George Cukor (1899-1983)

George Cukor (1899-1983)

George Cukor was one of Hollywood's top film directors whose confident, stylish professionalism enabled him to thrive in the Hollywood studio system for 50 years. He became renowned as a perfectionist and subtle innovator who helped define the look and style of witty and elegant Hollywood classics such as Camille, The Philadelphia Story, Adam's Rib, A Star is Born and My Fair Lady. Throughout his long career, he was known as the consummate actor's director who elicited dazzling performances from his cast. He twice directed Marilyn Monroe, had a 47-year working relationship with Katharine Hepburn, and worked with most of the other important stars of the day including Joan Crawford, James Stewart and Spencer Tracy and he directed twenty-one performers in Oscar nominated roles. He himself was nominated for Best Director Academy Awards a total of five times and won once, for My Fair Lady in 1964.

He was born George Dewey Cukor on the Lower East Side of New York City, the younger child and only son of Hungarian Jewish immigrants Victor, an assistant district attorney, and Helen Ilona (née Gross) Cukor. His parents selected his middle name in honor of Spanish-American War hero George Dewey. As a child, Cukor appeared in several amateur plays and took dance lessons, and at the age of seven he performed in a recital with David O. Selznick, who in later years would become a mentor and friend. As a teenager, Cukor frequently was taken to the New York Hippodrome by his uncle. Infatuated with theatre, he often cut classes at De Witt Clinton High School to attend afternoon matinees. During his senior year, he worked as a supernumerary with the Metropolitan Opera, earning 50¢ per appearance, and $1 if he was required to perform in blackface.

Following his graduation in 1917, Cukor was expected to follow in his father's footsteps and pursue a career in law. He halfheartedly enrolled in the City College of New York, where he entered the Students Army Training Corps in October 1918. His military experience was limited; Germany surrendered in early December, and Cukor's duty ended after only two months. Shortly after he left school.

Young George Cukor

Cukor obtained a job as an assistant stage manager and bit player with a touring production of The Better 'Ole, a popular British musical based on Old Bill, a cartoon character created by Bruce Bairnsfather. In 1920, he became the stage manager for the Knickerbocker Players, a troupe that shuttled between Syracuse and Rochester, New York, and the following year he was hired as general manager of the newly-formed Lyceum Players, an upstate summer stock company. In 1925 he formed the C.F. and Z. Production Company with Walter Folmer and John Zwicki, which gave him his first opportunity to direct. Following their first season, he made his Broadway directorial debut with Antonia by Hungarian playwright Melchior Lengyel, then returned to Rochester, where C.F. and Z. evolved into the Cukor-Kondolf Stock Company, a troupe that included Louis Calhern, Ilka Chase, Phyllis Povah, Frank Morgan, Reginald Owen, Elizabeth Patterson, and Douglass Montgomery, all of whom would work with Cukor in later years in Hollywood. Lasting only one season with the company was Bette Davis. Cukor later recalled, "Her talent was apparent, but she did buck at direction. She had her own ideas, and though she only did bits and ingenue roles, she didn't hesitate to express them." For the next several decades, Davis claimed she was fired, and although Cukor never understood why she placed so much importance on an incident he considered so minor, he never worked with her again.

Claudette Colbert prepares to give the first slice of her birthday cake to Zaza director George Cukor

For the next few years, Cukor alternated between Rochester in the summer months and Broadway in the winter. His direction of a 1926 stage adaptation of The Great Gatsby by Owen Davis brought him to the attention of the New York critics. Writing in the Brooklyn Eagle, drama critic Arthur Pollock called it "an unusual piece of work by a director not nearly so well-known as he should be." Cukor directed six more Broadway productions before departing for Hollywood in 1929.

When Hollywood began to recruit New York theater talent for sound films, Cukor immediately answered the call. In December 1928, Paramount Pictures signed him to a contract that reimbursed him for his airfare and initially paid him $600 per week with no screen credit during a six-month apprenticeship. He arrived in Hollywood in February 1929, and his first assignment was to coach the cast of River of Romance to speak with an acceptable Southern accent. In October, the studio lent him to Universal Pictures to conduct the screen tests and work as a dialogue director for All Quiet on the Western Front. In 1930, he co-directed three films at Paramount, and his weekly salary was increased to $1500. In 1931, he made his solo directorial debut with Tarnished Lady starring Tallulah Bankhead.

Cukor moved to RKO studios to join the rising star, David O Selznick, and in 1932 he started a long association and friendship with Katharine Hepburn when he directed her in her first film, A Bill of Divorcement. They then made Little Women together in 1933 which was a box-office and critical success. Cukor had made his mark in a big way and he won his first Academy Award nomination for his direction.

Still restless, Cukor followed Selznick to MGM Studios where their first collaboration was Dinner at Eight, in 1933, starring Jean Harlow. He received another Oscar nomination for this and then in the same year he directed a magnificent adaptation of David Copperfield which was described by The New York Times in glowing terms as "the most profoundly satisfying screen manipulation of a great novel that the camera has ever given us."

Edmund Goulding drops by the Dinner at Eight set to chat with Jean Harlow, Edmund Lowe and director George Cukor

Cukor's next Academy Award nomination was in 1936 for Romeo and Juliet and in 1937 he directed the Hollywood legend, actress Greta Garbo, in Camille. He was now one of Hollywood's top directors and was beginning to get a reputation for coaxing brilliant performances from his actors and in particular, his actresses. He, in fact, became known as the 'woman's director', a label which he always refuted, pointing out that he actually had more Oscar successes with male actors than actresses. It is certainly true, however, that Cukor was a sensitive filmmaker who simply understood women in an industry that lacked female directors. It is no wonder, then, that once he demonstrated his ability to work with strong actresses, he was usually the first to be called on to direct them. The actresses whose careers he influenced are legion. Prominent among them are Katharine Hepburn, whom he introduced to movie audiences in A Bill of Divorcement (1932) and later redeemed from "box-office poison" status with The Philadelphia Story (1940), and Joan Crawford, both of whom expressed a preference for working with him.

Selznick hired Cukor in 1936 to direct his new blockbuster project, Gone with the Wind. Cukor spent the next two years actively involved with pre-production duties, including supervision of the numerous screen tests of actresses anxious to portray Scarlett O'Hara. Cukor favored Hepburn for the role, but Selznick, concerned about her reputation as 'box office poison', would not consider her without a screen test, and the actress refused to film one. Of those who did, Cukor preferred Paulette Goddard, but her supposedly illicit relationship with Charles Chaplin (they were, in fact, secretly married) concerned Selznick.

Director George Cukor rehearses Two-Faced Woman with Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas

Cukor spent many hours coaching Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland prior to the start of filming Wind, but Clark Gable resisted his efforts to get him to master a Southern accent. However, despite rumors about Gable being uncomfortable with Cukor on the set, nothing in the internal memos of David O. Selznick indicates or suggests that Clark Gable played any role in Cukor's dismissal of the film. Rather, they show Selznick's mounting dissatisfaction with Cukor's slow pace and quality of work. (One of the few remaining scenes directed by George Cukor to survive into the final cut of the film is the birth of Melanie's baby.) From a private letter from journalist Susan Myrick to Margaret Mitchell in February 1939: "George [Cukor] finally told me all about it. He hated [leaving the production] very much he said but he could not do otherwise. In effect he said he is an honest craftsman and he cannot do a job unless he knows it is a good job and he feels the present job is not right. For days, he told me he has looked at the rushes and felt he was failing... the things did not click as it should. Gradually he became convinced that the script was the trouble... So George just told David he would not work any longer if the script was not better and he wanted the [Sidney] Howard script back... he would not let his name go out over a lousy picture... And bull-headed David said 'OK get out!'"

Selznick had already been unhappy with Cukor ("a very expensive luxury") for not being more receptive to directing other Selznick assignments, even though Cukor had remained on salary since early 1937; and in a confidential memo written in September 1938, four months before principal photography began, Selznick flirted with the idea of replacing him with Victor Fleming. "I think the biggest black mark against our management to date is the Cukor situation and we can no longer be sentimental about it.... We are a business concern and not patrons of the arts..." Cukor was relieved of his duties, but he continued to work with Leigh and De Havilland off the set. Various rumors about the reasons behind his dismissal circulated throughout Hollywood. Selznick's friendship with Cukor had crumbled slightly when the director refused other assignments, including A Star is Born (1937) and Intermezzo (1939). Given that Gable and Cukor had worked together before, in Manhattan Melodrama and Gable had no objection to working with him then, and given Selznick's desperation to get Gable for Rhett Butler, if Gable had any objections to Cukor, certainly they would have been expressed before he signed his contract for the film.

Louis B. Mayer, Paulette Goddard and director George at the premiere of The Women

Cukor's dismissal from Wind did not harm his career for as soon as he became available he was snapped up by Hunt Stromberg, producer of The Women, which was scheduled to begin filming within a month of Cukor's dismissal. Cukor took up the challenge and made a successful and popular film with the strong, all female cast.

Cukor served for a brief period in the Army Signal Corps during WWII, and during the 1940's, made several blockbuster movies. After The Philadelphia Story in 1940 which brought together the top class talents of Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart at their peak, he directed Ingrid Bergman's Oscar-winning performance in Gaslight in 1944 and the Tracy-Hepburn classic comedy Adam's Rib in 1949.

After the 1940's Cukor's output slowed but the quality of his work remained impressive. In 1954, Cukor made his first film in color, Judy Garland's come-back movie, A Star Is Born. In 1964, he won an Academy Award himself, for Best Director, for My Fair Lady, for which Rex Harrison won a Best Actor Oscar also.

In the 1970's he made the television films Love Among the Ruins and The Corn Is Green, both with his old friend, Katharine Hepburn. He directed his last film, Rich and Famous with Candice Bergman in 1981. He died from natural causes at the age of 83 in 1983.

George Cukor, the Story-Teller

Maggie Smith and director George Cukor on the set of Travels with My Aunt

"George Cukor’s films range from classics like Greta Garbo’s Camille, to Adam’s Rib with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, to the Judy Garland musical A Star Is Born. Throughout the years he managed to "‘weather the changes in public taste and the pressures of the Hollywood studio system without compromising his style, his taste, or his ethical standards," as his honorary degree from Loyola University of Chicago is inscribed. Indeed, Cukor informed each of the stories he brought to the screen with his affectionately critical view of humanity. In film after film he sought to prod the mass audience to reconsider their cherished illusions in order to gain fresh insights into the problems that confront everyone. "When a director has provided tasteful entertainment of a high order consistently,’’ noted Andrew Sarris, ‘‘it is clear that he is much more than a mere entertainer, he is a genuine artist." [1]

In addition to his reputation as a woman’s director, Cukor is also known as Hollywood’s most successful adaptor of books and plays to the screen. From Dinner at Eight (1933) to Travels with My Aunt (1972), he demonstrated his ability to capture the essence of his sources without being slavishly devoted to the original material. Yet, "he has always chosen material that has been consistent with his view of reality. Most often he has explored the conflict between illusion and reality in peoples’ lives. The chief characters in his films are frequently actors and actresses, for they, more than anyone, run the risk of allowing the world of illusion with which they are constantly involved to become their reality. This theme is obvious in many of Cukor’s best films and appears in some of his earliest work, including The Royal Family of Broadway, which he co-directed. In it he portrays a family of troupers, based on the Barrymores, who are wedded to their world of fantasy in a way that makes a shambles of their private lives.

A meeting of minds on the set of A Double Life: George Cukor, writers Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, and actor Ronald Colman

The attempt of individuals to reconcile their cherished dreams with the sober realities of life continues in films as superficially different as Dinner at Eight, The Philadelphia Story, and A Double Life. Ronald Colman earned an Academy Award in the last as an actor who becomes so identified with the parts he plays that, while enacting Othello, he develops a murderous streak of jealousy which eventually destroys him.

While it is true that Cukor was often drawn to stories about show people, his films also suggest that everyone leads a double life that moves between illusion and reality, and that everyone must seek to sort out fantasy from fact if they are to cope realistically with their problems - something Cukor’s characters frequently fail to do. Les Girls is the most explicit of all Cukor’s films in treating this theme. Here the same events are told from four different points of view at a libel trial, each version differing markedly from the others. Because Cukor allows each narrator 'equal time', he is sympathetic to the way each of them has subconsciously revised their common experiences in a manner that enables him or her to live with the past in the present. As Sarris remarks, Cukor does not imply that people necessarily are liars, but rather that they tell the truth in their own fashion.

A characteristic expression from Les Girls director George Cukor to make a point to Taina Elg

Though Cukor must have harbored some degree of affection and sympathy for the world of romantic illusion - for there is always a hint of regret in his films when actuality inevitably asserts itself in the life of one of his dreamers - his movies nonetheless remain firmly rooted in, and committed to, the workaday world of reality.

Directing his last film, Rich and Famous, merited Cukor the distinction of being one of the oldest filmmakers ever to direct a major motion picture. His work on that film likewise marked him as a man who had enjoyed the longest continuous career of any director in film or television. Some of the satisfaction which he derived from his long career was grounded in the fact that few directors have commanded such a large portion of the mass audience. "His movies," Richard Schickel has noted, "can be appreciated - no, liked - at one level or another by just about everyone." For his part, Cukor once reflected that:" [1]

I look upon every picture that I make as the first one I’ve ever done—and the last. I love each film I have directed, and I try to make each one as good as I possibly can. Mind you, making movies is no bed of roses. Every day isn’t Christmas. It’s been a hard life, but also a joyous one.


  • Rich and Famous (1981)
  • The Corn Is Green (1979)
  • The Blue Bird (1976)
  • Love Among the Ruins (1975)
  • Travels with My Aunt (1972)
  • Justine (1969)
  • My Fair Lady (1964)
  • The Chapman Report (1962)
  • Something's Got to Give (1962)
  • Let's Make Love (1960)
  • Song Without End (1960) (uncredited)
  • Heller in Pink Tights (1960)
  • Hot Spell (1958) (uncredited)
  • Wild Is the Wind (1957)
  • Les Girls (1957)
  • Lust for Life (1956) (co-director) (uncredited)
  • Bhowani Junction (1956)
  • A Star Is Born (1954)
  • It Should Happen to You (1954)
  • The Actress (1953)
  • Pat and Mike (1952)
  • The Marrying Kind (1952)
  • The Model and the Marriage Broker (1951)
  • Born Yesterday (1950)
  • A Life of Her Own (1950)
  • Adam's Rib (1949)
  • Edward, My Son (1949)
  • A Double Life (1947)
  • Desire Me (1947) (uncredited)
  • I'll Be Seeing You (1944) (uncredited)
  • Winged Victory (1944)
  • Gaslight (1944)
  • Resistance and Ohm's Law (1943)
  • Keeper of the Flame (1942)
  • Her Cardboard Lover (1942)
  • Two-Faced Woman (1941)
  • A Woman's Face (1941)
  • The Philadelphia Story (1940)
  • Susan and God (1940)
  • Gone with the Wind (1939) (uncredited)
  • The Women (1939)
  • Zaza (1939)
  • Holiday (1938)
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938) (uncredited)
  • I Met My Love Again (1938) (uncredited)
  • Camille (1936)
  • Romeo and Juliet (1936)
  • Sylvia Scarlett (1935)
  • No More Ladies (1935) (uncredited)
  • The Personal History, Adventures, Experience, & Observation of David Copperfield the Younger (1935)
  • Manhattan Melodrama (1934) (uncredited)
  • Little Women (1933)
  • Dinner at Eight (1933)
  • Our Betters (1933)
  • The Animal Kingdom (1932) (uncredited)
  • Rockabye (1932)
  • A Bill of Divorcement (1932)
  • What Price Hollywood? (1932)
  • Une heure près de toi (1932)
  • One Hour with You (1932) (uncredited)
  • Girls About Town (1931)
  • Tarnished Lady (1931)
  • The Royal Family of Broadway (1930)
  • The Virtuous Sin (1930)
  • Grumpy (1930)