Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Recommended Reading: "On Cukor"

On Cukor, originally published in 1972, is screenwriter Gavin Lambert’s (Sons and Lovers; Inside Daisy Clover) series of wonderful interviews with Golden Age Hollywood director George Cukor (1899-1983). The interviews cover the director's entire career, from Cukor discovery Katharine Hepburn’s screen debut in A Bill of Divorcement (1932) to masterworks like The Women (1939), The Philadelphia Story (1940) and A Star Is Born (1954). Forgotten flops like Her Cardboard Lover (1942) and The Chapman Report (1962) receive honest appraisals from Cukor the interviewee, too. Included in the book are between-film “Interludes”, where the director candidly discusses actors (Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Greta Garbo), directors (Cukor was amused and fascinated by Alfred Hitchcock), and well-known events in Cukor's career, like when Cukor was replaced as director of Gone With the Wind.

I credit this book with getting me interested in 1930s movies. I received it as a gift in 1999 and I'll admit that at the time, Cukor’s films were not the kind I usually watched. “Too many women’s pictures” I muttered, ignorant as Hell. I duly shelving the book without any clue that this book and this director would one day rank among my favorites. It was only three years ago when I finally admitted that the 1930s and 1940s were the greatest period in cinematic history. I had been a Film Noir enthusiast for some time, but 1930s films were largely unknown to me. As I worked my way through the book, I found myself becoming enthralled with Cukor's films. Yes, many of the movies had women as the protagonists, but these weren’t the usual women’s roles I had grown up being bored by. Thirties and Forties female stars---especially in George Cukor's work-- were so much smarter, sexier, and funnier than the bland homemaker types of the 1950s (and their "Va-va-voom!" counterparts), or the bewigged, overly-sexualized drones of the 1960s (I’m generalizing; there are exceptions to each decade, of course).

What makes On Cukor so memorable is the man himself. George Cukor was intelligent, witty, and sophisticated. He speaks honestly of his successes and failures but surprisingly says little about his Oscar-winning effort, My Fair Lady (1964). Cukor and Lambert work well together, with Lambert serving as a sympathetic, knowledgeable interviewer. He knows the director's work and this adds to the reader’s enjoyment. This book avoids any awkward moments which is a stark contrast to George Cukor: Interviews (from the Conversations with Filmmakers Series) which compiles numerous mainstream press interviews with Cukor over the course of three decades. Cukor comes off (or is portrayed as) guarded and even grouchy! Not so in the Lambert book, which contains the strongest series of interviews I’ve ever read with a filmmaker. Apparently, the newer edition of the book contains numerous photographs that were unavailable in the 1972 edition. I was also thrilled to learn that the republication in 2000 coincided with a PBS documentary of the same name from the American Masters series.

A hearty recommendation for On Cukor!


  1. Oh it sounds wonderful! I'm a big of George Cukor...

    "It was only three years ago when I finally admitted that the 1930s and 1940s were the greatest period in cinematic history."

    You know, I always suspected it, but it was only three years ago for me too, that I fully realized it and became completely fascinated and passionate about it.


    Another wonderful piece. :)

  2. Thanks for your kind words and also for including me on your "followed blogs" list!

    Although the Cukor book is out of print, it can be found cheaply online from the usual marketplace suspects.

  3. Thanks for drawing attention to one of the great directors. Even the dogmatic Andrew Sarris (in "The American Cinema") called Cukor "a director [who] has provided tasteful entertainments of a high order consistently over a period of more than thirty years." He certainly did direct some of the most sheerly entertaining movies of the 30's and 40's. His work with Katharine Hepburn was especially remarkable. I plan to start looking for this book immediately.

  4. Cukor was influential among his peers, too. I just read in the Wiley-Bona "Inside Oscar" book that Cukor was the one who suggested Billy Wilder get Gloria Swanson for "Sunset Blvd." Cukor's instincts were often amazing.

  5. Hi there! I love Cukor's work, I'd love to get my hands on that book.

  6. Update: I just got the "On Cukor" DVD documentary and while it is a breezy, informative look into Cukor's career, the book is superior in terms of information. The doc is worth getting, though, as it includes some hilarious Cukor stories told by some of the interviewees. It's sad to note that many of the people interviewed are no longer around.

    The DVD is out of print, but easily found at Amazon Marketplace. I got mine there brand new for a total of $7.78.


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