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George Stevens Films: Disparate Western Trio

4 minutes read

George Stevens films: James Dean Giant
James Dean in Giant: George Stevens sprawling Texas-set 1956 family drama.
Ramon Novarro Beyond Paradise

George Stevens will be the star attraction of Turner Classic Movies’ Monday evenings in April.

The series begins tonight at 5 p.m. PDT with a showing of Giant (1956), one of Stevens’ best-known films. Some find this tale of oil, ranching, and greed bloated; I found it enjoyable despite – or perhaps because of – its soap opera elements. Also, Giant deals directly with both racism, miscegenation, and xenophobia in a manner that wasn’t all that common in those days.

Good performances abound: Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, Dennis Hopper, Carroll Baker. Oscar-nominated Mercedes McCambridge does some scenery-chewing, but she’s a master of subtlety when compared to James Dean, the one weak element in the film, especially as an older man.

Shane (1953) is perhaps my favorite Western. It’s both elegiac and revisionist, but despite its contradictions and some heavy-handed melodrama here and there, I think it works remarkably well. I certainly find it eons better than Clint Eastwood’s own elegiac/revisionist effort Unforgiven.

Granite-faced, laconic Alan Ladd is perfect as the granite-faced, laconic antihero, and so are Brandon De Wilde as the little boy who idolizes the mysterious stranger and Jack Palance as the black-clad villain. The guy is so scary even dogs go in hiding when he’s around.

Jean Arthur does what she can in an underwritten role as the woman torn between dull husband (Van Heflin) and sexy stranger, and that’s good enough for me. Shane also boasts great cinematography (Loyal Griggs) and music (Victor Young).

Not one of George Steven’s most prestigious or more entertaining efforts, Annie Oakley stars Barbara Stanwyck as the titular sharpshooter and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show attraction. As always, Stanwyck is believable as a masculinized female, even though she looks as much like the real-life Annie Oakley (1860–1926) as Betty Hutton does in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1950 musical Annie Get Your Gun. In other words: not in the least.

Directed by George Stevens Jr., George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey provides a sympathetic – and fascinating – look at Steven’s career. Among those discussing the late director are Katharine Hepburn, Joel McCrea, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Max von Sydow, Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, Warren Beatty, Rouben Mamoulian, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and Frank Capra. Check it out.

In all, George Stevens received a total of five Best Director Oscar nods, winning for A Place in the Sun (1951) and Giant (1956). The three remaining ones were for Best Picture nominees 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. These include Katharine Hepburn for Alice Adams and Woman of the Year (1942), Jean Arthur for The More the Merrier, Irene Dunne for I Remember Mama (1948), and, in the supporting categories, Barbara Bel Geddes, Ellen Corby, and Oskar Homolka for Iremember Mama, plus 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 – even though he happens to be one of the romantic comedy’s three leads, alongside Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea.

George Stevens Films

Schedule and synopses from the TCM website:

5:00 pm Giant (1956)
A Texas ranching family fights to survive changing times.
Cast: Elizabeth Taylor. Rock Hudson. James Dean. Carroll Baker. Mercedes McCambridge. Jane Withers. Dennis Hopper. Director: George Stevens C-201m.

8:30 pm George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey (1984)
Biography of the Academy Award winning director including dramatic color footage of WWII.
Cast: Katharine Hepburn. Joel McCrea. Warren Beatty. Director: George Stevens Jr. Black and white. 112m.

10:30 pm Shane (1953)
A mysterious drifter helps farmers fight off a vicious gunman.
Cast: Alan Ladd. Jean Arthur. Van Heflin. Brandon de Wilde. Jack Palance. Director: George Stevens C-118m.

12:45 am Annie Oakley (1935)
The famed female sharpshooter learns that you can’t get a man with a gun when she falls for a rival marksman.
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck. Preston Foster. Melvyn Douglas. Moroni Olsen. Director: George Stevens BW-90m.

James Dean Giant image: Warner Bros.

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