#349. George Stevens

Modern audiences may not know about George Stevens or the films he directed from the 1930s to 1970. Some of the names of his movies might not be familiar to them either, but many of these films are classics in their own rights. He worked with some of the best in the industry at the time. Cary Grant (Gunga Din (1930) and Penny Serenade (1941)), Fred Astaire (Swing Time (1936) and A Damsel in Distress (1937)), and Katharine Hepburn (Alice Adams (1935) and Woman of the Year (1942)), just to name a few. By the end of his career, he even directed a film from his own production company, the Biblical epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Throughout his directing career, he earned many nominations and awards, but most people on the street probably couldn’t say why. This week’s two films highlight some of the greatest films directed by George Stevens.

A Place in the SunA Place in the Sun
Year: 1951
Rating: Passed
Length: 122 minutes / 2.03 hours

Throughout the early 1930s, George Stevens directed mostly short films and comedy sketches. By 1941, he had picked up his first nomination for Best Picture with The Talk of the Town. While he did not direct this film, he would earn two more nominations the following year, for Best Picture and Best Director for The More the Merrier (1943). His first win at the Oscars would come almost a decade later with A Place in the Sun (1951). This film was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, but only garnered Stevens the golden statue for the latter category. The legacy of this film was recognized in 1997 as one of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 films, being placed at #92. It is also included as one of the 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, for similar reasons, not the least of which was Stevens’ expert directing.

George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) has not had nearly the amount of success his uncle, Charles Eastman (Herbert Heyes), has enjoyed. When the two randomly meet, Charles offers George a job in his factory as a way to help his struggling nephew. George takes to the work and finds himself being noticed by management for his good ideas. Consequently, Charles invites George to his estate for dinner with high society. At the party, George is immediately enamored with Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor). Unfortunately, George has already gotten himself involved with one of the factory girls, Alice Tripp (Shelly Winters). Alice senses George’s flightiness and informs him that she’ll expose him if he doesn’t marry her since she is carrying their bastard child. In a twist of fate, the courthouse is closed for Labor Day, so George suggests they take a boat out on the lake, knowing Alice cannot swim.

Year: 1956
Rating: Approved
Length: 201 minutes / 3.35 hours

After his Best Director win in 1951, George Stevens would have another set of Best Picture/Best Director nominations for the western, Shane (1953). He lost that year to From Here to Eternity (1953) but would be nominated for the set again with The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), losing to Ben-Hur (1959) that year. His second win at the Oscars was for Best Director with Giant (1956), which itself lost Best Picture to Around the World in 80 Days (1956). One wonders if the inclusion of Elizabeth Taylor in Giant helped to earn Stevens his Best Director wins, except that his last film ever directed was The Only Game in Town (1970), which featured Taylor but did not earn him a nomination. Following his film career, he founded the American Film Institute (AFI). One does wonder if the two Top 100 lists produced by AFI were biased, as four of his films have appeared on them over the years.

Yet again, Elizabeth Taylor portrays a socialite in Giant as Leslie Lynnton. She is swept off her feet by Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) and brought back to his ranch in Texas as his bride. Now that she’s a part of the farm, she becomes involved in its operations, somewhat stepping on the toes of Bick’s sister, Luz (Mercedes McCambridge). In retaliation, Luz hurts Leslie’s horse and is bucked off to her death. As a result, the ranch’s handyman, Jett Rink (James Dean), inherits a small portion of the property. He has had feelings for Leslie since she first came to the ranch, but respected Bick enough to keep his distance. When Jett discovers oil on his patch of land, he becomes wealthier than the Benedicts, thus upending the social order between these two neighbors. His persistent requests to drill for oil on the rest of the Benedict ranch are eventually granted as Bick realizes his children will not continue his legacy.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 stupendous George Stevens classics

Bacon #: 3 (Shane / Alan Ladd -> Paper Bullets / John Archer -> The Little Sister / Kevin Bacon)

#110. Dance!

Take it from someone who has tried it: dancing is difficult. As someone who has two left feet, I envy those who can make any choreography seem simple. And yet, even mediocre dancers can manage to do that. What truly impresses me is the talent that existed in the golden age of the Hollywood musical. Actors like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Ginger Rogers put everyone else’s dancing acts to shame. Of course, it helped that they had such brilliant songwriters and composers on which to build their dances but to truly meld song and step still takes the talent on the part of the dancer. After all, musicals are fine when people just sing, but when they add dancing, the scenes come alive. This week’s two films look at some great dancing by two of the greatest talents Hollywood has ever seen.

An American in ParisAn American in Paris
Year: 1951
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 113 minutes / 1.88 hours

One of the best dancers of the 20th Century, if not ever, was Gene Kelly. Not to be confused with actress Grace Kelly, Gene is well known for some well-known musical productions, including On the Town (1949) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Anchors Aweigh (1945) is also notable for featuring a rotoscoped sequence of Gene dancing with Jerry, the cartoon mouse from the well-known Tom and Jerry cartoons. Needless to say, Gene Kelly’s dancing was usually paired with Frank Sinatra’s singing (On the Town and Anchors Aweigh being two of the three films in which this occurred), and their strengths usually played well off each other. Of the 50 greatest actors of the last century, the American Film Institute has placed Gene Kelly at #15. Similarly, An American in Paris (1951) was placed at #68 on their Top 100 list.

While Gene Kelly did not win an Oscar for his performance in An American in Paris, he did win an Honorary Award that year to recognize his years of talent as a dancer (among other skills). However, the film did win Best Picture, as well as five other Oscars including Best Score. Of course, when you’ve got the work of such talents as Ira and George Gershwin as a foundation, it’s not difficult to see why it won. And yet, the piece de resistance is the fantasy that consumes most of the film’s final act. Gene Kelly plays Jerry Mulligan, a danger who has come to the realization that he cannot be with Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron). As such, he dreams of a world where he can dance across Paris, showing Lise all the sights and wonders that could be if only she were not already in a relationship with another man.

Holiday InnHoliday Inn
Year: 1942
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 100 minutes / 1.67 hours

Just like the pairing of Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly mentioned above, another one-two punch of singer and dancer is that of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. While on the dance floor, Fred was often paired with Ginger Rogers, which caused many to remark that, while Astaire’s dancing was superb, it took more talent for Ms. Rogers because she had to do the same choreography backward and in high heels. Two of the best known of the Astaire/Rogers films were Top Hat (1935) and Swing Time (1936). And while Holiday Inn (1942) has Fred paired with Marjorie Reynolds, he still has many opportunities to shine. If anything, Fred Astaire paved the way for Gene Kelly, since the former dominated the dance floor in the 1930s and early 1940s and the latter claimed the territory in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Once again, this film won an Oscar for its music, however only for its signature song, “White Christmas,” which was the crown of nearly a dozen other songs written and composed by Irving Berlin (who had the idea for the film in the first place). And even though the song was brought to life by Bing Crosby (who plays Jim Hardy), his character seems to be the odd man out in a stage act that includes Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire) and Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds). When the two decide to take their dancing act further, Jim decides that it’s time to retire and eventually ends up starting a venue that is only open on holidays. Even though Jim has always loved Linda, he lets her go with Ted. And yet, as a venue owner, Jim needs some acts for all the holidays it will be open for, which is why he asks them to come and perform on his stage.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 fantastic dancers