George Cukor and George Stevens are probably the most modest directors of the studio era: an era not known for modesty or restraint. At that time big, pushy producers and directors ruled the roost, and when a starlet tried to buck the system, she (or he) was promptly put on suspension. Men were masculine and women were divas. Stereotypes sold tickets, and the men ran the studios. Tensions rose higher as stars left for WWII, and in 1945, when they came back different men. The turmoil of the war years extended into the fifties with numerous HUAC investigations, blacklists, and genuine fear. Directors like Howard Hawks were notorious for being starlets themselves. Hawks, who “discovered” Lauren Bacall, was furious over her romance with Humphrey Bogart and would treat her rudely on set or even forbid her to see him, he was so jealous. But the Georges, Stevens and Cukor, were both quiet men, concerned with producing great work.
Their collective filmography spans more than fifty years and at least five genres. Their films created some of the great screen couples, from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Hepburn was a common link between them, and both directed Hepburn with Spencer Tracy, her greatest partner. You will see their names over and over again, in opening credits, and not remember that the same man named George directed Gunga Din and The Diary of Anne Frank, and another man, who also happened to be named George, directed both Gaslight and My Fair Lady.
Cukor was a retiring man, who enjoyed a good laugh, but usually not at someone else’s expense. Contrary to Hollywood at the time, he did not smoke and rarely drank. As a child he would entertain his mother’s dinner guests by dressing up in her clothes. He began working in Hollywoodas a dialogue director, a low-on-the-totem polw, often uncredited position. He began directing on his own in 1931 with Tarnished Lady. He worked on upwards of 65 films, credited and uncredited, finished and unfinished. He is best known as a “woman’s director,” but he can more accurately be called an “actor’s director.” He earned his title by coaxing the very best out of his female stars. Katharine Hepburn’s first picture, A Bill of Divorcement, was directed by Cukor, and she returned to working with him again and again. He was fired from Gone with the Wind because Clark Gable was jealous of the attention Vivien Leigh was getting from the director. His replacement, Victor Fleming, favored Gable over Leigh, and Leigh went to Cukor on the sly for more help. But, Cukor was an actor’s director because he got his male stars to deliver some of their best performances as well. Hepburn was “box office poison” before her pairing with Spencer Tracy. Sylvia Scarlett had not been a success, but she had done well with The Philadelphia Story. Cukor directed Tracy and Hepburn together in Adam’s Rib (1949), an early feminist manifesto, and a can’t-miss with the dynamic trio of Cukor-Tracy-Hepburn. Cukor’s later work included two musicals: A Star is Born with James Mason and Judy Garland and My Fair Lady with Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison. The distinguishing quality in all of his work is the superb performances. He was not a “typed” director, like Hitchcock for instance, but his “type,” was good acting.
The gaps in Katharine Hepburn’s career where she did not work with Cukor, she was most likely working with George Stevens. Stevens began as a cinematographer on shorts. Also a polite and retiring man, he is credited with the first Hepburn-Tracy film, Woman of the Year. He also directed a very early Cary Grant film: Gunga Din for RKO in 1939. He continued to work with Grant to moderate success, but fared far better with Hepburn. During WWII, Stevens went overseas with a team to film the war. He was present, camera in hand, when Allied troops entered Dachau. When Stevens returned to Hollywood, his style and his choice of pictures had changed drastically. Always a careful man, he worked at a slow pace; slow for a studio machine churning out a picture every two weeks. Pre-WWII and even during the war, his films were light-hearted, mostly romantic comedies. Even Gunga Din, which today is riddled with political and racial significance, was light for an adventure film. After the war, he spent much of his time creating documentaries from footage shot overseas. 1951 marked his successful return to features with A Place in the Sun. Montgomery Clift plays a poor boy given a job in his uncle’s factory. He takes up with a fellow factory worker, but by the time the young girl tells him she is pregnant, Clift is already chasing another girl, the wealthy and sophisticated Elizabeth Taylor. Clift contemplates killing his pregnant girlfriend rather than sacrifice his chance at social success. A dark exploration of a character’s mind, this was no romantic comedy. Montgomery Clift was relatively new at this point (debuting in 1948’s Red River with John Wayne), and his performance is astonishing for one so inexperienced. Stevens was an “actor’s director,” as well. Stevens other post-war work includes Shane and Giant, both set in the American West and chronically its decline and fall. He also directed The Diary of Anne Frank and The Greatest Story Ever Told before retiring.
Stevens and Cukor didn’t raise a huge fuss, but managed to quietly turn out some of the best pictures of the era. Biographers sometimes say that Stevens or Cukor didn’t have their own distinctive cinematic “style.” There is no marker to instantly identify it as one of their movies. Many directors of that era had a certain flair (Stanley Kubrick, for instance, directed a wide range of genres, but a picture can, visually, instantly be recognized as his), but Stevens and Cukor “just” made Hepburn-Tracy-Grant movies. Working with actors can be trying, especially in a system designed not to make art, but to make money, and directors who nurtured and took the time to allow actors to explore were rare. The Thin Man (while wonderful) was made in 12 days. Montgomery Clift, if given 12 days to make A Place in the Sun, could not have done it. Clift and his generation of actors, in the time when the Method became popular, wanted to get to know their characters, wanted to connect the words on the page to real feelings to real emotions on film. Masculinity wasn’t flexible. Images of men and (especially) their emotions on screen were not exploratory, character-driven pieces. Stevens and Cukor allowed their male and female actors to explore character identities and tap into previously unused talent. Their intertwining and impressive body of work, when taken together, stands out. Maybe less noticeably than Michael Curtiz’s (he’s so flashy), but brilliantly.