In spite of the popularity of some of his films, George Stevens remains a relatively ignored figure. During the 1930s, he was RKO’s most accomplished contract director, with an unusually wide range that included comedies, dramas, weepies, and action pictures. He had a talent for handling actors—Alan Ladd, Charles Coburn, Jean Arthur, Elizabeth Taylor, and Ginger Rogers were all at their best with him.
Stevens entered the industry as a cameraman. His first major success as a director was Alice Adams (1935), a nicely observed slice of Americana that gave Katharine Hepburn one of her most appealing early roles, as a socially ambitious girl from the wrong side of the tracks. The following year, he directed Rogers and Fred Astaire in Swing Time, the most stylish and magical of all their musicals. The best example of Stevens’s leisurely approach to romantic comedy remains The More the Merrier (1943), an intimate post-screwball imbroglio about the housing shortage in wartime Washington.
In 1943, Stevens joined the Army Signal Corps, and at Eisenhower’s request organized a team that would cover the Normandy invasion and the battle for Europe. One of his major achievements, the most comprehensive color footage of World War II, never saw the light during his lifetime. A good deal of it is incorporated in the two docs A Filmmaker’s Journey (1985) and D-Day to Berlin (1994), both directed by George Stevens Jr., on view at MOMA, together with restored prints of 11 of his 25 features.
Stevens’s wartime experience clearly had a profound effect on him. In A Filmmaker’s Journey, Hepburn remarks: “What George did in comedy was unique—I hated to see him go to those more serious pictures.” Her point was well-taken. Stevens’s post-war films tended to become bloated and sententious as his prestige increased and the Oscars piled up. A Place in the Sun (1951) updated and transformed Dreiser’s An American Tragedy into the most glossy and ponderously romantic film of its period. In Giant (1956), a rambling adaptation of Edna Ferber’s novel, three generations of Texans are exhaustively and exhaustingly portrayed. The retro mercifully skips the director’s last three films, all duds. But also missing is the terrific adventure yarn Gunga Din (1939), the most exciting film of Stevens’s career.