George Stevens

Two-Time Oscar-Winning Director Was a Master American Filmmaker

George Stevens, Two-Time Oscar-Winning Director Was a Master American Filmmaker


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George Stevens, a filmmaker known as a meticulous craftsman with a brilliant eye for composition and a sensitive touch with actors, is one of the great American filmmakers, ranking with John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler & Howard Hawks as a creator of classic Hollywood cinema. One of the most honored and respected directors in Hollywood history, Stevens enjoyed a great degree of independence from the studios, producing most of his own films after maturing as a director in the late 1930s. Though his work ranged across all genres, including comedy, the musical, and drama, Stevens' work carries the hallmark of his personal vision, which is predicated upon humanism.

Although the cinema is an industrial process which makes attributions of "authorship" difficult if not downright ridiculous, there is no doubt that George Stevens is in control of a George Stevens picture. Though Stevens was unjustly derided by critics of the 1960s for not being an "auteur," an auteur he truly is, for a Stevens picture features multitudinous attention to detail, the thorough exploitation of a scene's visual possibilities, and ingenious and innovative editing that creates many layers of meanings. A Stevens picture contains compelling performances from actors whose interactions have a depth and intimacy rate in motion pictures. A Stevens picture typically is fully engaged with American society and are chronicle photo-plays of the pursuit of the American Dream.

Stevens was nominated five times for an Academy Award as Best Director, winning twice, and six of the movies he produced and directed were nominated for Best Picture Oscars. In 1954, he was the recipient of the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, given to him in recognition of his having maintained a consistent level of high quality production. (He was up for two Oscars that year, having been nominated as producer and director of his classic Western Shane.) Stevens also won the Directors Guild of America Best Director Award three times as well as the Guild's D.W. Griffith Lifetime Achievement Award. He made five indisputable classics: Swing Time, an Astaire-Rogers musical; Gunga Din, a rousing adventure film; Woman of the Year, a battle-of-the-sexes comedy; A Place in the Sun, a drama that broke new ground in the use of close-ups and editing; and Shane, a distillation of every Western cliche that managed to surpass the average oater into the level of cinema grandeur as it both summed up and transcend the genre. His Penny Serenade (1941) The Talk of the Town (1942), The More the Merrier (1943), I Remember Mama (1948), Giant (1956), and The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) all live on in the first rank of motion pictures.

George Cooper Stevens was born on December 18, 1904 in Oakland, California to actor Landers Stevens and his wife, actress Georgie Cooper, who ran their own theatrical company, Oakland's Ye Liberty Playhouse. Georgie Cooper herself was the daughter of an actress, Georgie Woodthorpe, who appeared in small roles in silent pictures, the most notable of which was The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921). (Both ladies' Christian names off-stage were Georgia). Georgie Cooper appeared as Little Lord Fauntleroy as a child along with her mother at Los Angeles' Burbank Theater. His parents' company performed in the San Francisco Bay Area, and as individual performers, they also toured the West Coast as vaudevillians on the Orpheum circuit. Their theatrical repertoire included the classics, giving the young George the chance to forge an understanding of dramatic structure and what worked with an audience. In 1922, Stevens' parents abandoned live theater and moved their family, which consisted of George and his older brother John Landers "Jack" Stevens, south to Glendale, California to find work in the movie industry.

Both of Stevens' parents gained steady employment as actors in the movies. Landers Stevens appeared in Little Caesar (1930), The Public Enemy (1931), and Citizen Kane (1941) in bit parts. Landers' brother was the Chicago Herald-American drama critic Ashton Stevens (1872-1951), who was hired by William Randolph Hearst for his San Francisco Examiner. An interviewer of movie stars and a notable man-about-town, Ashton mentored the young Orson Welles, who based the Jedediah Leland character in Citizen Kane on him. Georgie's sister Olive Cooper became a screenwriter after a short stint as an actress. Jack Stevens became a movie cameraman, as did their second son, George. George's work as a director of photography was to develop in him a visual sense unmatched by most other directors.

George Stevens' movie adaptation of I Remember Mama, the chronicle of a Norwegian immigrant family trying to assimilate in San Francisco circa 1910, might be a mirror of the Stevens' family's own move to Los Angeles circa 1922. The members of the Hanson family feel like outsiders, a theme that resonates throughout Stevens' work. Acting was considered an insalubrious profession before the rise of Ronald Regan's generation of actors into the halls of power, and being a member of an acting family necessarily marked one as an outsider in the first half of the 20th Century. Young George had to drop out of high school to drive his father to his acting auditions, which would have further enhanced his sense of being an outsider. To compensate for his lack of formal education, Stevens closely studied theater, literature and the emerging medium of the motion picture.

Soon after arriving In Hollywood, Stevens got a job at the Hal Roach Studios as an assistant cameraman at the age of seventeen. It was a matter of being at the right place at the right time. Recalling the period when the cinema was young, Stevens reminisced, "There were no unions, so it was possible to become an assistant cameraman if you happened to find out just when they were starting a picture. There was no organization; if a cameraman didn't have an assistant, he didn't know where to find one."

As part of Hal Roach's company, Stevens learned the art of visual storytelling while the form was still being developed. Part of his visual education entailed the shooting of low-budget westerns, some of which featured Rex the Wonder Horse. Within two years, Stevens became a director of photography and a writer of gags for Hal Roach on the Laurel & Hardy comedies.

His first credited work as a cameraman was at the Hal Roach Studios was for the Stan Laurel short Roughest Africa (1923), a parody of African big-game documentaries. Stevens was a terrific cameraman, most notably in the Laurel & Hardy silent pictures and talkies. (The the studio had begun casting Laurel and Oliver Hardy together in short films beginning in 1926, they were first officially teamed in the short Putting Pants on Philip in 1927, which Stevens shot.) It was as a cameraman that George Stevens' film-making aesthetic began to develop. The cinema of George Stevens was rooted in humanism, and he focused on telling details and behavior that elucidated character and relationships. This aesthetic started developing on the Laurel & Hardy comedies, where he learned about the interplay of relationships between "the one who is looked at" and "the one doing the looking."

Verisimilitude, always a hallmark of a Stevens picture, also was part of the Laurel & Hardy curricula. Oliver Hardy said, "We did a lot of crazy things in our pictures, but we were always real."

From a lighting cameraman, Stevens advanced to a director of short subjects for Hal Roach at Universal. Within a year of moving to R.K.O. in 1933, he began directing comedy features. His break-through came in 1935 at R.K.O., when house diva Katharine Hepburn chose Stevens as the director of Alice Adams. A drama based on a Booth Tarkington novel about a young woman from the lower-middle class who dares to dream big. The movie injected the theme of class aspiration and the frustrations of the pursuit of happiness while dreaming the American dream into Stevens' oeuvre. Before there was cinema of "outsiders" recognized in the late '70s, there were Stevens' outsiders, fighting against their atomization and alienation through their not-always-successful interactions with other people.

George Stevens created his first classic in 1936, when R.K.O. gave him the assignment of helming the sixth Astaire-Rogers musical, Swing Time. Stevens' past as a lighting cameraman prepared him for the innovative visuals of this musical comedy. Through his control of the camera's field of vision, Stevens as a director creates an atmosphere that engenders emotional effects in his audience. In one scene, Fred Astaire opens a mirrored door that the scene's reflection in actuality is being shot on, and being keyed into the illusion emotionally introduces the audience into the picture, in sly counterpoint to Sherlock, Jr.'s walk into the screen in the eponymous Buster Keaton film. Stevens' use of light in Swing Time is audacious. He freely introduces light into scenes, with the effect that it enlivens them and gives them a "light" touch, such as the final scene where "sunlight" breaks out over the painted backdrop. The film never drags and is a brilliant showcase for the dancing duo. Ginger Rogers claimed it was her favorite of her pictures with Astaire.

Stevens' next classic was the fun-loving adventure yarn Gunga Din (1939), based on the Rudyard Kipling poem. Though no longer political correct in the 21st century, the picture still works in terms of action and star power, as three British sergeants, Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. try to put down a rebellion in 19th century colonial India.

Having learned his craft in the improvisational milieu of silent pictures, Stevens would often wing it, shooting from an under-developed screenplay that was ever in flux, finding the film as he shot it and later edited it. With movie-making becoming more and expensive in the 1930s due to the studios' penchant for making movies on a vaster scale than they had previously, Stevens methods lead to financial anxieties in R.K.O.'s front office. Stevens' improvisatory crafting of Gunga Din resulted in its shooting schedule almost doubling from 64 days to 124 days, and its cost reached a then-incredible $2 million. (Few sound films had grossed more than $5 million at that point, and a picture needed to gross from two to two-and-one-half times its negative cost to break even.)

Studio executives were driven to distraction by Stevens' methods, such as when he took nearly a year to edit the footage he shot of Shane. His films typically were successful, though, and in the late '30s he became his own producer, earning him greater latitude than enjoyed by almost any other filmmaker other than Cecil B. DeMille and Frank Capra. He made three significant comedies in the early '40s, Woman of the Year (the screenplay for which future Hollywood 10 blacklistee Ring Lardner, Jr. won an Oscar for), the darker-in-tone The Talk of the Town(a film that touches on the subject of civil rights and the miscarriage of justice and featured one of the best of performances of the incomparable Jean Arthur), and the classic The More the Merrier, which brought Arthur her sole Academy Award nomination and Charles Coburn the Oscar as Best Supporting Actor.

And then George Stevens went to war.

Joining the Army Signal Corps, Stevens headed up a combat motion picture unit from 1944 to 1946. In addition to the Normandy landings, his unit shot both the liberation of Paris and the liberation of the Nazi extermination camp Dachau. The unit's Dachau footage was used both as evidence in the Nuremberg trials and in the de-nazification program implemented in the Allied sector of Germany after the War. For his services, George Stevens, who reached the rank of lieutenant colonel, was awarded the Legion of Merit. Sixth in order of precedence among American military decorations, the Legion of Merit is presented for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements.

Many critics claim that the somber, deeply personal tone of the movies Stevens made when he returned from World War II were the result of the horrors he saw during the wart. Stevens' first wife, Yvonne, recalled that he "was a very sensitive man. He just never dreamed, I'm sure, what he was getting into when he enlisted."

Stevens wrote a letter to Yvonne in 1945, telling her that "if it hadn't been for your letters...there would have been nothing to think cheerfully about, because you know that I find much [of] this difficult to believe in fundamentally."

The images of war and Dachau continued to haunt Stevens, but it also engendered in him the belief that motion pictures had to be socially meaningful to be of value. Along with his fellow Army Signal Corps veterans Frank Capra and William Wyler, Stevens founded Liberty Films to produce his vision of the human condition. The major carry-over from his pre-war oeuvre to his postwar films is the affection the director has for his central characters, emblematic of his humanism.

His second postwar film, A Place in the Sun, was Stevens' adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, updated to contemporary America.  The film starred Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters. (Buy it on VHS, or DVD, watch a Seven Minute Interview with Liz.)  The movie was based on the 1925 novel "An American Tragedy" by Theodore Dreiser, which was based on a real-life crime.

Released three years after his family film I Remember Mama, the film features an outsider, George Eastman, trapped in the net of the American Dream, the pursuit of which dooms him. The Soviet master director Sergei Eisenstein had written an adaptation for Paramount of An American Tragedy (the title the cunning reversal of The American Dream), but Eisenstein's participation in the project was jettisoned when the studio came under fire for hiring a committed communist. Eisenstein's script was unceremoniously shit-canned, and Josef von Sternberg eventually made the picture, but his vision was so far from Dreiser's that the old literary lion sued the studio. The film was re-cut and proved a failure with critics that tanked at the box office.

Alfred Hitchcock maintained that it was far easier to make a good picture from a mediocre or bad drama or book than it was from a good work or a masterpiece. It remained for George Stevens to turn a literary masterpiece into a cinematic one, which is a unique trick in Hollywood.

What was revolutionary about A Place in the Sun, in terms of technique, is Stevens' use of close-ups. Charlton Heston has pointed out that no one had every used close-ups like Stevens had in the picture. Stevens used them more frequently than was the norm circa 1950, and he used extreme close-ups that, when combined with his innovative, slow-dissolve editing, created its own atmosphere, its own world that brought the audience into George Eastman's world, even into his embrace with the girl of his dreams, and also into the row-boat on that fateful day that would forever change his life. The editing technique of slow-lapping dissolves slowed down time and elongated the tempo of a scene in a way never before seen on screen.

George Stevens' mastery over the art of the motion picture was recognized with his first Academy Award for direction, beating out Elia Kazan for his own masterpiece, A Streetcar Named Desire and Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly for THEIR masterpiece, An American in Paris, the Best Picture Oscar winner that year. (Most observers had expected Sun or Streetcar to win, but they had split the vote and allowed "American" to nose them out at the finish line. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's publicity department acknowledged as much when it ran a post-Oscar ad featuring Leo the Lion with copy that began, "I was standing in the Sun waiting for a Streetcar when...."

Stevens' theme of the outsider continued with the classic Western Shane, his second masterpiece of the early '50s. The eponymous gunman is an outsider, but so is the Starrett family he decided to defend, as well as the sod-busters, and even the range baron who is now outside his time, outside his community, and outside human decency. Giant, Stevens sprawling three-hour, 21-minute epic based on Edna Ferber's novel about Texas, also features outsiders, sister Luz Benedict; hired-hand transformed into millionaire oilman Jett Rink; the transplanted Tidewater belle Leslie Benedict; her two rebellious children; the Chicano boy Angel, who gives his life for a deeply racist country that scorns Hispanics; and eventually, Leslie's husband Bick Benedict, a near-stereotypical Texan who finally steps outside of his parochialism and is transformed into an outsider when he decides to fight, physically, against discrimination against Latinos as a point of family honor. The Otto Frank family and their compatriots in hiding in The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), American cinema's first movie to deal with the Holocaust, are outsiders, while the Christ of his The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), subtle, complex, and unknowable is the ultimate outsider. The Only Game in Town(1970), his last film that reunited him with Elizabeth Taylor, his female lead in A Place in the Sun and Giant, was about two outsiders, an aging chorus girl and a petty gambler.

Stevens' reputation suffered after the 1950s when he didn't make another film until 1965, and the film he did produce after that long hiatus was misunderstood and under-appreciated when it was released. The Greatest Story Ever Told, a picture about the ministry and passion of Christ, was one of the last epic films. It was maligned by critics and failed at the box office. It was on this picture that Stevens' improvisatory method began to take a toll on him. It took six years from the release of The Diary of Anne Frank, which had garnered Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, until the release of Greatest Story. There had been a long gestation period for the film, and it was renowned as a difficult shoot, so much so that the great David Lean, a double-Oscar-winner like Stevens himself, helped out a man he considered a master by shooting some ancillary scenes of the picture.

The film has a look of vastness that many critics misunderstood as emptiness rather than as a visual correlative of the soul. Stevens' script is inspired by the three Synoptic Gospels, particular The Gospel According to St. John. John stresses the interior relation between the self and things beyond its knowledge. Though misunderstood by critics at the time of its release, the film has become more appreciated some 40 years later. Stevens is a master of cinema, and he still is fully in command of the dissolves and emotive use of sound he used so effectively in A Place in the Sun. However, film by the 1960s was in the process of change, brought about by the Cahiers du cinema crowd that went on to become filmmakers themselves, most notably Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. A transplanted American, Richard Lester, had "revolutionized" English-language cinema with his machine-gun editing style employed in the vastly influential Beatles pic A Hard Day's Night, which most critics didn't realize was a recycling of the film tropes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton from the earliest days of cinema.

George Stevens' last film, The Only Game in Town (1970), also failed with the critics or at the box office, as Elizabeth Taylor's star had gone violently into eclipse as one decade waned and a new one, the 1970s, dawned. Frank Sinatra had originally been slated to be her co-star, but Ol' Blue Eyes, notorious for preferring one-take directors, likely had second thoughts about being in a film directed by Stevens, who had a well-deserved reputation for multiple takes. Stevens' film-making method entailed shooting take after take of a scene during principal photography from every conceivable angle and from multiple focal points, so he'd have a plethora of choices in the editing room, which is where he made his films. (In this film, he was the polar opposite of John Ford, who was famous for his lack of coverage, and who had a reputation of "editing" in the camera, shooting only what he thought necessary for a film).
Warren Beatty, one of most finicky actors in cinema history, took the role out of a desire to work with the great George Stevens.Set in Las Vegas, the film had to be shot in Paris to please Elizabeth Taylor, whose husband Richard Burton was shooting Staircase in the City of Light. Though, like Burton, Beatty had a well-deserved reputation as a Lothario, he was badly miscast. Five-years younger than La Liz, the two seemed as if they hailed from different epochs if not generations, like William Holden and Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder's masterpiece Sunset Blvd.
That mismatch was deliberate; the mismatch between Beatty and Taylor was a miscalculation.
Typically under-whelming in films in which he wasn't in control, Warren Beatty proved a poor substitute for Frank Sinatra, who had the charisma and star-power of a true legendary performer that often transcended the material he was cast in. Sinatra was the epitome of "Cool" whereas inThe Only Game in Town, Beatty was as cold as a dead fish, and Liz looked and sounded like the fish-monger that would have peddled him. The movie, which was prohibitively costly due to having had to rebuild Vegas on the Seine, wound up costing $11 million, a huge sum in 1969, the year the film was shot. (The comparable amount, after being factored for inflation, was $60 million.) It tanked badly when it was released, bringing in only $1.5 million at the box office, barely more than Liz's $1.25 million paycheck. (Beatty received a salary of $750,000 for the movie.)
The failure of Only Game further tarnished the luster of George Stevens' reputation.
In a money-dominated culture in which the ethos "What Have You Done For Me Lately?" is prominent, George Stevens was relegated to has-been status, and the fact that he had established himself as one of the greats of American cinema was ignored, then forgotten in popular culture. Donald Richie's 1984 biography George Stevens: An American Romantic tagged Stevens with the "R" word, but it is too simplistic a generalization for such a complicated artist. Stevens' films demand that the audience remain in the moment and absorb all the details on offer in order to fully understand the morality play he is telling.
James Agee, arguably the greatest writer on the movies that America had produced, had been a great admirer of George Stevens the director, but Agee had died in 1955. The 1960s was a New Age, an iconoclastic age, and George Stevens and the classical Hollywood cinema he was a master of where the icons to be smashed by the iconoclastic new critics. Movie critic Andrew Sarris, who introduced the "auteur" theory into America, disrespected Stevens in his 1968 book The American Cinema. Stevens was not an auteur, Sarris wrote, and his latter films were big and empty. George Stevens had become the symbol of what the new, auteurist cinema was against.
The French Cahiers du cinema critics attacked Stevens by elevating Douglas Sirk. Sirk's Magnificent Obsession, so the argument went, was a much better and more cogent exegesis of America than Giant, which was "big and empty" as was the country they attacked (though they loved its films). The point of iconoclasm is to smash idols, no matter what the reason. And Stevens, the master craftsman, was an idol. But to say Giant was empty is absurd. To imply that George Stevens did not understand America is equally absurd.
Giant is a movie about America and is reflexive of its times: Only two years before the film's release, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional, setting off a reaction still being felt in American politics to this day. Giant contains one of the premier moments in the post-war cinema, and it is a thoroughly "American" moment: the confrontation between the patrician rancher Bick Benedict and the up-from-the-proletariat diner-owner "Sarge." Many critics and cinema historians have commented on the scene, favorably, but many miss the full import of the scene.
The motion picture has been built up to this climax. Bick Benedict shares the prejudices of his class and his race: all his life, he has exploited the Mexicans whom he has lived with in a symbiotic relationship on HIS ranch, giving little thought to the injustice his class of overlords has wrought with the Latinos, with the poor whites, or with his own family. His wife, an Easterner (though, interestingly, a Southerner, albeit from the more genteel Virginia), is appalled by the poverty and state of peonage of the Mexicans who work on the ranch and tries to do something about it. Her idealism is echoed in their son, who becomes a doctor, rejects his father's rancher heritage, and marries a Mexican-American woman, giving his father an anglo/Mexican-American grandson.
On a ride with his wife, daughter, daughter-in-law, and her child, they stop at a road-side diner. World War II is over, and Angel , who grew up on the Benedict ranch, is dead, killed by the fascist forces of the Axis. Sarge (whose name connotes he, too, is a veteran of the great war against fascism), as the proprietor of the roadside diner, initially balks at serving them because of the Latinos in the Benedict party. Sarge backs down in deference to the family man Bick Benedict, but when more Latinos come into his diner, Sarge moves to throw them out. Bick decides to once again intervene, this time in a display of noblesse oblige. Told who he is and what he represents in this part of Texas, Sarge is unimpressed by Mr. Bick Benedict's pedigree, and a fist fight breaks out between the hardened veteran (recently returned from the war we are meant to understand) and the now aged Benedict.
Bick first holds his own in the fight and sends Sarge crashing into the jukebox, setting off the song "The Yellow Rose of Texas," a song written during the time Texas fought for and won its independence from Mexico. Sarge quickly recovers and then proceeds to systematically demolish Mr. Bick Benedict, the seigneur. As the song plays on in ironic counterpoint, shots of his distraught daughter and other family members are undercut with the cinematic crucifixion of Bick Benedict, the overlord, by the former Centurion. After Sarge has finished thrashing Benedict, he takes a sign off of the wall and throws it on Bick Benedict's prostate body:
This is not only America of the 1950s, but America of the 21st Century. For just as Sarge is defending racism, he is also defending his once-constitutional right to free association, as well as exerting his belief in Jeffersonian-Jacksonian democracy in thrashing a plutocrat. This is a type of yahooism that Bruce Caton, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the Civil War, attributed to being one of the root causes of the Rebellion.
There had always been a very well-developed strain of reckless, individualistic violence in America, frequently ritualized and sanctified by the state. The diner scene in Giant could only have been created by a man with a thorough knowledge of what America and Americans were (and continue to be). Sarge will try to accommodate Bick Benedict, who has stepped out of his role as racist plutocrat into that of the paternalistic pater familias, just as the sons of the robber barons of the 19th century, who justified their economic depravities with the doctrine of social Darwinism, did in the 20th century, endowing foundations that tried to right many wrongs, including racism, but Sarge will only go so far. When he is pushed beyond his limit, when his "giving in" is taken advantage of and he is "pushed too far," he reacts, and reacts violently.
This scene sums up American democracy and the human condition these United States perhaps better than any other scene in any other movie. America is a violent society, a gladiator society, in which progress is measured in, if not gained by, violence. Yes, Sarge is standing up for racism and segregation (a huge topic after the 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education Supreme Court ruling outlawing segregation), but he is also standing up for himself, and his beliefs, something he has recently fought for in World War II.
The ironies are rich, just as the irony of American democracy, which excluded African Americans and women and the indigenous peoples of North America from the very first days of the U.S. Constitution, is rich. This is America, the scene in Sarge's diner says, and it is a critique only an American with a thorough knowledge of and sympathy for America could create. It is much more effective and philosophically true than the petty neo-Nazi caricatures of Lars von Trier's Dogville, who are cowards. Characters in a George Stevens film may be reluctant, they may be hesitant, they may be conflicted, but they aren't cowardly.
Another ironic scene in Giant features Mexican children singing the National Anthem during the funeral of Angel, who in counterpoint to Bick's son, his contemporary in age, is of the land, to the manner born, so to speak, but lacking those rights due to the color of his skin. Angel had gone off to war, and he returns to the Texas in which he was born on a caisson, in a military-issued coffin draped in an American flag, starkly silhouetted against the Texas sky as the Benedict mansion had been earlier in the film when Leslie had first come to this benighted land. Angel, who had experienced racial bigotry due to his birth into poverty on the Benedict ranch, had fought Hitler. He is the only true hero in Giant, and his death would be empty and meaningless without Bick Benedict's reluctant conversion to integration through fisticuffs.
The great turning points in American cinema typically have involved race. The biggest, most significant movies of the first 50 years of the American cinema deal with race: Uncle Tom's Cabin (1903), Edwin S. Porter's major movie before his The Great Train Robbery, and the first film to feature inter-titles; The Clansman (1915), D.W. Griffith's racist masterpiece later re-titled The Birth of a Nation, in which a non-sectarian America is formed in the linking of Southern and Northern whites to fight the African-American freedman; The Jazz Singer (1927), in which a Jewish cantor's son achieves assimilation by donning black-face and disenfranchising black folk by purloining their music, which he deracinates, while turning his back on his Jewish identity by marrying a gentile; and Gone With the Wind (1939), the greatest Hollywood movie of all time, in which the Klan is never shown and the "n" word is never used, a sweeping, Romantic masterpiece in which a reactionary, ultra-racist plutocracy is made out to be the flower of American chivalry and romance.
George Stevens' Giant was a major film of its time, and remains a motion picture of the front rank, but if it was not quite the cultural blockbuster these movies were, it more than any other Hollywood film of its time, aside from Elia Kazan's rather white bread Gentleman's Agreement and Pinky, directly addresses the great American dilemma, race, and its implications. Significantly, the mediation on race in Giant is not from the familiar racist, white supremacist point-of-view that had been part of the American movies since the very beginning, so deeply rooted is racism in the American psyche. The hugely popular Perils of Pauline serials (which were simultaneously serialized in the white supremacist Hearst newspapers), typically featured the sweet young (white) thing threatened with death or worse, the loss of her maidenhead, by a sinister person of color played by a Caucasian in yellow or brown face.
A 1934 Fortune Magazine story about the rosy financial prospects of the Technicolor Corp.'s new three-strip process contained a startling metaphor for a 21st Century reader: "Then - like the cowboy bursting into the cabin just as the heroine has thrown the last flowerpot at the Mexican - came the three-color process to the rescue." It was this endemic, accepted racism that Stevens challenged in Giant, which is one of the taproots that fed America's expansionist philosophy of manifest destiny, and which justified the legal peonage that was an integral part of the southern and western economies. Those who died in World War II had to have died for something, not just the continuation of the status quo. It was a direct and knowing challenge to the system by someone who thoroughly knew and thoroughly cared about America and Americans and who had witnessed the ultimate evil of white supremacist thinking at Dachau.
George Stevens died of a heart attack on March 8, 1975 in Lancaster, California. His legacy lives on in the work of the countless film directors who have been influenced by his work, such as fellow two-time Oscar-winning Best Director Clint Eastwood, particularly in Pale Rider (which suffers from being too-close a Shane clone) and, most memorably, in Clint's masterpiece, Unforgiven.