"I have always resisted this proposal," says George Stevens Jr., director" of the American Film Institute. "But I guess there's kind of an inevitability to it. It's hard to ignore a body of work of this nature after we've just done a series devoted to American-International Pictures."
The body of work in question belongs to the late George Stevens Sr., who managed the remarkable feat of staying busy and in demand as a director through four decades. James Agee once called him "the best director in Hollywood."
Stevens, who died in 1975, would have been 75 years old next month, and on Thursday night the AFI began a two-week, 14-film series of his films, leading off with "A Place in the Sun," the 1951 adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy" that starred Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift.
George Stevens Jr. was a teen-ager when his father won a Best Director Oscar for this film. Riding home from the award ceremonies, Stevens Jr. remembers, "I enthused a bit too much and he said, 'Well, we'll know how good a picture this was in about 25 year.'"
The elder Stevens thought a good deal about posterity. Now posterity will return the compliment. But in an age when movie director are expected to spread a consistent personal vision oflife over every property like a pungent lacquer, Stevens' career eludes easy definition.
What generalizations can possibly encompass "Shane (showing on Friday Nov. 16), "The Diary of Anne Frank" (Thursday and again Saturday, Nov. 10), "Swing Time" Nov. 10 and Tuesday Nov. 13), "Woman of the Year" (Tuesday and Saturday Nov. 10), "Giant" (Friday and Sunday Nov. 11), "Alice Adams" (tomorrow) and "Gunga Din" (tonight)?
"He always resisted the idea of the filmmaker calling attention to himself through his technique," says Stevens Jr.
From the beginning to the end of his long career, Stevens was a sentimentalist, and he would often fall back on the slapstick comedy techniques he learned while making silent and early sound shorts with such titles as "What Fur," "Strictly Fresh Yeggs" and "The Undie World."
But in the 1950s, after gaining the kind of total control that directors yearn for, his movies became ever bigger and longer, culminating in "The Greatest Story Ever Told," which took five years to make and lasts nearly 3 1/2 hours (it will be shown on Wednesday, Nov. 14).
"He had incredible patience and tenacity," says Stevens Jr.
But some of his most forceful works are the shorter, simpler , and less autonomous products of his days with RKO Pictures. The film that first established Stevens, for example, was an adaptation of Booth Tarkington's "Alice Adams," with Katharine Hepburn as a social-climbing, small-town girl trying to land Fred MacMurray as the town's most eligible aristocrat.
The picture of small-town life is rich and unpleasant -- an intriguing complement to Orson Welles' version of "The Magnificent Ambersons," another Tarkington novel about class consciousness. And the heroine's pretensions are played to the hilt by Hepburn, not for one moment allowing her own vanity to stand in the way of her character's.
Stevens tried his hand at almost every imaginable Hollywood genre -- musicals, westerns, religious epics, domestic tear-jerkers, melodramas and comedies high and low -- and he seemed reasonabley at home in all of them. But the genre he mastered on his first and only try was the exotic adventure movie, in which bold heroes plunge into forbidden territory to do battle with seemingly overwhelming foes.
Have there ever been nobler or braver heroes than the troika of Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Victor McLaglen in "Gunga Din?" Each member of this perfectly tuned, heathen-handling machine is not only willing to risk near-certain death in defense of comrades or or country, but positively itching for the chance.
The film has endured some shabby treatment over the years, including being "cut for action" for TV release. Cutting Gunga Din" for action is like putting a Sonner Pass survivor on the Scarsdale Diet.
But the movie shown tonight will be a restored version, complete with an appearance by Rudyard Kipling (not the real Kipling, who died in 1936, but an actor). This sequence was originally excised after objections from the Kipling family, and a large wagon was installed in one of the movie's final shots to blot out the portion of the screen where Kipling stood.
In addition, George Steven Jr. will show and annotate a reel of color footage on making of the movie.
This may be the last chance to see "Gunga Din" -- in any form -- for quite a while. It will be withdrawn from distribution indefinitely as of Jan. 1, so that RKO, in the words of its press release, can begin exhibiting its classics "in a more selective manner."