staid: there’s some wild fast cutting when Bennett, leaving the church after getting married to Hamilton, is mobbed by fans; Slavko Vorkapich provides a stardom montage. A rendition of Parlze-Moi D’Amour by Bennett is fragmented by cutaways of the whole apparatus of the studio set-up. And the suicide scene features experimental sound, flash-cuts, and slow-motion, an avant-garde tour de force.

What seems very typical of Cukor, even at this early stage of his film career, is that he can use an actor like Sherman who is very technical and full of schtick, and USE that to create a living human being. I mean, Sherman was very talented (pretty good director himself) and could breathe life into characters elsewhere with the same techniques, but there’s something extra here. Everyone here is typecast, but they transcend their types. (A shame Louise Beavers’ part is so true to racial stereotype, though.)

The funny (clever) thing is that Sherman’s role plays as comic relief through most of the film, but is the real tragedy, upstaging Bennett’s romantic drama or career travails.

WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD? stars Marion Kerby; Greville Sartoris; Commissioner Gordon; Max Fabian; The College Cad; Delilah Johnson; Little Joe Jackson; Dr. Henry Jekyll / Mr. Hyde; Bill Grimes; Detective Grimes; Mr. Hall; and Mr.Clink – Purser.

The Esther Blodgett Story

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 31, 2021 by dcairns

George Cukor’s mutilated musical masterpiece A STAR IS BORN is so gorgeous it makes it hard to choose anything to watch afterwards — such an excess of beauty is hard to top. In the end we went for a Japanese movie, since the aesthetics seemed a good match, but THE MYSTERY OF EDOGAWA RAMPO proved unsatisfying by comparison.

William Wellman “originated” the story of A STAR IS BORN for the Gaynor-March version, but he kind of stole it from Cukor’s earlier WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD, so it seems only fair for Cukor to steal it back. You can argue that it’s a story of male fragility by the very macho Wellman (whose actress wife gave up her career for him): Norman Maine is relentlessly humiliated by his wife’s success, and when he kills himself she responds with self-abnegation: “Mrs. Norman Maine.” But even in the earlier version, though the co-dependent dynamic is clear, the thing doesn’t play as misogynistic or even particularly chauvinistic. And Cukor’s writer, Moss Hart, resolves the one glitch in the earlier version, where Lionel Stander’s press agent suddenly becomes a louse for one scene in order to drive our anti-hero back to drink. As played by Jack Carson in the musical, his behaviour is consistent throughout: he’s merely kicking a man when he’s down, Standard Operational Procedure in the studio system.

Festive Charles Bickford

Fiona did find the film overly long, with too many numbers, but this wasn’t Cukor’s fault. In Gavin Lambert’s interview book GC reports that, even as the studio was fussing that the movie was too long, they were adding the “Born in a Trunk” number, making it longer. Cukor had insisted he could “sweat out” twenty minutes via small trims, but this wasn’t allowed: whole scenes of character development got the chop.

So the restoration, which puts those scenes back, some of them as sepia-tinted stills, some as out-of-sync combinations of different outtakes, is way longer than Cukor ever intended it. A truer restoration would keep “Born in a Trunk” as an extra feature, and the film might play better, but that wasn’t an option back in 1983 when the restoration was done. And then again, that sequence is maybe the most stunning in the film —

(Sadly, Cukor died the night before he was scheduled to view test shots of the restoration.)

Stunning performances from James Mason and Judy Garland, as you’d expect, but more surprising, Cukor gets people like Jack Carson, Tommy Noonan and Grady Sutton to drop or modulate their usual schtick and approach sideways the portrayal of recognisable humans. It’s amazing to watch: like the moment in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS when Cary Guffey’s toys come to life.

Lambert praises this shot:

Cukor tells him it was essential, since there WAS NO BEACH HOUSE. Just a studio set and a beach location. Artful use of reflections helps sell the illusion. The sound design is also stunning here: as Judy sings, Mason heads into the surf. We expect her voice to grow more distant but remain audible: boldly, the filmmakers allow it to diminish until its being completely drowned by the waves, just cutting through a little in between each roar. Tremendously effective, and, like so much else in the film, atypical of the period.

I was interested in how tended to Cukor keep the various film director characters out of shot. The chap barking instructions to Mason from a boat is cut off at the neck. Garland’s auteurs are shadowy backviews. And then suddenly one of them is seen full-frontal, so I wondered if I were reading too much into Cukor’s stated tendency to “shoot the money.” But then there’s the movie-within-the-movie number with clusters of literally faceless suits, so I’m inclined to think there WAS a deeper plan.

A STAR IS BORN stars Dorothy Gale; Prof. Humbert Humbert; Wally Fay; Black MacDonald; Gus Esmond Jr.; Walt Spoon; Dr. Bulfinch; Sweetface; Coroner Wilbur Strong; Detective Dickens; The Dear One; Coffer; Big Bertha; Johnny Portugal; Wainscoat; and Og Oggilby.