GEORGE STEVENS (1904-1975)

george stevens
Of all of the important American directors, the films of George Stevens might be the most difficult to sell to modern audiences with short attention spans. Stevens generously admitted his good-natured style was bred from the slow-burn comedy of Laurel & Hardy, many of whose silent shorts were photographed by this future director.

Stevens’ oeuvre is more distinguished by the follies and foibles of humankind than the hardboiled cynicism and populist chaos of his early peers Howard Hawks, Frank Capra, Gregory La Cava and Preston Sturges. While those dynamic directors have found cult acceptance with the Auteur critics and the nostalgia crowd, the methodical Stevens can’t help but look old-fashioned to a public obsessed with gadget technology.

In examining Stevens’ career arc it is clear he has much in common with his friend and business partner William Wyler. Both men came into their own at RKO Studios in the mid-1930s where they became recognized as filmmakers of taste and refinement. Both men spent time at the front filming the Allied war effort and the atrocities committed in the Nazi prison camps, experiences which marked them forever.

Returning home, Stevens and Wyler teamed with fellow war documentarian Frank Capra to form a short-lived independent studio. For the rest of their careers Stevens and Wyler would mostly make critically-lauded white elephants. But where Wyler exhibited a chilly disconnect from his audience, even the most bloated Stevens effort had the heartbeat of a romantic. Stevens could be accused of being sentimental, but it would be more appropriate to label him—excuse the oxymoron—a Hollywood humanitarian.

Born in Oakland to a theatrical family Stevens moved with his parents to Hollywood in the early 1920s in search of work. At the ripe old age of seventeen Stevens became an assistant cameraman for legendary comedy producer Hal Roach.

Over the next several years the young novice was given a very unsentimental education in filmmaking as his unit was responsible for churning out weekly programmers—mostly westerns and two reel comedies starring the likes of Laurel & Hardy, Harry Langdon and the early version of Our Gang. For the tightfisted Roach studios these comedies were A-level productions and it is rather likely Stevens (now a head cameraman) was responsible for a good deal of the care and polish that helped elevate them to the status of minor classics.

The Franchise.

The Anglo-American comedy team of Laurel & Hardy clearly had the largest influence on young Stevens, especially the observant acting of the underrated Oliver Hardy whose long pauses and exasperation would become a staple of the future director’s singular style. Roach finally granted Stevens the opportunity to direct in 1930 (a series of two-reelers from the popular The Boy Friend series), but perhaps sensing he was spinning his wheels at his mentor’s nickel and dime studio, the young director balked at directing Roach’s handpicked projects and was summarily fired.

   Slow burn.

The unexpected dismissal didn’t faze Stevens who picked up his bags and moved over to Universal Studios for a chance to do features. Unfortunately, Universal turned out to be the hardest hit of all major studios by the Depression, so Stevens soon found work at RKO where the popular Astaire-Rogers musicals were giving the studio an unexpected boost at the box office.

After dutifully completing a series of lowbrow B-films (Bachelor Bait, Kentucky Kernels & The Nitwits), the loyal Stevens was given a real plum Alice Adams, a Katharine Hepburn vehicle based on the novel by Booth Tarkington. Hepburn plays the fairly clueless but altogether charming Alice, a lower-middle class debutante whose attempts to run with the in-crowd fail miserably. But she has managed to spark the boy she’s had her eye on, for all this time Arthur (Fred MacMurray) is willing to accept her the way she is.

In previous films, the skittish young Hepburn seemed to be in her own world playing to an imaginary audience. In Alice Adams Stevens tones down his star’s coltishness and hones a sensitive performance out of her. Alice lives in a sort of denial about her homely family, convinced she can produce silk purses out of sow’s ears. But even as they let her down time and again, she is careful never to blame them for their shortcomings.

A poor little dead rose for your thoughts, Alice Adams.

Family and human failings would also play a significant role in Annie Oakley, a fanciful take on Buffalo Bill’s prettiest sharpshooter. Early on, Annie (Barbara Stanwyck) gets into a hotly-contested shooting contest with the barnstorming gunslinger Toby Foster (Preston S. Foster).

When it looks like she is ready to defeat Toby, Annie’s mother (Margaret Armstong) convinces her girl to throw the contest to her vain rival even though it means the family will lose all their money. Not wanting to cost Toby his job, Annie misses her shot but gains an admirer in Foster who arranges for the girl to join him in the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show.

The star struck shooters are a huge success but Toby’s arrogance begins to grate on his fellow performers and Bill (Morini Olsen) himself. When an accident causes Toby to lose some of his vision and nearly kill Annie he is fired from the show. Sacrificing her career for happiness, Annie leaves the show to track down Toby who is struggling to make a living at a two-bit arcade in the New York Bowery.

    Well, dog my cats! 

The sparkling Swing Time is generally considered to be the finest of all the Astaire-Rogers musicals. It certainly is the most elegant and ambitious of the series. In the dancing duo’s other major films (The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, Follow the Fleet, Shall We Dance & Carefree), director Mark Sandrich accentuated witty repartee and coy innuendo to bring out the friction and— as Pauline Kael would have it—sex lurking beneath the surfaces of sophisticated Fred and saucy Ginger.

    Dancing is a sweat job.

Stevens’ romantic approach to the formulaic material softened the slightly hostile edge between the co-stars and gave a cosmic back drop to the great talent on display. Here, Astaire plays Lucky Garnett, an easily distracted bandleader who shows up late on his wedding day. Eager to make amends, he enters into a bargain with his loyal fiancée, but once he crosses paths with the sassy dance instructor Penny Carrol (Rogers) his fate is blissfully sealed.

   No one could teach you to dance in a million years. 

Astaire and his favored choreographer, the brilliant Hermes Pan, found a sympathetic collaborator in the meticulous Stevens, who ran through endless takes in the dance sequences in a quest for perfection. Stevens contributed plenty of his classic slow-burn comedic touches, bringing out an unexpected child-like winsomeness in Rogers that Billy Wilder would exploit magnificently in The Major and the Minor.

  I’ll try and be a better light bulb, Uncle Phillip.

Featuring a snappy Jerome Kern-Dorthy Fields score and filmed in shimmering beauty by Sandrich’s choice cinematographer Dave Abel, Swing Time is a glorious buffet of a movie, and its aesthetic and box office success helped give RKO’s hotshot young director his pick of the studio’s best projects.

Stevens’ second and final collaboration with Astaire, A Damsel In Distress was the dancer’s first film without partner Rogers. Based on a story by comic genius P.G. Wodehouse, Damsel gets the glossy treatment courtesy of a studio unsure whether its star could carry a movie on his own. And for the first half hour of this cluttered affair one really can’t really be sure that it’s even a musical.

Jerry (Astaire), a popular American dancer, is tricked into visiting at an English countryside manor by concerned servants who hope he can win the favor of Alyce (Joan Fontaine), the Lady of the house. Jerry’s rival for Alyce’s affections is Reggie (Ray Noble), a goose of a bandleader who, despite his good nature, is clearly not worthy of such a lovely lady.

The pretty and capable Fontaine isn’t called upon to sing or dance, that is left to Astaire, George Burns and Gracie Allen who come along for the ride as Jerry’s business manager and secretary. Despite an impeccable George and Ira Gershwin score A Damsel in Distress proves something of a disappointment.

  I’m just a hoofer with a spare set of tails.

By the end of the 1930s Stevens was developing a reputation of being a sensitive director of women at the level of George Cukor, Ernst Lubitsch and John Stahl. Pleased by the director’s work in Alice Adams, Katharine Hepburn relished the opportunity of working with Stevens again in one of the more overlooked gems of the era Quality Street.

Based on a James M. Barrie play, the action is set in a small English town circa 1815 where a high-strung local girl Phoebe Throssel (Hepburn) is disappointed when her first big crush, the dreamy Captain Brown (Franchot Tone) is sent off to war.

Years pass without word from her beloved and Phoebe throws herself into her work to fill the void in her life. When Captain Brown makes an unexpected return, Phoebe decides the worldly man could not possibly be interested in a thirty year old spinster, so she masquerades as a fetching younger cousin to re-win his heart.

While it’s a bit of a stretch to believe the sophisticated Brown could be so easily duped, Hepburn gives such a delicately winning performance in the dual role that it’s just fun to suspend belief for ninety minutes and go along for the ride.

   Region 2 PAL DVD

Both A Damsel in Distress and Quality Street were box office bombs, but Stevens had established himself as the class of the RKO directors and was soon given the important assignment to direct the fair side of the Astaire-Rogers team in her first solo project Vivacious Lady.

Here, Ginger plays Francey Brent, a saucy nightclub singer who wins the affections of the naïve science professor Peter Morgan (James Stewart) much to the consternation of his tiresome fiancée (Frances Mercer) and no-nonsense father Peter Sr. (Charles Coburn), who happens to be the dean at his college. With such diametrically opposed takes on life, the inevitable chaos ensues but even with the director’s penchant for slapstick Vivacious Lady can’t quite be labeled a screwball comedy.

Too fast for the folks.

Stevens’ deliberate pacing and sensitivity brings much warmth to the tender scenes between Stewart and mother Martha (Beulah Bondi) and in the male-bonding sequences between the two Peters. The pleasing film turned out to be a big hit, paving the way for Stevens’ most ambitious project yet, a boisterous retelling of the Rudyard Kipling poem Gunga Din.

Set in the late 19th century at a colonial India outpost, Kipling’s colorful adventure is driven by three lusty sergeants who are great chums and lifer military men. But Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) throws a wrench into their friendship when he announces he is getting married to the beautiful Emmy (Joan Fontaine) and will hang up his gun for the private life. This news doesn’t sit well with his co-horts Cutter (Cary Grant) and McChesney (Victor McLaglen) and the two rowdies do their best to break-up Ballantine’s engagement.

Meanwhile, a religious uprising threatens to wipe-out the British settlement unless the men’s regiment can hold out until re-enforcements arrive. Just when things look their blackest, their selfless water-boy Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe) puts his life on the line to save the day.

Originally a Howard Hawks project based on a Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur treatment, Stevens successfully puts his own glossy stamp on Gunga Din, bringing warmth and rich humor to the hijinks.

At this point in his career the brilliant Grant had seemed most at home with directors who moved things along at a heady pace (Hawks, McCarey & Cukor), but here he settles into the grand Stevens style quite nicely. If anything, Grant’s mugging is over the top, but in the context of the sweep and gallantry of the material it just adds to the fun.

    They’re probably slicing Cutter’s ears off by now! 

Stevens and Grant’s next project together Penny Serenade was the sort of film Hollywood used to churn out with regularity and expertise, the comedic drama. At face value, this story of a young couple’s disheartening attempts to have children is a pure weepy. And Stevens’ sympathetic treatment of the material does little to stop the tear ducts from welling up when Roger and Julie Adams (Grant and Irene Dunne) find their marriage crumbling because of an almost incomprehensible streak of misfortune.

Yet, there is lightness and humor in the playing that makes it all somehow believable. The flippant Roger isn’t so sure he wants children and his penchant living in the present disappoints the more practical Julie. But, she stands by her man even if it seems their union is built on shaky ground. Ironically, it’s Roger who does the most growing in the relationship and it is he who takes the death of their adopted daughter the hardest.

    She doesn’t know any parents but us. 

The final film in the marvelous Stevens-Grant collaboration, The Talk of the Town, is a thinking man’s comedy about an elitist college professor who gets more than he bargained for when he rents a house from a nosy teacher with a heart of gold. With the arrival of her summertime house guest imminent, Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur) is busy cleaning when escaped prisoner and old classmate Leopold Dilg (Grant) appears at the door.

Fearing he will be railroaded to the electric chair for a crime he did not commit, Dilg talks the sympathetic Nora into letting him stay in the attic until the heat is off. When Professor Michael Lightcap (Ronald Colman) arrives earlier than expected he orders Nora out of the house so he can have peace and quiet. Nora talks the arrogant Lightcap into letting her stay on as his secretary, but she spends most of her time trying to keep Leopold quiet and out of harm’s way.

When Dilg unexpectedly joins Nora and the Professor at breakfast one day, she tells Lightcap that Leopold is the gardener. The two men quarrel about politics and the law, but they soon become unlikely kindred spirits. Leopold’s compassion for the little man makes a deep impression on Lightcap and when the prisoner is finally taken into custody, the professor risks a possible Supreme Court appointment by defending his new friend.

Co-written by future blacklist victim Sidney Buchman The Talk of the Town is leftist in sentiment but washed over with the same feel-good populism that made the Buchman-Capra collaboration Mr. Smith Goes to Washington a success.

Stop saying Leopold like that, tenderly.  It sounds funny.

Casting the gentile Grant to play a revolutionary of Eastern Europe descent is a stretch, but it’s hard to imagine the stuffy Professor letting just any scruffy-haired radical sit at his table. The suave Colman also plays against type as the mousy bachelor with no experience with women. But, by film’s end this changed man gives Leopold a real run for his money in the competition for Nora’s heart.

Stevens’ brand of humanist filmmaking reached its peak in the 1940s with two refreshingly adult comedies and a warm-hearted adaptation of a popular Broadway play. Woman of the Year is the first, and arguably best, film in the overrated Tracy-Hepburn series.

Here, Tracy is Sam Craig, a hardboiled sportswriter for a New York newspaper who locks horns with blue blood Tess Harding (Hepburn), the paper’s liberal foreign correspondent. When Tess makes some derogatory comments about the sporting life on the radio Sam cuts her down to size in his column. Tess’ terse response makes for good copy, but it also convinces the paper’s editor to mediate a truce.

When the warring parties finally meet the effect is electric, and soon Sam and Tess become an item. Tess is clearly smitten by the gruff man’s man, but even after they marry she is not ready to give-up her jet-setting career and move out of her Upper East Side apartment. Frustrated and feeling out of place in his wife’s continental world, Sam is ready to pull the plug on the marriage when Tess finally makes the huge concession to make her man happy.

While the film’s attitude towards working women is severely dated, Woman of the Year remains exceedingly fresh mostly due to the urbane writing (Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Canin) and Stevens’ marvelous ability to create sexual anxiety between two stars not known for their smoldering passions.

  No one will ever believe we were married sober.

Stevens’ sophisticated attitude towards adult relationships would find a full-flowering in The More the Merrier. Set in cramped Washington D.C. at the height of WWII, good citizen Connie Milligan decides to rent out a room in her apartment to one of the swarms of people who have moved to town to work for the Allied cause.

When fast-talking Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn) turns out to be the only person who replies to her ad in the newspaper, Connie reluctantly takes the shifty senior citizen on as her lodger. Looking to pad his own wallet, the greedy Dingle rents another room in the apartment to Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), a handsome Air Force operative. When Connie finds out she is appalled, but because she is secretly attracted to Joe she lets both men stay.

Trying to get back into Connie’s good graces, the insensitive Dingle awkwardly tries to set Joe up with his landlord, even though she’s already engaged to the dull but safe Mr. Pendergast (Richard Gaines). Her feelings hurt, Connie finally sends Dingle and Joe packing, but a series of coincidences brings Joe back to Connie’s apartment where they finally declare their feelings for one another.

Jean Arthur, perhaps the most overlooked leading lady from Hollywood’s golden era, gives an utterly charming performance. Well aware of the filmic gold he was mining, Stevens lets his camera linger lovingly on Arthur and, bit by bit, what reservations Connie had towards her dreamy lodger melts away before our eyes.

The film’s most famous scene, Arthur and McCrea’s hand play on the stoop, is intensely erotic as the actors’ body language provides oodles of sexy subtext to a romance in early bloom.

   Would I ever want to borrow your girdle?

Stevens spent the last two years of the War at the front lines in Europe with his own unit filming the Allied push to Berlin. His major contribution to the filmmaking corps would be Nazi Concentration Camps, a compilation of grim documentary footage shot in the recently-liberated death camps and to be used as evidence at the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

Unlike the triumphant, propaganda films made by Frank Capra’s crew, Stevens’ harrowing documentary takes us inside the death houses and the mass graveyards where the local Germans dig up the dead for army doctors to administer autopsies.

The first-hand witnessing of the liberation of the gruesome Nazi death camp at Dachau was a sobering experience for the Hollywood filmmaker who, after returning home, took two years off to do some soul-searching. Stevens later said the atrocity of the war changed his approach to his art.

     Innocence lost.

While it is true his films would take on bigger topics and loftier themes, this sort of largeness wasn’t yet apparent in his first film made after returning home.

Based on the hit Broadway play by John Van Druten, I Remember Mama stars glamorous Irene Dunne as a plain but dutiful Norwegian mother of three. The seemingly miscast Dunne gives a strong yet tender performance as Mama Hansen, the woman who mediates the tense relations between the family’s bickering aunts (Hope Landin, Edith Evanson & Ellen Corby) and terrifying uncle (Oskar Homolka) while keeping check on the Hansen’s tight finances.

Mama finds happiness through helping her family, sacrificing the purchase of a much needed coat so her son can attend high school and selling her mother’s beloved brooch to buy a graduation present for her daughter Katrin (Barbara Bel Geddes).

Stevens’ films always had a lush visual sense, but here Nick Musuraca’s striking black and white cinematography helps generate the proper nostalgic mood without going overboard. And while the content is sentimental I Remember Mama never descends into mush, mostly due to Stevens’ understated touch.

   It’s good – we do not have to go to the bank. 

This director’s strengths were always found in small privileged moments that would loom large at the climax of his pictures. It is curious then, that Stevens would spend the rest of his career broadening his palette while discarding the little things he did best.

Taking into consideration Stevens’ talent for bringing small town America to the screen a film adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s epic novel An American Tragedy seemed right up his alley. Stevens had already dealt with theme of a young person from the wrong side of the tracks trying to run with the in-crowd in Alice Adams, but after the Great Depression and WWII much of the playing field had been leveled between the social classes in America. So, while keeping the framework of Dreiser’s bitter polemic, Stevens fashioned a luminous melodrama (renamed A Place in the Sun) which would make romantic icons out of its two beautiful stars.

   The haves and have-nots.

Tired of the hand to mouth existence at his mother’s mission, George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) moves from Chicago to upstate New York where he impresses his wealthy uncle Charles (Herbert Hayes) and lands a job at his factory. The good-looking Eastman quickly works his way upward, impressing his bosses and many of the single women under his watch.

But, George is unable to crack the family’s privileged social circle, so the lonely bachelor violates company rules to date one of the factory girls, Alice (Shelley Winters), who he ultimately seduces.

In the meantime, George charms his way into the good graces of the beautiful and rich Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor) and their whirlwind romance leaves the pregnant Alice wondering if her unborn child will have a father. Alice presses the issue with George, and though the young man says he is willing to do the right thing by her, he isn’t quite ready to give up new newfound social status and the good life with Angela.

As befits a work from the naturalist school of writing, Dreiser’s novel was anything but romantic. The book’s deterministic downward spiral is better represented in Josef Von Sternberg’s 1931 stripped-down take on the same material. While Winters gives a sympathetic performance in a difficult role, it’s highly unlikely there were many theater-goers rooting for Montgomery Clift to dump Elizabeth Taylor and marry the whining Alice.

In retribution for his drowning of the thing that stands in the way of his happiness (Alice), George goes to electric chair. But instead of dwelling on the harm he has caused George takes the final walk with his head filled by visions of the luscious Angela, who will no doubt join him in the great hereafter.

To harp on the film’s dewy romanticism seems like a sour criticism, but seen without the rose-colored glasses there’s a hollowness at the core of this tragedy. A cameraman at heart, Stevens’ well-crafted gigantic-ism takes over in the justly famous close-ups of the fabulous-looking Clift and Taylor, but the fire between these actors is manicured. The legend of the tortured Clift has encouraged critics and his rabid fan base to read too much into his odd, disconnected acting style.

   I like to believe it means you can’t live without me.

Stevens (and Douglas Sirk) would get much more feeling out of the sensitive Rock Hudson in Giant and a series of searing melodramas throughout the 1950s. A Place in the Sun remains an entertaining piece of pop iconography, but some of soul had gone out of Stevens’ art.

Something to Live For, a story about the bonding of two alcoholics, is one of Stevens’ more obscure projects which is surprising given its A-list cast (Ray Milland, Joan Fontaine, Teresa Wright, etc.) and the director’s status as a major Hollywood player during the post-war years. It’s likely the film doesn’t get much play these days because Milland had already played the one of the screen’s most charming and pathetic boozers in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend.

You’re trying not to drink and I’m trying not to love you. 

Here, Milland is Alan Miller, a recovering alcoholic, called in to offer guidance to actress Jenny Carey (Fontaine) who is holed-up drunk in a Manhattan hotel. Alan’s tough love helps Jenny get over her fear of failure and she ultimately lands a plum role (as an Egyptian queen!) in a big production slated for Broadway.

Meanwhile, Alan’s advertising career has hit the skids and the possibility of losing his job has him contemplating a return to the bottle. Instead of confiding to his wife Edna (Wright) for help he turns to his new soul mate Jenny for comfort. As Edna is with child the actress convinces Alan to stay with his wife but she reaches out for him one last time when stage fright gets the better of her on opening night.

Something to Live For is a little too tidy for its own good but it remains a mature and sensitive take on a once-taboo subject.

    Living on a tightrope.

Stevens’ only feature western, the melancholic Shane, is essentially an anti-gun fable as seen through the eyes of a child. One day, while pretending to be a gunman outside his father’s homestead ranch, little Joey Starrett (Brandon de Wilde) is distracted by a lone man approaching on horseback.

Shane (Alan Ladd) turns out to be a friendly drifter, who offers to give Joey tips on how to use a gun, much to the consternation of his mother Marion (Jean Arthur). Joey’s father Joe (Van Heflin) sees the value in keeping Shane employed at the ranch, as he can offer protection against Rufe Ryker (Emile Meyer) and his band of land-grabbers who threatens the homesteaders’ existence.

The gentle of influence of Marion makes a deep impression on Shane and he soon becomes reluctant to use his gun to settle his scores. But, Shane doesn’t back down from Ryker and his gang either, driving Ryker to hire gunslinger Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) to intimidate Starrett and his men.

After Wilson cold-bloodedly blows away a Rebel farmer (Elisha Cook Jr.) in the street, the homesteaders are ready to pack it in until Shane heeds the call.

Stevens and screenwriter A.B. Guthrie Jr. take a wide-eyed approach to recreating the old west, preferring to romanticize the hard-working settlers instead of the gun-toting bad men.

Shane is full of nobility and visual grandeur but it lacks the fire to back up its reputation as a classic. Palance, the mother of all scene-chewers, actually turns out to be a welcome sight as the black-clad evil-doer who drives Shane to pick up his gun for one last time.

    A man has to be what he is, Joey.

Stevens continued his love-hate affair with those Americans who had the guts and moxie to take what they want in the epic Giant. Based on a novel by Edna Ferber, it is the story of Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson), the youngest in a line of Texas cattle barons. While on a trip to Maryland to buy a horse in the early 1920s, polite Bick woos and wins the high-strung and beautiful Leslie Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor).

   You’re a Texan now.

After a whirlwind romance, Bick marries Leslie and brings her back to Texas where a rude awakening awaits her. Bick’s sister Liz (Mercedes McCambridge) resents Leslie’s intrusion and the new bride herself isn’t thrilled with the living arrangements in the huge house built in the middle of nowhere. The conscientious Leslie tries to help the migrant farmers who live in the area and strikes up an odd acquaintance with Jett Rink (James Dean), a ranch hand, whose insolence rubs Bick the wrong way.

When Liz dies in an accident she leaves a small plot of land to Jett who, to the annoyance of Bick and his fellow ranchers, decides dig for oil. When Jett finally strikes it rich years later, he takes his longstanding bitterness out on his neighbors and especially Bick by dating his now teenage daughter Luz (Carroll Baker). After Jett punches out Bick’s son (Dennis Hopper) and humiliates his Mexican daughter in-law (Elsa Cardenas), the cattle baron finally picks a fight with his rival, but he still has a long way to go before winning Leslie’s respect.

Along with A Place in the Sun, Giant is Stevens’ most gorgeous-looking film. Stevens and cinematographer William Mellor used the new widescreen process to capture the vast emptiness of the open plain like no other film in memory. Taking into consideration the huge weight carried on their shoulders, the relatively inexperienced acting triumvirate of Hudson, Taylor and Dean are surprisingly effective.

    Have you heard about the Alamo? 

But, too often, the stolid Giant just ends up looking flat and feeling aimless, with little of the excitement being generated in the contemporary melodramas of Sirk, Minnelli, Preminger & Nicholas Ray.

It’s possible Stevens was too well-balanced a person to locate a heart of darkness in his art, but as movies grew more psychologically complex in the 1950s, his carefully transcribed work was beginning to look old-hat. Though, an admitted fan of some of the new, smaller-scaled European cinema, Stevens’ would choose to stay the safe, commercial course.

Based on the hit play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and, of course, a fairly famous journal of a fourteen year old Jewish girl, The Diary of Anne Frank, is for all intent and purposes Stevens’ swan song. This highly romantic and often moving take on the Frank family cooped up in an Amsterdam attic and hiding from the Nazis has held up surprisingly well.

Stevens seemed invigorated by the cramped confines of the set where his humanistic touches with the actors could come shining through. Vain Shelley Winters and selfish Lou Jacobi are especially good as the bickering Van Deans as is Joseph Schildkraut as Anne’s father, the gentle and tolerant Otto Frank. Doe-eyed model Millie Perkins seemed a curious choice to play the aspiring writer, but Stevens bestows upon his Anne a proper balance of yearning and quirkiness. As the Nazis finally invade the attic, the Frank family seems relieved and they remain optimistic.

We’re not the only people that have had to suffer.

Like many of the upbeat and willful characters in Stevens’ deeply felt body of work, the Franks rely on hope and a little bit of elbow grease to get them around the next difficult bend.


Books on Stevens:

Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War – Mark Harris **** Tied down by a contract at Columbia Stevens didn’t join the Army Signal Corps until 1943. He remained on the front lines in North Africa and Europe for the duration of WWII and was among the liberators at many of the Nazi Death Camps. His stark documentaries chronicling the gruesome discoveries there helped condemn Hitler’s henchmen at the Nuremberg trials. Harris chronicles Stevens’ life-altering experiences on the front lines with empathy and contends, quite rightly, the director was never the same after his return to Hollywood.

George Stevens: Interviews – Paul Cronin (ed.) ***1/2- Auteurist critics have never cottoned to the methodical Stevens, so right now there is a dearth of criticism available on this director—which is a shame. This slender collection of interviews from the University Press of Mississippi goes a long ways in filling the gaps. Stevens isn’t chatty or loquacious, like his friend Frank Capra, but he does provide some enlightening insight on how he technically manipulated his films to please impatient audiences.


Films by Stevens:

1935  Alice Adams ****
1935  Annie Oakley ***1/2
1936  Swingtime ****
1937  Quality Street ****
1937  Damsel in Distress ***1/2
1938  Vivacious Lady ***1/2
1939  Gunga Din ****
1940  Vigil in the Night ***
1941  Penny Serenade ***1/2
1942  Woman of the Year ***1/2
1942  The Talk of the Town ***1/2
1943  The More the Merrier ****
1944-45  D-Day to Berlin ***1/2 (color documentary footage)
1945  That Justice Be Done (short) ***
1945  Nazi Concentration Camps ***1/2
1945  The Nazi Plan ***1/2
1948  I Remember Mama ***1/2
1951  A Place in the Sun ***1/2
1953  Shane ***1/2
1956  Giant ***1/2
1959  The Diary of Anne Frank ***1/2
1965  The Greatest Story Ever Told **1/2
1970  The Only Game In Town

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