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George Cukor

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Out of the Pigeonhole

By Theodore Strauss

The New York Times, October 19, 1941 page IX 5

Accidents will happen. Until someone makes the fearful mistake of reminding George Cukor that he once had been labeled a "woman's director," he seemed almost as relaxed as a whirling dervish-- a degree of passivity, one might add, rarely achieved by Hollywood directors unless bitten by a tsetse fly. Fresh from the completion of Greta Garbo's newest comic escapade, "Two-Faced Woman," Mr. Cukor squirmed in a fragile-looking chair one day last week while discoursing on a number of things, to wit: that Miss Garbo is a most cooperative actress with a sure sense of her own limitations, that the waste of talent in Hollywood only reflects an American habit, that an honestly felt film is a hundred times easier to make than brittle nonsense, and that the movies will mature as the wide public itself matures. Then came the faux pas. Was the direction of women stars Mr. Cukor's forte?

Mr. Cukor stopped in the middle of a sentence, his mouth open, his eyes fiercely concentrated behind the thick-lensed glasses. For a moment he resembled an impetuous gargoyle; for less than a moment the profane epigram was half-unsheathed. Then he smote the arm of his chair with dangerous force.

In the Pigeonhole

"There's the pigeonhole again," he said vehemently. "You direct a couple of successful pictures with women stars, so you become a 'woman's director.' You direct a sophisticated comedy that clicks and after that you're a smoothie. You direct a couple of film versions of plays and you're tagged for that. Direct an outdoor epic and after that it's your speciality. Direct a sentimental little picture and all you get is sob stuff. I know. I've been in and out of all those little compartments. Heaven knows, every one has his limitations. But why make them narrower than they are?"

"When I went to Hollywood in 1929," he said, breathing a little easier, "they used to judge your talent by your personality. If you walked into the front office with a long face, they gave you straight drama; if you cracked jokes, they gave you comedy. I cracked jokes. For a long time after that whenever any one mentioned my name for a serious picture they'd shake their heads and say, 'No heart!' Then came 'Little Women' and they were surprised!"

Mr. Cukor seemed inclined to discount the "director's touch." "For one thing," he said, "give me a good script and I'll be a hundred times better as a director. For another thing, despite the fact that there are occasional complaints that Hollywood doesn't allow much opportunity for a director's strongly individual impress, I think that there are few who have it to make and those that have are generally given plenty of leeway. And, finally, so far as I'm concerned, I don't like to have the director forever dancing between me and the story on the screen. In the pictures of mine that I like the best, my own work is least apparent."

Drawn From Life?

"As a matter of fact," he continued, "as a director I'm not interested so much in camera angles and all that. I'm interested in human behavior." For a moment he was almost reflective, then he added: "If only fiction could catch up with life a little more quickly, you know, catch the completely contemporary point of view, get the texture of the life of 1941, the currency of the daily papers! Things move so rapidly nowadays, that you're old-fashioned almost without knowing it. Dowagers in the movies still behave like those of Mrs. Astor's era, brats are all written by Booth Tarkington. Why, most of the plays put on three years ago seem absolutely Edwardian today. If films are to have freshness and vitality, they have to have that sense of modernity, instead of a cliché pattern of behavior that passed out a generation ago. To be able to keep that sense as a director, you've got to have fresh air once in a while. And that," he said finally, "is why I came to New York to poke around for a bit."

Mr. Cukor had subsided entirely now and no one mentioned the label of "woman's director" again. In cases like this it is better to let sleeping dogs lie.

© 1941 The New York Times

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