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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.