George Stevens the director may not be a name you recognize, but you do know his films. There is the classic Western Shane. Or how about the smoldering tragic romance A Place in the Sun starring Montgomery Clift and young Elizabeth Taylor. Or the rip-roaring Cary Grant action film Gunga Din. Or the first comedy that brought together legendary lovers and on-screen partners Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Woman of the Year.
Perhaps his aura as a famous director has gotten brushed aside because throughout his career he didn’t stick to one particular style of film, effortlessly delving into comedy, drama, musical, and Western. As a kid he travelled with his vaudeville parents, but with the arrival of “moving pictures” he expanded on his childhood interest of photography and got into the burgeoning Hollywood scene while still in his teens. It didn’t take long until he was the cameraman first for Westerns starring Rex the Wonder Horse, but then got to helm many of the early Laurel and Hardy comedies.
And it was his comedies, particularly his directing of Katharine Hepburn first in Alice Adams, then in Woman of the Year, that really put him on the map. In the pre-war era, Stevens also directed the musical classic Swing Time, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In a lovely point of the film, it is explained that Stevens wanted a dance to tell a story, not simply be a musical number—thus was born Swing Time‘s most famous dance scene, where the couple says goodbye, first through dance, then for real.
During World War II, Stevens joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps, photographing with a crew mostly consisting of Hollywood-types wanting to help with the war effort. Not only was much of the famous black-and-white newsreel footage shot by Stevens’ team, but this documentary also includes some of Stevens’ astonishing color footage that he shot with his own home movie camera (for more of this, rent the excellent and eye-opening George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin). Stevens’ war-experiences put a damper on his view towards making comedies when he returned to Hollywood after the war. But this new somber outlook led to some of his best and most famous work: most notably the classic Western Shane, the smoldering tragic romance A Place in the Sun, and the epic drama Giant.
George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey is a good summary of the life-spanning work of a very productive and talented classic filmmaker in Hollywood. There are many talking-head interviews with his peers (this film was made after Stevens’ death), which are truly treasures, such as Kate Hepburn, John Huston, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers… many of whom are now gone themselves. The film clips are nicely chosen, specifically for the films I was unfamiliar with, like the sexy scene from The More the Merrier (1943)—though (warning!) some of them give away major plot points (like A Place in the Sun!). In this day and age of DVD extras, I wish there was more interview and voice-over clips from the man himself, but otherwise the film is a good summary of one director’s life-work for the uninitiated.