George Stevens

Active - 1916 - 1984  |   Born - Dec 18, 1904 in Oakland, California, United States  |   Died - Mar 8, 1975   |   Genres - Comedy, Drama, Romance

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Biography by Hal Erickson

American producer/director/cinematographer George Stevens made his professional acting debut at age five in the company of his actor parents. Developing an interest in photography as a hobby, Stevens became an assistant movie cameraman at the age of 17. From 1927 through 1930, he was principal cameraman at Hal Roach Studios, shooting such classic two-reelers as Laurel and Hardy's Two Tars (1928) and Below Zero (1930), as well as a handful of feature films, including the 1927 Western No Man's Law. Stevens was elevated to director in 1930 for Roach's Boy Friends series. Dismissed from Roach during an economy drive in 1931, Stevens moved to Universal and then to RKO to direct comedy shorts (he later professed to hate two-reel comedies, though he enjoyed the company of the comedians with whom he worked, especially Laurel and Hardy). RKO promoted Stevens to features in 1934; after several medium-budget projects, he was assigned the "A" feature Alice Adams (1935) over the protests of the film's star, Katharine Hepburn. When Alice Adams proved successful, Hepburn's attitude toward Stevens did a "180," and she insisted that he direct her starring vehicle Quality Street (1936). Another Stevens triumph from this period was the Astaire/Rogers confection Swing Time (1936), in which the director's father Landers Stevens played an important supporting role. Producing as well as directing from 1938's Vivacious Lady onward, Stevens turned out a string of critical and financial successes: Gunga Din (1939) for RKO, Woman of the Year (1942) for MGM, and Penny Serenade (1941), Talk of the Town (1942) and The More the Merrier (1943), all for Columbia. Stevens' directorial style displayed the same acute sense of visual dynamics that had distinguished his earlier work as a cameraman; the director refined and improved upon that style through sweat and persistence. Once he reached the "A" list, Stevens became one of the most meticulous and painstaking directors in the business, commencing production only after extensive research, filming take after take until perfection was achieved, and then spending as much as a full year editing the finished product. During World War II, Stevens was made an officer in the Signal Corps, filming vivid color footage of such historical milestones as the D-Day maneuvers and the liberation of the death camps; much of this footage was incorporated into the 1984 documentary George Stevens: A Filmaker's Journey, assembled by George Stevens Jr. After the war, Stevens produced and directed his final RKO assignment, I Remember Mama (1948), then moved to Paramount for what many consider his crowning achievement -- 1951's A Place in the Sun, a brilliant filmization of the Theodore Dreiser novel An American Tragedy. While much of the film's content is dated, Stevens succeeded in transferring a bulky and verbose novel to the screen in purely visual terms; he also thrilled the bobbysoxer fans of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor by shooting their love scenes in huge, provocatively lit closeups. A Place in the Sun won Stevens his first Oscar for best directing in 1951. Fifteen years later, he threatened legal action against NBC should the network edit out any portion of Place in the Sun for telecasting purposes, and he was backed up in his suit by the California Legislature. The more time and effort Stevens expended on his individual projects, the fewer he produced. His output between 1953 and 1959 consisted of Shane (1953); Giant (1956), in which he put the awkward Cinemascope screen to superb artistic use, winning his second Oscar in the process; and The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). From 1960 through 1965, Stevens labored on a mammoth filmization of the life of Christ, The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). The film was a failure for several reasons, not least of which was Stevens' curious insistence upon using big-name stars in every role (this is the movie in which John Wayne, as the centurion at the Crucifixion, proclaims "Trew-ly this man wuz the son of Gawd"). Greatest Story lost Stevens his hard-earned autonomy; for his last film, The Only Game in Town (1970), he was little more than a glorified hired hand to stars Elizabeth Taylor and Warren Beatty. While George Stevens' reputation was tarnished by the disappointments of his last years, critics and fans alike have taken a "forgive and forget" stance since his death in 1975, preferring to cite his huge manifest of hits rather than his final faltering misses.

Movie Highlights

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  • At 17, attained his first job in Hollywood at Hal Roach studios as an assistant cameraman.
  • Headed the Army Signal Corps Special Motion Picture Unit in WWII. Filmed the invasion of Normandy.
  • Directed films that starred two of the most famous male-female acting duos in film history, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.
  • Films he directed were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture six times.
  • Won the Best Director award twice, for A Place in the Sun (1951) and Giant (1956).
  • Served as president of the Screen Director's Guild for two separate stints (1941-44;1946-48).
  • Oversaw 1939's Gunga Din, a film that was severely over budget and took nearly twice as many days as it was alloted to complete.
  • Credited with saving the career of English comedian Stan Laurel by switching to a less commonly used film that would register his eye color.