Movie a Day Blog has made its deep and abiding love for classic cinema quite clear since we started doing this blog four years ago, and one of our favorite directors has always been George Cukor.
A master of the “woman’s picture,” Cukor was among the most sensitive filmmakers in the studio system to the nuances of performance and storytelling. Openly gay at a time when few industry workers dared to be, and a fixture at every Hollywood party of note, Cukor had no trouble attracting the best actors to his productions, since he pulled from many of them the outstanding performances of their careers.
This was as true of Thelma Ritter in THE MODEL AND THE MARRIAGE BROKER (1951) as it was for Tracy and Hepburn in PAT AND MIKE (1952). The story in THE MODEL is a trifling one: a studiously non-Jewish matchmaker (in Yiddish, she’d be a shadkhin, often mistakenly called a yenta) pairs unattractive women with reluctant bachelors, and surprisingly, it often works.
Ritter, who could play the Common Woman better than just about any actress in the 1940s and ’50s, is a little ashamed of her profession, and hides behind her notary stamp to pretend that she’s just helping things along. Cukor allows this character to have her pride, and Ritter has no problem supplying the backbone. When she herself is fixed up, she goes along with the ruse of having a man pay attention to her only until she realizes she, too, was set up for this supposedly “accidental” cute meet.
Most of the plot is taken up with the unsatisfying love life of Jeanne Crain, never looking lovelier, a va-va-voom model who would seem to have no problem having men fall at her feet. But Ritter senses that there’s brains behind this beauty, and pairs her up with Scott Brady, who has started his own X-ray business and is on the road to medical services success. (I couldn’t help wondering whether a real-life version of Brady’s character would have died of radiation poisoning 20 years after starting his business.)
Cukor was a believer in the invisible hand of the filmmaker, so there are no particular lighting choices or camera angles that bear distinction. His movies, from CAMILLE (1936) and THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940) to GASLIGHT (1944) and BORN YESTERDAY (1950), inevitably have sympathetic protagonists who are often treated unjustly, in whatever social circumstances they find themselves.
These films do not have the deep symbolic meaning of the films of Howard Hawks or John Ford, not because Cukor is any less the talented director, but because he was always more in service of vividly etched characters and their very human emotions.
This is why his films were so popular with audiences, women and men alike, and why they endure in people’s memories, even if Cukor is not a popular director with the current cineaste crowd (Victor Fleming gets the big biography treatment, a far lesser filmmaker than Cukor, who did work Fleming is credited with).
The script is co-written by Charles Brackett, who worked as Billy Wilder’s writing partner on some of that director’s best screenplays, including NINOTCHKA (1939) and SUNSET BLVD. (1950), and it hums right along, helping Cukor do what he did best.
Brady, who was the younger brother of scary character actor Lawrence Tierney, was the perfect early ’50s big lug, and God knows if the match Ritter makes between Brady and Craine would have any luck of surviving the initial animal attraction.
No one could steal a scene as well as Ritter, and her banter with her card-playing buddy Michael O’Shea is priceless. Everything turns out right in the end, just as Hollywood decreed it should. THE MODEL AND THE MARRIAGE BROKER is hardly Cukor’s best, but it shows what he could do with even this slight a piece of material and a couple of good actors. This form of the art is largely gone now.