George Stevens (1904-1975) is highly regarded for the diverse number of films he directed, his work ranging from romance and comedies to Westerns and historical epics. Nominated for five Academy awards for best director, he won twice, for the dramas A Place in the Sun and Giant.
George Cooper Stevens is noted for allowing the actors in his films to improvise on the set, sometimes causing scenes to be shot dozens of times. His movies feature many of the most noted actors from the 1930s to 1960s, including Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, Joel McCrea, Irene Dunne, Ginger Rogers, Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Fred Astaire, and Carole Lombard. While most of these films were romantic comedies, it was for dramas that he received his greatest kudos; as James Harvey noted in Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: "Probably his most serious liability as a comic filmmaker is his apparent lack of any anarchic or subversive or even dissident impulse. He has the temperament of a solid citizen, and he tends to temper and meliorate whatever is harsh or abrasive or unsettling in the familiar people and plots." While not as admired as other directors of his generation, such as Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, George Cukor, John Ford, and William Wyler, Stevens is credited with investing his films with subtle social messages; and several of his films—Gunga Din, Woman of the Year, A Place in the Sun, Shane, and Giant—are considered Hollywood classics by critics.
Began Directing Two-Reel Comedies
Stevens was born on December 18, 1904, in Oakland, California. He began acting and working as a stage manager for his father's theatrical company before moving to Hollywood in 1921 and finding work as a cameraperson. In 1927 he began directing two-reel comedies for Hal Roach and directed many silent films by comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. In the early 1930s he became one of RKO Studios' most important directors after he directed Katherine Hepburn her 1935 comedy Alice Adams. The following year he worked with dancers Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers on a film featuring songs by Jerome Kern, Swing Time. In 1938 Stevens directed James Stewart and Ginger Rogers in Vivacious Lady and was expected to direct the Marx Brothers comedy Room Service. When fellow director Howard Hawks was fired from the production of Gunga Din for budget overruns, however, Stevens was hired to replace him.
Starring Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Gunga Din is an adaptation of a Rudyard Kipling poem about British soldiers fighting on the Indian frontier. It is remembered mostly by film historians for the difficulties Stevens encountered during filming. For example, he and the film's writers improvised much of the movie since a script was never finalized. Stevens later recalled that the battle scenes were the greatest problem. Some scenes required 1,500 extras, hundreds of mules and horses, and a few elephants.
Stevens followed his action picture with two romantic melodramas, Vigil in the Night and Penny Serenade, before releasing two of his most respected comedies, Woman of the Year, featuring the first cinematic pairing of Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and The More the Merrier. Critic James Agee assessed Stevens's abilities as a comedic director in The More the Merrier by noting in Agee on Film that the film is "partly nice and partly disappointing. The chiseling, cringing sex and claustrophobia of war-torn Washington might have delivered a really original, really native comedy, and the types are set up to carry this comedy are not bad in conception; they are spoiled in the execution. Stevens has a free, pretty feeling for business … for special colorations of talk…, and for gratuitous satire. … Yet the film as a whole is a tired souffl,, for unfortunately Stevens doesn't know where to stop.
Post-War Films and Activities
During World War II Stevens traveled to Europe as a U.S. Army Signal Corps head of Special Motion Pictures Unit assigned to the 6th Army and was among those film-makers who photographed the grounds and interiors of Nazi Germany's concentration camps. When he returned to the United States, he expressed a wish to make a film nostalgic for simpler times. That film was I Remember Mama, about which Agee wrote that Stevens "developed while he was away at war, like a few other talented picture-makers. … In Mama … he felt no timidity about tackling a script that lacked action and a strong plot. He concentrated, with confidence and resourcefulness, on character, mood and abundant detail, and on the continuous invention of satisfying and expressive things to look at." Stevens chose to shoot many different versions of the same scenes, sometimes taking ten days to film one scene, in order to compose montage sequences comprised of varied camera angles. The result was a film costing more than three million dollars, an outrageous sum for 1948, and a tremendous critical and public success that never recouped its production expenses.
Among his other postwar projects was the short-lived Liberty Studios, which Stevens set up with directors Frank Capra and William Wyler and which produced only one film, Capra's classic It's a Wonderful Life. Stevens also served as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and briefly became embroiled in the blacklisting scandals perpetrated by Senator Joseph McCarthy's Un-American Activities Committee and the effort to route out suspected communists during the height of the cold war. Stevens was responsible for preventing screenwriter Dalton Trumbo from receiving an Academy Award for his screenplay The Brave One because the blacklisted writer had deceived the Academy by using the pseudonym Robert Rich.
An American Trilogy
Of the films Stevens released in the 1950s, A Place in the Sun, Shane, and Giant have collectively been considered his "American Trilogy," for it is through these films he attempts to critique elements of American culture and society. Based on Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy, A Place in the Sun concerns the attempt of a young middle-class male (Montgomery Clift) to marry into society (represented by Elizabeth Taylor). His aspirations are thwarted, however, when he impregnates a woman from his own class (Shelley Winters). Shane, listed as one of the American Film Institute's Top 100 American Films, stars Alan Ladd as a former gunslinger who is forced to defend homesteaders from ruthless land-grabbers. According to Stanley J. Solomon in Beyond Formula: American Film Genres, "Shane was evidently conceived in terms of an interpretation of the Western genre film as an allegorical battleground between good and evil. … But Stevens chose to heighten the symbolic import of the genre's typical iconography (costume, language, manners, and rituals) by setting his film in an immense, open environment, dominated by the snowcapped mountains of Wyoming in the distance. By continually locating the immediate scene within a vast, calm, rigidly endurable locale, Stevens deliberately and recurringly directs our attention to the genre's mythic dimensions, in regard to the lonely hero, the isolated community, the natural conflict between people and the terrain, and the violent power struggle between the land-grabbing local tyrant and the individual homestead farmers over who will control the territory." In filming Giant, Stevens earned his second Academy Award for his adaptation of Edna Ferber's novel about the beginnings of the Texas oil boom and the instant wealth it provided. At the heart of the story, however, is a love triangle between characters portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean in his third and final film.
Directed Three Final Films
Before he retired in the early 1970s, Stevens directed three more films, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and The Only Game in Town. While his casting of Millie Perkins in the title role in the first film drew negative criticism, Anne Frank co-star Shelley Winters won an Academy award for best supporting actress, and Stevens won another Academy award nomination. In The Greatest Story Ever Told, he attempted to create an epic film about the life of Jesus Christ, starring Max von Sydow, Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier, and John Wayne. The film's detractors were numerous and included James Harvey, who wrote that "Even when he embarks on a mad and ludicrous enterprise like The Greatest Story Ever Told, the result, though elephantine, turns out to be impersonal, perfectly without religious feeling of any kind, and in its way rather modest: a life of Jesus drawn not only from Scripture but from a Reader's Digest rewrite of them." Stevens's final film, The Only Game in Town, starred Warren Beatty. Reputedly angered that 20th Century-Fox didn't promote the film effectively, Stevens opted to retire following its release. He died on March 9, 1975, in Paris.
Agee, James, Agee on Film: Criticism and Comment on the Movies, Random House, 2000.
Behlmer, Rudy, America's Favorite Movies: Behind the Scenes, Frederick Ungar, 1982.
Harvey, James, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.
Sarris, Andrew, editor, St. James Guide to Film Directors, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
Silvester, Christopher, editor, The Grove Book of Hollywood, Grove Press, 1998.
Solomon, Stanley J., Beyond Formula: American Film Genres, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.
Reel Classics, http://www.reelclassics.com/ (February 21, 2002).