They really don't make movies like they used to, except when they're tributes to the people who used to make movies like "George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey," George Stevens Jr.'s film tribute to his father, the director. Studded with clips from Stevens' work, and including some striking World War II footage from his tenure in the Army Signal Corps, it's an entertaining, quietly passionate documentary, a heartfelt homage to Dad.
The title comes from a letter of Stevens', in which he said, "Life is a journey, and it's always most interesting when you're not sure where you're going." The least that could be said of Stevens' career was that he kept things interesting. Like most of the directors of his day, he served a long apprenticeship -- in his case, as a cameraman (which, in early Hollywood, included everything from gag writer to carpenter). What followed was one of the trade's most versatile directing careers, ranging from musicals ("Swing Time") to comedy ("Woman of the Year") to western ("Shane") to drama ("A Place in the Sun") to epic ("Giant").
The younger Stevens is sensible enough to let the clips speak for themselves. His narration is understated, matter-of-fact; he lets his affection show in the judicious way the selections are arranged to illustrate different aspects of his father's work and personality. This isn't the usual "talking heads" -- Stevens weds the interviews to the scenes he's chosen, often using the interviewees as narrators in voice-over. For a tribute, the movie is surprisingly unsentimental; it cuts away mercilessly from the interviewees' faces when a clip, or a still photograph, will do more to advance the narrative.
Quibbles there will always be with such anthologies; it seems a shame, for example, to deny us at least a little of "The Talk of the Town." But to Stevens' credit, he chooses long pieces and sticks with them, allowing his father's sense of pace and rhythm to unfold.
Born to actors, Stevens was one of the great actor's directors, and his son shows us pieces of the marvelous performances he got from Katharine Hepburn, Joel McCrea, Jean Arthur, Montgomery Clift and James Dean. They're spliced with reminiscences by many Stevens associates, including Hepburn and McCrea, the late Irwin Shaw (who served in the Army with him), Frank Capra, and a genial Warren Beatty. "A Filmmaker's Journey" is full of Hollywoodiana, such as how Stevens was the only director hammer-tongued studio chief Harry Cohn wouldn't insult in the Columbia cafeteria. And how Paramount tried to sell "Shane" to Howard Hughes -- the deal fell through, and, in Alan Pakula's words, the studio "got stuck with one of the biggest hits in their history."
Hal Roach recalls how Stevens, then a cameraman, saved Stan Laurel's career by finding a new kind of film stock that would register his pale blue eyes. RKO producer Pandro Berman tells how Hepburn flipped a coin to decide who would direct "Alice Adams"; when the toss went against Stevens, she said, "How about flipping it again?" And Fred Astaire, after watching a clip from "Swing Time," says, "I saw it the other day and I said, 'Wow, that didn't look so tough as when we did it!' " Which is, of course, what being Fred Astaire is all about.
With his square face, wide-open watcher's eyes and the steady tick-tock gait of a metronome, Stevens was a symbol of integrity out of Central Casting -- he looked, in fact, much like his star, Spencer Tracy -- and he lived up to his image. Director Joseph Mankiewicz recounts how Stevens and John Ford stood up to Cecil B. De Mille's attempt to force all directors to sign a loyalty oath, and to force out Mankiewicz, then president of the Directors Guild, for refusing. "Cecil," Mankiewicz recalls Ford saying, "I don't like ye, and I don't like a goddamn thing ye stand for."
The footage of World War II speaks for itself. Stevens was an irrepressible shutterbug (even when he made movies, he took home movies behind the scenes, pieces of which enliven "A Filmmaker's Journey"), so he was the natural nominee to record D-Day for posterity. "A Filmmaker's Journey" includes never-before-seen color footage of the Normandy landing, the liberation of Paris (starring Gen. Charles de Gaulle and the surrendering Nazis), and horrifying color footage of Allied corpses and victims of Dachau.
The things Stevens saw during the war changed him forever. He became an avowedly serious filmmaker, a cartographer of the American dream. As his son says, "What he once said about Laurel and Hardy might be said of him: he understood something about the human condition." And something, more particularly, about the American condition -- like Shane, Stevens rode off into the sunset, looking for the things only the horizon could tell him.
George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey, opening today at the Outer Circle, is unrated; it contains some graphic scenes from World War II.