Oscar Directors: Stevens, George–Classic Hollywood Cinema

George Stevens was a minor director with major virtues before “A Place in the Sun”, and a major director with minor virtues after.
Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema

Evaluating the career of George Stevens, who was born on December 18, 1904, presents a tough challenge for film historians and critics. His artistic reputation has been in such decline that it’s easy to forget that in the 1950s, Stevens was the most prestigious filmmaker working in Hollywood.

George Stevens will be the subject of a centennial tribute, presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on October 1, which will serve as a kick-off for similar celebrations around the country. Actor-director Warren Beatty will host the event, which will include appearances by Sidney Poitier, David Mamet, James Foley, and Stevens’s son, George Stevens, Jr., who made the lovely documentary: “George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey.” Beginning October 4 and running through November 22, the Academy will present about a dozen of Stevens’s films.

Born into a family of actors, Stevens made his stage debut at the age of five in his father’s traveling company. In 1927, he joined Hal Roach as a cameraman and worked on Laurel and Hardy comedy shorts. In 1930, he was assigned by Roach to direct the two-reel comedy series, “The Boy Friends.” Two years later, Stevens moved to Universal and from there to RKO, still working as shorts director. The turning point of Stevens’s career was “Alice Adams,” in 1935, a poignant social satire starring Katharine Hepburn. Proving versatility, he then made one of the best Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals, “Swing Time,” in 1936, and the swashbuckling adventure, “Gunga Din,” in 1939.

One of Hollywood’s least productive directors, Stevens made only 25 films in a career spanning four decades. Nonetheless, no less than seven of his films were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar (see list). This meager output (by standards of his contemporaries) is often attributed to Stevens’ perfectionism and methodical attention to detail, spending long years on the pre and post-production of his movies.

The vast majority of Stevens’ films were made during one creative and prolific decade, from 1933 (“The Cohens and Kellys in Trouble”) to 1943 (“The More the Merrier”). Between “I Remember Mama” (1948) and his last picture, “The Only Game in Town” (1970), Stevens’s productivity declined, and he turned in only half a dozen pictures. Four of these films, “A Place in the Sun,” “Shane,” “Giant,” and “The Diary of Anne Frank,” catapulted him to the Hollywood pantheon of “serious and important” directors. And these are the films that began to tarnish his critical reputation among the more cerebral cineastes.

Stevens’s fame reached its height in 1953, when he received the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Academy realized that despite nominations that year for Stevens’s Western Shane, Fred Zinnemann’s “From Here to Eternity” would sweep most of the Oscars, including Best Director, which it did. By that time, Stevens had already won his first directing Oscar for “A Place in the Sun,” in 1951. In 1956, Stevens won his second directorial Oscar for “Giant,” a film that was singled out in other categories.

The turning point in Stevens’ career was his service in the War, after which his personal philosophy saw a radical change. He became somber and heavy, his vision more serious and ponderous, less inclined to make crowd-pleasing films. I will not go as far as historian David Thomson to claim that the War’s horrors compelled Stevens into philosophy and ideas that were beyond his craft, but Stevens’ work did become more pretentious and laborious after 1945.

It’s not insignificant that Stevens’s later “epic” films also boasted epic running time: “Giant,” 201 minutes; “The Diary of Anne Frank,” 156 minutes; “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (originally 260 minutes, then 196, then 141).

Stevens’s work was always more appreciated by the middlebrow critics, like the N.Y. Times’s Bosley Crowther, then dean of the New York critics. Crowther and others reflected the dominant opinion that movies about “important”
or socially-significant issues should be favored over films with strong entertainment values, like crime-gangster, musicals or adventures.

The critics of the French magazine, Cahiers du Cinema, are considered to be the first to point out that Stevens was too obvious in his classicism and over-deliberateness. And, as noted in the quote above, Stevens doesn’t fare well in Sarris’s The American Cinema, still the Bible of Auteurism.

However, while doing research for an essay on films in the 1950s, I came across a letter that Raymond Chandler, the author of hard-boiled novels and scripts, wrote after seeing “A Place in the Sun”:

I despised it. It’s as slick a piece of bogus self-importance, as you’ll ever see. It never touches your emotions once. Everything is held too long; every scene is milked ruthlessly. I got so sick of starry-eyed close-ups of Elizabeth Taylor that I could have gagged. The portrayal of how the lower classes think the upper classes live is about as ridiculous as could be imagined. They ought to have called it Speedboats for Breakfast. And my God, that scene at the end where the girl visits him in the condemned cell a few hours before he gets the hot squat! The whole thing reeks of calculation and contrivance emotionally. The picture was made by a guy who has seen everything and has never had a creative idea of his own.

This shows that even in the 1950s, Stevens’s work was not as universally acclaimed as was claimed, and that the French cinephiles were not the first to point out his weakness. The French were the first to analyze the aesthetic and ideological implications of the hallmarks of Stevens’ style: the slow build-up, mega close-ups, deliberate pacing, overstated message.

Space doesn’t permit me to dwell on each of Stevens’ films, but even if the portentous and bloated ones are excluded, Stevens’ is still a viable, uniquely American career, one that brought a lot of pleasure to many viewers during Hollywood’s heyday.

“Alice Adams,” based on Booth Tarkington’s novel, is a poignant social satire about small-town pretensions and aspirations, with a great (Oscar-nominated) performance from Katharine Hepburn. Unfortunately, the film’s coherence is compromised by an unearned studio-imposed happy ending.

“Swing Time” is a classic Astaire-Rogers musical that honored Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields’ with the Best Song Oscar, and Hermes Pan with a dance direction nomination. Critics have debate whether Swing Time or Top Hat (staged by Mark Sandrich) is the best Astaire-Rogers RKO musical. But there’s no denying of Astaire’s greatness in “Bonjangles of Harlem,” his tribute to Bill Robinson, and “Never Gonna Dance,” rumored to require 50 takes!

“Gunga Din”–inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s poem, this endearing classic about a trio of roistering soldiers of the crown in India, played by Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Victor McLaglen, has influenced a lot of Hollywood adventures, all inferior to Stevens’ film.

“Penny Serenade”–The film that offered Cray Grant his first Oscar nomination, deviating from comedy to a heartbreaking (and tear jerking) melodrama about a childless couple (Irene Dunne is the wife) that loses their adopted girl in an accident.

“Woman of the Year”–an excellent comedy, written by Michael Kanin and Ring Lardner Jr. (who won the Screenplay Oscar) that announced the pairing of a new team, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and a new kind of sophisticated comedy that will evolve in the next decade with Adam’s Rib, Pat and Mike, and others. In this opposites attract comedy, Hepburn is a non-nonsense political journalist and Tracy is a non-nonsense sportswriter.

“Talk of Town”–an overrated, verbose farce (nominated for Best Picture and other awards, though winning none) with dark overtones. It stars Cary Grant, as a man on the run from the police, Jean Arthur, as the woman who hides him, and Ronald Colman, as a Supreme Court Justice.

“The More the Merrier”–a delectable romantic comedy set in a wartime Washington D.C, with excellent performances by Joel McCrea, Jean Arthur (in her only Oscar nomination), and Charles Coburn (who won supporting Oscar), as the cupid who brings the housemates together. The erotic scene between Arthur and McCrea was much remarked about at the time.

“I Remember Mama”–based on John Van Druten’s Broadway hit, a sentimental tribute to the Norwegian-American immigrant experience, with Irene Dunn as a matriarch full of wisdom and strength.

“A Place in the Sun”–an overstated remake of Theodore Dreiser’s novel, An American Tragedy, which had been filmed to better results in 1931 by Josef von Sternberg. The portraits of the frivolous rich (Elizabeth Taylor) and the downtrodden poor (Montgomery Clift and Shelley Winters) drew criticism, though the romantic scenes of Clift and Taylor (that kiss in mega-close-up) were considered to be a turning point in Hollywood’s annals of eroticism.

“Shane”–Sarris might be too harsh in describing it as “overplanned and uninspired,” but there’s no doubt that Stevens’ only Western is over elaborate, schematic in depicting good (Alan Ladd) versus evil (Jack Palance), and lacking spontaneity. Even so, as a mythic tale of hero-worshipping it’s a classic, and who can forget Brandon De Wilde’s cry at the end, “Shane, Come Back!”

“Giant”–a bloated saga based on Edna Ferber’s sprawling novel of a Texas family across generations. It’s more impressive in ambition than execution, though, once again, the scenes between James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor generate a lot of heat. The film is also notable for disclosing ideological cracks in the American Dream: racism and the melting pot myth (Dennis Hopper marries a Mexican-American), women’s anxiety about their allotted, passive role.

“The Diary of Anne Frank”–Stevens at its most earnest and stilted, a direct result of the horrors he experienced in his military service and perhaps too much respect for the source material, first published as a memoir, then running on Broadway as a play.

Evaluating Stevens’ career on the centennial of his birth raises some pertinent questions. First, how many accomplished films a director needs to make to be counted as a major figure. And second, should the evaluation be in absolute or relative (the ratio of good to bad films) terms to the director’s individual output. Stevens may not belong to the pantheon of Hollywood directors but he’s certainly one of its most versatile and romantic filmmakers, a classicist storyteller who drew excellent performances from all of his actors, including those not known for depth or range (Alan Ladd, Rock Hudson).

Stevens Films Nominated for the Oscar

Alice Adams 1935
Talk of the Town 1942
The More The Merrier 1943
A Place in the Sun 1951
Shane 1953
Giant 1956
The Diary of Anne Frank 1959