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George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey
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George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey

Produced, directed and narrated by George Stevens, Jr., the 1984 documentary, George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey is more intimate and revealing than most movie director biographies because the filmmaker is the subject's son. And, in the process of making this tribute, he discovered aspects of his father's life he never knew before which he shares with us. Many of these discoveries came from the diaries, letters and home movie footage Stevens Sr. compiled during his lifetime. In an opening that recalls the final scenes of Citizen Kane (1941), the camera roams over the vast personal effects of the renowned director in storage and we see room after room teeming with books, film scripts, film canisters, photo albums, movie equipment and other mementos from his life.

When you look at Stevens' filmography from beginning to end, it unfolds like a history of the American cinema. He started as a gag writer for Mack Sennett working with such major stars as Laurel and Hardy and soon began directing comedy shorts featuring Edgar Kennedy, Frank Albertson and others. In the early thirties, he signed a contract with RKO and moved into feature film directing, getting his first big break from Katharine Hepburn and producer Pandro S. Berman who chose him to helm Alice Adams in 1935. Other successes quickly followed - Swing Time (1936) with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Vivacious Lady (1938) with James Stewart and Ginger Rogers, Gunga Din (1939) starring Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Victor McLaglen and Woman of the Year (1942), the first pairing of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn and Stevens' first freelance effort after leaving RKO. Stevens easily moved from genre to genre bringing intelligence, style and a humanistic viewpoint to his films that became more serious and philosophical as he grew older.

George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey is not a completist film survey of the director's work, however, and some films are not mentioned or explored in any detail such as his Wheeler & Woolsey comedies (Kentucky Kernels [1934], The Nitwits [1935]), Annie Oakley [1935] with Barbara Stanwyck, Penny Serenade [1941] starring Irene Dunne and Cary Grant or several others. Instead, Stevens Jr. chooses to concentrate on a few key films that defined his father's directorial style and working methods which are supplemented by well-chosen film clips and interviews with those who worked with him or knew him well – choreographer Hermes Pan, Fred Astaire, John Huston, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Frank Capra, author Irwin Shaw, Warren Beatty, Joel McCrea and many more.

The most striking part of this 1984 documentary are the excerpts from Stevens' color home movie footage. During his early years at RKO he bought a 16mm camera and began filming behind the scenes of his movies. For example, there is some wonderfully candid footage from the Gunga Din film set with the actors clowning around but more impressive are the real events he photographed while serving under the Army Signal Corps as the head of a special combat unit that captured the D-Day landing at Normandy, the liberation of Paris and the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. The latter footage has lost none of its power to shock, even after sixty-five years, and the experience had a profound effect on Stevens. In an audio interview, he recalls walking through the gates of Dachau, appalled at the sights, "When a poor man, hungry and unseeing because his eyesight is failing, grabs me and starts begging, I feel the Nazi, because I abhor him, I want him to keep his hands off me. And the reason I want him to keep his hands off me is because I see myself capable of arrogance and brutality to keep him off me. That's a fierce thing, to discover within yourself that which you despise the most in others."

When Stevens returned to Hollywood, he was no longer interested in turning out studio system entertainments and preferred to concentrate on serious topics if he was going to continue in the film industry at all. His first post-war movie - I Remember Mama [1948] - was a return to his roots and early years in California with its nostalgic San Francisco setting. Subsequent efforts became more ambitious, time-consuming productions that showed Stevens attempting to meld his meticulous craftsmanship with his artistic aspirations. Some of these were among his most critically acclaimed and popular films - A Place in the Sun [1951], Shane [1953], The Diary of Anne Frank [1959] – while others experienced a much more mixed reception - The Greatest Story Ever Told [1965], The Only Game in Town [1970]. In the end, the person who emerges from this portrait is more than a great filmmaker; he was also a great American and accounts of his belief in the Constitution and the democratic process are sprinkled throughout the documentary. One of the more memorable anecdotes involve his stand against Cecil B. DeMille who was trying to force Joseph L. Mankiewicz out of the Directors Guild for refusing to sign a loyalty oath during the communist witchhunts of the Joseph McCarthy era.

George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey was originally aired on television but it also garnered a theatrical release in some areas. In his review of it, Roger Ebert wrote, "...it inevitably shares some of the conventions of the genre. We see the clips of great scenes, we hear the memories of old colleagues. Two things distinguish the film: The quiet professionalism with which the materials have been edited together, and the feeling that George Stevens, Jr., really is engaging in a rediscovery of his father through the making of this film. By the end of the film, we are less aware of George Stevens as a filmmaker than as a good and gifted man who happened to use movies as a means of expressing his gifts."

Producer: George Stevens Jr., Antonio Vellani, Susan Winslow
Director: George Stevens Jr.
Cinematography: Harrison Engle, Tom Hurwitz
Music: Carl Davis
Film Editing: Catherine Shields
Cast: Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Katharine Hepburn, Joel McCrea, Max von Sydow, Warren Beatty, Rouben Mamoulian, John Huston, Frank Capra, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Pandro S. Berman, Fred Zinnemann.
BW & C-112m.

by Jeff Stafford

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