George Stevens – An Icon of American Culture

Alastair Lyon

Talking Pictures alias






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Recently there has been a renewed interest in  the work of the Hollywood producer-director George Stevens(1904-1975) who was somewhat ignored in the 1960s by auteurist critics, his films have now been the subject of retrospectives in the United States. While other directors such as Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock are famous in their own right, Stevens has been left to obscurity, except for one or two of his films such as Giant (1956) and A Place in the Sun (1951). He is not remembered in the same way as the other Hollywood directors. 

The critics of the 1960s didn’t give him the status of transcending his form or having an imprint of his own personal artistic expression and omitted him from the list of Great Directors. But re-examination of Stevens’ films contradict this conclusion, Stevens did have a thematic preoccupation with a distinctive style of his own, and this ran all the way through his work 

Stevens’ work spanned five decades, He made his way into film by working as a cameraman and director in the Hal Roach Studio where he photographed many Laurel and Hardy Classics and then a number of minor films until he was given a break by Pandro S. Berman at RKO in 1935 with a Katherine Hepburn vehicle  Alice Adams. It was in this film and others in the 1930s that Stevens style became apparent, and his experience as a director of visual gags, personal issues and classical Hollywood compositions was put to effective use. Annie Oakley (1935), Swing Time (1936) and A Damsel In Distress (1937) elevated him to the level of Hollywood artist. 

He became a director at RKO of “serious minded” films, but there always remained a lightness of touch and emotional resonance that made his films great. He achieved this resonance through technique and awareness of how cinema functions in its relationship with the audience , the way in which it is received emotionally and sometimes politically. The scene in Alice Adams where Alice brings Fred McMurray to dinner with her parents is an example of this where  sadness and embarassment is perfectly enunciated and always lurking in the background is some sort of political critique. This occurs right through all of Stevens’ films from Alice Adams through The More the Merrier (1943), Giant, A Place in the Sun. Pick just about any scene from any of his films and there is the same thing going on. 

One of my favourite scenes from his films in the 1930s Is in Swing Time where the two lovers sing to each other in the snow, It’s so perfectly filmed and choreographed but still with a lingering feeling that they are not in control of their destiny. The way in which the characters are directed through gesture and looks and the setting conveys the intended emotions perfectly and it is easy to see why the film won an Academy Award. The film also contains several song and dance numbers which have become famous in their own right as being examples of near perfect narrative form. 

His films of the 1930s from Alice Adams in 1935 to Gunga Din in 1939 were mainly aimed at young women, except for Gunga Din which was a boy’s own adventure and on of his most lovingly remembered films. Alice Adams, Annie Oakley (1935), Vivacious Lady (1938), Quality Street (1937) and A Damsel In Distress (1937), were all made in succession to one another and gained critical and popular support. They are characterised by their human angle , their visual craftsmanship and their emotional impact. There are sequences in his films that have gone down in Hollywood history as classic, just about any song and dance routine in Swing Time (1936), the kitchen scene in Woman of the Year are just two examples which are legendary and show his mastery of seamless action. He also had an eye for classical composition, refining the Hollywood style. He had a complete understanding of the formal aspects of filmmaking and how it is used to convey meaning. 

Stevens had an interest in young people, All of his films concern issues relating to young people and their lives in  a harsh world- the difficulty of finding love and a place in society. And acceptance. From Annie Oakley to A Place in the Sun, even to The Diary of Anne Frank this was Stevens' agenda. His films followed youth and changed through the decades as youth culture changed. Decade by decade Stevens followed their trends. Stevens championed the inclusion of young people into society and the dangers that could befall them as in Shane (1953) and A Place in the Sun

In the 1940s his films were domestically based. Penny Serenade (1941) concerned the story of a husband and wife and their domestic situation with an adopted child, in I Remember Mama (1948) an immigrant family strive to make ends meet in their household and in The More the Merrier (1943) two people have difficulty in finding an apartment due to wartime housing shortages. The latter is also about the novelty of a man sharing an apartment with a woman . Instead of making morale boosting action war films, he directed these films about the domestic situation. 

Stevens kept close counsel of himself and wasn’t really the same kind of man as the hunting, fishing Hawks ,or the brutal Ford, or as the self promotor Hitchcock. He claimed to be an outsider, that he had native American blood in him and his films are much more attuned to a female audience than a male one. He was also more of an urbanite that the other directors. In fact Giant is a critique of the way of life outside of the American city. His characters are always going to the city  and are happiest there finding fame and fortune. This is reflected in his films where a kind of social conscience operates as in Gunga Din and I Remember Mama.

There was also a lot of humour in his films of an everyday kind, ranging from sight gags and a kind of gallows humour, to finding laughter at being human and making mistakes. This is what drew audiences to George Stevens’ films over the decades from the 1930s to the 1960s. But in the 1950s Stevens films became more serious. During WW2 he commanded a camera unit at the D Day landings and was one of the first people to liberate the Dachau concentration camp. What he saw led his latter films to be influenced by what he had experienced during the liberation of Europe. Issues of discrimination and violence were dealt with in his post war films, such as The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), Shane (1953) and A Place in the Sun. Moreover he directed Giant as a sort of riposte to current events in America where Senator Joe McCarthy was conducting hearings against Un-American activities. He also directed a Biblical epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told which critics saw as a failure but which is highly accomplished. 

But it was, however, in the responsibility of individuals and treatment of the weak that George Stevens championed. Ill treatment of the poor, women, and ethnic minorities were his main concern and that is where the force of his films lie. Whereas the early films started o the basis of finding love and happiness , his films in the 1950s are much more sectionalised where every shot of  the American horizon is loaded with relations to what America is and has become and the way that its people act and react towards themselves and others. The way in which the American land is filmed in Giant led critics to call the film big and empty, but in fact there are several things going on at once. There is the level of the land and what it means , its relationship to the people, what it is and could become, and also the hold it has over the weak and disposessed and the power it gives its owner. In fact the whole film is about how the Rock Hudson character dominates everything and every supposed empty shot shows how his relationship to it affects everything. 

Stevens doesn’t tie down any particular social ills to the problems in his films, it is rather more a question of evil setting down on people from forces which seem beyond their control but which Stevens manages to encompass. This is what makes him one of the great men of American cinema , a man who knows the good things from the bad in life and bases his art on this. The quest for love and happiness versus the will for absolute and individual power and lack of personal responsibility which he sees as the evil plaguing the world. His penultimate film The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) is the summation of this and the breadth of its ambition shows how much George Stevens tried to counteract this threat. 

Stevens, it seems, has fallen out of fashion but maybe he is due for re-examination as a key figure in this history of Hollywood as his kind of film doesn’t seem to be made any more. The kind of film which  is at once entertaining, and meaningful. Pauline Kael compares Steven Spielberg to Stevens  and this could be valid. Stevens films are the work of a master of American culture and their beauty and relevance seem misunderstood outside of America where the foreign market is one of the main stimuli for contemporary Hollywood film. American culture probably needs another George Stevens at the moment but would Hollywood have him? 

George Stevens died of a heart attack in 1975 at the age of 71 after an illustrious career in Hollywood where he was part of an elite of  producer-directors who had the say over what films were to be made and how. His son George Stevens jr made a documentary with him before he died about the life of his father called George Stevens : A Filmmakers Journey (1985) where he showed the man and his accomplishments and what people thought of him. He was almost universally liked by  his contemporaries and was held in the highest regard by Hollywood who regarded him as an artist of the highest order. Stevens’ films left an imprint on American culture and that is how they should be received: as an American artist whose films  are examples of a master of Hollywood cinematic form.
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