Classic Hollywood: ‘Shane’ comes back
“I’m all right, Joey. You go home to your mother and father and grow up to be strong and straight. And Joey ... take care of them, both of them.”
The summer after George Stevens Jr. graduated from high school, his father, Oscar-winning filmmaker George Stevens (“A Place in the Sun,” “Giant”), hired him to peruse material for his next project for Paramount. One of the books he read was “Shane,” Jack Schaefer’s 1949 elegiac western novel about a boy named Joey who idolizes a mysterious gunslinger who arrives in his small town while it’s in the midst of a battle between homesteaders and a cattle baron.
“I think as a 17-year-old, I probably identified with the little boy a bit,” said Stevens, an award-winning producer/director/writer best known as the first director of the American Film Institute and co-creator of the Kennedy Center Honors. He received an honorary Oscar last year.
“I went to see him that night and he was in bed reading,” he said. “I had the book with me. I said, ‘This is a really a good story; you ought to read it.’ He said, ‘Tell me the story.’ So I walked around his bed telling him the story.”
His father, Stevens said, fell in love with “Shane” because he had been the cinematographer on the 1926 western “The Devil Horse,” starring Rex the Wonder Horse.
“I think he saw in it a chance to realize the western world he was very close to and had feelings about since his days as a silent cameraman,” Stevens said.
And more important, the carnage his father had seen in Europe during World War II — the elder Stevens had documented the horrors of the Dachau concentration camp — had an indelible effect on him.
“He also saw in it, having just come back from the war, this opportunity to show the power of a .45 pistol,” his son said. “He came back and saw these westerns where people shoot and shoot and shoot and get up again and shoot some more. He wanted to show the power of a single bullet, which he had seen in the war.”
Released in 1953, “Shane” is considered one of the seminal westerns of the 20th century. It stars Alan Ladd as the enigmatic gunman; Brandon De Wilde as the impressionable Joey; Jean Arthur (in her last feature) and Van Heflin as his parents, Marian and Joe; and Jack Palance as the psychopathic hired gun Jack Wilson who is out to kill Shane.
Shot primarily on location in Jackson Hole, Wyo., the film won the Oscar for Loyal Griggs’ breathtaking Technicolor cinematography. “Shane” also received five other Oscar nominations, including best film and director.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the masterpiece Monday evening at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater with a screening of the new digital restoration of the film. Director James Mangold (“The Wolverine”), who directed the 2007 remake of “3:10 to Yuma,” will introduce the film.
“The kind of scope of the film is majestic, and the craftsmanship of the movie is impeccable,” said Mangold, who first saw “Shane” on TV when he was young.
“All of that excellence is also married to a story that is so profoundly moving,” he continued. “The masculinity of the film is braided with tremendous heart. I think what is universal for adults watching the film is the incredible complicated moment where, as a young child, you begin to understand the profound, shadowed nature of adult life.”
“I think it is also a movie that has such directed violence,” noted Randy Haberkamp, the academy’s managing director for programming, education and preservation. “It’s not like the whole thing is one big, giant shoot ‘em up. There is this tension and suspense throughout, so when the violence comes it is much more intense because it has been so long coming.”
Though the film is impeccably cast, Ladd and Heflin were not the first choices to play Shane and Joe. Montgomery Clift was set to play Shane with William Holden as Joe. But Clift, who had worked with Stevens in 1951’s “A Place in the Sun,” dropped out.
“I don’t know the reason,” said the younger Stevens. “When Monty dropped out, Holden dropped out and they started from scratch.”
He remembers his father looking down the list of available talent. “He said, ‘Alan Ladd can play Shane; Van Heflin can play Joe,’ and he saw Jean Arthur’s name and said, ‘Jean Arthur has never disappointed me. She can play the woman.’ In five minutes he decided on the actors.”
Stevens, who worked as a production assistant on the movie, said it was apparent during the filming that “Shane” was going to be exceptional.
“Dad had just finished ‘A Place in the Sun,’ and everything he undertook had the potential to be very special,” Stevens said. “As you saw the dailies each night, it was apparent this was the kind of western you hadn’t seen before.”
Where: Samuel Goldwyn Theater, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday
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