Academic journal article CineAction

George Cukor's "Take" on the Literacy Narrative: Hollywood Style

Academic journal article CineAction

George Cukor's "Take" on the Literacy Narrative: Hollywood Style

Article excerpt

In his seminal The American Cinema (1966), Andrew Sarris relegates George Cukor to a section entitled "The Far Side of Paradise," dedicated to directors who "fall short of the Pantheon either because of a fragmentation of their vision or because of disruptive career problems" (83). However, in his brief assessment of Cukor's illustrious fifty year career as a Hollywood film director, he never once delineates what the "fragmentation" or the "disruptive career problems" were that places Cukor's work in this secondary category. As a matter of fact, he chastises those who only see Cukor as a "women's director," and praises Cukor's films as those of a "genuine artist" (90):

The thematic consistency of Cukor's career has been achieved through a judicious mixture of selection and emphasis. The director's theme is imagination, with the focus on the imaginer rather than on the thing imagined. (89)

However, in regard to his hierarchy, Sarris appears as guilty as the critics he debunks because he offers no criteria of his placement here. This is just another glaring example of the fact that critics and scholars alike have never known quite what to do with Cukor's incredible oeuvre. Spanning from the early sound era, working with Lewis Milestone as a dialect coach on All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) to his last project Rich and Famous (1981), Cukor's vision endured throughout the studio era and into the independent arena. Yet, critics and theorists both simply dismiss him as a "woman's director," a critical label akin to "box-office poison" levied at stars during the studio years who defied the moguls.

There are a number of reasons why Cukor suffers in critical circles, and we, namely, have to begin with himself to find the root cause. In his later years, Cukor became deeply suspicious of the advent of film theory, and while he donated large amounts of time and even greater amounts of money to film schools in California, he avoided, in a series of interviews with Gavin Lambert, the popular term auteur because of its elitist tone:

I'm not an auteur, alas. And the whole auteur theory disconcerts me. To begin with, damn few directors can write. I have too much respect for good writers to think of taking over that job. Also, to be frank, not all directors can direct ... I suppose I influence a great deal in many ways. I have ideas about a script, I influence the performances very much, and visually I go on a great deal about sets and clothes ... That, I choose to say, is style. You make big decisions and small decisions and decisions you aren't even consciously aware of. You do unexpected things on the set. You have a vision. (13-14)

Emphasizing the ideas of "style," and "teamwork," Cukor consciously defied the aueurist label because he felt it demeaned the collaborative effort that created a film--a theory that has only recently become more accepted among theorists.

A second "problem" with Cukor's work is its subtlety--a quality that continues to baffle those critics who pay more attention to camera movement as a plot contribution than to Cukor's whole reason for making films--to tell stories of people. In regard to this, Cukor believed that directors who paid more attention to shooting and editing for the camera rather than to the performance "revealed an ungenerous spirit" (19). Later, he told Peter Bogdonovich that he gathered his influences by walking down the street, or reading books--not from other film directors (443-44), because he believed the "director and his camerawork should not intrude on the story"

You should never move the camera unless you have to; you should remain unostentatious; because if you do a lot of fancy footwork, maybe they notice you as a director, but I think it hurts the story. (444-45)

Cukor's own theory, recognizing the collaborative effort of the film-making process, paired with his conviction that the director remain invisible, has made him a very difficult study for theorists. It also explains why the numerous interviews that he gave before he died in 1983, and the two major biographies that surfaced since then, focus on his relationships with the many movie stars he befriended over the years. Instead of examining the subtleties of Cukor's method, these writings border on exposing Cukor's "double life" as a homosexual who befriended his female co-stars(1), or on the elegance of his personal style, again attributed to his relationships to his female stars.(2) No one "reads" Cukor's films; critics only "discuss" them via plot synopses.

However, I would like to take this occasion to begin theorizing and reading the work of George Cukor in the sophisticated manner it is due. His attention to the delicate balance between text and performance, coupled with his "less-is-more" theory of camerawork makes him all the more fascinating a study. Finding commonalities between his very eclectic films is one way to begin a reading of his work. In constructing my own method for reading Cukor's work, I turn now to one particular kind of text that the director appeared drawn toward in an effort to illustrate how Cukor's decision to prioritize the text and the performance created a truly unique spectacle.

The literacy narrative is a new label for a very old genre of Hollywood film that follows a pedagogical process, focusing on a protagonist empowered through the acquisition of a new "language," usually as the result of a desire to achieve a clearly delineated goal. Rhetorical theory inspired the reading of texts as literacy narratives, initially looking at autobiographical writings of artists who chronicle their own inspiration and growth through the pursuit of their art, particularly examining their relationships with those who inspired them to express themselves. Rhetorical analysis paved the way for the discovery of literary texts that function as literacy narratives, reading fictional narratives "that foreground issues of language acquisition and literacy" (Eldred and Mortensen 513). When reading for literacy narratives, the reader understands the protagonist's desire to acquire a new language, and the reader witnesses the social processing they undergo as a result. In this way, "Literacy narratives sometimes include explicit images of schooling and teaching; they include texts that both challenge and affirm culturally scripted ideas about literacy" (513). Therefore, readers experience the protagonist's transformation into a new linguistic order, and comprehend the consequences of their movement into this new linguistic sphere.

The quintessential literacy narrative is George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion (1897), a play that focuses on the education of a pupil determined to move from one socially linguistic order to another. In foregrounding the play as a literacy narrative, Eldred and Mortensen find that the text raises

questions about the nature of literacy education, about whether literacy can be acquired without institutional training, about the relationship between literacy and socialization, employment, and mobility, about the continuities and tensions between speech and writing, about the influence of popular and literacy genres on literary formation, and about the role of gender in the acquisition of schooled language. (513)

In other words, the reading focuses on the issue of empowerment through education; education becomes the transformational means by which the protagonist succeeds in participating within the prescribed order.

Cukor's reputation as a "woman's director" is not the central reason for re-examining his films as literacy narratives; however, it does provide a theoretical paradigm to use in measuring his subtle directorial techniques--techniques that have long gone overlooked in the assessment of Hollywood's major directors. When Cukor commits a screenplay that serves as a literacy narrative to celluloid, the result is a film that transcends time to instruct the spectator in another form of literacy education, making us the willing pupils of Cukor's own filmic pedagogy.

Long thought a book for little girls, Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1864) suffered until being recently re-discovered by academics as an important text of feminist literature. The episodic narrative is, indeed, a literacy narrative, as it follows the March girls as they grow into "little women," a term coined by their parents who guide their maturation. Each of the four girls becomes the focus of significant portions of the text, and each embodies a goal and a particular fault that makes their journey real. Meg, the eldest, desires to marry well in order to become a socialite; her weakness for these societal trappings complicates her more genuine spirit. Jo, whose story makes up the bulk of the literacy narrative, desires to be a writer; her quick temper and impulsive behavior, however, reveal her to be much more melodramatic than the publishing community desires. Beth, the sickly invalid, desires to maintain the home, allowing her sisters to seek their strength in the outer world; her health is her primary weakness, as it prevents her from straying too far from the March hearth. Amy, the youngest, desires to be an artist; her vanity, however, makes her appear a spoiled child, which prevents her from exploring the possibilities of her own genuine soul. Each girl, in facing her "burdens," eventually learns that their goals can be met when reality tempers the extremity of their desires.

Cukor was approached by David Selznick to film Little Women as a vehicle for Katharine Hepburn, and he admits, at first, that he labeled the story "sentimental"--a term pinned to the novel from its early days:

Of course I'd heard of it all my life, but it was a story that little girls read ... When I came to read it, I was startled. It's not sentimental or saccharine, but very strong-minded, full of character, and a wonderful picture of New England family life. It's full of that admirable New England sternness, about sacrifice and austerity. (Lambert 75)

Cukor claims that the adaptation for the screen helped to make the film strong because it mirrors the novel so beautifully:

The construction was very loose, very episodic, like the novel. No plottiness. Things happen, but they're not all tied together. (The later version made the mistake of slicking it up.) But the writers believed in the book, they understood its vitality, which is not namby-pamby in any way ... If you really respect a work, you must respect the weaknesses, or the vagaries, as well as the strengths. (76)

This belief is what makes Cukor's version of Little Women so profoundly moving.

The film eschews the cliche convention for adaptations, using book pages to screen the credits or to introduce the narrative; Cukor's credit sequence frames a New England farmhouse in a delightful snowstorm, situating the narrative in the real world. The screenplay differs from the novel by introducing us first to Mrs. March, more affectionately known as Marmee (Spring Byington), completing a day of charitable work at a local hospital, arranging for families to receive food and clothing for Christmas. We then cut to the March home and Cukor's camera introduces us to each of the March girls as they prepare for Marmee's arrival home. The screenplay maintains a central conversation from the text as Jo (Katharine Hepburn) and Marmee reminisce about a game the girls played as children based on Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, which introduces each of the girls' weaknesses in connection to their initial goals. The community of "little women" established in these opening moments centralizes the protagonists for the spectator, enabling us to comprehend the reality of growing up as housebound women during the Civil War era.

Both the film and the novel rely on two pedagogues to relate the texts as literacy narratives; Marmee does act as the initial pedagogue, to a degree, and Jo learns from her encounter with Professor Bhaer (Paul Lukas) in a secondary manner. In this respect, we follow Jo's writing career in the early section in two significant ways. The first involves the Marches' "production" of Jo's play for the neighborhood girls on Christmas Eve. Cukor shows the girls rehearsing the play, Jo teaching Amy (Joan Bennett) to faint "properly," Meg (Frances Dee) attending to the costumes, and Beth (Jean Parker) to the sets, all in an effort to stage Jo's melodrama. Jo's bravado during the performance, naturally, leads to a comical disaster, but the important point is revealing Jo's passion for her craft. Not only does the play hold the neighborhood girls in rapt attention, up until Jo's mishap, but her song to the play's heroine (which we must assume she has written as well) is met with a great deal of applause.

The second instance of Jo and her craft is the secretive selling of her first story, "The Phantom Hand," to the local newspaper for $1.50. We see Jo putting the finishing touches on the story in her attic study, taking off her writing cap and climbing down the garden trellis to sneak out of the house. We then cut to a close-up of a door to the local newspaper, and Jo leaving it, looking at what appears to be a check. Here, on the street, she encounters Laurie (Douglass Montgomery), who tries to get Jo to reveal her secret; when she refuses, he rips the check from her hand, and we read it over his shoulder in close-up: "In full payment for story entitled "The Phantom Hand." What is so wonderful about the sequence is Laurie's complete joy and Jo's breathless happiness at her success. Cukor's camera tracks with the characters as they joyfully proceed home, promising to keep quiet until the story appears. Later, Jo reads the story's final installment aloud to Beth and to Amy, who both tremble with fear at the story's gothic qualities. However, the girls shriek with glee as Laurie reveals that the story's author is Jo. This component is an important one in seeing the film as a literacy narrative because it not only reveals Jo's commitment to her craft, but it sets up the next portion of the narrative as Jo seriously embarks on her career as an author.

The film employs one interesting image as a transitional device. Repeatedly, Cukor introduces episodes, such as Mr. Brook's (John Davis Lodge) courting of Meg, with an image of Jo reading a book. This confirms the idea in the mind of the spectator that Jo is much more than her "tomboy" exterior. In her first visit to Laurie, Jo and he fence in Mr. Laurence's (Henry Stephenson) well-apportioned sitting room while discussing Dickens, Scott, and other popular European authors of adventurous stories. This distinguishes Jo from her sisters in a significant way, because writing and reading are such solitary activities, and these actually contribute to her more masculinized image, as education was a male domain at the time. Eventually, when Laurie pledges his love to Jo, he distinguishes her from other girls that he meets at college, realizing that she is so much more than he. However, she refuses him by reminding him of her more solitary mission: "I loathe elegant society, and you love it. And, you hate my scribbling." Jo always returns to her writing as her primary goal, and uses the opportunity to go to New York--as a governess--and to "get new ideas for my stories."

Of course, Jo's excursion to New York introduces her to her future husband--not the "good-for-nothing" scrape that Laurie predicts--but Professor Bhaer, a kind, gentle German scholar who "learns people how to talk in foreign countries," according to the maid. One night, while sewing, Jo overhears Bhaer in the adjoining parlor, singing in his native German. Cukor's close-ups of Jo listening to him reveal her interest, and when he tells her he is singing Goethe, she leans against the piano in a more seductive manner. Here, Bhaer begins to connect with her as he tells her of great composers, like Tchaikovsky, who wrote passionate music from the torture within their souls. Jo responds as she always does--aligning herself with the artist within: "If only I could write something like that--something splendid that would set other hearts on fire." It is here that both Alcott and Cukor build into the narrative the relationship with the pedagogue figure, as Beahr becomes Jo's central critic and teacher.

As the film progresses, Cukor shows us in close-up a pile of newspapers on Jo's table, each titled after similar popular press papers of the day, such as "The Last Sensation" and "The Volcano,' showing us the type of paper that Jo continues to publish in--papers filled with the gothic romance stories that she continues to write as inspired by her reading. Jo meets two disappointments in this section of the film: the first being Aunt March's announcement that Amy will accompany her to Europe, instead of her; the second, and more important, being Bhaer's criticism of her stories. Jo takes his criticism hard, but he assures her it is only for her own good. After admitting his disappointment, he asks her "Why do you write such artificial characters? Such artificial plots? Full of murder and such women?" When Jo begins to sob, Bhaer admits that he is only trying to help--and Jo begins to agree: "If I can't stand the truth, then I'm not worth anything. Oh, I didn't think those stories were so very good. But, `The Duke's Daughter' paid the butcher's bill. And, the `Curse of the Coventry' was a blessing for the Marches because it sent Beth and Marmee to the seashore." Cukor frames the conversation in an interesting way--rather than employing the standard shot-reverse-shot pattern, he centers Jo and Bhaer in the frame together: Jo sitting on a stool, and Bhaer, kneeling on the ground, almost at her feet. In this respect, they are very much eye-to-eye, and on an even ground--neither has authority in the frame. This prepares us for the revelation that Bhaer is falling in love with Jo, and that Jo is not intimidated by Bhaer's knowledge--they are suitable companions because they share a similar passion for the intellectual. The conversation turns immediately to Bhaer's advice, and this solidifies his inherent pedagogical spirit for Jo: "Say to yourself, `I will never write another line that I have not first heard in my heart. While I am young, I will write simple and beautiful things that I understand now. And, maybe when I am older, and I have lived life more, then I will write about such foolish wretches, but I will make them live and breathe like my Shakespeare did.'" Jo's immediate response is that she never could aspire to be a Shakespeare; Bhaer tells her instead to be "a Josephine March'--a compliment of the highest order, recognizing that Jo has the talent and the passion to become a serious writer on her own terms.

A catastrophe hits the March family after this climactic moment, as Jo hears of Beth's final illness. She returns home to sit with her sister as she dies, in a very realistic sequence. Cukor holds the camera steady as the camera centers on Beth holding Jo close as she tells her that she is no longer afraid--only saddened at the prospect of being homesick for Jo. This intimate moment cuts to a close-up of a sheet of paper, on which Jo writes the following:

My Beth

Oh my sister, passing from me

Out of human care and strife

Leave us, as a gift, those virtues

Which have beautified your life

By that deep and solemn river

Where your willing feet now stand.

While the poem is still a bit syrupy, the sentiment is certainly real, and the realistic manner in which Cukor screens the death is meant to resonate through Jo and through us. In a final moment, Jo kisses Beth one last time. The camera cuts to a windowsill on which two blackbirds sing. As the birds fly away, the camera remains focused on the empty sill as Jo calls for their mother, announcing Beth's end. Jo does not sob, but holds her mother and tells her not to cry as "Beth is well at last." The moment is sharp, and not sentimentalized--much like Beth's death in the novel. Instead, it becomes a lesson for Jo, as she uses the time to write and to reflect, doing, in essence, just what Bhaer suggested.

The scene shifts to Jo ironing, and discussing with Meg that her new story has been sent off. As Meg relates that she is saddened that Jo has not shared it with anyone, we get the impression that it is a very different type of story. In a conversation with the returning Laurie, now married to Amy, she tells him that "We cannot be playmates any longer--but we can be brother and sister," revealing a maturity in Jo that has come as a consequence of both living and polishing her craft. Bhaer arrives with a book in hand, and he tells her that this new work is full of "simple truth and beauty," a high note of praise from the professor. This sets the stage for his simple proposal to Jo and the film's conclusion. Jo, now a "respected" author can marry the man who is her equal--who respects both her and her craft.

In commenting on the success of Little Women, Cukor felt that much was due to the manner in which the texts, both the original novel and the screenplay, were respected by himself and his cast:

I know I always say this, but the text determined that. You couldn't have done the picture in any other style. The director must never overwhelm a picture, he must serve it. This may not be the attention-getting way, but I believe in it. The moment you're aware of something, like the photography is so great, it usually means something is lacking. (77)

In this respect, Cukor admits that the film text is a valid method of bringing a note of honesty to the Hollywood literacy narrative.

Cukor's filmed version of Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin's social stage comedy Born Yesterday is a shining example of a literacy narrative Hollywood style. According to Levy, the screenplay version of the Broadway play underwent three major revisions before the studio agreed to let Cukor begin filmming: "Cukor and Kanin suspected a certain kind of censorship was at work. The omissions--were disastrous. To have rewritten the script into a snide piece of mushmouthery, was `a terrible whiff from the stench of cowardice'" (191). The play's subject, the symbolic re-birth of a socially fallen woman, tested the censors at every turn: "Cukor was urged to take the greatest care in photographing [Judy] Holliday's dresses: It was mandatory for the intimate parts of the body--specifically the breasts--to be fully covered" (191). However, as one can see from the final result, it is Cukor's adherence to the literacy tradition that makes the film succeed.

Born Yesterday follows Billie Dawn (Judy Holliday) to Washington, D. C., where she stays at the Blair House with her boyfriend of nine years, Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford), who desires repayment in the form of congressional support for campaigns financed over the years which advantaged his own entrepreneurial ventures in "junk." Our first glimpse of Billie is her arrival, tossing her three furs on to the arm of a silent bellboy, decked out in a glossy dress more suited for a nightclub that for street-wear. As the manager takes the couple through their "wing," Harry and Billie behave in their typically private fashion, bellowing back-and-forth between the balconies that adorn the suite in a unique shot-reverse shot pattern. But this does not only reveal the socially awkward character of Billie--it reveals the coarse demeanor of Harry as well. As Harry prepares for the visit of a Congressman and Mrs. Hedges (Larry Oliver; Barbara Brown), we see the inherent cruelty of Harry and Billie's relationship. She enters a room for "a drink" while Harry is being shaved, manicured, and shined for the Senator's visit, and while being interviewed by Paul Verrell (William Holden), a reporter for the Washington Post. Billie, in a frothy negligee, attempts to take a bottle of brandy back to her suite when Harry stops her. As she tries to explain her needs, Harry prevents her from speaking: "I don't want you around here stinking. Now, do what I'm tellin' ya!" The response shot is priceless, as Billie looks toward Paul with complete humiliation; it is our first indication that she does not know how to articulate herself in relation to Harry. Just after this, Harry bellows her to sign some papers: "That's all I do around here is sign stuff." After Harry leaves, Billie enters into a little conversation with Jim, Harry's lawyer (Howard St. John), and the two subtly reveal their victimization:

Billie: What happened to all that stuff I signed last week?

Jim: All used up.

Billie: I bet I must have signed about a million of these.

Jim: That's what you get for being a multiple corporate officer.

Billie: I am? Well, what do you know.

Cukor frames this sequence significantly, keeping Billie seated with Jim standing over her. As she continues talking, she tells us that Harry took her away from the stage and her dream of "bein' a star" because he "didn't want to share me with the general public." Here, the conversation and the framing reveal to us the fragility and the powerlessness of Billie in the face of Harry's patriarchal oppression.

Later, we see that Billie is unable to discourse with the political set when Congressman and Mrs. Hedges arrive for cocktails. The Hedges attempt to hold a conversation with Billie, but her lack of social polish adds to the comic quality of their arrival. For instance, Mrs. Hedges refers to Billie as "Mrs. Brock," but because Harry repeatedly reminds her she is not Mrs. Brock, Billie does not respond to her. In another comical moment, Mrs. Hedges proclaims, "It is too bad the Supreme Court is not in session. You'd love that." Billie nods in agreement, but qualifies her ignorance by responding, "What is it?" Cukor's framing, again, is crucial, as each time the camera centers on the group, it maintains Billie in the corner of the frame, emphasizing her discomfort--in direct contrast to the standard centering used for the other characters. Billie embarrasses both herself and Harry as she insists on playing the radio and singing each time the conversation lags, setting the stage for Harry's idea. After the Hedges' visit, Harry begins to fear that Billie will embarrass him as he mingles with the Washington set; he hires Paul Verrell to educate Billie--to polish her rough edges--so she can comfortably interact with Washington society.

This version of the literacy narrative reveals two contrary patriarchal agendas as it enters into the discourse of the capitalist ethic. First, it suggests that an education can be purchased for the right price; second it implies that once purchased, an education will automatically elevate the student from social outcast to societal diva. In this light, the film parallels Eliza Dolittle's recognition that education removes her from her previous life without assuring her salvation in another. In their first real conversation, Paul interviews Billie, and he quickly realizes that Billie is a handful:

Paul: Harry would like us to spend a little time together.

Billie: So what are you--some kind of gigolo?

Paul: Not exactly.

Billie: So, what's the idea?

Paul: Well, he'd just like me to put you wise to a few things--show the ropes--answer any questions that you might have.

Billie: I got no questions.

Paul: Then, I'll give you some.

Billie: Thanks.

Cukor screens this early portion of the conversation in a similar fashion to those screened before--Billie sitting, the man standing over her. However, once Paul realizes that Billie is not going to be a willing pupil, he tries something different. He sits down on a hassock, right in front of her, and the camera moves with him, framing the couple on the same level--as equals. Billie recognizes Paul's efforts from this point forward, and she begins to become receptive to his pedagogy. Billie begins to get more forward with Paul, asking him how much Harry is paying for her "education." But he astounds her when he tells her he would have done it for free: "This is not work--I like it." However, her subsequent line of questioning permits Paul a real avenue for showing Billie that she should want more out of life:

Billie: He thinks I'm too stupid, huh?

Paul: Well ...

Billie: He's right--I'm stupid. And, I like it, too.

Paul: You do?

Billie: Sure, I'm happy. I get everything I want--two mink coats. Everything. There's something I want, I ask. But, if he don't act friendly, I don't act friendly. So, as long as I know how to get what I want, that's all I want to know.

Paul: As long as you know what you want.

Billie: What?

Paul: As long as you know what you want.

Billie: You trying to mix me up?

Billie admits after this that she would like to refine her speech, so she could present herself a little more carefully. At this point, Billie begins to open up to Paul, revealing that she never uses the word "ain't" because the teachers at school "would slug ya" when you did, and telling him her real name is "Emma." When Paul says he doesn't believe in slugging, Billie readily agrees: "I guess I don't believe in it either. See, I'm a pretty fast learner." What we witness here is Paul instilling a bit of confidence in Billie, and it sets the literacy narrative in motion as Billie begins to tackle her learning because she begins to admire the more polished Paul--and even more so when he oversteps his boundaries and kisses her.

However, one final and comically brilliant sequence reveals to us that Billie might prove to be more "prepared" for learning than Paul or Harry expect. After Paul leaves, Billie joins Harry for a game of gin rummy--the only card game she claims to be able to play. Some conjecture that Cukor simply leaves the camera centered on the action of the game, played with no dialogue between the principles, to recreate the effect of the original stage performance. However, it is clearly evident that Cukor does not simply recreate the stage performance here. He begins by adjusting the frame so that the camera focuses on Billie and keeps Harry off to the side. The table at which they play is noticeably small, and Harry appears clumsy and out of place at it. This placement also allows him to watch Billie with rapt curiosity as she rapidly organizes her cards to see what is in her hand. She quickly wins the first game, and her glee is only caught in the way she slams the cards down on the table, obviously mirroring Harry's abrupt way of revealing a winning hand before. The second hand begins as Billie deals the cards, carefully counting out each card to ensure the proper number. Harry begins to talk here, telling Billie to "pay attention to that Verrell--he might do you some good." All the while, Billie pays very careful attention to her hand, again, rapidly organizing the cards and retrieving the winning hand. The camera cuts for the first time to a close-up of Billie adding her winnings together. She uses her fingers to count out the figures, comically admitting to not being very bright mathematically. We return to the original set up after she reminds Harry that "You could use a little education yourself" and he tells her to shut up. The tension builds here in the third hand, as Billie deals the cards and her frustration prevents her from dealing evenly. However, once she organizes her cards, and she sees that she has a respectable hand, she begins to sing, consciously annoying Harry, who obviously is close to losing again. What we learn in this sequence is that Billie is inherently bright--she is capable of learning once someone shows an interest in her as a person. Obviously, Harry taught her to play cards when they were just together, and Billie took to the game as a way of bonding with him. This prepares us for Billie's subsequent education as Paul introduces her to the world at large.

Billie's transformation, however, is much the opposite of Eliza's--and this is, perhaps, the American take on the literacy narrative. Where Eliza learns to speak with grace and poise--she loses her impoverished dialect to secure a more genteel one--Billie never loses her natural speech tones. Instead, Paul increases her vocabulary and assists her in applying it to a new body of knowledge--to the world of current events, politics, and the law. One shot shows Billie reading the newspaper, having done just what Paul instructed her to do--circle anything she does not understand. The close-up shows Billie in bed, with whole articles circled, and dizzily confused about everything. However, she reveals her natural savvy once more, as she makes a play for Paul, an attempt to replay the kiss of the night before; when he refuses, she ends the conversation: "I ought to put a big circle around you."

Another distinction between the classic and Cukor's Hollywood literacy narrative is the situation of the teacher. For instance, in Shaw's narrative, Henry Higgins is seen in an antagonistic light, with manners and scruples to match. He bets his friend Pickering that he can turn Eliza from a "guttersnipe" to a "girl in a flower shop" before the Embassy ball, a form of masquerade that he does achieve. However, he never once thinks of Eliza's future, and never pauses to consider that this new education will make her useless in the world that she understands. In much the opposite fashion, Paul assists Billie in not only becoming educated, but he continuously shows her how she will be able to apply her new knowledge. Cukor introduces this idea with a montage of Billie touring the Capitol, watching young and old marvel in the building's history--as Paul watches Billie, she wanders around looking not at the artifacts, but at the people learning about their heritage. The camera, then, tilts upwards to render her awe at the ceiling of the Rotunda; when she hears that it took an artist many years of painting flat on his back to finish it, she begins to become intrigued. An abrupt cut back to the hotel shows Billie exiting by herself with her new glasses--a look Harry barely recognizes. We then follow her through a second montage as she tours the Library of Congress and The National Archives by herself, following the tour groups and learning about the famous documents. When she later meets up with Paul, she enthusiastically shows him what she acquired on her tour. In a subsequent conversation about an op-ed piece he wrote for the paper, Billie tells him "I think it is the most wonderful thing I ever read. I didn't understand one word of it." Paul, rather than laughing, shows her how to break down the words and to understand the article's principle image: "The Yellowing Democratic Manifesto." Billie, ultimately, begins to understand Paul's central criticism of the government--that people like Harry trample on the rights of others through economic abuse.

At a concert later that evening, Billie reveals to Paul that she received a letter from her father after eight years. What is so significant here is that Paul learns that Billie is from a decent background, and that her father is responsible for instilling in her an ethical sense of responsibility. She relates a story of how he offended her one night after she offered him $100 to repay him for all he had done for her:

One night, I came home and gave him $100. Do you know what he did with it? Well, it sure didn't do the plumber no good. I thought he was going to hit me for sure, but he never hit me once ... He says he's thought about me everyday. I haven't thought about him once, even, in five years. Oh, that's nothing against him. I haven't thought of anything ... He says I should write him again, and that I should have a hot lunch every day. And, I should write to let him know how I am, but he doesn't want to see me if I'm living in any way unethical--I looked it up.

What is so nice about the sequence is that the camera frames Billie in such a way as to show us her gradually shifting emotions--and her gradual recognition of all that her father tried to teach her years before. Cukor rarely cuts to Paul here, so we can really focus on Billie's transformation.

We then move to another sequence, recording Billie's tour of the National Gallery of Art ("even more gorgeous than the Radio City music hall"), and The Jefferson Memorial, and each visit contributes to her understanding of how these monuments represent her as an American citizen. The pedagogical approach Paul orchestrates differs from Higgins' approach because he attempts to assess the end result. A perfect example of this is when the two sit in the National Gallery and discuss "The Happy Peasant" by Robert G. Ingersoll, a narrative that extols the virtues of being a simple man rather than a mogul, such a Napoleon. Later, at the Jefferson Memorial, Paul tells her "The entire history of the world has been a struggle between the selfish and the unselfish," and he begins to point his lessons toward helping Billie to understand that Harry is "a menace," a selfish man who uses everything and anyone to his own end. "I hate his life--what he does--what he stands for, not him" Paul explains. But, Billie recognizes Paul's real weakness is her--and the reason he gets so angry at Harry's brand of business is because of what it does to her.

The final act involves Billie's first real comprehension of her education and her ability to use it to her own advantage. Cukor's camera opens on an image of Billie reading, sitting on a huge pile of books. Her elegant apartment now mirrors that of a learned scholar--Beethoven plays on the stereo, art prints are tacked to the walls, books and papers tossed about in a scholarly array. However, Billie appears frustrated, and her subsequent conversation with Paul tells us why. She appears confused at his indifference toward her, and she admits that she realizes now that she embarked on this pedagogical mission for the wrong reasons--to make him like her.

I never thought I would go through anything like this for anybody ... Like getting all mixed up in my head! Wondering and worrying and thinking and stuff like that. Last night I went to bed and started thinking--I couldn't fall asleep for ten minutes! I don't know if it's so good to find out so much so quick.

Cukor screens the sequence nicely, allowing Paul to sit, and Billie to command the room. She is dressed in a noticeably difference fashion, a more discreet blouse set off by slacks and an outer frock that moves like a gown. Her more commanding presence is not overlooked by Paul, who sits in his chair looking up at her, showing us that he sees the effect of Billie's hard work. And, his understanding is our window into seeing the difference as well.

After Paul leaves, however, we witness Billie's real transformation in her conversations and actions with Harry. The events begin with a framing device Cukor employs that runs throughout the sequence. Billie sits in the foreground of the frame, reading a book; Harry sits down, positioned to be looking over her shoulder. This is a crucial image as it prepares us for the film's change in tone. Billie begins by asking Harry why they are in Washington:

Billie: Harry, what's this business we're down here for--can you tell me?

Harry: What do you mean "we"?

Billie: Well, I'm a partner, in a sort of way ...

Harry: A silent partner.

Billie: So?

Harry: So, shut up.

Billie: I gotta a right to know ...

Harry: You gotta right to keep outta my hair too. Now, put your nose in a book and keep it there.

Billie: I don't want to do anything if it's against the law--that's one sure thing.

Harry: You'll do what I tell you.

Billie: I think I know what it is, only I'm not sure.

Harry: What's a matta with you? You're doin' alright, ain't ya? Is there something you want you ain't got, maybe?

Billie: Yes. I want to be like the "Happy Peasant."

Harry: Alright, I'll buy it for ya. Now, will you quit crabbin'?

Harry turns the questioning to their relationship momentarily--a pattern that used to break Billie's train of thought. However, Billie, now more in tune with her own reasoning, is not so easily swayed. When Helen, the maid (Claire Carleton), comes in to return a book Billie loaned her, Harry breaks up their conversation and tells Billie not to "get friendly with everyone." Billie, now on her feet, runs to a large dictionary to find the correct word for Harry--telling him he is "anti-social." This use of the dictionary gets repeated a number of times, emphasizing Billie's new desire to articulate herself in respect to Harry's silencing patriarchy. Now desperate to articulate her perspective, Billie uses her new education to empower herself.

This becomes even more crucial when Jim later arrives to have Billie sign another set of papers. Instead of complacently obliging with the request, Billie insists on reading the materials before signing them. Billie stalks from her room, and remains standing, glasses firmly fixed, rather than returning to the former image of sitting while Jim stands over her: "I like having things explained to me--I found that out." When Jim attempts to explain the mergers, Billie realizes that the papers are forming a cartel: "A cartel! Paul explained to me all about them, and well, I'm against them." The action returns to Billie's suite, and she begins to read the documents, and to look words up in the dictionary. As Billie hovers over her book, Cukor frames Harry coming from the servants' entrance on the staircase, directly above her. As they sit, she in the foreground, and he behind, looking over her, the image is haunting, as it recalls their last altercation:

Harry: Interesting?

Billie: Not very.

Harry: I suppose you're used to reading more high toned stuff ...

Billie: I'm not sure I like you either.

Harry: Since when is all this?

Billie: Since now. I used to think you were a big man, Harry. But I'm beginning to see you're not. In history, there's been bigger men than you--and better.

Harry: Name one.

Billie: My father.

Harry: Twenty-five a week. Listen cutie, don't get nervous cause you read a book. You're as dumb as you ever were.

Billie: You really think so?

Harry: Yeah, but I don't mind. I like you dumb.

Cukor frames the action nicely here as Harry moves around nervously, and Billie remains seated, confidently speaking her mind. However, as Harry says this last line, Billie bolts, mentally and physically repulsed by his touch. She now tells him that she needs to get away from him "because I've never been like this!" As he bellows after her, Billie finds her voice:

I just know that I hate my life--there's a better kind, I know it. And, if you'd read some of these books, you'd know it too. Maybe you're right--I'm still dumb. But, I know one thing I never knew before--there's a better kind of life than the one I got. Or, you.

The fight does have its humorous moments: the repeated pausing while the maid enters, Billie's pausing to find the right word, even her own brands of home-spun logic: "If a man goes and robs a house, that's work too." The moment comes to a crisis when Harry resorts to insults and violence:

Billie: And, that cheap perfume you put all over yourself ...

Harry: Cheap? I own nothin' that's cheap except you.

Billie: You don't own me. Nobody can own anybody. There's a law that says--

Harry: What do I care what the law says? If I was scared of the law, I wouldn't be where I am.

Billie: Where are you?

Harry: All right, you've talked enough.

As he turns to tell Billie to sign the papers, he slaps her twice. It is a stunning image, and the framing of the shot is powerful as Billie crumbles to the table and reluctantly signs the papers. Billie's sobs and Harry's bellowing intensify the moment, and the comic exit line, Billie calling Harry "a big fascist," only rings true, given this intensely violent moment.

The following sequence is another poignant moment, moving the film toward its triumphant conclusion. Billie walks to the Jefferson Memorial, and a series of dissolves move her from the park to the base of the mighty statue. Here, she re-reads the words Paul read aloud to her before on their subsequent journey there: "I have sworn on the altar of God eternal hostility toward every form of tyranny over the mind of man." The subsequent close-ups of Billie registering the effect of these words now is spell-binding as she sees a way to use her brain to outfox Harry and win Paul. She devises the plan, with Paul's help, to retrieve the papers and sign the companies that she now rightfully owns over to Harry--one at a time, one per year. To this end, Billie orchestrates her own "revolution" and succeeds in achieving her new life. Naturally, the significant difference between the classic and the Hollywood literacy narratives is the outcome. Shaw ends his play by defying the romantic elements that he expected his audience to desire. Eliza does not remain with Higgins, nor do they marry. On the other hand, Billie puts her education to use immediately, first by exposing Harry for the fraud he is, and second, by running away with her instructor, Paul, to become Mrs. Verrell. Therefore, the protagonist achieves her goal through education and language acquisition because she obtains what she wanted at the outset--it does not matter that the object of her affection transfers, because she recognizes that she does not deserve the brutal banality of Harry. She now sees that she is worthy of the sophisticated sweetness of Paul's world.

In assessing his work of the 1950s, Cukor told Peter Bogdanovich that he was greatly happy with the effect of his "invisible" technique.

I think human behavior, the human heart, is to me what is very dramatic and rather complicated; and, I think, interests and moves the audience. One can do very dazzling tricks---dazzling beauty and pyrotechnics--but unless the human heart is there I don't think it goes very deep. I can't imagine a picture that has made a great impression without that. (449)

Of course, this invisible quality, matched by careful performances, is what makes Born Yesterday such a successful literacy narrative.

After five nominations, Cukor finally won the Academy Award for filming Lerner and Loewe's musical version of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, My Fair Lady (1964). Interviewers repeatedly asked Cukor if he recognized this as a triumph, or as a "swan song," to which he usually replied with a fair amount of disdain:

Lambert: Would you say that My Fair Lady was more prepackaged than most of your films?

Cukor (bristling slightly): That's what you intellectuals are pleased to say. (240)

Bogdanovich: When you got the Oscar for My Fair Lady, I felt it was about time, and that it was typical of the Academy to give the award to the right person for the wrong picture.

Cukor: I think by and large the awards are quite just. I suppose My Fair Lady was a very impressive picture. Getting it might have been an accumulation because of others, but I think the Academy Awards are--in the last analysis--very just and very perceptive in a way ... I thought My Fair Lady was very well done. (462)

It is interesting to see that both Lambert and Bogdanovich question the artistry of the musical--in essence, labeling the film without analyzing it, so that it suffered the same fate Cukor's films have always suffered. However, now that we recognize Shaw's play as the proto-type of literacy narrative, it may serve now, in hindsight, to have been the perfect moment to bestow such an award on Cukor. As noted before, George Cukor's work has long been ignored by critics and theorists because it lacked the very stylish mark that distinguishes most directors. Looking at his films as literacy narratives, I hope, will assist us in not taking his direction for granted. The conscious, subtle care that Cukor took to highlight performances and to honor the text of the film should not continue to go unnoticed. Instead, my hope is that it enlightens us in recognizing that films made within the confines of the Hollywood system are much more complex than we might initially consider. In this respect, Cukor can be seen as the ultimate pedagogue, teaching us to read the delicate nature of studio films with a more careful eye--and with a sharpened sensitivity.

WORKS CITEDparBogdanovich, Peter. Who The Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Directors. New York: Ballantine, 1997.

Born Yesterday. Dir. George Cukor. Perf. Judy Holiday, Broderick Crawford, William Holden. Columbia, 1950.

Eldred, Janet and Peter Moretsen. "Reading Literacy Narratives." College English 54 (September 1992) 512-539.

Lambert, Gavin. On Cukor. New York: G. P. Putnam's, 1972.

Levy, Emanuel. George Cukor: Master of Elegance Hollywood's Legendary Director and His Stars. New York: Morrow, 1994.

Little Women. Dir. George Cukor. Perf. Katherine Hepburn, Joan Bennett, Paul Lukas. RKO, 1933.

McGilligan, Patrick. George Cukor: A Double Life A Biography of the Gentleman Director. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

Sarris, Andrew. The American Cinema. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1968.

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