Versatility, a rule for George Stevens

In 1939 George Stevens was Hollywood’s youngest director.  At that point he was 34 years old and had already directed several notable films that didn’t fit into a mold.  These films included Vivacious Lady, a romantic comedy starring Ginger Rogers and James Stewart, Swing Time, a musical comedy starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and Alice Adams, a dramedy starring Katharine Hepburn and Fred MacMurray.

In January of that year George Stevens’ latest picture, the adventure, Gunga Din saw its premiere.  Promoting the film, Stevens wrote an article for “Screen and Radio Weekly,” which named him among the best directors working.  Stevens’ article mentions some of his “trade secrets” in reference to the filming of Din, but starts off with general comments about his approach to filmmaking in general spawned by a conversation he’d had with Rudyard Kipling, the author of the famous poem on which Gunga Din is based.  In tribute to Stevens (December 18, 1904 – March 8, 1975), I share the words he wrote in that article in response to a question posed by Kipling.  Those words describe Stevens’ approach to motion pictures and ultimately his entire career.

Kipling asked:  What qualifies a fellow like you, George, who has been making sophisticated comedies like Vivacious Lady and dance musicals like the Astaire-Rogers Swing Time to direct this story of Indians and cowboys laid in India?

Stevens’ response:  He might as well have said “cops and robbers.”  I almost fell off the parallel.  But after thinking long and hard, in retrospect, I can only say they all look alike to me.  Motion picture stories, I mean.  Not wishing to take any vows for versatility, I’ll qualify by saying that it doesn’t make a difference to me what sort of story I’m called upon to direct, if the story has something to say.

I look only for the basic idea.  If in the situations the emotions are honest and the reactions natural, it doesn’t make any difference to me whether the story is drama or comedy, slapstick or tragedy, musical or Western, cops and robbers or Indians and cowboys!

The dialog may be ultra in wit, the narrative may be fascinating writing – but if the story is only fancy dressing, I’ll wait for the turkey.

In other words, I won’t worry about the dialog until the time comes, and that time is when the actors are on the set ready to speak those certain lines.

If one considers the records of such outstanding directors as Frank Capra, Greg LaCava, Howard Hawks and many others, versatility is the rule rather than the exception.

George Stevens followed the versatility rule better than most with highly regarded films that range from the epic to the straight comedy to dramas that reach the soul for their truthfulness.  Following his contribution to Hollywood’s golden year with Gunga Din Stevens would go on to direct such varied classics as Penny Serenade (1941), Woman of the Year (1942), The Talk of the Town (1942), The More the Merrier (1943), I Remember Mama (1948), A Place in the Sun (1951) on which I recently commented, Shane (1953) and Giant (1956).  Even knowing he did I find it difficult to believe that the same man’s vision guided both Penny Serenade and A Place in the Sun, two of my all-time favorite films.  Stevens left his signature on both of those deeply affecting dramas, but they represent divergent views of the human condition leading me to believe Stevens knew the human condition on par with the likes of Billy Wilder.  (Discuss amongst yourselves).  Stevens, no doubt, knew the motion picture audience.

For his efforts George Stevens received a total of five Academy Award nominations for Best Director, winning two for A Place in the Sun and Giant.

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Stevens also directed sixteen different actors to Oscar-nominated performances: Katharine HepburnCary GrantCharles CoburnJean ArthurOskar HomolkaIrene DunneBarbara Bel Geddes,Ellen CorbyMontgomery CliftShelley WintersBrandon De WildeJack PalanceJames DeanRock HudsonMercedes McCambridge and Ed Wynn. Only Coburn and Winters won Oscars for their performances in one of Stevens’ movies, but note – yet again – these roles span the gamut of genres.

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences also honored Stevens with the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1954, the same year he was nominated for Director and Producer for Shane.

And so, by way of a modest entry I honor George Stevens – fantastic storyteller and versatile artist.

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Behind the scenes:

With Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur on set for The More the Merrier
With Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur on set for The More the Merrier
dean
With James Dean on Giant
With Irene Dunne on I Remember Mama
With Irene Dunne on I Remember Mama
With Fred and Ginger on Swing Time
With Fred and Ginger on Swing Time
With Hepburn and Tracy on Woman of the Year
With Hepburn and Tracy on Woman of the Year

8 thoughts

  1. I happened to catch a book review in my local newspaper Newsday that involved George Stevens. The book is called “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and The Second World War” by Mark Harris and is about Stevens, Capra, Huston, Ford, and Wyler.

    I don’t know if you’ll be able to see the review without being a subscriber ( http://www.newsday.com/entertainment/books/five-came-back-chronicles-filmmakers-in-wwii-1.7296077 ), but here’s one of the more interesting paragraphs involving Stevens:

    “Still, the war took its toll on these men — Huston battled post-traumatic stress disorder, and Ford drank like a fiend. Perhaps none suffered more than Stevens. At the end of the war, this director of smart, sprightly films — he guided Hepburn and Tracy — found himself in Dachau, his spirit nearly destroyed. He filmed footage of bodies stacked high, and survivors who were not recognizably human. “After the war, I don’t think I was ever too hilarious again,” Stevens said. Five came back, and nothing was ever the same.”

  2. What a phenomenal director. I agree that it’s impossible to look at his list of films and not acknowledge the variety, depth and pure talent of this filmmaker. He definitely ‘got’ the human condition. As he told Kipling, it’s about if the story has something to say. Great piece, Aurora!

  3. Giant should be required viewing, although you don’t want to push someone to see it either. It just needs to be embraced by a new generation. I’m sure it will do just fine.

    I always get choked up during that diner scene. But you really have to view the entire movie to properly build up to it. How about you? Some might think it is over the top but, at the end of the day, it packs just right amount of punch. I recently posted a review so it’s on my mind right now.

    I’m sure Stevens and Ferber hoped for at least some social change through their art.

    1. Agree! If given the chance it would do quite well with today’s audience. Only what the classics have that I most love would be an issue, it takes its time to tell its story.

      Thanks for stopping in.

      Aurora

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