George Stevens (1904-1975)

George Stevens
George Stevens

George Stevens was notable as being a creator of both classic and commercially successful Hollywood movies. He was nominated five times for an Academy Award as Best Director, winning twice, in 1951 for 'A Place in the Sun' and in 1956 for 'Giant'. He was also nominated in 1943 for 'The More the Merrier', in 1954 for 'Shane', and in 1959 for 'The Diary of Anne Frank' and six of the movies he produced and directed were nominated for Best Picture Oscars.

Stevens's output ranged across all genres, including comedies, musicals and dramas, and each of his films has his unique stamp. He was a craftsman with an eye for detail and the ability to create a credible world on screen for his characters to inhabit. 'Shane' in 1953, an undisputed Western classic, has Alan Ladd playing the charismatic hero who leads a group of small-scale farmers against a despotic rancher. With its epic use of landscape and excellent performances all around, it remains one of the most popular of all Westerns. Another of Stevens's talents was his ability to get the best from his cast, eliciting compelling performances from some of Hollywood's greatest actors.

Although his reputation suffered unfairly in his later years as his output slowed, Stevens remained a much respected figure in Hollywood. He was twice President of the Screen Director's Guild and from 1958-9 he was President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

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He was born George Cooper Stevens on December 18, 1904, in Oakland, California, into an acting family. Both his parents were actors and ran their own touring company in the San Francisco area, called "Ye Liberty Playhouse".

Young George made his acting debut with his parents when he was 5 years old. In 1922 they made the decision to abandon live acting and move their family south to Glendale, California, to seek work in the burgeoning movie industry. Both parents obtained regular employment in walk-on roles which had the effect of cutting short young George's formal education as he had to quit High School in order to act as driver for his father. During this period Stevens filled in gaps in formal education by studying literature as well as theater and motion pictures.

Movie Apprenticeship

He entered movies in 1922 as an assistant cameraman at the Hal Roach studios. The art of developing plots visually was still being developed and Stevens learned his trade thoroughly, working on short films including many low budget Westerns and he soon developed a reputation as a first rate cameraman. What became one of his trademarks - the bringing out of character through small details and behaviour - began to develop at this time, mainly in some of Laurel and Hardy's classic comedies such as 'Two Tars' in 1928 and 'Below Zero' and 'Night Owls' in 1930, where the interplay between the two characters was so important. Stevens was also cameraman for feature films, such as the Western 'No Man's Law' in 1927.

Directorial Beginning 1930

He began his full directorial career in 1930 with 'Ladies Last', a spin off from the 'Our Gang' series and it was as a director of comedy shorts that he moved first to Universal and then to RKO in 1933.

His first feature was the comedy 'The Cohens and Kellys in Trouble' in 1933 and after making several more comic shorts such as 'Strictly Fresh Yeggs' in 1934, he got his big break in 1935 when he was chosen against the wishes of diva Katharine Hepburn, to direct 'Alice Adams'. The movie cleverly told the story of a young girl's social aspirations in 1920's small town America and was a major box-office success, gaining Best Picture and Best Actress Academy nominations. Katharine Hepburn changed her opinion completely about Stevens and selected him to direct her next major movie, 'Quality Street' in 1936.

Hollywood Success 1936

Stevens had quickly made a name for himself as an accomplished director and he followed up with a long string of successful movies starting with the Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers classic, 'Swing Time' in 1936, following in rapid succession with 'A Damsel in Distress' in 1937 and 'Vivacious Lady' in 1938. He continued with another classic, 'Gunga Din' in 1939, then 'Woman of the Year' and 'Talk of the Town' in 1942 and 'The More the Merrier' the following year.

From the start of his directorial career Stevens displayed a meticulous attention to detail and became notorious for constantly re-taking scenes until he was satisfied. He would film scenes from every possible angle and because of this he often overran shooting schedules and his budgets would skyrocket.

Wartime Service

Stevens continued making films during World War II. He joined the Army Signal Corps and led his own film unit making films for General Eisenhower, taking dramatic footage such as the D-Day landings, the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau and the liberation of Paris. He assisted with the filmed material used during the Nuremburg trials and in 2008, his footage was entered into the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as an "essential visual record" of the war. Stevens was awarded the Legion of Merit for his wartime contribution.

Post War Career

Stevens's war experiences and the horrors he saw are reflected in a darker, more serious side to his post-war movies. 'A Place in the Sun' in 1951 starred Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in a version of Theodore Dreiser's somber novel of social realism. His next movie, 'Shane', has become an accepted Western classic. It is the the story of the lone gunman, played by Alan Ladd, an outsider, even when he is defending the homesteaders against the robber baron. Stevens followed this with 'Giant' in 1956 , starring James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor, another movie classic, a 3 hour epic which directly addresses the issue of race, and which won Stevens a Best Director Oscar.

Stevens's increasingly meticulous working methods meant that he made fewer films. In 1959 he directed 'The Diary of Anne Frank' which was the first Hollywood movie to deal with the Holocaust and then there was a 6 year gap before 'The Greatest Story Ever Told' in 1965. This epic version of the Gospels, was slow-moving and overly reverential, and his reputation went into decline. He ended his directing career in 1970 with another disappointing commercial failure with 'The Only Game in Town' starring Warren Beatty and Elizabeth Taylor.


Stevens married twice, firstly in 1930 to Yvonne Howell, who herself was the daughter of silent movie actress Alice Howell. The couple had a son, George Jr., who himself became a respected film maker and was the first CEO and director of the American Film Institute. Stevens and Yvonne divorced in 1947 and he remarried some 20 years later, in 1968, to Joan McTavish, with whom he stayed until his death.

George Stevens died from a heart attack on 8 March 1975, at his home in Lancaster, California. He was 70. His body was interred at Forest Lawn, Los Angeles.

George Stevens Academy Awards

Two Wins:
Best Director ... A Place in the Sun (1951)
Best Director ... Giant (1956)
Seven Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Director ... The More the Merrier (1943)
Best Picture ... A Place in the Sun (1951)
Best Director ... Shane (1953)
Best Picture ... Shane (1953)
Best Picture ... Giant (1956) Shared with Henry Ginsberg
Best Director ... The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)
Best Picture ... The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)

George Stevens Filmography (as Director)

Ladies Last (short)
Blood and Thunder (short)
High Gear (short)
Air-Tight (short)
Call a Cop! (short)
Mama Loves Papa (short)
The Kick-Off! (short)
Who, Me? (short)
The Finishing Touch (short)
Boys Will Be Boys (short)
A Divorce Courtship
Family Troubles (short)
Rock-a-Bye Cowboy (short)
Should Crooners Marry (short)
The Cohens and Kellys in Trouble
Room Mates (short)
Quiet Please! (short)
Flirting in the Park (short)
What Fur (short)
Grin and Bear It (short)
Strictly Fresh Yeggs (short)
Ocean Swells
Bridal Bail (short)
The Undie-World (short)
Cracked Shots (short)
Hollywood Party (uncredited)
Bachelor Bait
Triple Trouble
Hunger Pains (short)
The Nitwits
Alice Adams
Annie Oakley
Swing Time
Quality Street
A Damsel in Distress
Vivacious Lady
Gunga Din
Vigil in the Night
Woman of the Year
The Talk of the Town
The More the Merrier