George Cukor has often been called a pre-eminent director of women. And that he was, like certain other gay film-makers. Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman and Judy Garland could testify to that. It would be more accurate, however, to cast him as a film-maker who paid particular attention to performance and relationships.
Cukor had just about the longest continuous career of any major director who worked within the mainstream. He survived Hollywood’s often cavalier treatment of original talent, including the blow of being fired by David Selznick a few days into the shoot of Gone With the Wind after coaching Vivien Leigh. When you look at the sort of movies he might have been asked to direct now were he still at work, you long for the wit, humanity and the sense of style evinced by such classics as The Philadelphia Story.
The film is not, perhaps, the funniest romantic comedy ever made. Cukor attempted to pitch Donald Ogden Stewart and Waldo Salt’s adaptation of the Philip Barry play into the realms of ironic social significance, by suggesting that it isn’t only the rich who have vices and the poor who have virtue. But considering the talkative nature of the film, it moves marvellously and the performances would be very hard to beat because they are based on the wit of character rather than lines.
In the silent opening sequence, Cary Grant, as Hepburn’s former husband, is thrown out of the front door of her wealthy parents’ ritzy home in Philadelphia. When Hepburn, soon to be married to a less dissolute lover, appears, she breaks one of his favourite golf clubs, throws them after him and slams the door. Grant doesn’t give up and rings the doorbell again. When Hepburn answers, he pushes her in the face.
This perfectly timed sequence tells us everything. Admittedly we are in a sense primed, since the two stars had appeared before as antagonists, notably in Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett and in Howard Hawks’s Bringing up Baby. And Hepburn’s furious reaction turned to advantage the reputation she had acquired as arrogant and mannish, and thus box office poison.
Hepburn had starred in the play on Broadway; she acquired the movie rights and sold them to MGM with the proviso that she was the star and had the choice of director and co-stars. It seems extraordinary now that she had left Hollywood in high dudgeon before this film, feeling totally unappreciated by the public. But this was the 30s, when woman stars were liked for their vulnerability rather than their independence.
Cukor’s skill at using her negative image and turning it round so successfully – the film was a huge hit – was typical of the man. Like Hawks, he was able to make the very best of good material.
Cukor has often been attacked for his obedience to the studio system, his insistence on not interfering with the values of a screenplay and the commercial appeal of his films. He could be pedestrian (witness My Fair Lady). But at his best he showed how good the studio system could be. He had taste, style and humanity. And his films look better now than they ever did because of it.