Top 15 George Stevens Directed Movies

 

One of the studio directors that didn’t ever seem to have just one genre or style, would be the wonderful George Stevens. If he had a style, I would venture to say it was great lighting…but he worked through so many genres comfortably. He was just a very, very good director. His body of work boggles the mind. As a cinematographer at Hal Roach Studios, he is credited with saving the film career of a young British comic by the name of Stan Laurel! Laurel’s pale blue eyes would register as an unnatural white on orthochromatic film, the standard film in use at that time. Stevens knew of panchromatic film and was able to get a supply of it from Chicago. This film was sensitive to blue so that Laurel’s eyes would photograph more naturally. Laurel would use Stevens for his short films at Roach. When Stan Laurel was teamed up with Oliver Hardy, the team make Stevens their cameraman of choice. He would move to features eventually and never look back, making a slew of truly classic films, getting nominated 5 times for an Academy Award and winning twice. Here are my favorite 15 films directed by George Stevens:

15 – Penny Serenade (1941)

I’ll be honest up front and say this particular film is very hard for me to watch because it plays a little too close to home for my comfort, but is a very good film. Written by one of my all-time favorite screenwriters, Morrie Ryskind, the story is about a married couple (Cary Grant and Irene Dunne) and their ups and downs as they try and have a child. In real life, Cary Grant, himself, wouldn’t become a parent until 1966 when he was 62. Irene Dunne often said that this was her favorite film because it reminded her of her own adopted daughter. George Stevens once said about Dunne, “If a director is lucky enough to work with Irene Dunne, his worries disappear. Every scene she’s in matches; she’s the film editor’s delight.”

14 – Vigil in the Night (1940)

Nurse Anne Lee blames herself for a fatal mistake of her sister Lucy, who also is a nurse. Anne loses her job, and gets a new one at a poorly equipped country hospital. There she falls in love with Dr. Prescott, who is battling with Mr. Bowly, the chairman of the local hospital board, who also makes Anne’s life miserable. But then a virulent epidemic begins…Nurse Anne Lee is played beautifully by Carole Lombard but was held up several weeks when Carole Lombard was admitted to the hospital after suffering a miscarriage. The press dubbed it an ‘appendectomy’ to cover up. She would die tragically only 2 years later in a plane crash at only age 33. This film shows sparks of what she could have become if she continued acting, as she was already brilliant. My favorite Lombard movie would be her last, the incredibly To Be or Not To Be, although My Man Godfrey is fantastic too, also written by none other than…Morrie Ryskind.

13 – A Place in the Sun (1951)

A poor boy gets a job working for his rich uncle and ends up falling in love with two women. Another actor I find to be really under-rated, Montgomery Cliff…if you’ve seen Judgment At Nuremberg, you’ll know what I mean. He silently steals the show in just about every thing he’s in. Another actor who died way too young at only 45. In her autobiography, Shelley Winters described George Stevens’ way of working: “He would discuss the scene, but not the lines, and would photograph the second or third rehearsal so the scene had an almost improvisational quality. Stevens would print the first take, then spend the next three hours minutely rehearsing the scene, then film it again. He explained to me that in this way he often got actors’ unplanned reactions that were spontaneous and human and often exactly right. And often when actors over-intellectualize or plan their reactions, they aren’t as good.” George Stevens was also a firm believer in running rushes at night, and having the actors in attendance. As Shelley Winters said, “Stevens would print several takes of each scene and then explain to us why one was better than the other. The whole experience was a joy.”

12 – Talk of the Town (1942)

An escaped prisoner (Cary Grant) and a stuffy law professor (Ronald Colman) vie for the hand of a spirited schoolteacher (Jean Arthur). Stevens would say of Arthur, “One of the greatest comediennes the screen has ever seen. When she works, she gives everything that’s in her, and she studies her roles more than most of the actresses I’ve known.” The studio considered filming two different endings, with Jean Arthur pairing off with Cary Grant in one, and with Ronald Colman in the other, and letting the audience decide by voting in sneak previews which one they preferred. However, in the papers of director George Stevens, all the screenplay drafts contained the current ending. I won’t tell you who she ends up with.

11 – Alice Adams (1935)

ALICE ADAMS, Fred MacMurray, Katharine Hepburn, 1935

The misadventures of two social-climbing women in small town America. Katharine Hepburn always viewed Alice as one of her personal favorite roles. Katharine Hepburn credits director George Stevens for her change in the public’s perception, by helping her, in “Alice Adams”, portray more warmth and vulnerability than she had ever shown previously. The original script ending followed the ending of the novel, in which Alice grows up and gets a job – she does not get Arthur in the end. Katharine Hepburn and George Stevens both much preferred this ending, but the studio made Stevens film a happier ending in which Alice and Arthur end up together, which is seen in the final cut. I have to say, I’m so glad they did this, as I’m a romantic at heart and love the ending as it stands.

10 – Vivacious Lady (1938)

A professor (James Stewart) marries a nightclub singer (Ginger Rogers), much to the consternation of his family and friends back home. Ginger Rogers recommended Jimmy Stewart for this film, even though they had not worked on a film together previously. The two were dating at the time, and with Rogers being one of RKO’s biggest stars, she got her way. Rogers worked with Stevens previously, two years earlier on Swing Time (1936).

9 – A Damsel in Distress (1937)

Lady Alyce Marshmorton (Joan Fontaine) must marry soon, and the staff of Tottney Castle have laid bets on who she’ll choose, with young Albert wagering on “Mr. X.” After Alyce goes to London to meet a beau (bumping into dancer Jerry Halliday – Fred Astaire –  instead), she is restricted to the castle to curb her scandalous behavior. Albert then summons Jerry to Alyce’s aid in order to “protect his investment.” This movie is especially good because of the co-stars, George Burns and Gracie Allen! After learning that Fred Astaire wanted Burns and Allen to audition for him, George Burns hired a vaudeville dancer he knew to choreograph a complex routine with whisk brooms. Astaire enjoyed the performance by George and Gracie so much that he insisted on working it into the film!

8 – Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)

Director George Stevens shot The Greatest Story Ever Told in the American Southwest, in Arizona, California, Nevada and Utah. Pyramid Lake in Nevada represented the Sea of Galilee, Lake Moab in Utah was used to film the Sermon on the Mount, and California’s Death Valley was the setting of Jesus’ 40-day journey into the wilderness. Stevens explained his decision to use the United States rather than in the Middle East or Europe in 1962. “I wanted to get an effect of grandeur as a background to Christ, and none of the Holy Land areas shape up with the excitement of the American Southwest,” he said. “I know that Colorado is not the Jordan, nor is Southern Utah Palestine. But our intention is to romanticize the area and it can be done better here.” Forty-seven sets were constructed, on location and in Hollywood studios, to accommodate Stevens’ vision.

7 – More the Merrier (1943)

During the World War II housing shortage in Washington, two men (Charles Coburn and Joel McCrae) and a woman (Jean Arthur) share a single apartment and the older man plays Cupid to the other two. Jean Arthur was getting into trouble with Columbia Pictures because she kept turning down roles. Rather embarrassed about this, she contacted her friend Garson Kanin and asked him to pen her something that she could take to the studio. Kanin was out of work at the time and readily accepted her proposal which Arthur ended up paying for out of her own pocket. Joel McCrea didn’t originally think he was right for the part of Joe and thought Cary Grant would have been better suited. Ironically, Grant would appear in the remake, Walk Don’t Run (1966), albeit in the Charles Coburn role. This was George Stevens’ last picture for Columbia before he joined the Army as chief of the combat photographic unit, where he shot several films for the US war effort.

6 – Gunga Din (1939)

I’ve written about this film before. I love the story about the three soldiers but am not thrilled that they cast a middle-aged white guy in the kid’s role, Gunga Din. In 19th century India, three British soldiers and a native waterbearer must stop a secret mass revival of the murderous Thuggee cult before it can rampage across the land. Sabu was first choice to play Gunga Din, he would have been great; when it became clear he was unavailable, Sam Jaffe was hired in his place. At the time he was playing water-boy Gunga Din, Sam Jaffe was 47 years old. In an interview years later, Jaffe (a Jewish Russian-American) was asked how he was able to play an Indian Muslim. Jaffe replied he kept telling himself to “Think Sabu.” Other than this, it is a great film. And it was very popular, it was second only to Gone with the Wind (1939) as the biggest money-maker of 1939.

5 – Diary of Anne Frank (1959)

Harrowing story of a young Jewish girl who, with her family and their friends, is forced into hiding in an attic in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. The second of three George Stevens films in which Shelley Winters starred. The others are A Place in the Sun and The Greatest Story Ever Told. She received Oscar nominations for both A Place in the Sun and The Diary of Anne Frank, winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the latter. Shelley Winters donated the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award she won for the role of Mrs. Van Daan to the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam, after promising Otto Frank that she would do so if she were to win the award. It remains on permanent display in the museum to this day.

4 – Swing Time (1936)

My favorite Fred and Ginger movie! A performer and gambler travels to New York City to raise the $25,000 he needs to marry his fiancée, only to become entangled with a beautiful aspiring dancer. Ginger Rogers would go on to say, “I adore the man. I always have adored him. It was the most fortunate thing that ever happened to me, being teamed with Fred: he was everything a little starry-eyed girl from a small town ever dreamed of.” Then, when asked about Ginger, Fred would return the compliment, “Excuse me, I must say Ginger was certainly the one. You know the most effective partner I ever had. Everyone knows. That was a whole other thing what we did…I just want to pay a tribute to Ginger because we did so many pictures together and believe me it was a value to have that girl…she had it. She was just great!”. This was Ginger Rogers’ favorite of her films with Fred Astaire.

3 – Giant (1956)

Arguably, the best of James Dean’s 3 films. Sprawling epic covering the life of a Texas cattle rancher (Rock Hudson) and his family and associates. When Rock Hudson was cast, director George Stevens asked him whom he preferred as his leading lady, Grace Kelly or Elizabeth Taylor. Hudson picked Taylor, who was cast and ended up becoming lifelong friends with Hudson. James Dean called the shooting style of director George Stevens the “around the clock” method, because Stevens would film a scene from as many different angles as possible, which made everything seem to take longer to do. James Dean finished principal photography on Friday September 23, 1955. He died in a car crash a week later.

2 – Woman of the Year (1942)

What a great movie, rival reporters Sam (Spencer Tracy) and Tess (Katherine Hepburn) fall in love and get married, only to find their relationship strained when Sam comes to resent Tess’ hectic lifestyle. As Katharine Hepburn’s close friend and frequent director, George Cukor was a natural choice to direct, but for her first film with Spencer Tracy, Hepburn wanted Tracy to be as comfortable as possible, so as a quasi-producer, she hired George Stevens, who had directed her in Alice Adams. As Hepburn said, “I just thought he (Tracy) should have a big, manly man on his team – someone who could talk about baseball.” Cukor (who was openly gay and known for his friendships with actresses) would later become a good friend of Tracy and would direct both actors in Keeper of the Flame (1942), Adam’s Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952).

1 – Shane (1953)

A weary gunfighter (Alan Ladd) attempts to settle down with a homestead family, but a smoldering settler/rancher conflict forces him to act. This film is always in the top ten of any list about the best westerns ever filmed. Ranked #3 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 10 greatest films in the genre “Western” in June 2008. Jean Arthur, then aged 50, came out of semi-retirement to play Marian Starrett, largely as a favor to her friend, director George Stevens. She would retire completely from the film business after this picture. Having witnessed during his WW2 service the profound effects a bullet could have on a man, realism was important to George Stevens during the making of the film. This therefore is one of the first movies to use stunt wires to pull the actors or stuntmen backwards to simulate when they’ve been shot. George Stevens referred to this film as being his war movie.

Top 15 Luc Besson Directed Movies

 

Over the years, I’ve been a big fan of Luc Besson. Not only has he been a fantastic director, but a great writer and producer as well. I can really appreciate that kind of career, he’s got his hands on so many projects. He is amazing at developing interesting projects. Sometimes the ideas are originated by him and then handed off to other filmmakers, sometimes he takes them all the way through till release and he’s never one to turn away a great project that needs him to just produce. Here are my top 15 favorites that he’s had a hand in creating:

15 – Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

OK, Ok, this hasn’t come out yet, but I just know it’s going to hit my list. It’s the original inspiration for Star Wars and The Fifth Element, so I know I’m going to like it. This film is based on a French sci-fi comic book series created in 1967 by writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mezieres. Mezieres was also involved in creating visuals for Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element.

14 – Lucy (2014)

Many of his best stuff lay in 2 genres; Science Fiction and Action. This one film combines both aspects very well. In an interview on March 8, 2014, Besson said that this project took ten years to become a reality. Also, he admitted that he knew that some scientific assumptions were erroneous, ie; that humans use only ten percent of their brains. Nonetheless, he said that “(such an assumption) would be a great start for a sci-fi movie”. A woman, (Scarlett Johansson) accidentally caught in a dark deal, turns the tables on her captors and transforms into a merciless warrior evolved beyond human logic.

13 – 3 Days to Kill (2014)

Here’s one that Besson wrote but didn’t direct. It was directed by McG. A dying CIA agent (Kevin Costner) trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter is offered an experimental drug that could save his life in exchange for one last assignment. The meaning and relevance of the film’s title is that it refers to the estimate number of days that Ethan Renner (Costner) has to complete his mission prior to facing death from terminal brain cancer. Reminds me a great deal of a great film noir movie called DOA (Dead on Arrival) about a man who has been lethally poisoned and has to solve his own murder before he dies.

12 – Lockout (2012)

If you can excuse the main character’s dive out of a spaceship and not burn up on re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere and sky dive to a city below, then this is a pretty dang good flick. It totally would have made a fantastic “Escape From…number 3″ with Snake Plissken, but only because of Guy Pearce. He’s great. The plot totally reads like a Snake Plissken movie:  A man wrongly convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage against the U.S. (Guy Pearce) is offered his freedom if he can rescue the president’s daughter from an outer space prison taken over by violent inmates. Call it Escape From Outer Space. Besson came up with the original idea and even wrote a draft of the screenplay.

11 – Colombiana (2011)

Zoe Saldana is great, I did a blog about her a while back called Zoe Saldana Takes Over the World. Here’s a starring vehicle with her as an assassin, kind of a reoccurring theme with Besson, just look at Leon and Nikita. It’s no wonder as this film was originally supposed to be Leon part 2. The film was based off a script that was set to be a sequel for Leon: The Professional. The story was set to follow Natalie Portman’s character Mathilda as she tracked down and killed characters that had wronged her and Leon. Portman’s success kept her from availability and the script was eventually re-written into Colombiana and cast with Saldana.

10 – From Paris With Love (2010)

In Paris, a young employee (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) in the office of the US Ambassador hooks up with an American spy (John Travolta) looking to stop a terrorist attack in the city. John Travolta is the real reason to watch this film, he just crackles with electricity. When Caroline enters James’s apartment you can clearly see the book ‘Nikita’ which was written and directed by Besson, who wrote “From Paris with Love”. This is a spy genre film and it is interesting to note that the title of the earlier film To Paris with Love (1955) is said to have been the inspiration for James Bond creator Ian Fleming for the title of his 1957 James Bond spy novel, From Russia With Love which was later made into the 007 movie.

9 – District 13: Ultimatum (2009)

This is a sequel to one of my all-time-favorite stunt movies, District B13. Follows up with great stunts and action with Cyril Raffaelli and David Belle. For those of you that like the Daredevil series on Netflix, you’ll recognize Elodie Yung (Elektra) in the film. Cyril is a great stunt coordinator and he choreographed all the fight scenes in the movie and David, who invented Parkour, did all of his own stunts, without practice ahead of time. Most of the ones that you see in the film were of him performing the stunt for the first time.

8 – Tell No One (2006)

Luc Besson was lucky this project crossed his path. He was one of the Executive Producers on the film and it’s based on a fantastic book by Harlan Corben. Police find two bodies at an old murder scene and evidence to suggest the first victim’s husband is a murderer. The husband receives clues suggesting his deceased wife is actually alive and begins to investigate. This film is definitely worth finding, but it is in English subtitles, as it’s a French-language film. Originally, author Harlan Coben had optioned off his novel to Hollywood, with director Michael Apted attached. During this time, director Guillaume Canet, who had loved the novel, had been calling up Coben with his take on the novel. Coben was immediately impressed with Canet’s passion for the story, and his vision, stating that Canet understood that the novel was a love story first, and a thriller second, which Hollywood never got. When the option with Hollywood fell through, Coben contacted Canet and decided to give him a chance.

7 – Bandidas (2006)

In turn-of-the-century Mexico, two very different women (Salma Hayek, Penelope Cruz) become a bank-robbing duo in an effort to combat a ruthless enforcer terrorizing their town. This is directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, who are coming out with Disney’s Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Men Tell No Tales later this year. Steve Zahn also plays a character in the film, and it’s good to see Penelope and Steve back together again.

6 – Leon: The Professional (1994)

Mathilda (Natalie Portman), a 12-year-old girl, is reluctantly taken in by Léon, a professional assassin (Jean Reno), after her family is murdered. Léon and Mathilda form an unusual relationship, as she becomes his protégée and learns the assassin’s trade. Luc Besson got the idea of doing this movie while working on his previous movie, La Femme Nikita (1990). In that film’s third act, Victor the Cleaner appears to deal with the aftermath of Nikita’s botched mission. Realizing the potential of the character was underused in that movie, Besson decided to create a story that focused on the activities of such a character. Both Victor and Leon appear dressed in a long wool coat, sunglasses and a knit cap. Both are played by Jean Reno. The film’s working title was “The Cleaner”.

5 – The Big Blue (1988)

The rivalry between Enzo and Jacques, two childhood friends and now world-renowned free divers, becomes a beautiful and perilous journey into oneself and the unknown. This film was such a hit in France that it played for over a year in theatres. The most financially successful French film of the 1980s. This film was probably the closest to Besson’s own upbringing. “I was never polluted by the world of cinema. I didn’t even have a TV until I was 16. My expression is a reflection of the world I have seen, and in that world everyone was barefoot in bathing suits, following the order of the sea, the natural order of sunrise and sunset. I never went to the cinémathèque. I didn’t know much about the masters of world cinema,” Besson has said.

4 – La Femme Nikita (1990)

Convicted felon Nikita (Anne Parillaud), instead of going to jail, is given a new identity and trained, stylishly, as a top secret spy/assassin. Luc Besson had Anne Parillaud train extensively with guns so that she would be completely at ease with them. Parillaud took to practicing loading and unloading a fake gun in her car which led to her being pulled over by the police and having their guns drawn on her in traffic one day as they thought her weapon was real.

3 – District B13 (2004)

I wrote about this great stunt film in my blog: David Belle and District B13. Set in the ghettos of Paris in 2010, an undercover cop and ex-thug try to infiltrate a gang in order to defuse a neutron bomb.

2 – The Fifth Element (1997)

I just love this film, although, I would have to admit that Chris Tucker has ruined it for me over the years. He’s so obnoxious in the film that he virtually makes it impossible to re-watch the film. Other than that, fantastic film. I was so upset after the film was released that no toys followed the film, as I wanted to buy all the action figures after I saw it. They could have really sold a lot of toys if they had this prepped like the Star Wars films. Another film that I loved enough to write a whole blog about; Fifth Element.

1 – Taken (2008)This film proves that Luc Besson has a magic touch. Again, he just wrote and produced this one but was genius when he hired Pierre Morel to direct as he was perfect for the job. It also gave Liam Neeson new life as an action star. Liam Neeson initially expected the film to bomb, but he signed on, in order spend four months in Paris, and learn karate, while playing the kind of role he had rarely been offered in the past. Ironically, not only was the film a massive hit, but created a new on-screen image for Neeson, as an action hero. Liam Neeson performs a good amount of his own stunts. Over the course of the movie, Bryan kills 35 people in order to get to his daughter.