Cary Grant

The Summer of Screwball

Screwballs went with the studio system. They came into their own 1933-1934, peaked late 30’s to early 40’s, but after the war and the end of the decade, lost their mojo. Most of the films I’ve profiled over this summer were made between 1934-1943, a decade long period when contract stars still did what they were told (with of course a few notable exceptions). Post-war, society had changed radically in a way those of us living through today’s wars on terrorist groups cannot understand. Not having lived through a full-scale world war, we cannot understand the level of involvement, and the aftermath. The time was vastly different, but we can understand that society and its needs and wants had fundamentally shifted. They were still shifting, in the direction we see today, but the 50’s and 60’s had no time for what was popular in the 30’s and 40’s. The 30’s slid into the 40’s, and screwballs with movie kings and queens were still popular, but post-war audiences were looking for different fare – that’s another post for another time (coming soon).

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Screwballs still managed to exist within movie’s new rules in the 50’s and 60’s: evolving with tastes and limits. Monkey Business, made in 1952, featured Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers, beloed 30’s stars, as a middle-aged married couple. Grant is a scientist working on a youth serum. His boss is Charles Coburn, and Coburn’s secretary is Marilyn Monroe. One of Grant’s lab monkeys inadvertently mixes a serum that works – in the water cooler in the lab. Grant drinks it at the same time as he drinks his mixture of the serum, and becomes 20 years old again. He gets a new haircut, a loud suit, and a sports car. He takes Marilyn roller skating. He thinks that his serum has worked, and Rogers, his devoted wife refuses to let him test it on himself again, so she takes Grant’s serum, along with a cup of water from the water cooler. Her first act as a younger version of herself is to put a goldfish down Coburn’s pants.

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Rogers and Grant acting like children, alternately together or one or the other is where the screwball comedy comes in. The two take a trip to the hotel where they honeymooned – while Rogers is young and Grant is not. She wants to dance all night, but when he makes a frustrated remark, she, thinking like a young bride, tosses him out, crying. In the morning, she is level-headed once more, but the damage she causes is pretty funny while it lasts. When the two accidentally take the serum (by adding water cooler water to their coffee) – they revert to 10-year-olds instead of 20-year-olds – chasing each other around and fighting with paint. Grant joins a group of kids playing cowboys and Indians and proposes scalping Rogers’ lawyer and former beau.

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This film is distinct from its predecessors not so much in subject matter (which I will discuss in a minute), but in its self-awareness. Rogers’ heyday was in the 1930′s with Fred and solo in the 1940′s. By 1952, she was a “mature” actress (she was 41). Grant was similarly successful in the screwball era, often co-starring with Katharine Hepburn. Grant had been making movies steadily (more than one per year) since 1932, and in 1952, was about to attempt his first retirement (Grace Kelly and Alfred Hitchcock lured him out of it for 1955′s To Catch a Thief). Casting these two screwball stars as a middle-aged couple, and Grant as a scientist searching for a serum for eternal youth is something so very meta. It refers to itself, aware of the tradition it comes from, but is no longer a part of. Monkey Business became the tenth highest-grossing film of 1952. The Greatest Show on Earth and The Bad and the Beautiful topped that list. Let me tell you something about those two films. They are depressingThe Greatest Show on Earth (refer to earlier post for FULL details) suddenly derails, literally, into a violent train crash full of life-threatening injuries. The Bad and the Beautiful explores corruption and greed in Hollywood. Not exactly screwball material. Both Rogers and Grant had been off the top-grossing list themselves for a few years. Uniting these two in a self-referential tale was fit for the 1950′s – they knew where they’d come from, and they sort of missed it.

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1959’s Some Like It Hot, directed by Billy Wilder, pushed screwball into somewhat risqué places – with the addition of cross-dressing men. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis (a comedy team worthy of Abbott and Costello status if I ever saw one) are down-on-their-luck musicians who witness the St Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago, and go on the road with a band in order to hide from the gangsters who intend to wipe out the witnesses. The band is headed to sunny Florida – unfortunately, it’s a women’s band. But “Daphne” and “Josephine” are desperate to escape the gangsters. They meet Sugar (Marilyn Monroe), the band’s lead eye candy – er, singer – and both men fall for her. Sugar, though, declares she’s looking for a millionaire in Florida. In Florida, Joe ditches his Josephine disguise for one as Shell, Jr. – the heir of Shell Oil, who Sugar takes it upon herself to teach how to love. Jerry (Lemmon) as Daphne takes the opposite approach, unwittingly attracting Osgood (Joe E. Brown), an older millionaire with a habit for marrying and divorcing showgirls. He allows himself to be courted by Osgood – planning to live on the alimony from their divorce. Both plans are foiled when the gangsters show up for their annual “convention,” and recognize Joe and Jerry.

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Besides the antics of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis attempting to pour themselves into dresses and wigs, the gender-switching comedy is great. Nothing Wilder could have gotten away with in 1939, but in 1959 – audiences were ready. Wilder does throw in a disclaimer line that Joe says to Jerry: “But, you’re *not* a girl! You’re a *guy*, and, why would a guy wanna marry a guy?” Other than that, the movie is surprisingly progressive. It otherwise skirts transvestites and homosexuality – which here would be out of place. This isn’t The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which reveled in it. This was still 1959, and by skirting those issues, still taboo, Wilder was able to make a screwball, cross-dressing comedy. Wilder’s dialogue (written with frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond) and direction lay the basis for a smash – but Lemmon and Curtis’ timing put the topper on it. Both are deadpan deliverers and bring similar comedy styles, but play off of each other well. Unfortunately, I can’t quote you the best scene – it’s at the end – I know, I know, usually I don’t care about spoilers, but this scene is one you’ve got to see for yourself.

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Sex and the Single Girl is a 1964 screwball, also starring Tony Curtis. It co-stars Natalie Wood as a psychiatrist who writes a book about how single women should “deal with men.” Curtis, a reporter, sets out to prove that Wood doesn’t have firsthand knowledge of the topic she’s writing about. He pretends to be his married neighbor Frank (played by Henry Fonda), and starts seeing Wood as a psychiatrist. He tries (as Frank) to seduce her, but she knows he is married. She insists on meeting his wife, and Curtis produces two women, and then real Frank’s real wife, Sylvia (Lauren Bacall!) shows up. Curtis has his dirt, but has fallen in love with Wood instead.

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Bacall and Fonda are the “older” settled couple in this comedy, but they are amazing, appearing good-naturedly (knowing that their hey-day in Hollywood was 15 years ago) and their jokes almost steal the show. CLICK the image below for one example of their back-and-forth. (And go Lauren! She is so awesome in this movie.)

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The boundaries of comedy loosened – no more crossed skis here. But what was still making screwballs funny was the snappy dialogue and good screen teams.

If you haven’t had enough of screwball, here’s a few more of the classics to check out:

Twentieth Century (1934) Carole Lombard & John Barrymore, directed by Howard Hawks

Wife vs. Secretary (1936) Clark Gable, Jean Harlow & Myrna Loy

Nothing Sacred (1937) Carole Lombard & Frederic March

Bringing Up Baby (1938) Katherine Hepburn & Cary Grant, directed by Howard Hawks

Holiday (1938) Katherine Hepburn & Cary Grant, directed by George Cukor

I Love You Again (1940) Myrna Loy & William Powell

Ball of Fire (1941) Barbara Stanwyck & Gary Cooper, directed by Howard Hawks, screenplay by Billy Wilder

SUTS Blogathon: The Talk of the Town (1942)

“For classic movie lovers, TCM’s annual Summer Under the Stars month-long programming event is like Christmas, the Oscars, the Super Bowl, and every Hollywood red carpet gala rolled into one. For 31 days, fans are treated to an embarrassment of cinematic riches – a collection of films featuring the stars we love, the stars we discover for the first time, the stars we’ve always wanted to get to know better … or all of the above.” Write Jill and Michael, hosts of this year’s Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Who can say it better?

Each day in August, TCM highlights one star, all day and all night. I may or may not run around the house like a child yelling “Humphrey Bogart Day Humphrey Bogart Day!” and stay up late watching all of my favorites. I say it every year and will say it again: it’s the most wonderful time of the year! And, what is SUTS without a SUTS Blogathon?

This is my last contribution this year : ( But, it is on a great film, starring Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, and Ronald Colman – The Talk of the Town (1942). Today’s SUTS star, however, is Glenda Farrell, who plays a supporting role in the film.

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Cary Grant plays Leopold Dilg, a labor agitator accused of burning down a local mill and killing the foreman. He escapes jail and seeks refuge in a cottage – which happens to be owned by his old classmate Nora Shelley, played by Jean Arthur. Nora, however, has rented the cottage to Professor Lightcap (Ronald Colman) who arrives shortly after Dilg. Nora now must attempt to keep Lightcap from discovering who Dilg is, as Dilg introduces himself as the gardener – who just happens to have a lot of political opinions. Eventually Lightcap, who is a law professor and has recently been appointed to the Supreme Court, takes up Dilg’s case – attempting to prove that the foreman he is accused of killing did not die in the blaze. This is where Miss Glenda Farrell comes in – in a surprising role – as the ‘grieving widow’ of the foreman. Lightcap first meets her as she is being shown to a protesting crowd as the widow, and later, he disguises himself and visits her beauty parlor. To get closer to her – and hopefully find the foreman – he takes her out dancing. She reveals that she has had a letter from the foreman, who is hiding in Boston. Lightcap convinces Dilg to give himself up, and he captures the foreman to turn over to the police – and Dilg is dually released. Lightcap’s Supreme Court appointment is approved, and he proposes to Nora. Nora, however, accepts Dilg instead.

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The thing is, The Talk of the Town was meant to be a somewhat serious picture. Its political, labor, and justice aspects were meant to inspire discussion in more than just Lightcap and Dilg. But what I loved about it, and what critics initially praised it for, was its screwball comedy and the wonderful way the three stars played off of each other. Colman plays the straight man to Grant’s usual boyish suaveness and Arthur’s cuteness. Observe: the scene in which Grant attempts to sneak out of the house without being seen by Colman, as Arthur takes dictation. [Click image below to play clip at TCM.com]

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Grant peeps his head about the window first, then we see him sneaking down the stairs behind Colman (We follow his journey from the attic to the fridge – thank you George Stevens for your direction!), but as he listens to Colman’s discourse on the law, we watch the curiosity grow on his face, until he joins the discussion, shambling out into the backyard.

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All during Grant’s journey, Arthur makes the most terrible faces – terrified Colman will turn around. She also thinks on her feet pretty fast, introducing Grant: “Uh. He’s the gardener. Joseph.” She stops for a split second, turns her head with her mouth open to Grant, and a cordial smile spreads across her face as she introduces him.

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Colman is obliging clueless, his back turned to sneaking Grant. He suggests, deadpan, that Grant “see if he can save the zinnias from dying.” He is quite business-like – concerned with efficiency and his book.

As Bosley Crowther wrote when the film debuted in New York in 1942, “for the essential purpose of this tale is to amuse with some devious dilemmas, and that it does right well.” It did receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture (among others), but to quote TCM, “But the competition was tough. And as America went off to war, the tone of the country and the Oscars shifted. Comedies, even one so seemingly democratic as The Talk of the Town, which openly addressed idealistic concepts of law and justice, were overlooked in favor of more patriotic fare.” America was moving away from screwballs – even ones with such an idealistic slant.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) and The Awful Truth (1937)

The marriage plot is a device going back to Shakespeare. A reductive method of teaching Shakespeare posits that “if it ends in a marriage, it’s a comedy.” Reductive because Richard III has some funny bits, but that’s not a comedy, but As You Like It ends in marriages and is less laugh-out-loud than groan funny. But in classifying Shakespeare’s work into “take this seriously” and “don’t take this seriously,” ending in marriage is a pretty good indicator. Just like romantic comedies are the descendants of screwballs, so screwballs were descendants of the Shakespeare’s marriage comedies. Sometimes though, true to their name, screwballs did things a little screwy.

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Mr. and Mrs. Smith is the only screwball Hitchcock ever directed (yes, that Hitchcock and yes, that’s why), but it has one of what I consider the most romantic openings. Mr. and Mrs. Smith, played by Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery (her breeziness and his wryness were amazing together), whenever they argue, lock themselves in their bedroom. As the film opens, they’ve been locked in for a few days, and the servants are starting to get nervous. Mr. Smith, on sending out the dishes, slams the door and ducks behind the couch, tricking Mrs. Smith, in bed, to thinking he’s left the room. She sits bolt upright (she’s only been pretending to sleep), and then he peeps over the couch. Then, both looking like they’ve been in one room and one set of clothes with no shower for several days, they make up. Mrs. Smith taps Mr. Smith’s nose: boop, boop. It manages to be mundane, screwy, and romantic all at the same time.

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After getting cleaned up, they are breakfasting, and Mrs. Smith asks Mr. Smith if he had it to do all over again, if he would marry her. He, in the spirit of honesty, says no. Mrs. Smith insists she’s not mad, and Mr. Smith warily goes off to the office, where he finds out that their marriage was not legal. They’re not actually married. He plans to take Mrs. Smith to a romantic dinner to break the news, but Mrs. Smith finds out first. Her mother is distraught, but Mrs. Smith trusts that Mr. Smith will do the right thing and propose at dinner.

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He does not. Mrs. Smith, now going by her maiden name Ann Krausheimer, kicks out Mr. Smith (David), and takes up with his partner at the law firm, Jeff. David is furious; he thought Jeff was helping him to win Ann back. Jeff and Ann’s relationship progresses, and David tries to date, without success. Jeff’s parents come to town and suggest a skiing weekend. David sneaks up to the resort first, planning to sabotage. Jeff and Ann, however, don’t come along for a few weeks. When they arrive, David pretends to be delirious, so Ann must take care of him. Ann discovers he is faking, and to teach him a lesson, stages a scene in which she and Jeff are being very passionate in the room next door. David barges in to find Ann alone and talking to herself. Jeff then barges in and finds David and Ann together. Jeff storms off, leaving David and Ann to each other. A suggestive shot of skis crossing closes the movie.

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This “remarriage” plot was the screwball take on a marriage plot. Because of the Production Code, what could be shown on screen between non-married couples (or even married couples) was very limited, and getting around that by having the couple start out already married rather than having marriage the end goal, made getting away with more, easier. They presumably got remarried in the end, but as in The Awful Truth, were never not married, as the divorce took 90 days to become legal, with the film ending at midnight on the 90th day.

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The Awful Truth follows a similar plot: Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are society couple Lucy and Jerry Warriner. Lucy suspects Jerry of cheating; Jerry suspects Lucy, and they divorce. Lucy moves in with her aunt and takes up with Daniel (Ralph Bellamy, in the odd-man-out role he took on often). Jerry becomes jealous of Daniel, but is still hurt by what he thinks was Lucy cheating. Like Ann thought that David did not want to marry her, so Lucy thinks Jerry does not want her back. When Lucy, like Ann, starts to want her man back, she can’t leave the new, stable man she is dating, because her former husband appears to be out of love with her. Jerry doesn’t chase Lucy quite like David chased Ann, but he does show up at her apartment quite often (ostensibly as part of the custody agreement about their dog, Mr. Smith). When Jerry moves on, Lucy becomes jealous and attempts sabotage. She shows up at a dinner with Jerry, his new fiancé, and her parents, posing as Jerry’s sister. As Jerry’s sister, she is a nightclub dancer with a high-pitched laugh and a penchant for sherry. Jerry escorts her out, and they end up spending the night at Lucy’s aunt’s cabin. In adjoining rooms with a door with a broken lock between them, they make up, and the little boy on the cuckoo clock goes back into the clock through the little girl’s door, rather than his own.

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Suggestive endings seemed to be fine with the censors, as these couples were married already; hence the remarriage plot. The back-and-forth of feelings, he loves me-he loves me not, and jealousies are common threads. The men are often silly or pathetic. (Jerry is more ridiculous and David more pathetic), while the women are high-strung, but smart. It is unclear whether Lucy is really drunk or pretending to be drunk when she shows up at the dinner pretending to be Jerry’s sister, but I think she is pretending because she is smart. She knows this is her last chance to get Jerry back and her feeble excuses for going to her aunt’s cabin and for Jerry staying overnight smack of pre-planning. Ann also makes a plan to get her husband back; by pretending she is getting hot and heavy with Jeff, she knows the insanely jealous David will make a move. Then men are more hapless and powerless to get their women back from the men they’ve moved on to. It has to be the women who want to come back to the marriage.

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These days, romantic comedies are mostly about women in their 30’s who haven’t gotten married yet and are either desperate to do so (27 Dresses) or have just become frigid human beings because they aren’t married (The Proposal). They end up getting married because they feel pressured to do so, not because they want to. What was wrong with being a successful career woman? However, in these remarriage screwballs, the women choose to go back to their marriages and they choose which man they want. They don’t settle, and they hold the power. Good thing the censors didn’t catch on to that.

Mr. Lucky (1943)

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I kept waiting for Mr. Lucky to be something else. The movie stars Cary Grant, so I was expecting some of his usual goofy-suave demeanor, but it begins like a noir. A misty shipyard, two sailors talking, a dame walks to the edge of the pier. Grant’s character, before he appears, is referred to as “Joe the Greek,” the owner of a notorious gambling ship. From the noir set-up and the ethnic moniker, I expected someone more like Philip Marlowe or Blackie in Manhattan Melodrama. Instead, it’s Grant as usual. Dapper, wise-cracking, charming.

“Hey Blubber! Fix this thing!”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“It pays!”

Then, Grant gets drafted and we’re in a war movie. I knew the film was made in 1943, but I literally paused and had to reason out: World War I or II? Did they draft? When is this? It’s WWII, alright, and Grant’s Joe Adams is drafted. He switches draft cards with dying sailor J. Bascopolous, who is unfit for duty, and dodges the draft. He wins the 4F draft card over a game with his sneaky partner, who had also received a draft summons. The partner, played by Paul Stewart resignedly reports for duty, only to be told he’s unfit, so he goes back to the ship – presumably to do something to Joe. He bides his time and does what, we’re not sure.

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Now successfully dodged the draft, Grant goes uptown to make some startup capital for the gambling ship. He loses, but sees a pretty girl on the street, who he follows to her place of employment, War Relief Inc. War Relief Inc is selling tickets to a ball, hoping to raise $100,000 to send supplies overseas, but they’re not having much luck. Grant proposes to run a gambling room at the ball and split the profits with the ladies at War Relief. The pretty girl, Dorothy Bryant (played by Laraine Day) is scandalized and dismisses him.

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Not so easy to get rid of, Grant “enlists” in War Relief Inc., where Dorothy forces him to learn to knit. Now tell me that isn’t screwball at its finest: Grant learning to purl from Florence Bates. All along, Grant is planning to run the gambling at the War Relief ball and swindle the ladies out of the profits, earning himself enough to set sail on his gambling ship. He seems to change Dorothy’s stuck-up mind about him when he beats up a guy at the shipyard who won’t release a shipment to the ladies. She takes him home, sews up his suit, they banter, and he kisses her. She pretends to be outraged. Later, she tells her grandfather that she is afraid of Grant because he carries a gun, but also that she is using him to make profits for War Relief Inc with his gambling schemes. Another problem here arises: not only does the movie not know what it wants to be, but neither does Day. Is she in love with Grant? What are her motives? Is she using him or is she afraid to get involved with him because she’s society and he’s a low-life? Is he really a low-life? He’s the classiest gambler I’ve ever seen on film.

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Day’s grandfather tries to have Grant arrested to stop him from running the gambling at the ball, but Day helps Grant elude the cops, and then has to drive Grant out of New York, down to her family home in Maryland, to call her grandfather, to call off the cops. She has to place the phone call from Maryland for some unknown reason (The other side of her family were reckless?), and she threatens to marry Grant if her grandfather won’t let the gambling happen at the ball. Why any of this is necessary is not explained or evident. Grant is highly insulted that marrying him is a threat, but she kisses him this time, so he comes around.

We come into the ball in full-on romantic comedy mode, but the re-appearance of the partner, Stewart, and grandfather with the cops and guns turns the movie bloody. The partner holds up Grant at gunpoint and swindles both he and War Relief Inc out of the gambling profits at the ball. Grant turns the tables on him, Grant is shot, then Grant curbstomps his former partner. Day is present, but knocked out early in the scuffle. Grant flees the scene, bleeding. Now we’re back, somewhat, to noir, and double-crossing gangsters.

“Where did you get that butt?” [referring to the cigarette in Grant’s mouth or the bullet in his stomach: viewer’s choice]

“I promoted it off a guy.”

“One cough outta you and you’ll fill this seat with oatmeal.”

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Grant disappears, his first mate returns the money to Day and War Relief, and Grant sails off to become a Merchant Marine. We are left confused as to whether to be heartbroken that the lovers were torn apart (By war? By Grant sailing away more literally.) or vindicated that the gangster/gambler returned the money. The film can’t decide what it is: the casting of Grant was a misstep if this was a gangster or noir picture, but a predictable choice if it is intended as romantic comedy. The dominant elements come off as romantic comedy, as most scenes are played between Grant and Day. Day was also a noir actress, but here she manages the prudish heiress coming around to love quite well. Even Grant’s driver/henchman is a comical romantic comedy figure, teaching the boys on the gambling ship to knit “Ok so da  thingy goes tru da noose y’see…” in New York gangster slang. The opening features a nightwatchman coming upon a sailor in the mist, and the sailor explains the presence of the lady – thereby explaining the story of Grant and Day. At the end, this sailor returns, he is known as “Hard Swede” or just “Swede” for short, and he returns the money to Day. He signals the shifts to gangsterdom, with his rough Charles Bickford voice and his grim slang. (As opposed to Grant’s “Australian” slang which is jazzy-jingly and rhyming. “Bottle and stopper” for “copper” or “briny marlin” for “darling.”) The film was a departure for Grant, but he was always one to do what he wanted. It’s a shame the movie never made up its mind about why any of the characters acted the way they did, or what it really wanted to tell us.

Directors Named George: Stevens and Cukor

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.

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