GEORGE STEVENS JR.: LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON
George Stevens Jr. has been known in his own right as the founding chairman of the American Film Institute and, before that, as head of the U.S. Information Agency’s Motion Picture and Television Service, commissioning hundreds of documentaries to be shown abroad and one, “John F. Kennedy: Years of Lightning, Day of Drums,” that moved millions of viewers in this country as well.
Now Stevens has written and directed an expert and spellbinding documentary about the life and work of his father, who made “Alice Adams,” “Gunga Din,” “A Place in the Sun” and a small but priceless library of other film classics. “George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey” has opened its first commercial showing at the Cineplex here in Los Angeles with the kind of rave reviews any film maker dreams of. It will open in New York on May 1.
The film, first shown at the Deauville Film Festival last summer, had its public premiere for the industry Wednesday night at the Motion Picture Academy, where it was introduced by Warren Beatty. Beatty had co-starred in Stevens’ last film, “The Only Game in Town,” in 1970. In the documentary, Beatty, as the producer of “Bonnie and Clyde,” remembers trying to get the resonating sound of gunshots just as Stevens had told him he’d done it on “Shane,” by firing into trash cans.
In a town in which family relationships can occasionally resemble reruns of the Crimean War, the son’s affectionate, deeply respectful but unmawkish and unsentimentalized homage to his father suggests that Senior and Junior were a novelty: good friends who got along in love and admiration. The viewer’s sense of it lends an aura to the remarkable slice of film history that “A Filmmaker’s Journey” is.
“I remember driving along Ventura Boulevard past a Bekins warehouse and my father saying, ‘If anything happens to me, all the stuff there in Bekins will go to you. Don’t let it become a burden to you as it did to me.’ ”
The stuff, photographed in a slow pan at the start and close of the documentary, was a vast, untidy melange of bound scripts, photographs, books, correspondence, saddles, bricks from Hitler’s fireplace, mementos of a long and honored life--and cans of film, most remarkably George Stevens’ private 16-millimeter coverage, in color, of his wartime experiences as leader of a Signal Corps photography unit assigned to cover D-day and much else, including eventually the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. It is the only full record in color, Stevens believes, of the war in Europe.
“After he died, I realized he’d been telling me he was letting me off the hook, that I could dump it all in the river if I wanted to. . . . But 10 years later, I’m still paying storage on it.
“When I went out there again, I realized that this was a man who left tracks. In that room was the evidence of a life. Two publishers talked about a biography of him, but it was obvious to me that it should be a film.”
There is a book as well. Little, Brown is publishing “Victory in Europe,” drawn from the wartime coverage. It was done originally by George Weidenfeld of Weidenfeld and Nicholson in London, and it is a main selection of the Book of the Month Club.
Additionally the BBC is editing the 5 1/2 hours of 16-millimeter color footage into an hourlong documentary, tentatively titled “George Stevens’ War Diaries,” that will air on PBS here May 7 and include interviews with some of the surviving members of Stevens’ Signal Corps unit (among whose writers were Irwin Shaw, William Saroyan and Ivan Moffat).
“I’d known the film was there,” Stevens said. “I’d seen the liberation of Paris reel years ago, and Dad had put up the Dachau reel once but took it off after five minutes; it was too tough to watch.”
Stevens, who resigned as the operating chief of the AFI four years ago (he remains co-chairman of the board with exhibitor Richard Brandt), shipped all the footage back to Washington, where he lives, and began organizing it, working with Susan Winslow and Catherine Shields. Winslow did the excellent clip montages on several of the AFI’s Life Achievement Award shows, which Stevens produces; Shields is co-producer and supervising editor of the documentary.
They started tagging key scenes from the movies, and he filmed interviews with his father’s peers and stars. (Cary Grant wouldn’t be filmed but did a lovely sound track.)
Stevens was also rounding up financing for the film: grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and from Atlantic Richfield, private investors, deferments.
“I used to tell the AFI interns, you’re not independent film makers; you’re dependent film makers. Now here I am, a dependent film maker.”
Stevens’ working relationship with his father had begun early. “I used to be a reader for him while I was still at Occidental College,” Stevens says. “I remember as an 18-year-old urging him to read a terrific Western I’d found. He said, ‘Tell me the story,’ so I told him the story of ‘Shane.’ The movie he made was more interesting than the story as I told it, believe me.”
Stevens worked on several of his father’s films, went to Amsterdam to shoot the exteriors for “The Diary of Anne Frank.” He also worked with Jack Webb and directed a good deal of episodic television, including “Peter Gunn” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”
He was helping on the pre-production of “The Greatest Story Ever Told” when the USIA offer came. “I didn’t want to leave but my father insisted I take the job,” Stevens says. “You never know, but I’ve wondered if he might have had less trouble on the picture if he’d been less unselfish about letting me go and had had someone around to take some of the load.”
In his USIA days, Stevens says, he’d overseen dozens of films that were descriptions of people’s lives. “But how do you do your own father? There were times when it seemed an insoluble problem--finding the right tone, keeping the reserve and the restraint.
“Now it’s done, and I think it’s not just for film buffs--it’s for anybody who likes a good story, because he lived a good story. And I think maybe it’s for people who have fathers--a large group. We had a great relationship. But I also feel as if by doing the film, I’ve exorcised a ghost.”