Tag Archives: My Man Godfrey

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 William Powell Movies

 

One of my all-time favorite actors…even though he’s not as flashy as Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Clark Gable or Spencer Tracy…who are all in my top 5 as well. William Powell seems to sneak in there on the sheer strength of his whole film library. Arguably, he’s the most consistent. He put out some of the finest work ever seen on film, and most, if not all of his movies, stand up today as some of the greatest ever made. Judge for yourself, here are my 15 favorites:

15  The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936)

This one is special because of the pairing of William Powell and Jean Arthur. Powell would make a career out of teaming with some of the strongest actresses of the time and then competing with them as equals. He manages to hold each of his female partners in such high esteem, while all along joyfully and playfully sparing with them with wonderful wordplay. This becomes his signature, and not only did the audience enjoy the sparks, but his on screen partners adored him in real life as well. So much so that he fell in love and married 2 of them. He would have married Jean Harlow as well, they were engaged, but she fell ill and died before they married. Back to this film, the script is a little light, but Powell and Arthur are fun. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Arthur look better than she does in this movie. She just shines.

14  One Way Passage (1932)

This one was the 6th pairing of William Powell with Kay Francis. The story is far fetched, as Powell plays a prisoner- a murderer being sent to prison for his hanging and Francis is on her last cruise as she has a terminal illness. They fall in love and spend their last trip together.  It has a mix of drama and comedy, which seems a bit weird due to the material.

13  The Philo Vance Mysteries (1929-1933)

William Powell starred in 4 of the Philo Vance mysteries, I’ll include them all together in one entry: The Canary Murder Case, The Greene Murder Case, The Benson Murder Case, and The Kennel Murder Case. Because of these movies and the Thin Man series, Powell becomes very well known as a Detective. It’s what puts him on the map initially, I would say, even though it’s his pairings with outstanding female partners that really makes him shine. William Powell is the first to star as Vance and arguably the most successful. These films are fun and I can see why Powell would become very popular as a detective over the next 20 years.

12  For The Defense (1930)

Another movie starring Powell and Kay Francis, this time Powell plays an attorney defending the man that Francis is two-timing him for murder. This was a surprise hit for Paramount. A quickie, it was shot in a mere 15 days and its success immeasurably helped director John Cromwell‘s career, who would go on to direct Tom Sawyer, Of Human Bondage, Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Prisoner of Zenda, Algiers, Made For Each Other, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, and Dead Reckoning after this one.

11  Jewel Robbery (1932)

The last one on the list that also stars Kay Francis, this one is my favorite of all the ones they did together. Powell plays a gentleman thief…which reminds me that he would have been the perfect Arsene Lupin over the years if he had ever decided to take that character on.  This began as a stage play, and then turned into a movie, and you can really tell with the great dialogue.

10  Double Wedding (1937)

The first one on the list that features Powell with his best collaborator, Myrna Loy! They are most famous together in the Thin Man movies but they performed so much together over the years that most people thought they were really married, which caused a lot of trouble for the couple whenever they went on location as often the hotels would book them accidentally in the same room! They would eventually star in 14 films together.  When I mentioned earlier that he was engaged to Jean Harlow, but she died…it was during the filming of this movie. They had to shut down production for a few weeks and I think you can tell in Powell’s performance that he was distraught. Also, can I just mention that I hate his artist costume in this movie.

9  Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (1948)

Fun little movie, seems like it would have been perfect for Don Knotts in the title role, but he was decades away from doing movies…Powell is still fun as always. Ann Blyth plays the mermaid in a very effective costume…at times she seems like a very real mermaid!  In an article in “Look” magazine that came out at the time the film was released Ann Blyth said that the hardest part of making the movie was trying to learn to swim while wearing the mermaid tail. She said that she practiced for more than a week before she felt comfortable with not being able to kick her legs to help her swim. During the film Ann Blyth has no dialogue. She laughs, sings (without words) and cries but does’t talk.

8  Libeled Lady (1936)

Great cast with Powell and Loy as usual, but with the additions of Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy!  Reportedly, while shooting the movie, the four stars had become close friends, and William Powell even gave up his old habit of hiding out in his dressing room between scenes so he could join in the fun with the rest of the cast. One of the biggest jokes was a running gag Spencer Tracy played on Myrna Loy, claiming that she had broken his heart with her recent marriage to producer Arthur Hornblow Jr. He even set up an “I Hate Hornblow” table in the studio commissary, reserved for men who claimed to have been jilted by Loy. Myrna Loy recalled in her 1987 autobiography that a good time was had by all during the shoot – “Libeled Lady was one of the best of the so-called screwball comedies, with a great cast, and Jack Conway directing us at breakneck speed.” She praised her co-stars and also expressed her love for working with Walter Connolly, whom she described as “darling.” Some of the cast and crew travelled to the California mountains during production in order to shoot exteriors of the bucolic scenes. They spent nearly a week living cosily in small cabins, according to Myrna Loy, and enjoying the rustic scenery far from the bright lights of Hollywood. This was where William Powell filmed his bit of slapstick in which he must pretend to be an expert angler in order to impress Connie’s father. “It’s a hysterical piece of work,” praised Loy, “but then Bill was a very gifted man, able to do great comedy and tragedy, everything.”

7  The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

William Powell plays the great showman Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. in this biography of his life. He would go on to play Ziegfeld again later for a showcase of some of Ziegfeld’s finest work in Ziegfeld Follies.  Billie Burke, the wife of the real Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., never really rated the film much despite taking a personal interest in the writing of the script. She went to great lengths to make sure that writer William Anthony McGuire never besmirched the good name of Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., hence the playing down of his infidelities.  The Great Ziegfeld would become the first biopic to win an Academy Award for “Best Picture”. Powell himself would be nominated for My Man Godfrey, that same year.

6  I Love You Again (1940)

This one is quite fun, Powell plays a man who is a normal boring businessman that bumps his head a second time, which makes him recover from amnesia, only to remember his life as a con man before he had amnesia! In the process, he comes to learn that he’s deeply in love with the woman that is soon to be his ex-wife, Myrna Loy.  The fun part of this movie is the total change in Powell’s personality and then the wooing of his wife (coo-ing?). It does have a lengthy Boy Scout sequence, which is delightful, but to me, takes it away from the fun parts that are Powell-Loy laden.

5  Life With Father (1947)

I love Irene Dunne and she is really in fine form in this great family film.  In later years, Irene Dunne admitted that she hated playing the part of Vinnie, the wife, as she considered the part to be “rattle-brained”.  The original play, “Life With Father” is the longest-running Broadway non-musical play ever. It played on Broadway for nearly eight years (3224 performances), from 1939 to 1947 and held the record for 25 years until “Fiddler on the Roof” surpassed it. In the play, author Howard Lindsay played Father, Dorothy Stickney was Vinnie and Teresa Wright was Mary. The film version was released in 1947, the year that the Broadway run ended. William Powell had his 3rd Academy Award nomination for this role.

4  Manhattan Melodrama (1934)

Clark Gable adds to the fun in Manhattan Melodrama. Interesting thing about this is that both William Powell and Clark Gable were married to Carole Lombard, at different times, of course, neither during this movie.  This was also the first movie to feature Powell and Loy together. Interesting to note, this movie is probably most famous for being the movie that bank robber John Dillinger had just seen before he was gunned down in front of Chicago’s Biograph Theater on July 22, 1934. He had been set up by Anna Sage, the madam of a brothel, who knew Dillinger’s girlfriend, Polly Hamilton. Sage was facing deportation and thought the tip might get her off. She told FBI agent Melvin Purvis that she would be wearing orange which appeared red, leading her to be dubbed “The Woman in Red”. Dillinger was shot three times when he tried to escape, and Sage wound up being sent back to Romania.

3  Mister Roberts (1955)

William Powell’s last movie, based on the play which also starred Henry Fonda as Mister Roberts. The supporting cast in this film is incredible with great parts for James Cagney and Jack Lemmon, who won an Oscar for his role of Ensign Pulver. Initially directed by John Ford, one of the few non-westerns he did.  On this movie, he was apparently mean and abusive.  When John Ford met James Cagney at the airport, the director warned that they would “tangle asses,” which caught Cagney by surprise. Cagney later said: “I would have kicked his brains out. He was so goddamned mean to everybody. He was truly a nasty old man.” The next day, Cagney was slightly late on set, and Ford became incensed. Cagney cut short the imminent tirade, saying: “When I started this picture, you said that we would tangle asses before this was over. I’m ready now – are you?” Ford backed down and walked away and he and Cagney had no further conflicts on the set.  Later on, there was a disagreement between John Ford and Henry Fonda that led to Ford punching Fonda in the mouth, ending their 16-year personal friendship and eight-film professional relationship, even though Ford apologized to Fonda afterward. Fonda only appeared in one more Ford film after that. Ford was eventually dismissed from the film and Mervyn LeRoy took over.  John Ford’s dismissal from the film pushed him over the edge. He began drinking heavily, and was hospitalized in Hawaii for alcohol poisoning.

2  The Thin Man Mysteries (1934-1947)

To this day, these are the films that William Powell and Myrna Loy are most famous for, with good reason, they are awesome.  I don’t need to go into much detail, as I do that here in another blog post.  Now after you’ve read that go see the series, it’s great.

1  My Man Godfrey (1936)

My favorite movie featuring Powell is also the one that really features his ex-wife Carole Lombard most effectively.  It’s about a scatterbrained socialite, who hires a vagrant as a family butler…but there’s more to Godfrey than meets the eye.  William Powell suggested his ex-wife Carole Lombard for the leading role with the explanation that his real life romance with Lombard had been much the same as it was for the characters of Godfrey and Irene. Although stars William Powell and Carole Lombard had been divorced for three years by the time they made this, when offered the part Powell declared that the only actress right for the part of Irene was Lombard.  This is the only film to receive Oscar nominations for writing, directing and all four acting awards without being nominated for Best Picture. It was also the only film to receive those six nominations without winning in any of the categories until American Hustle (2013).