Cukor x 2

I’m glad to have George Cukor’s 1964 “My Fair Lady” on Blu-ray, even if it does seem to be a tired-looking transfer of the Robert A. Harris restoration from 1994, but I’m more grateful to the Warner Archive Collection for remastering Cukor’s often overlooked late work “Travels with My Aunt,” a frequently brilliant adaptation of a minor novel by Graham Greene. The screenplay is credited to Jay Presson Allen and Hugh Wheeler, but Allen told Patrick McGilligan, in his “Backstory 3: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1960s,” that the script was entirely the work of Katharine Hepburn, with the exception of one speech Allen didn’t identify.

Hepburn, of course, was originally set to play the part that ultimately went to Maggie Smith, and while Smith’s performance is problematical, at least the casting of a younger actress made possible the stunning flashback sequences, which give the film its heart and soul. Cukor will probably be forever typed as an “actor’s director,” but the “Train Bleu” sequence alone in “Travels” seems sufficient proof that he was one of the medium’s great visual storytellers, an absolute master of blocking and framing.

My New York Times review is here.

87 comments to Cukor x 2

  • Barry Putterman

    Robert, it is quite possible that Andy Williams had something to do with the recordings on TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. He was at Warners at the time. The Williams Brothers are clearly among the folks singing around the piano in JANIE.

    What seems likely to me is that Warners had Williams record the song as a hedge against a possible Bacall fiasco, and only the good folks in the sound mixing department knew exactly what we heard in the film.

    A happy Thanksgiving to one and all!

  • Alex Hicks

    Robert Regan.

    A “look at James Naremore’s Acting in the Cinema” sound like a great idea. Thanks.

    Patrick.

    For what it’s worth, I didn’t like HOLIDAY much until I realized i was judging it as a failed romantic comedy rather than the one-of-a-kind comedic-dramatic invention that it is. Now I like it quite a lot

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    I find it difficult to accept the possibility that anyone could detest HOLIDAY but then everything is possible. Would like to hear somme reasons though.

    Blake was so right in mentioning Audrey’s singing of ‘HOW lONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON” in FUNNY FACE,to me one of the great moments of this or any other musical, and Hepburn doesn’t sound at all like someone who “can’t sing.” Actually her singing voice is marvellous, even though, fortunately, she is not the kind of belter Broadway loves so much. Similar feelings here about Gardner in SHOW BOAT (and MOGAMBO).

  • Thanks Barry, I’ve been too occupied with putting together the final draft of my thesis (and studying Taiwanese cinema).

    Today I re-watched HELLER IN PINK TIGHTS. It was better than I remembered it to be. Anthony Quinn and Sophia Loren are beautiful together and the sound is used very cleverly, with off-screen sound and echo effects. But it is mainly the magnificent interior scenes that makes the film. The cinematography is breathtaking, with warm, red tones, together with the yellow misty light from the gas lamps. Some scenes are in the Rembrandt school of cinematography, and if I didn’t know it was Harold Lipstein who was DP my guess would have been John Alton.

    It also has a line which sums up much of what Cukor’s films are about. An older woman asks Loren’s character what she is. She says she’s an actress. The woman replies “Well, we’re all actresses ain’t we dearie?”

  • Mark Hazard

    A great Cukor movie that so far has gone unmentioned is “Dinner at Eight.” A part of the movie that has always stood out for me is the long scene that takes place in John Barrymore’s hotel room. The scene by itself is a one-act play, that begins with the final gestures of Barrymore’s self-destructive egotism in the face of his agent, Lee Tracy, trying to get him some kind of acting job, and ends with the Barrymore character carefully staging the lighting for his suicide. Cukor takes such care with this scene, giving Barrymore the time to work out each phase of his reactions and realizations that lead to the moment when he arranges his arm just so on his smoking jacket, closes his eyes, and takes a couple of deep breaths.

  • Richard Klein

    I recommend “It Should Happen to You,” perhaps not among Cukor’s most widely known films. In a crowded Manhattan restaurant, replete with blaring TV, Cukor frames a Judy Holliday/Jack Lemmon “duet” to perfection. In the midst of the tumult, Cukor captures a very sensual Judy Holliday, canoodling and singing “Let’s Fall in Love” with Jack Lemmon on the piano. It is an engaging counterpoint of Holliday and Lemmon expressing sharp differences of opinion; alternating with joyful partaking of this Harold Arlen classic. You sense their mutual pleasure of the music, and of one another. It is pure Cukor: a scene that looks improvised and spontaneous, but is actually well rehearsed. Cukor creates a platform for his performers to fully express their charms.

  • Alex

    NPR’s recent bit on “My Week with Marilyn” presented it as a dramatization of the clash between acting schools, Olivier’s Brit tweaked version of the Coquelin “external acting” tradition and Monroe’s then intense passion for the Lee Strassberg’s strand of the Stanislavsky tradition.

  • Alex

    From acting to editorial directorial voice:

    Watching “Point Blank” on TV yesterday, I took note of its character as an early instance of the New Wave(or Bordwellian “art film”) inspired “New American Cinema” of 1967-1975: took note that it was relased in August, 1967, only a couple of weeks after the orthodix history’s seminal “Bonnie and Clyde.” Why “Point Blank” is overlooked I’m unsure, for it clearly harkens back to the directorial time-shuffling composition of “Hiroshima Mon Amour” (complete with very non-psychologically motivated flash forwards). Perhaps, the film is neglected in film history out of mixed regard (e.g., I think it’s a masterpiece, but it’s return to Alcatraz for it’s finale is a bit far fetch in terms of characyter motivation). If so, setting a high bar for films highlighted as historically innovators may be justified (e.g., Lumet’s “The Pawnbrooker” was markedly Resnais-like back in 1964 –and who’d one that leaden, overwrought concoction littering film history?)

  • I just watched “Point Blank” yesterday too as part of a remake series in Toronto organized by the AV Club, which played “Point Blank” along with Brian Helgeland’s dumb “Payback” – both adaptations of Richard Stark’s pulp thriller “The Hunter”.
    “Point Blank” is very oneiric, you can tell why a director like Apichatpong would really like it and the films of John Boorman.
    Amongst the cinephiles that I know the following Classical Hollywood directors who started incorporating “art film” techniques like Penn, Boorman, Lumet and Siegel are all held in equal high esteem. Why is Point Blank “overlooked” and is not more culturally well-known, I am not so sure…

  • Some architectural features run through Cukor.

    One of the most noticeable:
    Suite of interconnecting rooms on multiple levels:
    hotel suites: Born Yesterday,
    railway offices: Bhowani Junction,
    apartment: Les Girls

    Some related environments:
    exteriors on multi-levels: Pat and Mike,
    apartment and lobby: It Should Happen to You,
    “I Could Have Danced All Night” on stair landings: My Fair Lady

    There is also Cukor’s interest in ceilings:
    Vertical pans, to roofs of theaters (The Actress, A Star Is Born)

    shots of ceilings:
    skylight: Gaslight,
    Capitol: Born Yesterday,
    temple: Bhowani Junction

    related: pan up to TV monitor showing commercial: It Should Happen to You

  • Interesting Alex, especially if one also looks at the acting within MWWM (its sole bright spot, imo), with Branagh’s highly skilled mimicry contrasted with Williams’ more physical manifestation. Neither looks too much like their role, but each finds a good entry point, regardless.

  • For all the brouhaha about BONNIE AND CLYDE, POINT BLANK feels much more like a “new” film.

    DINNER AT EIGHT is great, the framing and the acting always keeps it at the right side of stagey-ness. And the last scene is prizeless. Jean Harlow’s character says “Did you know the guy said machinery will take the place of every profession?” to which Marie Dressler’s character, after looking over Harlow’s body, replies “Oh my dear, that’s something you need never worry about.”

  • Alex

    David D.,

    Which “Hollywood directors who started incorporating ‘art film’ techniques” did you have in mind? Don Siegel? If so, for which films? (My memory and imagination aren’t getting me anywhere on this aspect of artful Don Sioegel, if he’s the right lead.)

  • For example, some people have compared “Escape from Alcatraz” to the works of Robert Bresson.

  • Alex

    I quess some comparison of “Escape from Alcatraz” to the works of Robert Bresson holds, but then I guess Penn and Lumet’s shifts toward the “art” mode (which also included “Mickey One” and the execrable “The Appointment”) were all short lived. As were Coppola’s (“The Conversation” and maybe “Rain People,” “Godfather II” and “One from the Heart”), Pakula’s (“Klute”), Altman’s (Three Women”), Lester (“Petulia”).

    (Not sure about Boorman.)

    I guess the European influence on Scorcese was strong, at least through “Raging Bull.” Perhaps Cassavetes was on a truly home grown parallel to the “art film” thoughout his career.

  • I also always saw “The Beguiled” as an attempt at an “art film” especially in contrast to the other American Civil War film Eastwood is famous for, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”. As well watching “Point Blank” all I could do is think of the similarities between it and Siegel’s “Coogan’s Bluff”. But I agree, that when one thinks of Siegel and his more famous films like “Dirty Harry” and “The Shootist” one does not see the self-consciousness of the European art-house films of the time but instead the invisible style of classical Hollywood.

  • Alex,
    I think “Point Blank” is usually overlooked because Boorman was an Englishman and this misleads people into thinking his stake in the development of the American cinema of the 1970s was lateral. (The same could be applied, possibly, to the later “Deliverance”.) But also, “Point Blank” is a much more “hardboiled”, traditional genre film than “Bonnie & Clyde”, even if Boorman’s work on it isn’t “traditional”. You could see Siegel, for instance, doing it, probably not like Boorman did.
    That actually leads into the peculiarity that some British transplants are probably unrecognised kindred spirits of the Coppola/Scorsese generation – Boorman and Lester (though an American, he was coming from British TV and cinema at the time) certainly come to mind. Also, I don’t necessarily agree there was a “self-conscious art mode” working there because I’m not sure the discrepancy was so accepted at the time – something like “THX-1138″ is more self-consciously artistic than “Point Blank” or “Petulia”:

  • D. K. Holm

    I hope that Dave isn’t being modest about his latest piece, which covers silent era movie posters, and perhaps he is working on a link package for it, but until then, here it is:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/24/movies/the-birth-of-promotion-inventing-film-publicity.html?_r=1&scp=3&sq=dave%20kehr&st=cse

  • Alex

    Jorge Mourinha,

    Interesting analysis. I didn’t mean to imply that there was a “self-conscious art mode” being implemented in “Point Blank” (or “Petulia”), just that (a) the films include techniques of director manipulation of time that go beyond the traditional flashback (e.g., flashforwards clearly unlinked to prophectic characters); that(b)these techniques reflect the directorial manipulation of time by the likes of Resnais and that (c) they are techniques that meet defining characteristicis of what some (Bordwell in particular) would come to term the “art film” (e.g., the director’s authorial “voice”).

    I assumed that a Boorman film made in the U.S. with U.S. personnnel and setting qualifies as a U.S. film, although I realize this view is hardly beyond dispute. (Ditto for Lester’s “Petulia” –all the more so as Lester was U.S. born.)

  • Shawn Stone

    Alex and Jorge,

    With regard to Lester, THE KNACK and A HARD DAY’S NIGHT seem almost as “radical” in terms of time manipulation as PETULIA. And then there’s THE BED SITTING ROOM. . . .

  • Alex,
    Agreed. What I meant was that, for these directors trained outside the American studio system, probably these techniques might not be so alien (remember that at this time British TV was a bedrock of experimentation – cf. Ken Russell much as you can dislike him). They were coming from a totally different set of parameters. For some reason British film of the period seems to have absorbed those European influences faster (also don’t forget that directors like Skolimowski and Polanski worked from the UK in the early 1960s).
    Shawn,
    Very good point. “A Hard Day’s Night” is a particular favorite of mine. But bear in mind the Lesters you quote are made in Britain, not the US.

  • Alex

    Good point about Brit experimentation: the early, 1963 influence of Resnais in “This Sporting Life,” Losey’s renaisian “Accident,” the Dolce Vitaesque “Darling,” the faux Truffaut of Richardson’s “Lonelinness of the Long Distance Runner,” the more gracefully New Wave-ish early efforts of Karel Reis, early Brit Lester –not to speak of Ken Russell.

  • In a recent pre-memorial for Christopher Hitchens, Salman Rushdie talks to the host Stephen Fry about the word games they play. One of them concerns conjuring alternative literary titles that don’t quite make it. Among the examples Rushdie gave were A Farewell to Weapons, Catcher in the Wheat, and Melville’s classic novel, Toby Dick. A similar game could be played with classic movie titles, such as Kane the Citizen, Gone with the Breeze, Bringing Up Leopards, Strangers on a Tram, or Harsh Streets. In the spirit of this thread, there is A Hard Day and Night. This “game” could be extended to the original titles proposed for now famous films. For example, would Rocky still be “iconic” if it were called The Contender, or Unforgiven if it were called The Cut-Whore Killings?

  • Oliver_C

    (Alternatively, take any movie with America/American in the title and replace it with Belgium/Belgian…)

    Personally I think The Ham Actor (Daikon Yakusha), the title originally proposed for Ozu’s (A Story of) Floating Weeds, would’ve been an unpretentious improvement.

  • D. K.,
    To keep Cukor in the mix, if Eliza Doolittle were a bus conductor should the film have been called “My Fare Lady”?

  • One of Eliza’s problems is that she started off with a job, however modest (selling flowers), and then gets changed so she can’t do it any more. But she doesn’t get a new profession.

    At the other extreme, Ursula K. LeGuin once suggested that the only serious depiction anywhere in modern literature of a woman writer… is Jo in LITTLE WOMEN. She’s an autobiographical portrait of Alcott herself, and is always scribbling up in the attic, trying to sell stories to magazines.
    One portrait of a woman writer LeGuin forgot: the heroines of the play OLD ACQUAINTANCE. And Cukor filmed that too, as RICH AND FAMOUS.
    *
    Among the pre-code Cukors, I really like TARNISHED LADY and OUR BETTERS.

    And THE BLUE BIRD is underrated. Both the Cukor and Maurice Tourneur versions have considerable merit. A hundred years ago, everyone considered Maeterlinck a major author (Nobel Prize, etc.) He’s fallen off people’s radar today. But he still has a lot of substance.

  • Alex

    Interesting observation from Ursula K. LeGuin. On exception her rule that would have preceded her observation may be Miles Franklin’s “My Brilliant Career” (if it’s “serious” enough). Post-60ish exceptions should, I think, be numerous, though I can only think of Doris Lessing’s “Golden Notebooks and A.S. Byatt’s “Possession” — nothing by an American

  • In RICH AND FAMOUS the conclusion with Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen is also a delightful entry to this blog’s recent discussion about the final scenes of directors’ final films.

  • Oliver_C

    And, alas, on the subject of finality — R.I.P. Ken Russell (though at least his enduringly controversial The Devils will finally be released on DVD next year).

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/nov/28/ken-russell-dies-aged-84

  • I always loved Ken Russell.

    The Ken Russell films that are most beautiful, and which will live the longest, are his more low key portraits of creative figures in the arts: ELGAR, SONG OF SUMMER, the glorious SAVAGE MESSIAH, MAHLER, CLOUDS OF GLORY. THE BOY FRIEND is also a delight. And his D.H. Lawrence adaptations WOMEN IN LOVE and THE RAINBOW.

    Ken Russell’s first person filmmaking, and his love of the world of creativity, should be an inspiration to us all.

  • And TOMMY, which my sister and I watched about 1,000 times on HBO back in the early 80s, and CRIMES OF PASSION, with its amazing Kathleen Turner performance. A gutsy filmmaker.

  • The thing about Russell is that if you have a middling opinion of his work, there must have been something wrong – you either love or hate his films, usually with a vengeance.
    I don’t really think someone like him would manage to have a career and do what he did in the 1960s and 1970s today. But, having said that, he really was a filmmaker of his time.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Mike, with all due respect to you and the late Mr. Russell, the last term I would use to describe MAHLER is “low key”!

    Russell’s aesthetic is I would guess the very opposite of many of this site’s regulars, and setting aside the early BBC films Mike has seen and liked, anything delicate he did would be highly unusual in the course of his feature career. In a sense his major phase (in the 1970s) forecast our future, as it is loud and busy (Michael Bay avant la lettre). (BTW I had to laugh when I saw this pullquote from Spielberg, in a Daily Telegraph interview aggregated on Movie City News: “There’s not a lot of films I’d watch that are made over the past 20 years….”) But, not to speak ill of the dead, Russell evidently loved what he did. I did see most of his releases in the 1970s and recall that when he LIKED the historical character he was filming, as with Gaudier-Brzeska in SAVAGE MESSIAH, I liked the film. When he was contemptuous of the protagonist (as he is at times with Mahler) the result made Robert Altman look like Jean Renoir. His nadir in this respect is VALENTINO.

    Speaking of Altman, here’s another MCN pullquote, this one from Aki Kaurismäki on Hollywood cinema, that made me laugh: “I only like that up until 1962. Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE is the last good film.” That particular film is a red flag to some of us, but his quote got me thinking: Altman in THE LONG GOODBYE (aka “Deconstructing Marlowe”) is actually paying more of a tribute to the classical cinema’s Marlowe, by taking the character seriously enough to target, than anything on offer from our contemporary filmmakers, who blithely ignore the meanings attached to the original characters, and cast fashionably. Thus, Robert Downey Jr as Sherlock Holmes.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Another recent passing – 94 year old director Walter Doniger, known for his prison-related films of the 1950s (Steel Cage, Steel Jungle, House of Women) as well as the Maris-Mantle Safe at Home, but more intriguingly a writer on a series of earlier films – Jive Junction, Along the Great Divide, Tokyo Joe, Rope of Sand. By the mid-1950s he was firmly established in TV, directing many westerns and other action dramas, before becoming the main director of Peyton Place in the mid 1960s.

  • Brian Dauth

    What I find interesting is how Gould’s Marlowe seems like a character from the past (and old movies) dropped into 1970’s Los Angeles — car and all. I agree with Tom that Altman does take Marlowe seriously — seriously enough to show how American society has moved past/around/beneath the ethic which Marlowe lived by. Altman does satirically what Ross MacDonald accomplishes (for me at least) in a more complex fashion in his novels where Lew Archer starts out in a Sam Spadish/Marlowe-esque vein and then grows into one of the great characters in 20th century American fiction.

  • Michael Worrall

    Ken Russell: 1927-2011. Goodbye dear mentor, friend, and brother in arms; you introduced me to so many great works and artists. The bright light of your psyche, that burned through your work, scorched my very being and left a scar that I will forever cherish.

  • Jason Lark

    Jean-Pierre Coursodon” wrote:

    “I find it difficult to accept the possibility that anyone could detest HOLIDAY but then everything is possible. Would like to hear somme reasons though.”

    Someone smarter than me can likely give a better explanation, but as someone growing up in the U.S. in the 80s who was lucky enough to have a VHS rental store that showed some interest in “important” films, my first understanding of the importance of the director came from repeatedly watching films with big name stars of the era. This ultimately led me to figure out that a Cary Grant film directed by Hawks, Cukor, Hitchcock, or McCarey was more entertaining than anything else featuring the actor.

    Initially, I always compared Holiday to Bringing Up Baby and due to to my personal interests I always found Holiday lacking in comparison. Once I took it in on it’s own terms I enjoyed it more. To compare it to a somewhat lesser film, I often looked at Charade through the prism of Hitchcock because of the popular comparisons and didn’t like it much. Again once I was finally able to watch the film without preconceived notions I liked it more.

    None of this explains my enduring love for films like Sylvia Scarlett or my general preference for later (questionable) widescreen Cukor, like Les Girls. Or preferring Hawks’s A Song is Born to Ball of Fire-except that my preconceived notions of what a Cary Grant, Cukor, or Hawks film should be can be challenged by the films themselves and it can take a while to enjoy a film that you were to prepared to enjoy in a completely different way.