George Stevens director on DVD: ‘Gunga Din’ & ‘I Remember Mama’ + Hollywood career & World War II documentaries
Director George Stevens, winner of two Academy Awards (A Place in the Sun, 1951; Giant, 1956), is the focus of four Warner Home Video DVD releases:
- The pro-colonialism adventure classic Gunga Din.
- The nostalgic immigrant family drama I Remember Mama.
- Two George Stevens Jr.-directed documentaries, George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey and the made-for-TV George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin.
The four DVD releases should be available on Dec. 7. Below is a brief overview of each movie.
‘Gunga Din’: Big-budget pro-colonialism adventure classic
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 to date.
Director George Stevens inherited the project from the originally assigned Howard Hawks, who had run into trouble after the 1938 comedy Bringing Up Baby went over schedule and over budget, resulting in a $365,000 loss (about $5 million in 2004) for the studio.
A number of hands worked on the various drafts of the Gunga Din screenplay, but only four writers ended up with their names on screen: Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur were responsible for the “story,” while credited for the final screenplay were Joel Sayre (who had worked with George Stevens on 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 Victor McLaglen were cast in roles – not coincidentally – similar to those created by former Chicago-based reporters and Gunga Din “story” writers Hecht and MacArthur 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 (Joan Fontaine).
Ardently devoted ‘darkie’
Admittedly, not found in The Front Page is the titular character. 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, ardently devoted “darkie” who, aspiring to one day become a Soldier of the Queen himself, ultimately saves the day, sacrificing himself while helping his lighter-skinned, English-speaking Christian rulers defeat a group of murderous, dark-skinned heathen zealots known as the Thuggee.
Besides its blatant racism and utter corruption of the anti-colonialism 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), the female lead in George Stevens’ 1937 musical A Damsel in Distress, is foolishly wasted in a non-role; and at nearly two hours, the film itself is a tad overlong.
Compounding matters, Cary Grant – at his best as urban, sophisticated types – is seriously miscast, brazenly overacting alongside ravenous scenery-chewer Victor McLaglen (Best Actor Academy Award winner for The Informer, 1935), 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.
See also: ‘Gunga Din’ Movie Revisited.
‘I Remember Mama’: The quaint old days of Norwegian immigration
For his first post-World War II movie, the early-20th-century San Francisco-set family drama I Remember Mama, director George Stevens was brought back to his alma mater, RKO, from Liberty Films, an independent production outlet of which he had become a partner along with William Wyler and co-founders Frank Capra and (former Columbia and RKO production executive) Samuel J. Briskin.
Based on John Van Druten’s Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II-produced 1944 hit play, itself an adaptation of Kathryn Forbes’ 1943 semi-autobiographical novel Mama’s Bank Account, I Remember Mama stars another former RKO contract talent, Irene Dunne, in the role originated onstage by veteran Austrian actress Mady Christians (The Waltz Dream, A Wicked Woman).
As the determined but kind-hearted Norwegian immigrant matriarch “I” remembers, Dunne delivers one of the most affecting performances of her remarkable two-decade-plus Hollywood career, deservedly receiving her fifth – and final – Best Actress Academy Award nomination for her efforts.
Best Supporting Actress nominee Barbara Bel Geddes was cast as the titular “I,” Mama’s eldest daughter (Joan Tetzel on Broadway), a sensitive type gifted with an impressive episodic memory.
No Marlon Brando in extensive ‘I Remember Mama’ movie cast
Also in the I Remember Mama cast: two other Oscar-nominated performers, Ellen Corby and Oskar Homolka (as Oscar Homolka; reprising his stage role), 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) produced I Remember Mama – Stevens was credited as executive producer – from a screenplay adaptation by DeWitt Bodeen (Cat People, The Enchanted Cottage).
And here’s hoping the I Remember Mama DVD print is – far – superior to the somewhat dark print 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’
“After my father died in 1975 someone asked me if I would write a book about him,” George Stevens Jr. told (U.S. public TV station) PBS’s 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 the following Stevens collaborators and fellow directors:
- Actress Katharine Hepburn (Alice Adams, Quality Street, Woman of the Year), who recalls the unusual effectiveness of George Stevens’ deliberately paced comedy direction during the making of Alice Adams, singling out the scene when Hattie McDaniel serves dinner to her petite bourgeoisie employees (Hepburn, Fred Stone, Ann Shoemaker) and their upper-class guest (Fred MacMurray).
- Actor Cary Grant (Gunga Din, Penny Serenade, The Talk of the Town). Audio only; Grant told Stevens Jr. that if he appeared on camera to discuss Stevens, “I’d have to do it for [Alfred Hitchcock], and the others.”
- Actors Fred Astaire (Swing Time, A Damsel in Distress), Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (Gunga Din), Joel McCrea (The More the Merrier), and Max von Sydow (The Greatest Story Ever Told).
- Actresses Ginger Rogers (Swing Time, Vivacious Lady) and Millie Perkins (The Diary of Anne Frank).
- Actor-filmmaker Warren Beatty (The Only Game in Town), who offers an anecdote regarding the use of sound – guns going off like cannons to exacerbate the brutality of the Old West – in Shane and, 14 years later, in Bonnie and Clyde.
- RKO supervising producer Pandro S. Berman (Vivacious Lady, Gunga Din, Vigil in the Night, etc.).
- Producer/indie studio head Hal Roach, for whom George Stevens worked as a cinematographer on various shorts in the 1920s and early 1930s (Double Whoopee, Liberty, Night Owls, etc.).
- Screenwriters Irwin Shaw (The Talk of the Town) and Ivan Moffat (Giant).
- Choreographer Hermes Pan (Swing Time, A Damsel in Distress).
- Fellow filmmakers Rouben Mamoulian (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Blood and Sand), Alan J. Pakula (All the President’s Men, Sophie’s Choice), Fred Zinnemann (From Here to Eternity, Julia), Joseph L. Mankiewicz (A Letter to Three Wives, All About Eve), John Huston (The African Queen, The Dead), and Frank Capra (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington).
‘George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin’
As the head of the U.S. Army Signal Corps’ film unit, George Stevens captured – with the assistance of cameramen/cinematographers Joseph F. Biroc (It’s a Wonderful Life, Magic Town) and William C. Mellor (A Place in the Sun, Giant) – 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 made-for-TV documentary George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin, winner of three Emmy Awards, including two for Stevens Jr. himself (as narrator and writer).
More director George Stevens on DVD: ‘Alice Adams’ & ‘Woman of the Year’ + ‘Giant’
Besides director George Stevens’ upcoming releases Gunga Din and I Remember Mama, Stevens titles already available on DVD include the following:
- The romantic/socially conscious drama Alice Adams (1935), which boasts 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 (1942), notable as the first pairing of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Hepburn was shortlisted for that year’s Best Actress Oscar, but lost to Greer Garson for Mrs. Miniver. 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 critical and box office hit Giant (1956), 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.
Born on Dec. 18, 1904, in Oakland, California, into a family of theatrical performers, George Stevens died at age 70 on March 8, 1975, in Lancaster, in northern Los Angeles County.
No George Stevens Best Picture Oscar + Best Director nominations
 George Stevens’ first Best Director Oscar was for another socially conscious drama starring Elizabeth Taylor, A Place in the Sun (1951), based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy. Also in the cast: Best Actor nominee Montgomery Clift and Best Actress nominee Shelley Winters.
Curiously, neither A Place in the Sun nor Giant was named Best Picture. The winners were, respectively, Vincente Minnelli’s musical An American in Paris and Michael Anderson’s elephantine adventure comedy-drama Around the World in 80 Days.
In all, George Stevens received a total of five Best Director Oscar nods. The other ones were for The More the Merrier (1943), Shane (1953), and The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). He lost to Michael Curtiz for Casablanca, Fred Zinnemann for From Here to Eternity, and William Wyler for Ben-Hur.
In addition, Alice Adams (1935) and The Talk of the Town (1942) were both Best Picture nominees. They lost to Frank Lloyd’s Mutiny on the Bounty and William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver.
And finally, no less than 18 performers have been Oscar-nominated for their work in director George Stevens movies, from Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams and Woman of the Year to, in the supporting categories, Ed Wynn and Shelley Winters for The Diary of Anne Frank. Winters and Charles Coburn were the only two winners; the latter as Best Supporting Actor for The More the Merrier – in which he just happens to be one of the three leads, alongside Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea.
More on director George Stevens
Update: Below are a few other Alt Film Guide posts about director George Stevens.
Bringing Up Baby’s financial loss to RKO: Richard B. Jewell and Vernon Harbin’s The RKO Story.
Veteran film critic Molly Haskell discussed the Gunga Din-The Front Page connection while chatting with Robert Osborne on Turner Classic Movies.
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.
Irene Dunne in I Remember Mama DVD cover image: Warner Home Video.
George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin image: Warner Home Video / New Line Home Video.
Cary Grant and Victor McLaglen Gunga Din image: RKO Pictures.
“George Stevens Director on DVD: Pro-Colonialism Hit & Immigrant Nostalgia + Rare WWII Color Footage” last updated in October 2019.