- On Pomerance and Palmer's George Cukor: Hollywood Master
Murray Pomerance and R. Barton Palmer's new collection, George Cukor: Hollywood Master, covers most of the nearly fifty films directed by George Cukor over a period of fifty years in Hollywood. This first-ever edited volume on the director's work accomplishes well its intention to "celebrate Cukor's filmmaking career" (9) and to address some of the ways Cukor's talent can best be appreciated. Cukor does not fulfill traditional criteria for an auteurist approach, for he did not write or produce, nor did he craft an oeuvre unified around a central theme or within a specific genre. Nonetheless his work does involve the reiteration of certain themes, images, and elements of style and technique. Moreover, he believed strongly in collaboration with cast and crew. The collection is thus devoted not to a singular artist but to a man who knew "what makes for a good adapter, for a talented master of ceremonies who knows where to put everything and everybody (including the camera)," and "how to make a property his own even while enhancing the value it has as belonging to someone else" (6).
The editors gathered nine scholars (and Palmer himself) to pen ten chapters covering forty-five films in diversely focused studies that tackle from three to nine films each. As a reader, writer, and editor myself, I delighted in pondering how [End Page 106] the topics and films were assigned, wondering if there were debates as some films needed to be covered though no one might be so inclined—such as the wartime propaganda film Winged Victory (USA, 1944) or the poorly received Lana Turner vehicle A Life of Her Own (USA, 1950). Then, on the other hand, there might be many offers to cover the most "best" films—for example, The Philadelphia Story (1940) or A Star Is Born (USA, 1954). The chapters as assembled, however, do not feel as if the writers have been forced to include films that do not fit their topics. We can enjoy and learn from each grouping and angle as presented. The least satisfying chapter is probably Bill Krohn's "Cukor Maudit," because it must cover nine less-studied pictures and can truly do so only through a series of "notes." (This doesn't mean Krohn's notes aren't interesting; they are.)
The book's introduction provides a welcoming environment for those inexperienced in Cukor, as do several chapters discussing central elements in the director's films. Particularly straightforward as an appreciation is Maureen Turim's "Cukor's Tragicomedies of Marriage." Similarly, Michael DeAngelis offers a productive overview of "Doubling in the Cinema of George Cukor." And Palmer's "The Furthest Side of Paradise" concludes the book effectively with its reevaluation of several underappreciated Cukor films within the context of the history of Cukor studies. Most persuasive of these informative chapters is probably Robert B. Ray's "The Cukor 'Problem,'" which challenges claims that Cukor had no stylistic "signature" by pitting scenes from several of his literary adaptations against those of other (previous or succeeding) versions to illustrate "what Cukor did to warrant his status as a great filmmaker" (61).
Cukor is particularly well known for his work with female stars, and the collection attends well to women's issues. In "Libel, Scandal, and Bad Big Names," Dominic Lennard discusses four films that focus on particular performances of selfhood which the film denotes (through patriarchal ideology) as "truthful and necessary [. . .] while concealing broader social forces that work to disempower the individual" (43). And Linda Ruth Williams addresses what she terms "George Cukor's Theatrical Feminism," wherein films with diverse scenarios and tones share an emphasis on performative spaces in which women are "on show" yet act to challenge the male gaze and "female victimage" (155).
For those already familiar with Cukor's work, there are also chapters that enhance Cukor's status and worthiness as a subject of scholarly attention. Particularly impressive are those that focus...