George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey

February 7, 2020

georgestevens2Documentaries about artists are not unusual; it is one of the mot exalted (and most effective) ways we can pay tribute to the creators around us. But how often has a son paid tribute to an artist father – in the very medium in which the father distinguished himself?

This has happened in lovely fashion in George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey, a tribute by George Stevens Jr. to his director-producer father. Stevens Jr. has already carved out an important place for himself as a custodian of film history; he was one of the founders of the American Film Institute, the organization devoted to saving and preserving old films, which also honors the giants of the industry with its annual Life Achievement Award. But his new film about his father should stand as his most honorable – and warmest – accomplishment.

A Filmmaker’s Journey takes us through the career of George Stevens via generous film clips, interviews with contemporaries (among them Katharine Hepburn, Joel McCrea, Frank Capra), and old impromptu footage by (and with) Stevens.

Stevens, who died in 1975, was one of the most respected directors of his day. He cut his teeth as a cameraman and gag writer for the Hal Roach studios, where he worked on many Laurel and Hardy comedies. By the mid-1930s , he was directing his own features, and his films of that time – Alice Adams, Swing Time, Woman of the Year, The More the Merrier  – established him as one of the most intelligent people in films.

There’s some extraordinary footage, shot with color 16mm film, taken by Stevens during production of Gunga Din. Anyone who loves that film (merely one of the most enjoyable movies ever made) will delight in the off-the-cuff shots seen here – although it’s strange to see costumes, sets and actors from that black-and-white classic in color.

It’s also strange, but in a much more somber way, to see Stevens’ color footage of his wartime experience (the only color footage of the European war, according to the film). Stevens, like a number of his Hollywood compatriots, enlisted and served as a filmmaker in a special Army unit. He captured some exhilarating shots – the liberation of Paris – and also much disturbing footage, including the discovery of the concentration camps. The documentary makes a persuasive case that Stevens’ outlook darkened considerably during the war; he made no more comedies, but did turn out such serious classics as A Place in the Sun, Shane, and Giant.

A Filmmaker’s Journey is a valuable contribution to film history, and it should improve Stevens’ flagging critical reputation, which has been in decline since the 1960s.

But the film may be most fascinating as familial tribute. Throughout, especially in the clips, there is an emphasis on embraces and partings; and the end is taken from the last sequence of Shane, where the little boy calls the surrogate father to come back.

The emphasis is clear, and quite moving. You come away knowing that this Filmmaker’s Journey has been not merely a journey of the famous father’s, but of the son’s as well.

First published in the Herald, October 13, 1985

A great movie-history documentary, and moving for the reasons described. Has Stevens’ reputation rebounded? This is the film with Warren Beatty’s unforgettable story about how the sound of pistol shots from Shane inspired him to do the same effect with Bonnie and Clyde, an effect ruined by a meddling projectionist.