I love it when my dreams cooperate with my fantasy life. I woke up this morning from a dream in which I was attending a glamorous 1930s movie premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Please? I remember talking with a very young and beautiful Katharine Hepburn and film director George Cukor.
I read yesterday that it was George Cukor’s birthday so I’m sure that info was dialed in to my subconscious. Many of Cukor’s films had gala premieres at Grauman’s. One that I read about happened on August 30, 1933, nearly 80 years ago! It was for his first all-star hit, “Dinner at Eight.” I don’t think this delicious film gets the acclaim that it deserves. Reading about the gala premiere makes me wish I could jettison back in time. Actor Walter Huston (father of John, grandfather of Anjelica) acted as the M.C. at the Chinese Theatre for some reason and he brought onto the stage some of the brightest stars of the day: Jean Harlow, Marie Dressler, John and Lionel Barrymore, and Billie Burke, as well as MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer and his son-in-law, David O. Selznick, the producer of the film. If you look at photos of George Cukor at the time, he bore an odd resemblance to Selznick, his partner for many incredible films. Later, in the 1940s, Cukor lost a lot of weight and his hair turned gray and he looked completely different.
Although she is renowned as the original Blonde Bombshell, does Jean Harlow get the credit she deserves today for being such a brilliant actress? She comes close to stealing the picture, not an easy feat with that cast. Here’s a quick look at what the folks at Grauman’s were treated to so many years ago:
Cukor would have turned 112 yesterday. Good God, I remember him well from my childhood, he was directing films well into his 80s. Were he still alive, he probably would have thrown one of the lavish parties he was so famous for. His homosexuality was a very open secret in Hollywood at the time. While not officially “out,” he never played the game that his gay actor friends had to suffer through in pretending he was straight. There were a handful of scandals about his sexuality over the years, even an arrest for "vice" that was promptly squashed by the powerful studio PR folks.
I doubt there’s a director who is responsible for more Oscar nominations (21). His roster of stars included close friend Katharine Hepburn (they made 10 films together) along with Joan Crawford, Spencer Tracy, Norma Shearer, Cary Grant, Greta Garbo, Claudette Colbert, Deborah Kerr, Jimmy Stewart, Judy Holliday, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, and so many others.
Cukor hated his label as a “woman’s director” and despite being saddled with this reputation, he managed to coax some of the best performances out of many of Hollywood’s biggest male stars. David O. Selznick hired him to direct “Gone With the Wind” before the book was even published and he worked tirelessly on the project for several years before being famously fired shortly after filming began. Rumors circulated that Clark Gable was responsible for the firing, with the idea that he couldn't relate to Cukor’s “gay sensibility,” but more recent research reveals that it was mostly due to clashes between Cukor and Selznick regarding the script and direction of the film. Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland were apparently so devastated by the loss of Cukor on the difficult film that both continued to meet with him secretly for one-on-one coaching.
It was great luck for movie history that Cukor was fired from “Gone With the Wind” because a week after he left that film he was hired to direct one of his greatest masterpieces, MGM’s “The Women,” one of the best films ever to come out of that studio.
As was Cukor's “The Philadelphia Story” the following year. I could write a whole post about each of George Cukor’s 65 films—and I probably will some day. Other personal favorites of his include “David Copperfield,” “Gaslight,” "Adam's Rib," “Born Yesterday,” “It Should Happen to You,” and “My Fair Lady.” Sigh. Where are the movies like that today?
My mother- and father-in-law had the honor of being in Cukor’s very last film, 1981’s “Rich and Famous” starring Candice Bergen and Jacqueline Bissett. There was a party scene in that film that took place at the Algonquin Hotel in New York (courtesy of an exact replica built on the MGM lot) and Cukor thought it would be fun to populate the party with real writers. At one point in this scene you can see Bergen exclaiming, “Betsy! Oliver! So good to see you again!”
George Cukor directed a famous film version of “Romeo and Juliet” 75 years ago starring Leslie Howard as Romeo and 32-year-old (oy!) Norma Shearer as Juliet. I’m about to dash off to a 50th anniversary screening of a different adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragic tale of young love, “West Side Story,” at the Hollywood Bowl, just a few blocks north of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. The Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra will be playing the entire score live on stage as the film is projected overhead. There’s nothing like seeing a classic film with 18,000 other fans, it should be an evening worthy of the old premieres of my dreams.