First Biography of Stevens, His Reputation on the Ropes

Giant: George Stevens, A Life on Film, by Marilyn Ann Moss. Terrace Books; 327 pages; $35.

It was George Stevens’ misfortune to make the worst films of his career just as modern film criticism was coming of age: Giant (1956), The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) all suffered from a bad case of bloat, and the last two pictures drove Stevens’ critical standing down severely. His reputation has never really recovered.

But this was also the man who made Alice Adams (1935), Swing Time (1936), Gunga Din (1939), Woman of the Year (1942), Talk of the Town (1942), A Place in the Sun (1951) and Shane (1953), just to name a few of the films that carry, in the words of Marilyn Ann Moss, “that graceful blend of intimacy and breadth” that marks the best of Stevens’ work. Just those six or seven films place him on a higher level than all but a handful of present-day filmmakers.

Ms. Moss’ Giant is the first biography of Stevens, so it’s a very welcome addition to the bookshelf, even if, by itself, it’s unlikely to reverse decades of critical drift.

Born in 1904, Stevens apparently had from birth the all-important attribute of a good eye. Ms. Moss reproduces a snapshot that the 9-year-old Stevens shot on a wharf in Seattle: It’s perfectly composed, complete with elegant framing and a vanishing point.

He was born into the low end of show business. His parents were stock-company actors, but his mother’s cousin was the director James Horne, who got the young man a job at the Hal Roach studios. Stevens soon became the primary cameraman for Laurel and Hardy, and their trademarks of a deliberate pace and implicit respect for the audience would become his as well. Stevens began directing at the Roach lot before moving over to RKO, where his talent for bigger (if not always better) things began to take hold.

Ms. Moss’ Giant is essentially a book about Stevens the professional; there’s little here about Stevens’ private life, which was fairly colorful-affairs with a number of his leading ladies that contrasted interestingly with the married Stevens’ reputation for integrity. But beyond some fairly gnomic one-line comments, Stevens’ private life is out of bounds.

The book proceeds with an unvarying rhythm. Each major film gets its own chapter: a section on preparation, followed by production, followed by critical analysis. Ms. Moss is stronger on production than she is on criticism; a doctrinaire feminist reading of Woman of the Year is particularly unfortunate-the film is so patently (and cheerfully) chauvinistic, as well as such an anomaly in Stevens’ career, that holding it to such strenuous account seems schoolmarmish.

Like a lot of other middle-aged directors who didn’t have to (Ford, Huston, Litvak, Capra), Stevens went off to war. He went through the North African and Normandy campaigns, helped liberate Paris, saw the concentration camps at Nordhausen and Dachau. He was left with few illusions: “The Poles hated the Jews worse than the Germans did … the better the Christian, the better the anti-Semite.”

Even before the war, with the protracted studio of Gunga Din, Stevens had become notorious for his contempt for production schedules. He’d shoot until he was damn well satisfied, no matter what the front office thought. After the war, it got worse. On I Remember Mama (1948), there was so much footage, said one co-worker, that “they could have cut [the film] six different ways without ever repeating a set-up.”

Bernard Smith, who worked at Paramount before becoming a producer for John Ford, told me that after four days of shooting, Stevens was a good bet to be three days behind. I’d always thought the remark was genial hyperbole, but it turns out that he wasn’t kidding: Ms. Moss quotes a document stating that Stevens would shoot about 13¼4 pages of script per week, which is about what most A-level directors do in a day.

Basically, Stevens shot an endless number of set-ups. He wouldn’t do a lot of takes, but he’d make the actors do the scene from a dozen or more angles so he’d have a lot of choices in the editing room. William Wyler, another great talent prodigal with time and film, didn’t change his setups much at all, but kept the actors grinding away for take after take. Wyler was obviously going for an elevated level of performance, but Stevens’ method bespeaks a director who was increasingly unsure of what he wanted his movie to look or play like.

The dangers of directorial constipation are obvious: too many choices, too much film, with the movie gradually congealing. There’s a resulting formality to the later Stevens that’s close to rigidity. Shane is an authentically great film, but it’s awfully composed. John Ford’s camerawork is every bit as studious, but he always made sure to keep his actors relaxed and natural, softening the frame of his westerns in a way that keeps them from ever being as stultifying as some of his non-westerns- The Fugitive, for instance.

The gravity imparted by the war grounded A Place in the Sun and Shane, which contains the last notable burst of showbiz flash in Stevens’ work: After Shane blows away the villains in the film’s climax, Stevens cuts to a close-up of Alan Ladd double-twirling his pistol into his holster. In terms of the story and the film’s style, it’s a preposterous shot-too B-western-but it never fails to give me a little shiver of pleasure.

In time, Stevens’ gravity became downright ponderous, a latent lurch into grandiosity already evident in a diary entry from the war: “I see it is necessary for me now. Twenty-five years getting ready for this job. I am ready now.” He began to feel it was incumbent on him to deal with Big Themes in a Big Way: ultimate evil in The Diary of Anne Frank, ultimate good in The Greatest Story Ever Told. Each of these films has wonderful dramatic accents-the rising volume of the police siren that we gradually realize is coming for Anne Frank, Jesus’ cold, contemptuous rage at the moneychangers in the temple-but not enough of them to overcome their three- and four-hour running times.

The failure of the late films obviously shook Stevens’ confidence. He thought about directing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid but decided that the script was too showy (he was certainly right about that). He passed on The Stalking Moon, This Property Is Condemned and Bonnie and Clyde, walked away from Nicholas and Alexandra, wanted to make The Great White Hope but couldn’t get the job. He finally made The Only Game in Town (1970), a fairly well-done gambling movie undone by the casting misalliance between an overweight Elizabeth Taylor and an underage Warren Beatty (Frank Sinatra walked off the project just before shooting). It was another flop. Stevens died five years later.

So it ended with a whimper, not a bang. But remember the incandescent love scenes between Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun; remember the calm, resolute blond beauty of Alan Ladd in Shane and the way the film carefully builds to its deeply satisfying explosions of violence.

And remember that, for a time, George Stevens raised painstaking craftsmanship to something approaching art.

Scott Eyman reviews books regularly for The Observer. Lion of Hollywood, his biography of Louis B. Mayer, will be published by Simon and Schuster in May.