George Stevens

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Scharphedin2
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George Stevens

#1 Post by Scharphedin2 » Sat Apr 07, 2007 11:48 am

George Stevens (1904-1975)

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They don't come just to escape or be entertained.
They come to learn about themselves. Kids come
to live an hour of the life, they have not yet lived,
and oldsters to live the lives they've missed.



Filmography

(The films listed below are those upon which Stevens received credit as director. Prior to his career as director, Stevens served his apprenticeship as camera assistant, cameraman and gag writer on scores of films, most notably at the Hal Roach studios. Additionally, Stevens wrote or participated in the writing of the scripts for most of his films, and beginning with Vivacious Lady in 1938 also produced the majority of his subsequent films)

Ladies Last (Short, 1930)

Blood and Thunder (Short, 1931)

High Gear (Short, 1931)

Air-Tight (Short, 1931)

Call a Cop! (Short, 1931)

Mama Loves Papa (Short, 1931)

The Kick-Off! (Short, 1931)

Who, Me? (Short, 1932)

The Finishing Touch (Short, 1932)

Boys Will Be Boys (Short, 1932)

Family Troubles (Short, 1933)

Rock-a-Bye Cowboy (Short, 1933)

Should Crooners Marry (Short, 1933)

The Cohens and kellys in Trouble (Short, 1933)

Room Mates (Short, 1933)

Quiet Please! (Short, 1933)

Flirting in the Park (Short, 1933)

What Fur (Short, 1933)

Grin and Bear It (Short, 1933)

A Divorce Courtship (Short, 1933)

Ocean Swells (Short, 1934)

The Undie-World (1934)

Kentucky Kernels (1934)

Cracked Shots (1934)

Bachelor Bait (1934)

Hollywood Party (Segment, 1934)

Bridal Bail (1935)

Pickled Peppers (Short, 1935)

Hunger Pains (Short, 1935)

Laddie (1935)

The Nitwits (1935)

Alice Adams (1935) Warner Brothers (R1)

Annie Oakley (1935) Warner Brothers (R1) - included in Barbara Stanwyck: Signature Collection / Manga Films (R2 ES) / Columbia (R2 IT)

Swing Time (1936) Warner Brothers (R1) -- also as part of Astaire & Rogers Collection, Vol. 1 and Astaire and Rogers: Ultimate Collector's Edition / Universal (R2 UK) -- also included in Fred & Ginger: The Collection / Editions Montparnasse (R2 FR)

Quality Street (1937) Manga Films (R2 ES) / Columbia (R2 IT)

A Damsel in Distress (1937) Editions Montparnasse (R2 FR) / Manga Films (R2 ES) / Columbia (R2 IT)

Vivacious Lady (1938) Editions Montparnasse (R2 FR) / Manga Films (R2 ES)

Gunga Din (1939) Warner Brothers (R1) / Editions Montparnasse (R2 FR) / Manga Films (R2 ES)

Vigil in the Night (1940)

Penny Serenade (1941) -- at least half a dozen pd releases in R1 alone

Woman of the Year (1942) Warner Brothers (R1) -- also included in Tracy & Hepburn: The Signature Collection

The Talk of the Town (1942) Columbia (R1) -- also part of The Cary Grant Box Set

The More the Merrier (1943) Columbia (R1)

That Justice Be Done (documentary short, 1945)

Nazi Concentration Camps (documentary short, 1945) Alpha (R1) - as double-feature with C. Svilov's Nuremberg Trials (1947) / Brentwood (R1) - included in WWII : The Ultimate Collection

The Nazi Plan (documentary short, 1945)

On Our Merry Way (uncredited, co-directed with King Vidor, John Huston and Leslie Fenton, 1948) Kino (R1)

I Remember Mama (1948) Warner Brothers (R1)

A Place in the Sun (1951) Paramount (R1)

Something to Live For (1952)

Shane (1953) Paramount (R1 & R2 UK)

Giant (1956) Warner Brothers (R1) -- also included in The Complete James Dean Collection

The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) 20th Century Fox (R1 & R2 UK)

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) MGM (R1 & R2)

The Only Game in Town (1970)


Films about George Stevens by his son, George Stevens, Jr.

George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey (1985) Warner Brothers (R1)

George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin (1994) Warner Brothers (R1)


General Discussion

There are no specific threads dedicated to George Stevens in the forum at present. However, his films have been discussed in passing in several threads, as for example in The Lists Project thread.


Recommended Web Resources

Film Reference

MoMA – Program notes to a centennial retrospective of Stevens’ films in 2005.

PBS – American Masters – Excerpts from Paul Cronin’s book of interviews with Stevens.

Reel Classics

The Washington Post – Includes transcripts of panel discussions with George Stevens, Jr. talking about his father’s work.


Books

George Stevens by Donald Richie (Museum of Modern Art, 1971)

George Stevens Interviews edited by Paul Cronin (University Press of Mississippi, 2004)

Giant: George Stevens, a Life on Film by Marilyn Ann Moss (The University of Wisconsin Press, 2004)

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Scharphedin2
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#2 Post by Scharphedin2 » Sun Aug 24, 2008 8:53 am

On a long train journey yesterday, I began to read Marilyn Ann Moss’ biography of George Stevens, and it of course reminded me, how much I admire this director and his films, and how deeply responsible some of them were for fuelling my personal love of cinema early on. I saw Shane and Giant long before I even knew what a director was, and subsequent viewings over the years have not taken away from these films for me – rather, as all great films, they offer something new to the viewer at different stages in life.

In returning to the biography and films of George Stevens through Moss’ book, the thing that immediately impresses me is the richness of this particular director’s life and experience. He was born into a theatre and vaudeville family, and from the time he could walk was involved in the performing arts. At the age of 17, he had already committed to a career in film (much to the disproval of his father, who held the not uncommon view in 1922 that the new medium was a waste of time for the lower classes, and inferior to the art of the theatre).

One of Stevens’ first real assignments was on the series of films featuring Rex the Wonderhorse for Hal Roach. Apparently these films were conceived during a dry financial spell by Roach as a way around paying star salaries to actors. They were shot on location, and the young Stevens loved the opportunity to spend time in the great outdoors, and rub shoulders with real cowboys and Indians.

Stevens stayed with the Hal Roach studios for eight years (1924-1932), and worked on innumerable films with amongst others Harry Langdon, Charley Chase and most notably Laurel and Hardy. He famously saved Stan Laurel’s career – Laurel’s pale blue eyes did not register on regular orthochromatic film stock, and it was Stevens who suggested to use panchromatic film instead, thereby giving the comedian his eyes back, and earning himself the position as cameraman (and, sometimes gag writer) on some thirty films with the duo. Stevens claimed that his experiences of working with Laurel and Hardy never left him, and influenced his own comedic style ever after.

It was also Hal Roach, who gave Stevens his first opportunities to direct, but Stevens eventually fell out with him by insisting on wanting to work with more “serious” material. When Stevens left Roach Studios in 1932, he briefly stopped at Universal before moving on to RKO, where he received a contract as director, and made his mark with audiences and critics with several films including the Wheeler and Woolsey vehicles Kentucky Kernels and Nitwits. These successes eventually led to Stevens being given his first assignments on more serious pictures in 1935; first with Laddie, and then Alice Adams.

I intend to continue this overview of George Stevens’ career later, but in the meantime it would be interesting to read comments on Stevens as a director, particularly if anyone has viewing experience of his early career, and would like to post comments.
Last edited by Scharphedin2 on Wed Sep 10, 2008 3:50 am, edited 2 times in total.

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tryavna
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#3 Post by tryavna » Sun Aug 24, 2008 3:15 pm

Scharphedin2 wrote:Stevens claimed that his experiences of working with Laurel and Hardy never left him, and influenced his own comedic style ever after.
I recently watched Alice Adams, and this connection suddenly became apparent to me. The dinner scene with Hattie McDaniel serving the Adamses is a classic example of "slow burn" in the Laurel & Hardy vein.

I love most of Stevens' output between 1935 and 1943, but as I've mentioned in other threads where we've discussed Stevens, Scharph, I can barely stand the self-importance of his post-WWII work. It's like, after The More the Merrier, he suddenly lost his sense of humor. I suppose this is unfair of me -- not unlike people preferring Woody Allen when he was "simply being funny" -- but it's a pretty consistent emotional response for me.

What I do wish, however, is that Stevens' son would quit exerting such an iron-fisted control over his father's legacy. Every extra I've ever seen on a Stevens DVD has been vetted (or made) by Junior, and they're always little more than a love-fest. A more balanced critical reevaluation might lead me to reconsider some of Stevens' later stuff.

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Scharphedin2
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#4 Post by Scharphedin2 » Mon Aug 25, 2008 6:28 am

Tryavna, Stevens’ recognition of his own indebtedness to Laurel and Hardy impressed me as well. There is a quote in one of the books (I will try to find), where he is very direct in citing this influence. The first film I saw, where I was conscious of this (what you term as “slow burn”) was the breakfast scene in Woman of the Year, but it really is a comedic technique that runs through his films – I remember a similar scene in Penny Serenade with Irene Dunne displaying difficulties in tending to her baby, while family friend Edgar Buchanan is watching and loudly cracking peanuts in the background. The scene lingers for a long time, with Dunne displaying her ineptness at taking care of her baby, until Buchanan finally steps in and shows her how to do the job properly (I forget the actual situation – the changing of a diaper or something of the sort). I even remember scenes of similar comedic timing in I Remember Mamma, which was made after the war, and is not generally considered one of Stevens’ “light” films.

Seeing Alice Adams, and especially the central scene that you mention, of course very clearly establishes the link back to Stevens’ apprenticeship (if we can call it that) at the Hal Roach Studios. I also saw this film for the first time recently, and having in the past only seen excerpts from the scene you mention, it was a pleasure to finally see it in its entirety – how Stevens sets up the situation, even before the dinner scene, with the family’s frantic preparations for the dinner. Hattie manages to fall into the basement off-screen at the very moment when Fred MacMurray is received at the front door. Then, the long scene of MacMurray being “entertained” by Alice’s mother, with the subtle comedy of the awkwardness of a lampshade positioned too close to the armchair that he sits in, making it impossible for him to move an inch without colliding with the object; and, the mother inviting him to smoke (a couple of cigarettes having been placed in the ashtray for that purpose), MacMurray opting to take out one of his own cigarettes, and the hilarity of the mother attempting to brush the cigarettes out of the ashtray unnoticed by MacMurray.

The scene goes on and on with countless little moments of humor slowly accumulating, and enormously illustrating just how desperate and hopeless the Adams family’s attempt at putting on a show of being upper class truly is. Stevens milks any number of laughs out of the simple act of Alice’s father being offered a cracker with caviar, which he finally gives up on eating, and in an unwatched moment manages to fling into the fireplace. Afterwards, there is his struggle with his shirt gaping every time he leans toward his place at dinner (several of its buttons having popped as a result of him having grown out of it), not too mention his obvious displeasure at the menu served, and the way it is served by “hired-for-the-day” Hattie.

All of the comedic pratfalls notwithstanding, the scene is of course deeply sad, as it gradually dawns on Alice that her and her family’s attempt at upper class pretense has hopelessly failed. She imagines that her romantic chances with MacMurray have once and for all been ruined by the disastrous dinner, and as this realization slowly dawns on her, we literally see her fighting back the tears. Hepburn plays this wonderfully, and Stevens’s films it beautifully – it is to my mind one of Hepburn’s most moving screen moments.

The dinner scene is the high point of the film, but I think this comedic approach is prevalent throughout the film – in Alice’s preparations for the ball early on, in the ball scene itself, and even in Alice’s meetings with MacMurray. It really is a different approach to comedy than that of many other notable directors of the thirties, and perhaps it reflects as much Stevens’ intent to make “serious” films, as it reflects the lasting influence of his upbringing at the Hal Roach Studio.

Another thing I wondered about, when viewing Alice Adams was the source novel. Tarkington also wrote “The Magnificent Ambersons,” which Orson Welles adapted a few years later. The films are obviously very different on the formal level, but also very different in the handling of the stories as such, if we concede that Alice largely is a comedy. Has anyone read Tarkington’s books, and can comment on the source material for these films?

In her book, Moss explains that both Stevens and Hepburn fought for a more realistic and downbeat ending to the film, but that Pandro Berman and RKO insisted on the ending as is. As a joke, another ending was in fact filmed and shown to the company brass, in which Hepburn walks off screen at the end, followed by the loud crack of a gun.

On the topic of Stevens, Jr., I can agree that he almost hurts his father’s legacy by continuously playing the custodian to all things relating to his father’s films. However, I did like his documentary on his father very much, even if it did present a very unbalanced view. Jr. also worked on many of his father’s films, and had a very close relationship to him, so I can understand his strong tie to his father’s legacy, and his desire to ensure that it is preserved for future generations. At least, Jr. is helping to make his father’s films available, and not preventing it, as in the case of certain other heirs to the estates of notable filmmakers.
Last edited by Scharphedin2 on Tue Sep 02, 2008 4:51 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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tryavna
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#5 Post by tryavna » Mon Aug 25, 2008 8:01 pm

Scharphedin2 wrote:All of the comedic pratfalls notwithstanding, the scene is of course deeply sad, as it gradually dawns on Alice that her and her family’s attempt at upper class pretense has hopelessly failed. She imagines that her romantic chances with MacMurray have once and for all been ruined by the disastrous dinner, and as this realization slowly dawns on her, we literally see her fighting back the tears. Hepburn plays this wonderfully, and Stevens’s films it beautifully – it is to my mind one of Hepburn’s most moving screen moments.
Yes, this mixing of sentiments is indeed impressive, and it really does goes some distance in demonstrating that Stevens' ambitions to tell more "serious" stories were well-founded. In other words, I don't mean to dismiss Stevens' artistic ambitions entirely. It's just that, for me, it's precisely that mixture that makes his 1935-43 work so great. Once he excises humor from his films almost entirely (as in Shane, Greatest Story Ever Told, etc.), he loses me. I'd much rather watch a flawed but interesting film like Talk of the Town than sit through Diary of Anne Frank again.
Another thing I wondered about, when viewing Alice Adams was the source novel. Tarkington also wrote “The Magnificent Ambersons,” which Orson Welles adapted a few years later. The films are obviously very different on the formal level, but also very different in the handling of the stories as such, if we concede that Alice largely is a comedy. Has anyone read Tarkington’s books, and can comment on the source material for these films?

In her book, Moss explains that both Stevens and Hepburn fought for a more realistic and downbeat ending to the film, but that Pandro Berman and RKO insisted on the ending as is.
The (very) little that I've read of Tarkington makes him seem like a watered-down cross between Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson -- i.e., he mixes both parody with a darker ambivilence about traditional Americana. The novel Alice Adams, which I've not actually read but have read about, does indeed end unhappily (the heroine doesn't get her man), so the sadness that's there in the film is more fully explored in the novel.

Unfortunately, Tarkington is one of those writers whose stock is quite low these days. During grad school, I once asked one of my profs whether I should read or work on Tarkington at all, and the answer was an emphatic no -- that there wasn't much of a critical interest in his work. When I was younger, I read a couple of the Penrod and Sam stories, and I remember them being rather charming. I'm not sure if I'd have the same reaction today, but by the same token, I don't know but that Tarkington is ripe for rediscover. (I know that Lewis has more depth than he's currently given credit for.)

And you're probably fairer about Jr. than I am. He certainly doesn't compare to the people who have inherited Welles', Ophuls', etc.'s estates.

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#6 Post by vivahawks » Mon Aug 25, 2008 10:37 pm

tryavna wrote:The (very) little that I've read of Tarkington makes him seem like a watered-down cross between Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson -- i.e., he mixes both parody with a darker ambivilence about traditional Americana. The novel Alice Adams, which I've not actually read but have read about, does indeed end unhappily (the heroine doesn't get her man), so the sadness that's there in the film is more fully explored in the novel.

Unfortunately, Tarkington is one of those writers whose stock is quite low these days. During grad school, I once asked one of my profs whether I should read or work on Tarkington at all, and the answer was an emphatic no -- that there wasn't much of a critical interest in his work. When I was younger, I read a couple of the Penrod and Sam stories, and I remember them being rather charming. I'm not sure if I'd have the same reaction today, but by the same token, I don't know but that Tarkington is ripe for rediscover. (I know that Lewis has more depth than he's currently given credit for.)
I've been meaning to read Alice Adams for a long time but have never gotten around to it. (I thought The Magnificent Ambersons was good but unextraordinary; Sherwood Anderson seems a pretty good comparison, sharing a tendency to oscillate between great subtlety and obviousness in characterization. I was also suprised that Tarkington's ending is even worse than the movie's--he brings in a seance scene to bridge the gap between Isabel and Eugene!)

On Stevens, I also much prefer his work up to 1943, though I have soft spots for I Remember Mama and A Place in the Sun. The former mixes its humor and seriousness pretty well and is one of the best movies about American immigrants, and the latter's romanticism is still impressive and seems the last time Stevens let himself be carried away with the internal rhythm of a film. Among his early work, his biggest flaw to me is a occasional tendency to misjudge the style of his actors. I'm always frustrated by the ending of The More the Merrier: the first section is flawless and probably his greatest moment, but I never understood why he thought it would be funny to make Jean Arthur, the most grounded of screwball heroines, blubber and whimper through the second half. I'm similarly thrown by Cary Grant's casting in Talk of the Town (though Grant still almost brings it off through sheer awesomeness) and the performances in Vivacious Lady, where Stewart and Rogers are cast in stereotypical roles on paper but seem really off in their execution. On the other hand there's the delicacy of Hepburn in Alice Adams, as Scharphedin points out, or Dunne and Grant in Penny Serenade. And it's been a while since I've seen this, but I remember liking Quality Street a lot and in my memory it's become a kind of distant cousin to Stage Door in terms of having a bunch of women hang out and have fun. Has anyone else seen this and can comment?

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Scharphedin2
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#7 Post by Scharphedin2 » Sun Aug 31, 2008 12:09 pm

tryavna wrote:The (very) little that I've read of Tarkington makes him seem like a watered-down cross between Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson… so the sadness that's there in the film is more fully explored in the novel.
vivahawks wrote:… I thought The Magnificent Ambersons was good but unextraordinary; Sherwood Anderson seems a pretty good comparison, sharing a tendency to oscillate between great subtlety and obviousness in characterization.

Thanks for the comments on Tarkington. I am not sure that I have seen any of his books in bookstores, but the comparison to Anderson makes me want to track down a couple of his works. I remember my delight at discovering Sherwood Anderson, some of whose books are at least still readily available (others I had to track down in the well-stocked used bookstores of ‘ol Chicago – a quest that was no small delight in itself). The description of his style as fluctuating between great subtlety and a fairly naïve (obviousness) of observation was exactly what I responded to in his stories; very much the world as seen through the eyes of young boys or “simple” adults, as would seem to be his preferred protagonists. And, of course, the nostalgia inherent in the portrait that he passed down of American small town life/rural life fascinated me. In fact, with respect to Stevens and his later films, the simultaneous romance and examination of the American condition is probably one of the reasons that I love his films from after the war so much. I Remember Mama, A Place In the Sun, Shane and Giant are all observations of America and the American identity. Aside from all the other differences that these films display when compared to his pre-war films in terms of humor and general tone, and even Stevens’ way of working, and the circumstances under which he worked, these later films to me are about America, whereas the earlier films are quintessentially, but mainly unconsciously, American.
vivahawks wrote:Among his early work, his biggest flaw to me is a occasional tendency to misjudge the style of his actors… the performances in Vivacious Lady, where Stewart and Rogers are cast in stereotypical roles on paper but seem really off in their execution.
This is an interesting observation, although I wonder if it is a misjudgment of the styles of his actors, or, whether it has to do with his female characters being so much stronger and more interesting as characters than their male counterparts in general? I think this is certainly true in Alice Adams and Annie Oakley. With respect to Vivacious Lady, which I viewed last night (with your comment fresh in mind), I agree with you that Stewart and Rogers never come off as a couple. Both of them are very good in their parts (as you say, on paper – in fact, it is almost as if the parts were written to fit their screen personas), but they are an extremely awkward couple. However, the film was still very enjoyable and funny, and I began to wonder, if any concerns about the mismatching of these actors, or, misjudgments of their styles, are simply a matter of us stepping out of the film? I reflected on your comment several times during the picture, and I thought to the future, and how these two people just would never make a couple. On the other hand, when I stayed with the film, and simply let it take me along on its crazy ride, then I accepted the premise, and felt that the very awkwardness of Stewart and Rogers was the motor of the film. Much of the comedy comes from the very fact that the viewer (like several of the other characters in the film) sees the awkwardness, which they in their rosy state of lovers are utterly oblivious to. I look forward to thinking further about this, when revisiting the other films you cite as examples.

vivahawks
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#8 Post by vivahawks » Mon Sep 01, 2008 7:33 pm

Scharphedin2 wrote:
vivahawks wrote:Among his early work, his biggest flaw to me is a occasional tendency to misjudge the style of his actors… the performances in Vivacious Lady, where Stewart and Rogers are cast in stereotypical roles on paper but seem really off in their execution.
This is an interesting observation, although I wonder if it is a misjudgment of the styles of his actors, or, whether it has to do with his female characters being so much stronger and more interesting as characters than their male counterparts in general? I think this is certainly true in Alice Adams and Annie Oakley. With respect to Vivacious Lady, which I viewed last night (with your comment fresh in mind), I agree with you that Stewart and Rogers never come off as a couple. Both of them are very good in their parts (as you say, on paper – in fact, it is almost as if the parts were written to fit their screen personas), but they are an extremely awkward couple. However, the film was still very enjoyable and funny, and I began to wonder, if any concerns about the mismatching of these actors, or, misjudgments of their styles, are simply a matter of us stepping out of the film? I reflected on your comment several times during the picture, and I thought to the future, and how these two people just would never make a couple. On the other hand, when I stayed with the film, and simply let it take me along on its crazy ride, then I accepted the premise, and felt that the very awkwardness of Stewart and Rogers was the motor of the film. Much of the comedy comes from the very fact that the viewer (like several of the other characters in the film) sees the awkwardness, which they in their rosy state of lovers are utterly oblivious to. I look forward to thinking further about this, when revisiting the other films you cite as examples.
You're right about the stronger female characters in Stevens--I hadn't really considered that before, though it's pretty obvious now that I think about it (and makes the mishandling of Arthur in The More the Merrier even more egregious). I think the problem I felt with Vivacious Lady can be illustrated by comparing Ginger Rogers' personality and Stevens' typical comedic style. As you and tryavna point out, Stevens tends to let his comedy play out at a leisurely pace with "slow burns" influenced by his Laurel & Hardy days; Rogers on the other hand has a rapid-fire style, physically and verbally, in her nondancing comedienne roles, and the directors she worked best for--La Cava, Wellman, Wilder, Karlson (pretty late)--are all pretty fast and aggressive in their pacing. As a result, as I remember Vivacious Lady, Stevens can't really balance his, Rogers', and Stewart's rhythms--the latter of course has his own, entirely distinct sense of timing--and the results struck me as flat with occasional bursts of antic activity that end up accomodating none of the actors at all. (Another example: done right, the conflict between Coburn and Rogers' styles would be a great movie in itself, but Stevens entirely flubs that angle as well.) You're right of course about how the characters are incompatible in real life, but that actually didn't bother me; this is screwball after all, although your observation reminded me of Olivia de Havilland, who said she often wondered how her character and Charles Boyer's in Hold Back the Dawn would fare after the movie, and always concluded they'd eventually separate. Off topic, but that is one of the few 30s/40s romances where I do worry about the characters as "real people" as well.

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#9 Post by Scharphedin2 » Tue Sep 09, 2008 5:42 pm

Continuing the overview of Stevens’ career from my initial post…

After the success of Alice Adams George Stevens directed another seven films for RKO over the next four years: Annie Oakley (1935), Swing Time (1936), Quality Street (1937), A Damsel in Distress (1937), Vivacious Lady (1938), Gunga Din (1939) and Vigil in the Night (1940). His star rose quickly during this period, and he soon came to be considered one of RKO’s top directors. He worked quickly, (up until Gunga Din) within budget, and developed a reputation for being an excellent and sympathetic women’s director. However, Stevens felt that the studio worked him too hard, and although he did manage to renegotiate his contract toward the end of his stint at RKO, he was tired of arguing with the studio brass, and eventually left after the completion of Vigil in the Night for Columbia Pictures of all places.

Annie Oakley appears to have been designed as a project to introduce Barbara Stanwyck to RKO audiences as their hot new star. It is unclear to me to what extent Stevens had much input on the choice of the material itself, but to all intents and purposes it was in line with his interests in Americana, which had also been the background for the early films he worked on with Rex the Wonderhorse, and which he would always cite as some of the happiest experiences in his career. If Stevens did not have a lot of choice in the material, he did have a tremendous amount of input on the script, although he received no formal credit. When shooting began, apparently only four pages of the script were finished, so Stevens commenced to work with the authors of the biography upon which the film was based to write the script alongside the actual shooting of the film. Stevens also took to researching Annie’s life, had her set of guns shipped to the studio (although they were never actually used in the film), and even went so far as to track down living family members of Annie’s, eventually locating and briefly corresponding with her only surviving brother in Ohio.

To me, at first glance, the film has all the trimmings of a solid studio picture, but may not be so immediately recognizable as a Stevens production. Although there is a lot of comedy in the film, the central love story between Annie and fellow sharpshooter Toby Walker (Preston Foster) is fairly straightforward melodrama, and most of the fun derives from the large set of eccentric characters that people the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, as well as the small backwoods community that Annie hails from. This humor is also more gag-oriented than in Stevens’ more famous comedies. What is consistent with many of Stevens’ other films of this period is of course the focus on a strong female character, and I suppose vivahawks’ concern about casting would also extend to Preston Foster as Toby Walker. Surely, the character, and/or Foster as an actor, hardly comes off as strong enough to make the romance with Annie altogether believable.

Knowing the background of the production, I also think that the meticulous research that Stevens undertook is visible on screen. Certainly, there is a nice sense of authenticity and detail on display in the scenes revolving around the Wild West circus, and in the scenes taking place in Annie’s hometown. There are many little touches that add color to the story by painting in the background of the times, as in one scene when all of the folks in Annie’s town are gathered for a photograph, and Stevens shows the laborious nature of the photographic process at the time. Or, early on, when Annie learns about the Wild West Show from a poster being pasted onto a fence next to the town store, and the congregation of old geezers, who are sitting on the porch of the store, gossiping in their drawling backwoods dialects.

Next, Stevens was handed the incomplete script of Swing Time, and assigned the task of directing Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in their sixth film together for RKO. In later years, Stevens would look back on the RKO years with rosier spectacles, and comment that at the time of directing Swing Time he was convinced that he could do any kind of picture. The reality probably was that he felt less confident going into the project – several different people came and went in working with him to finish the script, and he simultaneously battled RKO for a salary increase, which he received at the intervention of his agent.

Swing Time would be the only musical that Stevens directed in his career, but he somehow managed to create one of the most memorable Ginger and Fred movies. He was well served by Jerome Kern’s music, Dorothy Field’s lyrics, and Hermes Pan’s choreography of the dance numbers, but his own comedic ability also shines through in many scenes. Scenes that are given time to develop in the manner that Stevens felt most comfortable and happy with. The final result is a film that is very light and elegant, and it was another film that was unanimously lauded, and made great business for RKO.

Following this string of successful films, Stevens actually directed two films that were not so successful. The first was another film with Katharine Hepburn entitled Quality Street, and the second was A Damsel in Distress with Fred Astaire and George Burns. However, due to the hectic schedule on which Stevens was working, his next picture Vivacious Lady was already completed by the time the other films opened, and it in turn was a big success at the box office. By the time of writing this, I have not yet been able to see the former two films, although they have seen release in Spain/Italy (anyone care to comment on these?) Vivacious Lady was already discussed in several posts above. Interestingly, it may well have been Stevens’ most successful film at RKO. Apparently, the newspapers positively raved upon its release, and it is cited in Moss’ book as one of the Studio’s “strongest releases of the decade.”

As Stevens became more and more confident of his own worth to RKO, he increasingly clashed with the studio on the same grounds that he had clashed with Roach a decade earlier. He wanted to direct more serious films, and in 1938 he devoted considerable time to convincing RKO to acquire the rights to Humphrey Cobb’s novel Paths of Glory (later filmed by Stanley Kubrick); he began work on a screenplay, but was informed that the film could not be made. First, the studio explained that with the mounting unrest in Europe, the timing for such a dark anti-war film was not right. Upon Stevens’ continued insistence, he was told that France would not stand for the film, and would ban it (and, any other RKO films) from being screened in the country.

Instead, Stevens’ next film for RKO became Gunga Din. Apparently Rudyard Kipling’s poem about a brave Indian water boy had been batted around at RKO for years, with several screenplays having been written, and a number of different directors attached to the project at various times. Howard Hawks was already assigned to direct the film, but RKO was becoming antsy over Hawks’ slow progress on Bringing Up Baby, and decided to hand over the project to Stevens, who was now considered to be not only the studio’s most valuable director, but also a director known for being on time and on budget.

Stevens accepted the project on the condition that he could take it on location. This decision alone doubled the budget of the film, but RKO agreed, and Stevens soon settled on the area around Lone Pine in California as the location for the film. As usual, filming began without a completed script, because Stevens insisted on writing his own screenplay for the film; as it happened the screenplay was written on the installment plan throughout the production of the film, and the shoot itself has been described as one long series of improvisations, with no one in the crew or cast knowing what the next week of the shoot would bring.

As a result of this, the schedule and budget of the film ballooned. Originally, the shoot had been planned to take 64 days (already a long shoot for a film at the time), but actual shooting only wrapped after 104 days. Furthermore, the film, which had originally been budgeted at the standard of $250k, and then doubled to accommodate location shooting, eventually cost just short of $2 million to produce, and became by far the most expensive film in RKO’s history.

It has been a while since I viewed Gunga Din. What I am stuck with is of course the scale of the story, and particularly the battle scenes, as well as the great fun with which the whole story is infused. It surely was one of the great, epic adventure films of the studio-sound era. In thinking about it now, however, I am fascinated that Stevens, who had only months before bitterly fought to make a deeply serious and tragic film about war, and who would in just a few years himself depart for the war in Europe, and eventually return utterly shaken and marked for life by his experiences, could turn around in 1938 and make such a light-hearted entertainment with so much battle and blood-letting.*

The great success of Gunga Din at the box office notwithstanding, the film did not immediately make a profit, and it did nothing to improve the strain that had been growing between Stevens and RKO. Right after the premiere of Gunga Din, Stevens proposed two projects to the studio – Katherine Kressman Taylor’s Address Unknown and Phyllis Bottome’s The Mortal Storm (later filmed by Frank Borzage), both of which were turned down for their political content by the studio after lengthy correspondence back and forth. Instead the studio proposed the novel Sisters by A.J. Cronin, and it eventually became Stevens final film for RKO – Vigil In the Night.

Vigil In the Night is to my knowledge completely unavailable on DVD. The film starred Carole Lombard cast against type in a serious role, and it sounds like a film that would be interesting, since it fulfilled Stevens' ambition to direct serious films. In any event, it failed rather miserably at the box office, but by the time of its premiere, Stevens had already left RKO as a result of the many clashes over the preceding couple of years.

To be continued…

* After writing the above, I found the following comments made by Stevens in 1973 in an interview with the American Film Institute, which answered some of my questions relative to Gunga Din:
... I made [Gunga Din] just in time. Another year later and I'd have been too smart to do it, because the film is delightfully evil in the fascist sense. It celebrates the rumble of the drums and the waving of the flags. No one in modern times has done it as well or as with as much grace as the British with their uniforms and stiff salutes and all of that. I really got that film done just before it would have been too late. It wasn't a film of any great presumptions either. It wasn't after the Adolph Zukor gold bowl or any of those awards, but it did extremely well with the critics.

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Scharphedin2
Joined: Fri May 19, 2006 7:37 am
Location: Denmark/Sweden

#10 Post by Scharphedin2 » Thu Sep 18, 2008 5:20 pm

Over the past couple of weeks, I have re-viewed the four films that George Stevens directed at Columbia and Warner Brothers during the war years, immediately before he personally enlisted as part of the U.S. Signal Corps, and left for Europe. These films – Penny Serenade (1941), Woman of the Year (1942), Talk of the Town (1942) and The More the Merrier (1943) – are amongst the director’s best loved productions, and collectively represent the pinnacle of Stevens’ career as far as comedic filmmaking is concerned.

After his departure from RKO, Stevens was made an offer by Harry Cohn to come and work at Columbia on a three picture deal. Cohn had just lost Frank Capra from his roster, and was desperate to enlist a director, who could handle comedy. Stevens is quoted in Moss’ book as remembering the situation something like this: “Harry Cohn wanted to bring me in. I told Cohn I wouldn’t be able to make a picture with him at the studio there because I knew about rudeness and other misfortunes. And he said, ‘I’ll make an arrangement with you. You make a picture here and I’ll never speak to you.’” Stevens agreed to these terms, and apparently Cohn never once interfered with the production of the three films that he made for Columbia.

Penny Serenade is immediately recognizable as a new departure for Stevens into the kind of “more serious” material that he had fought to work with both at the Roach Studios and at RKO. The film was based on a short story by Martha Cheavens, and is basically the story of a marriage told in flashback, from the moment when the couple (played by Cary Grant and Irenne Dunne) has decided to break up. Stevens’ structured the story around Dunne playing a series of gramophone records that segue into flashbacks depicting the various stages in the couple’s marriage. Aside from the inherent challenges of the times (late ‘20s and ‘30s), the main source of conflict in the lives of the couple stem from their inability to biologically have a child, and the Grant character’s general lack of responsibility.

Clearly, the film is not an outright comedy, but since both Dunne and Grant had established themselves as stars of comedy, they manage to shift quite elegantly from the scenes of drama and tragedy into scenes that are highly comedic. Especially the middle section of the film, when the couple adopts a toddler, wonderfully displays this side of both the actors’ and the director’s talent. There is the scene, when the couple arrives at their home at night with their newly adopted baby, and their attempts at noiselessly maneuvering through the house and upstairs without waking the child. It is a long scene that almost plays like a Laurel & Hardy routine, as every object in the house appears to conspire and rebel against the couple in an effort to produce sound. Several scenes follow that must have produced endless laughter in theatres, as the film bears witness to all the comic challenges and travails that beset the couple in their new role as parents. All of these scenes are developed in Stevens’ “slow burn” manner, and because the film has taken its time to establish the couple so carefully in dramatic terms during the first hour of the film, the relief of these scenes is even greater. In turn, the human connection that is established between the characters in the film and the audience through these scenes makes it possible for Stevens to shift back into very tragic events at the end of the film without losing the sympathy of the audience.

All of the films of this brief period were big hits with both audiences and critics, and Penny Serenade was no exception, in spite of the stark plot reversals, and the casting of the principal actors against type.

For his next film, Stevens went to Warner Brothers, and came close to jeopardizing his “good” relationship with Cohn. Katherine Hepburn had had the script for Woman of the Year written for her by Garson Kanin, and had brought it to Louis Mayer, allegedly because he had helped her in a different context. Mayer had suggested George Cukor to direct the film, but Hepburn wanted a more “masculine” and "forceful" director, and suggested that Stevens take the job. Stevens in turn decided to direct the film as a return favor to Hepburn, since she had basically given him the break of his career with the director’s job on Alice Adams. Or, so the story goes. Woman of the Year also turned out to be the first in a long string of on-screen pairings between Hepburn and Spencer Tracy – another decision that Hepburn has received credit for orchestrating.

In short the film concerns the courtship and marriage of two star reporters on a major New York newspaper. Hepburn is a fast-talking, smart, independent, modern, international correspondent, who traffics with state heads and other luminaries from all over the world, and is as much the news herself, and the events that she covers. Tracy is an all-American, rugged, stoic and grounded sports reporter. The couple obviously inhabit completely different worlds, but naturally sparks fly the moment they meet, and the film depicts the complications that arise out of their attempts at adjusting their lives to each other (an adjustment that is shown to be far more necessary on Hepburn’s part, than on Tracy’s).

As described in the beginning of this thread, Woman of the Year features the famous breakfast scene that is a textbook example of Stevens’ approach to comedy, and there are several other scenes that stand out, including the couple’s wedding night, which develops into something like the stateroom scene from Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera, with the couple being intruded upon by a large number of characters ranging from barroom cronies to Eastern European refugees.

Woman of the Year is also the first to comment on the war in Europe. Stevens apparently had a print of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph des Willens screened privately during the production of Woman of the Year, and the film impressed him deeply both for its aesthetic brilliance and beauty, and for its depiction of the German army, the strength and danger of which he decided that he would have to assist in fighting. In fact, if viewed in the context of their times, all four of the films discussed in this post could be seen as reactions to the war. Each of these films depict individuals that in some way need to adjust and change in order to counter some social or personal “threat” imposed upon them. Further, the solution in each of these films appears to be a confirmation of, or reversion to, traditional/American values.

For his next film – Talk of the Town – Stevens was back at Columbia, working again with Cary Grant, joined by Jean Arthur and Ronald Colman in the principal roles. Grant is a suburbanite framed for setting a factory on fire, and killing a worker in the process. The film’s prologue quickly sets this situation up, shows the ensuing trial going against Grant, and then his successful escape from jail. The sequence is highly dramatic, and shot and edited in pure noir style. Then Grant seeks shelter in a little house, which belongs to Arthur, who just happens to be busy preparing the house for a celebrated professor of law (Colman), who has rented the house for the summer in order to write a book. This first half of the film is absolutely hilarious, with Grant hiding out in the attic, as the professor takes up his abode in the house, and Arthur more or less falling for both men at once. The humor is of the walking in and out of doors variety with endless complications arising out of the simplest of situations. Things slow down a little in the second half of the film, as the film by necessity becomes more plot-oriented.

The More the Merrier has many things in common with Talk of the Town, and, as vivahawks pointed out earlier in this thread, the first half of it may very well be Stevens’ finest comedic hour. It again stars Jean Arthur, who once more struggles to keep house, with two strangers imposing on her. In this instance the story takes place in Washington D.C., and takes its cue from the housing shortage in the nation’s capitol during the war. Charles Coburn is fantastic as a bumbling middle-aged political committee member arriving in town, and bulldozing into Arthur’s life, insisting on letting the room, which she has felt it her patriotic duty to put up for rent (albeit, to a young lady). Never so soon has he settled into his new quarters, before Coburn determines that what the young, tightly-wound, and, above all, single Jean Arthur needs is a nice clean-cut young man in her life, and thus he promptly turns around and sub-lets half of his rented room to a young army engineer (Joel McCrea). As in Talk of the Town, much of the humor arises out of this sharing of cramped quarters, and the insane routines that Arthur sets down in order to maintain some semblance of order in her home.

Stevens later said that everyone simply had a lot of fun on the set of this film, because he knew that he would be shipping out for Europe, as soon as filming was completed, and he had no idea if he would ever work in films again. Stevens did return to making films in Hollywood, but it would be more than five years, and when he did eventually resume his director’s career, his outlook on life had changed dramatically, and he would never again be able to make this type of light, comedic film.

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Matt
Joined: Tue Nov 02, 2004 12:58 pm

Re: George Stevens

#11 Post by Matt » Fri Nov 21, 2008 12:17 pm

from the Alternate Oscars thread:
Tolmides wrote:
Alice Adams-I'm honestly not a George Stevens fan; I find a lot of his most well-regarded films(with the exception of Shane, his best) to be pompous, showy and a little confused in what they have to say. I really enjoyed this, however, due mainly to MacMurray, believe it or not, who was suitably banal. Hepburn's mannerisms haven't quite congealed into a personality yet, in my opinion; she seems way too eager to please the audience still, instead of reinforcing her character's strengths.
I haven't seen Alice Adams, but I generally divide his film into pre- and post-Talk of the Town. Those films prior are typically light comedies/adventures (Gunga Din, Swing Time, Vivacious Lady). His films only start to be crammed with social commentary from Talk of the Town onwards. I still like most of them, but it's clear he's determined to be a "serious" filmmaker.
There is a distinct difference between pre-war Stevens and post-war Stevens. After he served in the war (he and his crew shot the film of the liberation of Dachau), he said he could never make another comedy. The shame is that his more serious tone turned into earnest self-righteousness.

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knives
Joined: Sat Sep 06, 2008 6:49 pm

Re: George Stevens

#12 Post by knives » Sun Apr 07, 2019 9:40 pm

Has there ever been a collection of his shorts put out or at least a collection with some of his shorts in it?

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