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George Stevens - A Filmmaker's Journey

George Stevens - A Filmmaker's Journey
1985 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 110 min. / Street Date December 7, 2004 / 19.97
Editor Catherine Shields
Original Music Carl Davis
Co-producers Susan Winslow, Toni Vellani
Produced, Written, Directed and Narrated by George Stevens, Jr.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This lengthy documentary about a famous filmmaker is quite an achievement - it's entirely watchable for ordinary viewers and knowledgeable film fans alike. It uses its share of film clips but isn't a fluff piece, the kind of compilation film that "spoils" every movie it discusses. It concerns itself with the life of just one Hollywood director, yet doesn't bog down in biographical detail. George Stevens is not a household name but he was one of the most respected directors in Hollywood, especially among his peers. His film work ranges from Laurel & Hardy short subjects to deep-dish epics about important social themes. To examine his life is to see an artist working out his relationship to some of the biggest events of the 20th century. George Stevens - A Filmmaker's Journey is all the more extraordinary in that it was made by the director's own son, yet maintains a consistent critical distance from its subject.

No American film director has a legacy as well tended as George Stevens, especially because most of his film are neither ultra-popular fan classics (like Casablanca) or heavily studied in film schools. When they're in particular genres, as is Shane, they tend not to fit in with the trends of the day. The docu shows only bits of some movies, preferring to spend more time with others. The Diary of Anne Frank is given a lot of screen time, whereas Giant is represented mainly with a few outtakes of James Dean's character surveying his tiny bit of oil-rich property.

Stevens movies tend to stand out by going against conventions. Even with its studio-imposed ending, Alice Adams stands almost alone in the 1930s as a piece of American naturalism. Woman of the Year takes an attitude about male and female roles in society that's still worth discussing. The More the Merrier is a wartime comedy that doesn't shrink from wartime realities, even sexual ones.

Stevens the son regards Stevens the father with a respectul but curious gaze. Breaking into Hollywood through camerawork, George Stevens filmed for Laurel and Hardy and eventually wrote gags for them. Alice Adams almost immediately put him at the front rank of directors desired by quality-minded stars. He directed one of the best Astaire Rogers musicals (Swing Time) and practically invented the modern light-adventure comedy in Gunga Din.

The docu takes an abbreviated look at Stevens' war experience filming the Allied push across Europe. When he came home, the filmmaker seemed to have have realigned himself to a more serious outlook on life. The days of The More the Merrier were over. I Remember Mama is a thoughtful piece of nostalgia that elicits smiles but few big laughs. A Place in the Sun is grim work fully faithful to its Theodore Dreiser source.

Film clips are used sparingly, and a select sequence of stills fill in the gaps in Stevens' personal story. The best part of the show are the interview clips with key people, all shot on film. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and RKO executive Pandro S. Berman have a lot to say about Gunga Din, and Katherine Hepburn explains how she helped George get started on Alice Adams, and his repayment of the debt by directing Woman of the Year. Joel McCrea wonders at the sexual tension in The More the Merrier and Max Von Sydow and Millie Perkins are there as well to talk about their films.

The directorial testimony is pure gold. Fred Zinnemann, Rouben Mamoulian, Frank Capra, and John Huston have great things to say about Stevens' overall stature and his leadership role in preventing Cecil B. DeMille from turning the Director's Guild into a Red-Baiting organization. Warren Beatty relates the great old story comparing the sound of the gunshots in Bonnie & Clyde to those in Shane.

The last film covered in detail is The Diary of Anne Frank, Stevens' only film about the war and a yardstick for the depth of his commitment. The Greatest Story Ever Told, an incredibly expensive religious epic is wisely used to illustrate the director's religious commitment.

The only weak note in A Filmmaker's Journey is the ending, which likens the passing of Stevens to the elegiac departure of the (mortally wounded?) gunfighter Shane at the end of that film. Docus about filmmakers are difficult to put together because most directors cannot be fairly equated with the content of their films. In Stevens' case, his films and his personality are almost inseparable.

Warners' DVD of George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey is a much-improved version from previous home video offerings. Besides a clean transfer and good sound remix (that does wonders with Carl Davis' restrained musical score), all of the film clips have been upgraded. In the original release they were mostly bad-quality 16mm blowups, contrasty and full of dirt. Warners has not only replaced their own RKO and Warners footage with much better material, but has gone to Paramount and Fox as well. Only Anne Frank looks a bit odd - the clips are from a pan-scan transfer.

The only thing even slightly shady about the packaging is its list of 'starring' personalities - quite a few of them appear only in feature film clips.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, George Stevens - A Filmmaker's Journey rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 26, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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