Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees's review of this documentary is a journey in itself.
"Life is a journey…and it's always most interesting when you're not sure where you're going."—George Stevens
George Stevens, creator of so many classic films—from Woman of the Year to A Place in the Sun to The Diary of Anne Frank—himself became the subject of a film in 1984 when his son, George Stevens, Jr., wrote and directed this documentary about the filmmaker's life. George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey takes us on an engrossing tour through the acclaimed director's career that gives us a greater understanding of his talent, his background, his creative preoccupations, and the experiences in World War II that irrevocably changed his approach to filmmaking. For many movie lovers, Stevens's movies—both his romantic comedies and his later stirring dramas—hold a mirror up to America, and this thoughtful exploration of his development as a director is illuminating in what it tells us not only about Stevens but about the changes he saw America undergo during his lifetime.
Narrated by Stevens, Jr., the documentary unfolds gracefully, drawing us in with a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Alice Adams (1935), Stevens's first major film, then backtracking to catch us up on Stevens's early life, including his parents' theatrical background and his own gradual entry into filmmaking. His early career as director of two-reel comedies is sketched in fairly briefly, since it's not these early films that he's best remembered for today. Alice Adams was his breakthrough film, with its canny blending of comedy and sharply observed social commentary; it also gave a much-needed boost to the career of its star, Katharine Hepburn. The two would work together again in the first film to pair Hepburn with Spencer Tracy, the sparkling comedy Woman of the Year (1942).
After its detailed look at Alice Adams, the documentary focuses on other films that were pivotal in marking different points of Stevens's development as a director: Swing Time (1936), regarded as one of the finest Astaire-Rogers musicals; Gunga Din (1939), with Cary Grant; the effervescent wartime comedy The More the Merrier (1943); his "American trilogy," A Place in the Sun (1951), Shane (1953), and Giant (1956); The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Discussion of these films is supplemented with interview clips from many of the actors involved, which provide valuable (and highly entertaining) firsthand insight into Stevens at work. Those who appear on camera or in voiceover represent a distinguished roster of stars and fellow directors, including, but not limited to, Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, Joel McCrea, Millie Perkins, Max von Sydow, Warren Beatty, and John Huston. Stevens himself is present in audio recordings as well as a wealth of still photographs and film clips.
While it focuses primarily on Stevens's films and only glances at the director's family life, A Filmmaker's Journey does linger on some crucial events in Stevens's personal and professional life that helped to shape him as a filmmaker—and as a human. His butting of heads with no less a figure than Cecil B. De Mille during the anti-Communist fervor in Hollywood reveals a lot about Stevens's principles. Most prominent among these events, however, is Stevens's experiences after enlisting in World War II, when he was assigned by President Eisenhower to head the Special Coverage unit and document the war on film. Stevens's footage is the only known color footage of the ground war in Europe, and some years after the making of this documentary it would form the basis of George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin (1994). A Filmmaker's Journey contains footage that had been unseen to that point, and it is remarkable in its power. From shots of cities reduced to rubble, to young women and soldiers celebrating the liberation of Paris, to shattering sequences of concentration camps, Stevens captures many faces of war with an immediacy that speaks of both his talent and the power of the scenes he was viewing. When we see the film he shot overseas, we understand why the war changed Stevens so greatly. He would never direct another comedy after returning from the war.
Always a deliberate director, Stevens slowed his pace even further upon resuming filmmaking after the war, so there are fewer Stevens films in this period of his life. However, in the postwar period he also embarked on three of his most memorable achievements, the films that came to be known as his "American trilogy": A Place in the Sun, an updating of Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy; Shane, an anti-Western; and the troubled Texas epic Giant. This remarkable trio of films shows how much Stevens has moved toward realism and social commentary, focusing increasingly on themes that had surfaced even in his early comedies: class conflicts and the struggles of protagonists toward selfhood in the presence of overpowering parental or societal pressures. In The Diary of Anne Frank, he finally brought to the screen some of his feelings about World War II. The Greatest Story Ever Told, his last major film, was in the words of its lead actor, Max von Sydow, "a beautiful failure," and was succeeded by only one other film, The Only Game in Town (1970), which the documentary does not even mention—perhaps because Stevens, Jr. did not want his father to be remembered for it.
A Filmmaker's Journey covers an impressive catalogue of fine Stevens films, but it still leaves quite a number of strong films out, and I would have been happy for this documentary to have doubled its running time if it had taken a closer look at more. Of course, for a film of standard running time, the structure works very effectively. Stevens, Jr.'s choice to focus particularly on films that marked important points in his father's career creates a strong backbone for the documentary—and is certainly a more practical approach than trying to examine all of the films Stevens is remembered for. It's pure greed on my part that makes me want the documentary to take us behind the scenes of the Ginger Rogers–Jimmy Stewart comedy Vivacious Lady, for example, or the Cary Grant–Irene Dunne drama Penny Serenade. It's definitely a sign of the quality of A Filmmaker's Journey, not a shortcoming, that I was sorry when it ended and eager for more.
Twenty-year-old documentaries are in such short supply on DVD that I'm prepared to be fairly indulgent toward the less-than-pristine audiovisual transfer that A Filmmaker's Journey has received. There is some dirt and speckling, and occasional grain and flicker, but the colors are vivid; although it may not be a huge improvement over a good VHS copy, the documentary doesn't rely for its interest on visual flash, so the visual presentation is adequate. Most of the archival film clips are of satisfactory visual quality, especially considering the probable dearth of restored prints available to the documentarian in 1984. (Nevertheless, it hurts to see footage from Giant hacked into a pan-and-scan form, although in those pre-letterboxing days it was unavoidable.) The mono sound is respectable; the narration comes through clearly for the most part, as do most of the interview sequences and film clips (some are a bit murkier). The musical score by Carl Davis is lyrical yet understated, an effective accompaniment, and it is rendered serviceably by the mono audio track.
The sole extra, a text biography of Stevens that concludes in a filmography, is largely redundant, but it does note instances of award nominations and wins that the documentary doesn't mention; the filmography is also welcome, especially for those who wish to explore the films that A Filmmaker's Journey doesn't have the time to scrutinize. As a nice touch, the biography and filmography are illustrated with vintage photos.
George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey is a skilled and often fascinating film, and it brings much-deserved attention and appreciation to a man who created many films that are both admired and loved, and which still have much insight to offer us on American life and character. Not just for film lovers, this excellent documentary is a fulfilling journey through the life of a remarkable man. A Filmmaker's Journey gave me both an increased respect for George Stevens and his art and a sense of camaraderie with the man. Stevens emerges from this documentary as someone I would have liked to have known. Failing that, I'll gladly settle for the chance to get to know the movies he made, which is a privilege itself.
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