Wednesday, September 26, 2007


A great director, a great American

By Edward Copeland
Though the documentary is more than 20 years old, I'd never sat down to watch George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey, made by his son George Stevens Jr. I've always admired the elder Stevens' work as a director, but he wasn't someone I thought about much. This film changed that, not only in the way I looked at his films but in what I knew about the man himself.

For one thing, I was unaware of his early start working with Hal Roach on Laurel and Hardy comedies before Katharine Hepburn helped engineer his big break when she agreed to let him direct 1935's great Alice Adams.
In fact, though much of his later career were films of a more serious nature, his early great works displayed an impressive light tough such as in Swing Time, Vivacious Lady, The More the Merrier and the incomparable Woman of the Year, which teamed Hepburn and Spencer Tracy for the first time. He even made the 1939 actioner Gunga Din with Cary Grant a ton of fun.

As Hepburn laments in the documentary, something was lost when Stevens turned away from comedy. One thing in particular that's fascinating is the documentary is the color 16mm footage that Stevens often shot while he was making his films. Particularly interesting is seeing the color scenes of work on Gunga Din compared with the actual black-and-white finished movie.

His skills at this type of "home movies" is what led Eisenhower to tap him and others to help document the Allied invasion of Europe in World War II, and in light of the current Ken Burns' documentary on The War, it is of special interest. World War II though is what changed Stevens.

When he returned to Hollywood, his world view had changed to the point that he no longer felt he should be frivolous with his filmmaking, and that's when his output turned more serious, starting with A Place in the Sun, his adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's popular novel An American Tragedy.

He followed that up with the great Western Shane, which he set out to make as an early attempt to demystify the genre and to show guns for the deadly instruments they are. Warren Beatty repeats his story in the documentary about how he learned from Stevens how to make the gunshots ring in Bonnie and Clyde as they did in Shane and how a clueless British projectionist tried to "fix it" during the London premiere.

He followed that with the epic soaper Giant, which I was fortunate enough to see in a theater during its 1996 re-release, and whose influence on the TV series Dallas is unmistakable (Check out the big JR on the wall when James Dean's character is a tycoon).

Still, though many of Stevens' movies get short shrift or no mention at all in George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey, it's the stories about the man himself that are most enlightening. In addition to World War II's influence on him, it recounts how he stood up to Cecil B. DeMille who was trying to drum Joseph L. Mankiewickz out of the predecessor to the Directors Guild for refusing to sign a loyalty oath during the days of communist witchhunts.

As John Huston says in an interview, Stevens stood up for the Constitution and his fellow directors went along, putting DeMille in his place. Alas, if only more Americans in any field of work would stand up for the Constitution today.

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I did see this film theatrically. Definitely worth viewing. I guess it was merciful that no mention was made of The Only Game in Town.
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