Director George Stevens DVD releases include pro-colonialism adventure classic + immigration nostalgia + World War II in color
The director of about two dozen narrative features, ranging from the fluffy musical Swing Time and the social comedy The Talk of the Town to the blockbuster Western Shane and the all-star New Testament epic The Greatest Story Ever Told, George Stevens was one of the most admired filmmakers of the studio era and the winner of two Best Director Academy Awards (A Place in the Sun, 1951; Giant, 1956).
And now George Stevens is the focus of four Warner Home Video DVD releases:
- The pro-British colonialism adventure classic Gunga Din, starring Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Victor McLaglen.
- The nostalgia-filled immigrant family drama I Remember Mama, which earned Oscar nominations for four of its cast members, including star Irene Dunne.
- The documentaries George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey and the made-for-TV George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin, both directed by George Stevens Jr. The former features interviews with a number of Stevens (Sr.) collaborators and clips from his movies; the latter includes chunks of rare World War II color footage.
The four George Stevens DVDs should be available in the U.S. on Dec. 7. Below is a brief overview of each movie.
Gunga Din: Big-budget homage to British colonialism
Officially based on Rudyard Kipling’s 1890 poem of the same name but with key elements from Kipling’s 1899 short story collection Soldiers Three and other stories, the 1939 British Raj-set adventure comedy-drama Gunga Din was RKO’s costliest release up to that time.
George Stevens inherited the project from the originally assigned Howard Hawks, who had run into trouble at the studio after the previous year’s comedy Bringing Up Baby went over schedule and over budget, resulting in a $365,000 loss (about $5 million in 2004).
A number of hands worked on the various drafts of the Gunga Din screenplay, but only four writers were given screen credit: Former Chicago-based reporters turned playwrights/screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur were responsible for the screen “story,” while the final screenplay was credited to Joel Sayre (who had worked with Stevens on the 1935 Barbara Stanwyck Western Annie Oakley) and Fred Guiol (Stevens’ collaborator on the modestly budgeted mid-1930s comedies The Cohens and Kellys in Trouble, Kentucky Kernels, and The Nitwits).
Colonial-scented The Front Page
As the three bombastically heroic British soldiers fighting a bunch of villainous South Asian types, Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Best Actor Oscar winner Victor McLaglen (The Informer, 1935) found themselves cast in roles – not coincidentally – similar to those Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur had created for their 1928 Broadway hit play The Front Page.
In The Front Page, Chicago tabloid editor Walter Burns will do whatever it takes to keep ace reporter Hildy Johnson on the beat and away from the arms of his dainty fiancée. In Gunga Din, Royal Engineer Sergeants Grant and McLaglen will do whatever it takes to keep fellow Sergeant Fairbanks Jr. in uniform and away from the arms of his dainty fiancée (a pre-stardom Joan Fontaine, the female lead in Stevens’ 1937 musical A Damsel in Distress).
Admittedly, missing from The Front Page is Gunga Din’s title character.
Self-sacrificing ‘darkie’ saves British Empire rule
In brown make-up, future Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Sam Jaffe (The Asphalt Jungle, 1950) plays Gunga Din, the British Indian Army’s water-carrying, bugle-playing “darkie” who, aspiring to one day become a Soldier of the Queen, ultimately saves the day, sacrificing himself while helping his lighter-skinned, English-speaking Christian rulers defeat a cult of murderous heathens known as the Thuggee (based on real-life South Asian criminals known as Thugs).
Besides its blatant racism and utter corruption of the anti-colonialist message conveyed by Kipling’s poem – and in spite of its generally first-rate production values (e.g., Joseph H. August’s black-and-white cinematography) – there are other problems with Gunga Din: The humor is juvenile; future Best Actress Oscar winner Joan Fontaine (Suspicion, 1941) is wasted in a non-role; and at nearly two hours, the movie itself is more than a tad overlong.
Compounding matters, Cary Grant – at his best as sophisticated urbanites – brazenly overacts alongside ravenous scenery-chewer Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., whose performance, even if less effusive than those in The Exile and Sinbad the Sailor, is a patent emulation of his silent-era superstar father.
As for director George Stevens, he had fared much better – and would continue to fare much better – in more humanistic, less Saturday-matinee-oriented efforts. Case in point: I Remember Mama.
I Remember Mama: Superlative Irene Dunne relives the quaint old days of Norwegian immigration
George Stevens’ first post-World War II effort was the 1948 period family drama I Remember Mama, which he directed at his old alma mater, RKO, while “on loan” from Liberty Films, an independent production outlet in which he had become a partner alongside William Wyler and founders Frank Capra and (former Columbia and RKO production executive) Samuel J. Briskin.
Based on John Van Druten’s 1944 hit Broadway play – produced by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, and itself an adaptation of Kathryn Forbes’ 1934 semi-autobiographical novel Mama’s Bank Account – I Remember Mama stars another former RKO contract talent, Irene Dunne, in the role originated by veteran Austrian performer Mady Christians (The Waltz Dream, A Wicked Woman).
As Marta Hanson, the resolute but warmhearted Norwegian matriarch living in 1910s San Francisco, Dunne creates one of the most affecting characterizations of her remarkable two-decade-plus Hollywood career. She deservedly received her fifth (and final) Best Actress Oscar nomination, but eventually lost out to Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda.
Best Supporting Actress nominee Barbara Bel Geddes (later of Dallas fame) was cast as the titular “I,” Mama’s eldest daughter Katrin (Joan Tetzel on stage), a sensitive type gifted with an impressive episodic memory.
No Marlon Brando or Katina Paxinou
Also in the I Remember Mama cast: Two other Oscar-nominated performers, Ellen Corby (later of The Waltons fame) and, reprising his stage role, Austrian import Oskar Homolka, in addition to Philip Dorn, Cedric Hardwicke, Rudy Vallee, Barbara O’Neil, Florence Bates, Steve Brown (newcomer Marlon Brando on stage), Edith Evanson, and a puppet-less Edgar Bergen (Candice Bergen’s father).
Harriet Parsons (daughter of gossip columnist Louella Parsons) received producer credit on I Remember Mama even though she was removed from the project before it was completed. (Parsons had wanted Oscar winner Katina Paxinou [For Whom the Bell Tolls, 1943] to play Mama, whose nationality was to have been changed from Norwegian to Greek.) Stevens, the film’s de facto producer, was given executive producer credit, while DeWitt Bodeen (Cat People, The Enchanted Cottage) was the billed screenwriter.
Now, here’s hoping the I Remember Mama DVD print is – far – superior to the darkish one regularly shown on Turner Classic Movies. Viewers should then be able to fully appreciate the work of master cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca.
George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey: Filial homage
“After my father died in 1975 someone asked me if I would write a book about him,” George Stevens Jr. told PBS’s biographical series American Masters. “I gave some thought to that, and then it suddenly occurred to me that he was a filmmaker, and I’m a filmmaker – I should make a film about him.”
The film turned out to be the 1984 documentary George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey, shown both on the big screen and on American Masters, and featuring interviews with numerous Stevens collaborators and fellow directors, among them:
- Katharine Hepburn, whom Stevens directed in three movies: Alice Adams (1935), Woman of the Year (1942) – both of which earned her Best Actress Oscar nominations – and, in-between, the underrated Quality Street (1937). In A Filmmaker’s Journey, Hepburn recalls Stevens’ deliberately paced direction of Alice Adams’ comedy highlight, the dinner scene centered on clumsy maid Hattie McDaniel.
- Cary Grant, featured not only in Gunga Din but also in Stevens’ Penny Serenade (1941), which earned him a Best Actor Oscar nod, and The Talk of the Town (1942). Only Grant’s voice is heard in A Filmmaker’s Journey, as he had previously told Stevens Jr. that if he was seen on camera, he would also “have to do it for [Alfred Hitchcock], and the others.”
- Warren Beatty, the male lead in Stevens’ last effort, the costly box office dud The Only Game in Town (1969). In A Filmmaker’s Journey, Beatty discusses the use of sound in the 1953 blockbuster Shane – guns going off like cannons to exacerbate the brutality of the Old West – and, 14 years later, in the Arthur Penn-directed Bonnie and Clyde.
George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin: Rare World War II color footage
As the head of the U.S. Army Signal Corps’ film unit, director George Stevens – with the assistance of talent like cameramen/cinematographers Joseph F. Biroc (It’s a Wonderful Life, Magic Town) and William C. Mellor (A Place in the Sun, Giant) – captured rare World War II color footage ranging from the invasion of Normandy and the liberation of Paris to the Bavarian concentration camp of Dachau and the fall of Berlin.
Some of that footage is seen in George Stevens Jr.’s 1994 TV documentary George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin, winner of three Emmy Awards, including two for Stevens Jr. himself (as narrator and writer).
Previous George Stevens DVDs
George Stevens movies already available on DVD include the following:
- The aforementioned romantic/socially conscious drama Alice Adams, boasting the most poignant performance of Katharine Hepburn’s movie career, plus a marvelous comic turn by future Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel (Gone with the Wind, 1939) as the (Hepburn) family maid.
- The romantic battle-of-the-sexes comedy Woman of the Year, notable as the first pairing of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Hepburn lost the 1942 Best Actress Oscar to Greer Garson for Mrs. Miniver, but Michael Kanin and future Hollywood Ten member Ring Lardner Jr. were luckier, taking home the Best Original Screenplay statuette.
- A two-disc set of the 1956 critical and box office hit Giant, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Best Actor Oscar nominees Rock Hudson and (posthumously) James Dean, in addition to Best Supporting Actress nominee Mercedes McCambridge, former child star Jane Withers, Chill Wills, Earl Holliman, and relative newcomers Carroll Baker, Dennis Hopper, Sal Mineo, Rod Taylor, and Elsa Cárdenas. Based on Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel, Stevens’ engrossing, Texas-set mix of romance, family drama, and social commentary earned him his second Best Director Oscar.
“Director George Stevens’ New DVDs” notes
Best Picture Oscar ‘snub’
 Although George Stevens won Best Director Oscars for both A Place in the Sun and Giant, neither movie was named Best Picture. The winners in that category were, respectively, Vincente Minnelli’s romantic musical An American in Paris and Michael Anderson’s adventure comedy-drama Around the World in 80 Days.
George Stevens’ other Best Director nominations were for The More the Merrier (1943), Shane (1953), and The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). The winners were, respectively, Michael Curtiz for Casablanca, Fred Zinnemann for From Here to Eternity, and William Wyler for Ben-Hur. All three movies also won Best Picture.
Lastly, as the producer of a Best Picture nominee, Stevens was also shortlisted for A Place in the Sun, Shane, Giant (with Henry Ginsberg), and The Diary of Anne Frank.
“Director George Stevens” endnotes
Bringing Up Baby’s financial loss to RKO: Richard B. Jewell and Vernon Harbin’s The RKO Story.
Film critic Molly Haskell discussed the Gunga Din–The Front Page connection while chatting with Robert Osborne on Turner Classic Movies.
The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther discusses I Remember Mama’s producer credits in the March 1948 article “Embarrassing Questions in Connection with Two of the Recent Films.”
The would-be casting of Katina Paxinou in I Remember Mama is mentioned in a February 1944 Hedda Hopper article syndicated in the Chicago Tribune (via J.E. Smyth’s 2018 book Nobody’s Girl Friday: The Women Who Ran Hollywood) and in Hedda Hopper and James Brough’s The Whole Truth and Nothing But.
Director George Stevens’ World War II film unit is mentioned in Neil Sinyard’s George Stevens: The Films of a Hollywood Giant.
Cary Grant quote about George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey via George Stevens Jr.’s American Masters interview.
James Dean and director George Stevens Giant image: Warner Bros.
Cary Grant and Ann Evers Gunga Din image: RKO Pictures.
Barbara Bel Geddes, Philip Dorn, Oskar Homolka, and Irene Dunne I Remember Mama DVD cover image: Warner Home Video.
George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin image: Warner Home Video | New Line Home Video.
“Director George Stevens’ New DVDs: Pro-Colonialism Classic + Immigrant Nostalgia” last updated in February 2023.