27 January 2018

We have simply got to do something about the Cukor situation

In 1936, George Cukor was hired by producer David O. Selznick to direct his next project Gone with the Wind (1939). Principal photography on GWTW, however, would not start until years later (in January 1939), mainly because of the long search for the perfect Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara. Between his GWTW pre-production duties, Cukor was involved in other projects like MGM's The Wizard of Oz (1939), where he briefly replaced Richard Thorpe after he was fired, and Selznick's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938)*. As to the latter film, Cukor had declined Selznick's directing assignment but agreed to work on a couple of scenes (uncredited).

By the fall of 1938, Cukor had declined several other directing jobs offered to him by Selznick, including Intermezzo (1939). Having paid Cukor's salary since early 1937 without getting much in return, Selznick was beginning to see Cukor as "a very expensive luxury". On 21 September 1938, Selznick wrote to Daniel O'Shea (one of his associates at Selznick International Pictures) that something should be done about "the Cukor situation". In his memo (as seen below in transcript), Selznick expresses his annoyance to O'Shea over Cukor's refusal to accept any of his assignments, stating that they could no longer be "sentimental about it" since they were "a business concern and not patrons of the arts". 

In the end, Cukor was kept on Selznick's payroll for several months longer. On 26 January 1939, he began filming GWTW, but was fired from the project within three weeks and replaced with Victor Fleming. Cited as reasons for Cukor's dismissal were (among others) his slow work pace and disagreement with Selznick about the script.

George Cukor (above) and David Selznick (below) had been friends since the early 1930s. After Selznick had fired Cukor from Gone with the Wind the men remained friends, although it is said that Cukor never forgave Selznick for being removed from the film.

September 21, 1938
To: Mr. Dan O'Shea
I have reluctantly, and at long last, come to the conclusion that we have simply got to do something, and promptly, about the Cukor situation. I have thought that George was a great asset to the company, but I am fearful that he is, on the contrary, a very expensive luxury... regardless of his great abilities...
George has been with us now for a long time and we have yet to get a picture out of him. We are in danger actually of winding up paying him about $300,000 for his services on Gone With the Wind. 
There is a large measure of justice in George's statement that this is not his fault-- and that he could have done pictures; and this is because we have not forced him to do pictures. But it is also because we have deferred to his own wishes-- and we have got to make our position clear so that the same thing does not occur in the future....
When I first tackled A Star Is Born I spoke to George about doing it and he didn't feel that he wanted to do a Hollywood picture. When we took [director H.C.] Potter off Tom Sawyer I spoke to George about doing it, and he didn't want to. When we needed him for another picture, he preferred to direct Garbo. Probably when we need him for another picture later, he will prefer to do another Garbo....
Let's take the immediate situation: We have quite a period of time before George will be requiered on Gone With the Wind-- time for any director in the business to make a picture. We have only one picture for him to direct, and that is Intermezzo. George doesn't like it....
But let's say that we are nice enough not to force him to direct it. Then we offer him an outside picture with [Claudette] Colbert: he doesn't like it. We offer to try to get him a picture at Columbia: he doesn't want to work for Columbia...
As to Gone With the Wind, I would be willing to negotiate a new deal with him for this particular picture, without, however, the obligation to make such a deal if his terms are exorbitant. We must bear in mind that we could get great benefits for the future in the way of a contract director of importance if we were able to offer Gone With the Wind-- by contrast with George, who is willing to do Gone With the Wind for us but isn't willing to take our other pictures. For instance, I am confident that we could sign Victor Fleming if we would give him Gone With the Wind as his first picture-- and if we wanted him instead of borrowing [Jack] Conway from MGM. I am sure that we could even sign Frank Capra, who is dying to do Gone With the Wind-- although offhand I don't think I would want him to do it as I don't think we need him on it, and I mention this only to show the buying power of a directorial assignment on Gone With the Wind.
In any event, I think the biggest black mark against our management to date is the Cukor situation and we can no longer be sentimental about it.... We are a business concern and not patrons of the arts....
Source: Memo from David O. Selznick (1972); selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer.

David Selznick and George Cukor pictured above in 1934 and below in January 1939 (at the contract signing for Gone with the Wind with Leslie Howard, Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland).

Note: *The Wizard of Oz was eventually directed by Victor Fleming; when Fleming replaced Cukor on Gone with the Wind, King Vidor finished the filming of The Wizard of Oz. And Norman Taurog directed The Adventures of Tom Sawyer replacing H.C. Potter who was fired; like Cukor, William Wellman also made uncredited contributions to the film.

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