The below is part one of a three part essay I wrote on director George Stevens (‘A Place In The Sun’, ‘Shane’, ‘Giant’) in April, 2011. Today would have been Stevens 119th birthday. I’ll be posting the rest of the essay throughout this week.
A few weeks ago I was privileged to spend some time on the phone with George Stevens Jr., the distinguished producer, director, playwright and arts entrepreneur–and son of legendary filmmaker George Stevens. The purpose? A re-investigation into the working methods of his father and the way in which, to my mind, his sense of time and space within an individual scene became increasingly abstract and–paradoxically–more emotional as his work went on after the Second World War. But there’s a larger purpose as well to my sharing these thoughts and observations. I’m frankly puzzled as to why Stevens (who made three of my favorite films) feels critically neglected–indeed all but disregarded– by the current day film history/criticism community at large. Certainly his reputation is a good deal less sterling than it was when he was alive. Yet the films by which he’s remembered haven’t dimmed and continue to captivate new watchers–especially the timeless “Shane” and “A Place In the Sun”. Stevens was a laconic, observant and taciturn individual and this leads many to find him unemotional or somehow inaccessible. Others find him merely a sort of “super-craftsman” capable–if given enough raw stock–of shooting enough material to deliver a suitable piece of high-gloss entertainment. Certainly nobody considers him an auteur. Nowadays, George Stevens appears to be settling into history as a respectable member of the Hollywood community who rose from Laurel and Hardy’s cameraman to James Dean’s executioner. On the way he directed Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn among others and picked up a couple of Oscars.
Except that the view from “auteurville” is–as always to me–puzzling and hard to contextualize. Maybe it’s me and I don’t really understand the whole auteur concept. If I have it right, a director is an auteur if–in spite of the material–his/her hand is felt, feelings are expressed, interests/obsessions explored. Let’s take it up a notch; an auteur is a director whose personality you feel while watching their work. “Who the devil made it?’ is the question Hawks–an auteur by this definition if ever there was one–wanted answered when he watched a movie.
If this is a correct and suitable definition of a term that need never have been invented, then I nominate George Stevens as the ultimate auteur. For in all of his films–including early Laurel and Hardy’s which he didn’t direct (but that he later attributed his own comic style/timing too)–I feel the presence of the man. Observant, patient, wryly humorous, with a darkness that comes through in his dead-pan impassivity in the face of violence or cruelty. This is a man who is truly concerned with what he’s watching, be it comedic or dramatic. Certainly, as his career went on, Stevens became exclusively interested in telling stories that directly connected to his passions and preoccupations. In an interview in the early sixties, Stevens was asked what he thought of the auteur theory of filmmaking. He answered, “Those are the kind of films I like to see, as singular as you can make the point of view. Only then does a film take on definition for me. The ‘auteur’ concept is certainly the most desirable form of filmmaking, from my point of view.” I find a pleasing irony to Stevens straightfoward acceptance of a highly personal approch to the work he cared passionately about, while others–Hawks, Ford etc.- scoffed openly about film being anything remotely more than a job for hard-nosed realists with no artistic pretensions. Let’s leave this bit of the argument behind us, with this final thought. In the early seventies, when Peter Bogdanovich told Howard Hawks he was teaching a class on his work at UCLA, Hawks laughed and found the whole idea absurd. I don’t think Steven’s would of. This doesn’t make one or the other a “better” director. But it does show Stevens as someone who was “prematurely mature” about the work he was doing.
So who was this man precisely–this stoic, private, film scientist whose work is suffused with emotion but who personally wore a “do not trespass” sign that even now, thirty five years after his death, continues to ward off potential admirers? Let’s start with some views of the man at work. Over the course of the next few postings, I’ll move onto examining individual sequences along with some exploring some of the discussion I had with George Stevens Jr. Perhaps we’ll then delve into the autobiographical material–what little there is as Stevens was intensely private. Still there are interesting and provocative things about his life that seem too connected with the work to ignore.
Let’s get a few views of Stevens from those who knew him and worked with him, just to get a sense of how deliberative, how extremely careful and considered, this man’s every move was. From Frank Capra’s “The Name Above The Title”:
“George is given to periods of meditation during filming, often walking alone behind the sets smoking his pipe for as long as an hour, while his actors wait in suspenseful silence. Returning to the set he may make a complete change in the scene or just sit in his chair and laconically announce, “Let’s take it again”–leaving the actors to wonder what in the world he’s been thinking about. Well, what was George thinking about? He was mentally reviewing his whole picture…analyzing the characters, their growth, their degradation, their effect on each other. Did the preceding scene logically build to the one at hand? Would the present scene lead logically to the ones that followed? Was the scene he was shooting necessary? Did he belive it? If not why?..Having concluded he should make no changes, he must take another look at the scene to check his gut decision. So “Let’s take it again.”
A view of precisely this same process–but a bit less forgiving (and quite a bit funnier)–is given by actor Michael Anderson who played James the Younger in Stevens Waterloo project, “The Greatest Story Ever Told”. According to Anderson, on the first day of shooting:
“We all thought…right, okay, we’re going to work…and we sat there and Stevens took a chair and he sat where we could all see him on a hill overlooking the entire valley, and he did not move…He came down for an hour to rehearse and then he would go back up and we were ready to shoot this thing. And it went on for days and days and days. Finally we rehearsed the scene a little bit and…a little bit more and then he went back up for five, six hours…Nobody really knew what that meant. We all realized at that point that we were not going to knock this movie off.”
FInally a look at Stevens through the eyes of the then-young William Castle, who served as dialogue director on “Penny Serenade”. This is from Castle’s stupidly titled autobiography “Step Right Up, I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America”.
“George Stevens was perched on a crane high in the air. I don’t think I’ve ever been closer to God. I was just about to greet him when someone clapped his hand over my and whispered, “Don’t talk it bothers him.” When I started to walk toward Stevens the man whispered, “Don’t walk, it bothers him.” “Can I breathe?” I inquired. Sam Nelson, the assistant director, grinned. “Not too loudly.”
Castle is as unreliable a narrator as he was a director but let’s let him continue. After six grueling hours of rehearsal, Stevens is ready for a take.
Camera rolling, the scene started. Irene (Dunne) walked to the window and looked out. Cary, seated in a chair, got up and walked over to her, camera following, and put his arms around her. Holding her close, he kissed her. She started to cry. George Stevens was watching the scene with fierce intensity. Cary Grant, trying to cheer her up, read his first line. I heard a voice yell, “Cut!” and was surprised to find it was my own. I said, “Cary you read the line all wrong. Your timing was off. Let me show you how to get your laugh. Now watch me.” Stevens walked toward me slowly. “Cary read it wrong, George.” George Stevens didn’t answer–instead he put his hands around my neck and started to choke me.”
Grant, it appears, intervened. I picture Castle gasping for air, being ministered too tenderly by Irene Dunne. And Stevens taking a three hour walk behind the set to calm himself down.
So much for the on-set presence of Stevens–clearly a figure of immense authority and yet at the same time deeply contemplative. Yet these portraits of Stevens are, to me, indicative of more than just an eccentric Hollywood “personality” of the period. Indeed, I see in his behavior–its combination of authority and deeply felt introspection–the manifestation of the puzzlement of being a film director–which Stevens articulated in an interview from the 1960’s: “To produce and drect a movie today, a man really ought to have two heads. It’s like trying to be a traffic cop and write a poem at the same time.”