Wednesday Editor’s Pick: George Stevens

by on December 5, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed Dec 7 at 7:00 at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]


Local programmer Miriam Bale takes her inspired “Second Tier” series of auteur oddballs city-wide, and FSLC hosts a roast to George Stevens. The eclectic double-bill features Vivacious Lady (1938), a little known screwball starring former lovers Ginger Rogers and Jimmy Stewart, and George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin (1994), a compilation of Stevens’ WWII footage edited by his namesaked son (it is heavily featured in Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma). Alt Screen critic fave Kent Jones will introduce.


Pretty much all you need to know about Vivacious Lady:


Much of the point of the series is covering highly overlooked films, but here are a few testaments to the charm of the film…


Time Out (London):

Mostly a light-hearted fable in which nightclub dancer Rogers meets, falls for, and marries Professor James Stewart. Much humour is derived from the couple’s inability to consummate their wedding owing to family and social pressures, but there are also traces of a critique of the institution of marriage itself: it is always the women who have to adapt and make sacrifices for the sake of monogamy. Rogers is the accomplished centrepiece of the film, slightly atypical as the soft-focus romantic heroine, but with welcome eruptions of her tough and shrewd persona throughout.


The blog Obscure Classics:

Ginger Rogers and James Stewart were close friends for most of their lives, and they shared a really amazing chemistry on screen. In the 1930s and 1940s, they were both the “every man” (or woman) stars. Unlike much of Hollywood, which seemed glamorous and untouchable, Stewart and Roger seemed like they belonged with us. Like they were regular Joes. And pairing the two worked so well on film. Which is why it’s surprising that the only made one movie together, the delightful romantic comedy Vivacious Lady. The basic story is a little hackneyed – Stewart comes from a wealthy and respectable family, so he’s afraid to tell them that he’s married a showgirl – but the fact that director George Stevens can take that story and make something so funny and heartfelt is what’s beautiful about the whole thing. The romance between Stewart and Rogers feels incredibly genuine, and the family dynamic, while screwball and therefor a little daffy, actually feels real and honest. Despite the screwball elements, this is a movie that feels true.


Brian Cady for TCM:

Vivacious Lady (1938) is a screwball comedy with a kick (not to mention a lot of punches and slaps).


For her co-star, Ginger Rogers chose James Stewart. At the time this film was made Stewart had not yet become the major star he would soon become, but he and Rogers had dated a couple of years before and she thought he could provide both the shyness and the romantic spark for his role. George Stevens was very happy with Stewart’s performance: “He is an instinctual rather than a trained actor, but he has a wonderful knack for paradox and surprise and character-transformation, and in Vivacious Lady he rang all the changes!”



Mandy Merck provides some context for George Stevens: From D-Day to Berlin, in her book Hollywood’s American Tragedies:

Between 1943 and 1945 Stevens directed filming in Tunisia and then in Europe with an unusual company of creative personnel, including the novelists William Saroyan and Irwin Shaw, and two of his most important future collaborators, the Hollywood cameraman William Mellor and the young Anglo-American documentarist Ivan Moffat. Their footage and accompanying commentary scripts were sent back to the likes of Carol Reed, John Huston, William Wyler, and Frank Capra for the production of documentaries and newsreels. Offered greater mobility than combat photographers attached to specific military units, the group filmed the Normandy invasion, the liberation of Paris, the Battle of the Bulge, and the opening of the concentration camp at Dachau. Mostly they shot on 35mm black and white but Stevens also kept a personal record on 16mm Kodachrome that would figure significantly in later history of the cinema.


The 1994 compilation of the color footage, George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin, includes images from Dachau of the massive piles of dead and the skeletal bodies of the dying, agony on a scale that Stevens later described as “unbelievable.” like “one of Dante’s infernal visions.” One incident in this hell particularly troubled the director, and it is telling for the examination of guilt and complicity in his later work. To several interviewers he recalled a moment, when, grabbed by a begging prisoner covered with lice, he felt revulsion rather than pity. As he later described this scene, “I feel the Nazi in myself. I abhor this man, and I want to keep his hands off me is because I see myself capable of arrogance and brutality to keep him off me. That’s a fierce thing, to discover within yourself that which you despise the most in others.” A sense of shocked complicity also infused Stevens’ recollections of the beating of the camp’s officers by their US military interrogaters and the angry reproaches of their victims. Horrified by the events he had witnessed, he remained in Germany after the war, preparing concentration camp footage for two documentaries presented as evidence in the Nuremberg War Crimes trials.


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