A lot of labor, and a lot of love, went into George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey. The 1984 movie about the director of "Shane," "Giant," "Gunga Din," "A Place in the Sun" and other classics airs on ABC (Ch. 4) Thursday night at 7 p.m.
The film was made by George Stevens Jr., son of the director, founder of the American Film Institute, and producer of the annual "Kennedy Center Honors" and AFI tributes. As Warren Beatty says in an introduction made especially for the ABC showing, the film isn't just about the movies and the making of them."I think," says Beatty, "it touches on the feeling of the son or the daughter in all of us."
Stevens Sr. led an extraordinary life. He started in pictures operating the camera and writing gags for Laurel and Hardy. If it hadn't been for Stevens, it is suggested, there might never have been a Laurel and Hardy; Stan Laurel's pale blue eyes didn't register on ordinary film of the time and he was thought to be a lost cause as a star.
Stevens suggested that a new panchromatic film could help. And it did. To think that if not for that, Laurel and Hardy might never have made films together! It's too horrible to imagine.
Among those who reminisce about Stevens in the film are Katharine Hepburn, whom he directed in "Alice Adams" in 1935 (a first hit for both); Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers ("Swing Time," one of their best musicals); and fellow directors like Frank Capra and the late John Huston.
Wild horses couldn't have kept Stevens out of the movie business. One helped get him into it: Rex, the Wonder Horse, a Saturday matinee discovery. Eventually Stevens would demonstrate virtuosic versatility by making action films, comedies, provocative dramas and Westerns.
The portrait of Stevens, man and director, that emerges from the film is one of a soft-spoken but hard-headed idealist, someone who knew how to fight quietly for what he believed in.
Joel McCrea, who co-starred with Jean Arthur in Stevens' wartime comedy "The More the Merrier," says he agreed to make the picture after he "saw what a regular guy" George Stevens was.
"He never bawled anybody out," McCrea recalls. "I never saw him do anything but instill confidence."
A clip from the film shows Stevens at his best. It's a feverishly romantic moment between the two stars on a front stoop; she babbles about the housing shortage while he makes passionate advances. The intimacy of it borders on breathtaking.
Movies actually lost some of their erotic impact when explicit sex came in. The famous close-up love scene between Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift from "A Place in the Sun" has lost none of its oomph over the years.
Stevens saw World War II close up, too. As a lieutenant colonel, he headed up a special unit charged with recording on film, among other operations, D-Day. Some long-lost Stevens footage - "the only color film of the war in Europe" that still exists, according to his son, who narrates - is included.
Director Huston looks back on the eve of D-Day and recalls it as a time "when hopes ran higher for the world than I have ever known them to, before or since." But the elation of victory was soured by what Stevens photographed later: the concentration camp at Dachau.
During the blacklisting frenzy of postwar Hollywood, Stevens stood up to Cecil B. DeMille as he attempted to purge the Hollywood ranks of alleged undesirables. His delayed reaction to the horrors he had seen in the war was the 1958 film "The Diary of Anne Frank."
In this summer of Martin Scorsese's scandalous film "The Last Temptation of Christ," it is worth recalling Stevens' attempt at a Biblical epic, "The Greatest Story Ever Told." The film worked no miracles at the box office, but Max Von Sydow, who played Jesus in it, calls it "a wonderful failure" in retrospect.
Stevens' golden era was over in the '60s, but it had been long and luminous. He died in 1975.
Apparently, not everyone at ABC was wild about showing "Journey" in prime time. Though about 15 minutes have been trimmed since its 1984 release to theaters, the thinking was that the film is "too slow." TV executives are always saying programs are too slow if they don't whack the audience over the head with a frying pan in the first 30 seconds.
It is quiet, like Stevens himself, but it accumulates a haunting power. One gets the feeling that young Stevens learned to appreciate Dad in ways he never had before as he put the picture together. His film honors his father as many sons will wish they could honor theirs.