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Even Stevens

Even George Stevens had his moments of beautiful delirium, as represented in the haunting opening sequence of his often overlooked 1952 “Something to Live For” — a series of slow dissolves between a curtain rising on a Broadway show, a woman (Joan Fontaine) peering between her fingers in a close-up step-printed to look like slow motion, and a man (Ray Milland) anxiously peering out at Times Square through the window of a cab. The film is one of the best of the many 50s expressions of discontent with the middle-class model of suburban security, and as near as I can tell, a completely anomalous expression on Stevens’s part of a yearning for escape and romantic self-destruction. Olive Films has released this rare title in a very nice copy; also this week, Kino is offering King Vidor’s often abused public domain title “Bird of Paradise” in an impeccable transfer taken from the producer David O. Selznick’s personal print, as preserved at George Eastman House. This week’s New York Times column rounds out with a few words about Arch Oboler’s “Bewitched,” an intriguing 1945 anticipation of the psycho killer film that very likely had an influence on Hitchcock.

167 comments to Even Stevens

  • nicolas saada

    I bought HOLLYWOOD IN THE FORTIES in 1980, at Larry N Edmunds in La. I was a young cinephile of fifteeen. I loved the book.

  • Robert Garrick

    Nicolas, Truffaut always loved to visit Larry Edmunds’ Bookstore when he visited Los Angeles. I grew up in Los Angeles and that store was a big part of my youth. All of the owners (the curmudgeonly Luboviskis) have died in the last decade, and the store is barely hanging on under a new group of people. It’s still great, for now. (Edmunds himself committed suicide about 70 years ago.)

    Gregg: I’ve wondered about quite a few things in Spoto’s many celebrity biographies (not that I’ve read them all) including his famous book on Hitchcock. One example: Spoto claimed that Danny Kaye and Laurence Olivier were homosexual lovers. Olivier’s widow, Joan Plowright, denies that in her own book.

    I am always skeptical of “new” sexy information about celebrities, published after the celebrities are conveniently dead. Hitchcock died in 1980; “The Dark Side of Genius” came out in 1983. A dead man can’t bring a defamation suit. Caveat emptor.

    Spoto is alive and can defend himself, of course. His early critical book on Hitchcock (“The Art of Alfred Hitchcock”) was well-received, and I saw Spoto speak at the New School several times when he was presenting some of the early films. I remember seeing “Rich and Strange” at one of his classes in 1977.

  • “Nobody in America had ever written a book like that before, and it got me thinking about cameramen, looking at the names on the credits, and noticing stylistic differences. In my life, it made a difference.”

    In that case, to paraphrase an ancient carpenter, “By their fruits ye shall know them, not by what their severest critics say about them.”

  • Alex

    It seems to me that by casting (or submitting to the casting of) Liz Taylor as the as rich girl and Shelley Winters as poor girls in A PLACE IN THE SUN George Stevens reduced Dreiser’s (and von Sternberg’s)tragedy of class tensions, moral dilemmas and corruptions into a merely glitsy, if wonderfully photographed, soap. (Perhaps, if a less gauzily lit Liz Taylor had been cast as the obstacle to upward mobility…)

    In GIANT, Stevens –missing every lessen from Kazan and Ray’s uses of the spiritually tortured by nobly striving Dean– gives us a twitching derelict, thereby vitiating another drama of class disadvantage and ruin.

    DIARY OF ANNE FRANK does perhaps give us as moving a glimpse into Frank’s Amsterdam agon as could have been achieved through the prism of a well-filmed Broadway stage production.

    To be sure, Stevens’ PHOTOPLAY window on the life of Christ does deliver some striking images of the Jesus and his disciples doing stylish white-robed turns about venerable great Salt Lake and monument Valley Vistas, evocative preludes to the priceless moment when John Wayne’s Centurian acknowledges that
    he surely was
    the son of God.”

    The 1930s Stevens could convey the socially nuanced emotion of ALICE ADAMS as well as Tarkington himself and mine the Hollywood musical for a unsurpassed grade of Tinsel Town romantic poetry. However, as the more deliberate technician, ambitious impresario and commercial high flyer of 1950s megaprojects, Stevens seems to me to have lost command of just what (artistically speaking) he was doing.

  • jbryant

    Alex, I haven’t seen THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, but the way I’ve always heard that John Wayne anecdote is that Stevens asked Duke to repeat the line with more “awe,” whereupon Duke delivered it as “Aw, truly this was the son of God.” Sounds highly apocryphal to me though. Something to give the Wayne haters a giggle.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Robert, I had forgotten that it was Spoto who promulgated the bizarre tale of an Olivier-Kaye liasion. (When I reviewed his Olivier biography for Film Quarterly, I left that factoid out, as fancy gossip. I complained instead that Spoto evidently hadn’t bothered to see all the films Olivier had directed.)

    There’s nothing wrong with telling bizarre, or unpleasant, truths about our idols… if they’re true. Spoto gets credit for hard original research in his Hitchcock book, but some of his stories have been refuted since. Hitchcock’s daughter refuted one unpleasant story about the filming of STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, as I recall. Tippi Hedren has been Spoto’s primary source for what he’s written about THE BIRDS and MARNIE (tales that are soon to comprise a major motion picture, if I’m not mistaken) and no one has refuted her, to my knowledge.

  • “I haven’t seen THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, but the way I’ve always heard that John Wayne anecdote is that Stevens asked Duke to repeat the line with more “awe,” whereupon Duke delivered it as “Aw, truly this was the son of God.” Sounds highly apocryphal to me though. Something to give the Wayne haters a giggle.”

    No, it’s not true. Paul Baxley who was an assistant director on the picture said that Wayne behaved in a completely professional manner, knew what was required and played the scene as directed. Baxley had been a stunt man before becoming an a.d. and had a lot of respect for Wayne.

    I can verify the truth of one statement attributed to Wayne about Sternberg since I put it to him myself in 1968. “Sternberg scared me shitless.” He was being ironic either.

  • “Tippi Hedren has been Spoto’s primary source for what he’s written about THE BIRDS and MARNIE (tales that are soon to comprise a major motion picture, if I’m not mistaken) and no one has refuted her, to my knowledge.”

    “Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie” by Tony Moral contains a wealth of evidence in the form of documents and interviews with everyone who was associated with the making of “Marnie” (who was still alive at the time he started his research)that partially refutes Spoto’s account contextualizes Tippi Hedren’s version of events.

    You’re probably thinking of “Hitchcock” based on Alfred Hitchock and the Making of Psycho” based on Stephen Rebello’s book (Rebello is a co-writer of the screenplay) with Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock and Helen Mirrin as Alma.

  • nicolas saada

    Alex, in spite of what you describe thematically, I have to stress on the fact that Stevens films look more original than I thought. I was biased towards him, as I was biased towards Wyler because of my love for the maverick director, as opposed to the “established technician”. It’s not betraying that original love to state or rather, recognize the talent of these directors. The long scene where the germans search the building in ANNE FRANK is a landmark of its own. The opening shots of GIANT, the strange and eerie atmosphere of the last third of the film, the uncaninness of it all goes far beyond a roadshow experience. Stevens is not John Ford. But he’s not indifferent as a filmmaker. The party scene in PLACE IN THE SUN has a feel tha I have seldom found in films of the fifties. I also have to say that I remain disappointed with Stevens Comedies, although I haven’t seen ALICE ADAMS. Haven’t seen SHANE in a while.

  • Gregg Rickman

    X, thanks for the update. I’ll have to check out the Moral book. (!)

    Glad PSYCHO is the subject of the film-about-the-Hitchcock-film. Sounds like another Oscar for Anthony Hopkins! Any chance of the cast of Van Sant’s PSYCHO playing the same characters again in this version?

  • david hare

    Back in the late 60s and early 70s when Higham was still writing reasonable books (and lived most of the time in Sydney and was film crit for the Herald) he showed me some Wellesiana material he’d begun to collect including a telegram from Welles to one of the young actors in the Four Men on a Raft episode of It’s All True in which Welles is fairly effusive in his affections. Higham saw great possibiltiies for exploring this as a link to Welles’ “hidden” homosexuality – a theme he never developed further, fortunately. He also claimed to have viewed several hours of unedited Technicolor rushes from the movie which he claimed to have gotten to see only days before Paramount (who held this stuff) junked them all in the Pacific Ocean. You never knew what to believe.

    It should also be recalled that he shared authorship of the Hollywood in the 40s book with Joel Greenberg. Whatever his authorial successes he was never short of good researchers and “helpers”. He had a way of letting people here feel they were being privileged to bask in his reflected glory.

    Despite which I quite liked him back then – he used to throw these almost risible “Soirees” with notable people from the arts scenes, this in a period when Sydney and Australia generally was an intellectual desert – composer Peter Sculthorpe, Jim Sharman, many more. Odd and sometimes very successful mixes of clashing personalities. And he was a rare bird indeed to not slander people like me and the whole Oz East Coast auteurist/University Film Society enthusiasts as “cultists”, unlike most other so called critics at the time. This was indeed late 60s and pre 75.

    The Olivier/Danny Kaye hypothesis is only trumped imaginatively by the Flynn/Ty Power routine (“only 69s” he sternly intoned.) Herein lay madness indeed.

  • About Steven’s comedies: I have recently seen Penny Serenade (1941), and I consider it a little masterpiece. As someone that deeply loves Ford and McCarey’s “melodrama”, I have really enjoyed this soft, tender familiar saga. Narrative structure, with music records working as proustian madeleines, also stroke me as modern. I have also seen Annie Oaklie (1935), not a great film but I wasn’t disappointed.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘The long scene where the germans search the building in ANNE FRANK is a landmark of its own. The opening shots of GIANT, the strange and eerie atmosphere of the last third of the film, the uncaninness of it all goes far beyond a roadshow experience. Stevens is not John Ford. But he’s not indifferent as a filmmaker. The party scene in PLACE IN THE SUN has a feel tha I have seldom found in films of the fifties.’

    I agree about that Nicolas. Always some good passage in Stevens movie even if not completely good. But those movies looking too static and heavy, because taking too important attitude to material.

    Last movie THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN was good movie, like earlier movie.

  • I look forward to seeing SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR, which was released at the time in Finland with a terrible title which could be translated as “Slave of His Lust”. A PLACE IN THE SUN is powerful as is THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, the pathbreaker of mainstream holocaust accounts in Hollywood. William Wyler and Frank Capra said that George Stevens, the cinematographer of the silent Laurel and Hardy classics and the director of RKO musicals and comedies, stopped smiling having photographed the liberation of Dachau. There is a feeling of bottomless grief in THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK.

    Stevens was the one who first paired Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in WOMAN OF THE YEAR. Hepburn had given him his big break in ALICE ADAMS, and he had also directed her in QUALITY STREET.

    I met Charles Higham in Hollywood at a point of his life in 1996 when he had decided to break his career as a celebrity biographer after the terrible reviews he had been getting. Instead he had become a playwright, and I read one of his plays which had witty dialogue. I had liked his first Orson Welles book, but I did not know what to make of his Louis B. Mayer book, which I had just read, and I hated his second Welles book. I was enthusiastic about his reports of lost films (Murnau, etc.) he had seen in Australia according to THE ART OF THE AMERICAN FILM, but when I asked for details where to get prints of them for our screenings he became evasive and wanted to change the subject. Marlene Dietrich had made a strong impression on him, and he told that Marlene had no patience with sycophants and appreciated men who took command.

  • jbryant

    Gregg: No Van Sant alums in the Hitchcock movie cast; Scarlett Johansson is Janet Leigh, Jessica Biel is Vera Miles, and a British actor named James D’Arcy (Edward in Madonna’s W.E.) is Anthony Perkins. My favorite: Screenwriter Joseph Stefano will be played by the Karate Kid himself, Ralph Macchio.

    While I understand some of the raps against George Stevens’ post-war films, it’s never kept me from loving GIANT and, to a somewhat lesser extent, SHANE and A PLACE IN THE SUN. ALICE ADAMS and THE MORE THE MERRIER are two of my very favorite films, and I’m a big fan of I REMEMBER MAMA, SWING TIME, PENNY SERENADE and VIVACIOUS LADY. I would gladly take another look at QUALITY STREET, ANNIE OAKLEY, THE TALK OF THE TOWN, GUNGA DIN, WOMAN OF THE YEAR and others.

  • Joseph McBride

    I saw Dave’s surprisingly positive review of a Stevens film in the NYT and checked in
    here to see whassup, whether the sky had fallen and maybe those awful hacks Billy Wilder, Stanley Kubrick,
    and the Coen Bros. are OK now too. I am pleasantly surprised to see Stevens finally getting some
    of the respect he deserves as his admirers peek cautiously out from hiding. I have said before I think he is currently the American cinema’s most underrated great director. Nicolas Saada’s explanation of this syndrome
    is right on target.

    FYI, as for the John Wayne “aw” story, I asked Stevens if that actually happened,
    and he replied, “No, but it’s a damn good story.”

  • Barry Putterman

    Joseph, it has been far too long since we’ve heard from you. And if it was George Stevens who prompted your return, then that is a point in his favor.

    As we know from past experience, Kubrick admirers do not cautiously hide in these parts. And, as a Wilder and sometimes Coen Brothers admirer, neither do I (or do others of my ilk). Stevens admirers shouldn’t either. Certainly we all will get push back on those points. But it is not as though we aren’t defending the “right” reason for liking our favorites.

    It has been noted that Stevens’ career could be divided into pre and post World War II periods. But he certainly wasn’t the only one on whom the experiences of World War II had had a profound effect. And, indeed, both the American culture in general and the American film industry in particular were dramatically changed by the experiences of the war.

    In point of fact, the sort of film that Stevens (and McCarey and Capra and others) were making up through the early part of America’s World War II experience no longer seemed possible after the war. McCarey and Capra (and others) never quite adjusted to the post war world and their careers lost momemtum. Stevens could have possibly chosen to do the kinds of films Cukor was making in the late 40s and 50s, but decided otherwise. Stevens went in one direction, Cukor another, Wilder still another, but they all realized that you couldn’t reconstruct the social assumptions which supported their earlier films.

    As for our host praising a Stevens film, well, ya gotta watch out for that rascal every minute. It might be added that his book contains positive reviews of both FEDORA and THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING. Which might indicate that it is at the point in which these directors do lose their connections to the temper of the times that they becomes most interesting for him.

  • Robert Garrick

    Joe, I just mentioned you a day or two ago here:

    Did I get the reference right?

    Nicolas is certainly right about the party scene in “A Place in the Sun,” but I think Liz Taylor is the auteur of that scene at least as much as George Stevens. She and Clift make that film something special, and there’s something undeniably poignant and prescient about their relationship in it.

    The line on Stevens is that his later films are gassy and pretentious; that his early ones are frisky minor works with major virtues; and that his experiences in World War II took away his fun side forever. I actually prefer the later ones, particularly “Place in the Sun,” “Shane,” and “Giant.” But it’s a little too easy to see the gears turning, and the pleasures of these films are pretty readily exhausted by multiple viewings.

  • Nice to see you back, Joe! But let me assure you, no skies have fallen here. I admire “Something to Live For” largely because it is so unlike the other postwar Stevens films — experimental, mysterious, a little bit gothic. “Giant” still gives me a giant headache, and it has nothing to do with its reception from Manny Farber and some French critics in the late 50s. This is just bad, bloated filmmaking that in the end does nothing but project a sense of its own self-importance. The American cinema’s most underrated great director? Right now I’ll go with Bill Seiter, who was never rated at all.

    Junko, I do share your affection for “The Only Game in Town” — somewhere within this absurdly expensive production (it had to be shot in Paris to satisfy Elizabeth Taylor’s desire to be near Richard Burton, who was in the neighborhood making Stanley Donen’s “Staircase” at the time), there is a tiny little RKO comedy struggling to get out.

  • Alex

    Defending Stevens’ latter films in terms of excellent, even great scenes seems to me beside the point.

    As Stevens grew grandiose, it was his comamnd of the narrative arcs and core meanings of his films that faded. His ability to direct striking set pieces only grew. Take a late Stevens film I like quite lot, SHANE. Much of it is magnificant, for example the openning events at Starretts place, Shanes confrontations with Calloway at the general store, Wilson’s gunning down of “Stonewall.” Yet the film is always a bit overwrought. Take, the location of Starrett’s lush grazing land at the foot of the Grand Tetons; the abrupt transiton from Shane’s “hard” confrontation with the Rykers to the burden the film’s gushy final psychologizing and philosophizing places on Brendon De Wilde’s none too stout performance.

    So we have the hyper-romantic allure of prime Liz Taylor set exactky to swanmp the films dramatic tensions or reduce Deiser to Fannie Hurst), the splendidly choreographed and shot and ludicorously cast evangelizing of Jesus and his disciples, the an unwitting excess in Dean’s disintegration to give lie to any claim for overacting in Kazan films.

  • David Cohen

    Enjoying this Stevens discussion, but I wanted to get back to Higham/Spoto if only to pose a question: Does anyone think that the generation of trashy movie bios was spuured on by the success of MOMMIE DEAREST, which I believe was published in 1978? … I realize trashy bios are nothing new, but it seems to me the Crawford bio was a landmark of its type and that may well have spurred some writers to go for bigger and trashier.

  • Robert Garrick

    David, I doubt the Crawford book had much to do with trashy show-biz bios in general, but it was a prime example of what was then something of a new genre: the trashy expose written by show-biz children. It wasn’t the first, either. “Haywire,” by Brooke Hayward, had come out the previous year (1977) and had caused a sensation with its stories of life in the Margaret Sullavan / Leland Hayward household. “Haywire” was a New York Times #1 best-seller and was rapturously reviewed in the pages of the Times. Griel Marcus, writing in the Times, said that Hayward’s childhood was “discussed as if it had been the domestic equivalent of an Iranian torture chamber.”

    Then we had “Mommy Dearest” the next year (1978), Gary Crosby’s book on father Bing “Going My Own Way” in 1983, and B.D. Hyman’s book on her mother Bette Davis, “My Mother’s Keeper,” published in 1985. That one was a little different because Davis was still alive when the book came out, and she was none too happy about it.

    I remember Andrew Sarris commenting on these books in the New York Observer. I don’t have access to his exact quote, but in general he characterized the books as sour grapes written by spoiled children about their more talented parents.

    When it comes to trashy Hollywood biographies, we may never top “Hollywood Babylon,” which was originally published in 1965, was banned ten days later, and which the New York Times said “was without one single redeeming merit.”

    Now there’s a book to turn over heaven and earth looking for. I found a copy at Larry Edmunds Hollywood Bookstore, gathering dust, years before the book’s glossy and semi-respectable republication in 1975.

  • David Cohen

    Robert, thanks for reminding me of Haywire. I’d forgotten that one.

    As you mentioned Greil Marcus, I have to say that one of my two favorite book reviews of all time is his brilliant dismantling of Albert Goldman’s heinous Elvis bio. (Goldman, of course, may be the only trashy biographer to be threatened in a song – U2’s Bono went directly at him for his John Lennon book.)

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    I’m arriving late as usual, but just wanted to say that when I was young we French cinephiles were supposed to dislike and put down the Stevens-Wyler-Zinnemann triumvirate so admired by the Hollywood mainstream. For the past 20 or 30 years (at least) I and others, including my co-writer Bertrand Tavernier on 50 ANS, have tried to look at those auteurs in a less dogmatic fashion. It’s all there in the book and other places.

    I did buy HOLLYWOOD IN THE FORTIES, not in Larry Edwards but just home in NYC, and I still have it (I payed $2.25 for it) and I consulted it often although I don’t think it told me much that I didn’t know at the time.

  • D. K. Holm

    Boy, there are a lot of versions of Hollywood Babylon. Looking, it turns out that I have three: a French version, the mass market paperback pirate edition, and the Straight Arrow (the success of which led to a sequel).

    Anger’s set, though, don’t compare to the strange books attributed to Darwin Porter, who has written “gayographies” of Brando, Paul Newman, and several others, all published by a single firm that seems to exist for the sole purpose of publishing Mr. Porter’s books. To give you an example, Mr. Porter claims that while shooting The Young Lions, Brando and Dean Martin had to track down an AWOL Clift, who had supposedly been hijacked in a French leather-biker bar and repeatedly “raped” over night on a billiard table. Mr. Porter and his firm have now graduated to publishing unofficial Babylon sequels. These books are notable for having few citations, and for being rife with quotations apparently gleaned by Mr. Porter over a life long association with Hollywood denizens. Unfortunately, Mr. Porter’s quoted subjects all sound the same, and tend to use anachronistic slang, such as “drop trou” in the 1930s. Scotty Bowers’s book, Full Service seems to be much more dependable re: gossip.

    If Hayward’s book came out in 1977, than Sarris wrote a review for the Voice. Or else in American Film, maybe. I know I read it at the time, but can’t find the review in my files now. Maybe it was in fact something written later for the Observer. However, my web search turned up something interesting. It looks as if the Voice is all on line. Here is a link to one page I can across:,2116368

    I’m investigating further.

    Anyway, Sarris’s ire was mostly directed at the trashing by the daughter of possibly Sarris’s favorite actress of her era, Margaret Sullavan. Lee Remick played her in the TV movie version of the book.

  • D. K. Holm


    The Voice issues on Google are from ’77 to ’78:

  • D. K. Holm

    Wow! Scratch that! The Google Voice issues go back to the 1950s; it’s just that they are spotty. Some weeks or years don’t have any issues reproduced yet.

  • Joseph McBride

    I don’t think the book MOMMIE DEAREST is trashy at all. It is a serious, impassioned, moving, and accurate account
    of child abuse that many in Hollywood knew about but no one acted upon. Some may confuse it
    with the film version, which unfortunately treats this serious subject as camp.

    Truffaut told me that of the many offers he received from Hollywood to make films there, the
    only one he seriously considered was MOMMIE DEAREST. He of course had a profound identification
    with abused children. The film would have starred Anne Bancroft. He said he considered her
    a good actress but did not think one star could convincingly play another onscreen, and he was
    worried about his command of English as well, so he passed on the offer.

  • david hare

    There is always of course Maria’s very similar bio of her mother: “Marlene”. But like Christina Crawford’s book the tone seems to career from highly personal, nicely written, historically fascinating to relentlessly gossipy and personally bitter. Thus Riva is terrific on Sternberg (and relatively discreet but nonetheless plain about the depth of their relationship, while it lasted.) But then she lurches into mother’s sex life and we get more of the Highamesque “Mother much preferred oral because there was no penetration.” etc. Tell me – was EVERY female star in HOllywood a fag hag?
    I guess it depends who was ghosting at the time. Surely a passage like Christina’s “there she stood in the centre of the maelstrom, the Queen of Chaos herself.. Mommy Dearest..” (at the climax of the wire coat hanger scene) lend sitself to instant camp deification. Thus underminging the impact of the genuine reportage of abuse I think.

    Honestly, I’m glad the added sugar to the spice made Christina a lot of money. And honestly it doesn’t alter my respect for Crawford’s screen persona either, also Dietrich’s after Riva’s hatchet job. (Schell’s wonderful tribute to her, face unseen throughout really reinforces how fabulous she was.) And on another level altogether, who of us has a problem with Mark Rappaport’s revisitations of Rock, and Jean Seberg and basically of buried gay Hollywood?

  • nicolas saada

    Alex, i don’t see why mentioning Stevens excellence in certain scenes are beside point. But I have to add that i speak as a filmmaker, and it explains why I tend to be more and more fascinated by directors’ set pieces.
    Dave, “underrated” ? by no means. But what strikes me in the case of directors like Stevens and Wyler is the tendancy I ha as a teenager and a young film critic to take as granted what I heard or knew of their reputation. As a result, it tool me a while to rediscover films like THE HEIRESS, BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES or even A PLACE IN THE SUN. So much energy is wasted on terrible films of the past today : I have more pleasure in watching the party scene in A PLACE IN TEH SUN than anything by Rollin or Jess Franco. But as Dave says, the energy should also be focused on directors whose work has completely been off the radar: John Auer, William Seiter, Felix Feist.

  • Robert Garrick

    Nicolas, “Best Years of Our Lives” is an interesting critical case study. Our host Dave Kehr is decidedly not a fan of the film, and neither is auteurist Godfather Andrew Sarris, who, if he praises the film at all, does so “with faint damns,” as he once said in another context.

    But these are somewhat outlying opinions. Many of the French and English critics love the film. Jonathan Rosenbaum is a fan too, and this is instructive:

    Not that I matter, but I once voted “Best Years” one of the five top American films in an AFI poll.

    And there’s this: Years ago, “Film Comment” ran a regular feature called “The Most Erotic Moment in the History of the Cinema.” If I were asked to submit an entry, my choice would be the final scene of “Best Years,” where Teresa Wright and Dana Andrews are locking eyes across the room during the wedding scene (in deep focus, of course). Then they come together, and they kiss, and her big hat falls off, and the film ends.

    There are probably people walking the earth who watch that scene and yawn, but I’m not one of them.

  • Alex


    If you want to judge Stevens by his set pieces, then, by all means, consider him great.

    I used “beside the point” because the quality of Stevens’ set pieces is not to the point I made about late Stevens’ lack of command over the total aesthetic shape and message of his material –e.g., his willingness to work with a casting of Winter’s and Taylor as victim and motive of TRAGEDY’s central mruderous event even though the pairing vitiates the meaning and dramatic impact of the film as a whole.

    (Perhaps liking TRAGEDY overall is like me tending to like ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS overall, even though with Viconsti’s ludicrously set break between Rocco and Nadia atop the Milan Cathdral the film begins to lose coherence, even though -despite the nicely conceived factory-lunch coda– the film has descended into camp with its wildly overwrought dramatizations of the disintegrations of Rocco and Nadia.)

    I guess it’s natural for film makers and scholars both –like literary critics analyzing quotes– to focus on segments of work brief enough to discussed in concrete detail. Yet surely, it’s wise to attend to the adage that “wholeness is all” as a counterweight.

    Stevens wisely circulatd the story of an apocryphal “AW” delivery of Waynes’ “son of God” line to deflect the numerous, often playful criticisms of Waynes actual casing and delivery in actual reviews. FYI (and LOL), Wayne’s delivery is available in the 134th minute of Part II of STORY. (I suppose I shouldn’t of represented Wayne’s historic moment in terms of my Dwight MacDonald’s Esquire review–but MacDonald’s review is so much more effectively artful than Stevens’ film.)

  • Robert, I may have slighted “Best Years” at some point in the past but I certainly hold the film in esteem these days. Here’s what I last wrote about it, from a 2010 Times story on Best Picture winners:

    Returning from the war, three combat veterans — a middle-aged banker (Fredric March) who barely made sergeant, an ex-soda jerk (Dana Andrews) who found himself as a bombardier, and a high school athlete (Harold Russell) who lost his hands in a fire on his battleship — encounter an America that would prefer to forget their sacrifice and return to business as usual. That the men survive is almost entirely because of the women in their lives — Myrna Loy as March’s forbearing wife; Teresa Wright as his daughter, a hospital worker who falls for Andrews’s character; and Cathy O’Donnell as Russell’s childhood sweetheart — whose heroism, though less conspicuous, is the true subject of this clear-eyed yet immensely tender drama.

    Wyler’s directing award was only one of seven competitive Oscars that “Best Years” received, and the film is often cited as the first to use its Academy recognition as a marketing tool. Commercial considerations aside, it remains the Platonic ideal of an Oscar movie, with its monumental craft (in addition to March and Russell, Oscars went to the writer Robert Sherwood, the composer Hugo Friedhofer and the editor Daniel Mandell) placed in the service of a timely, socially significant theme. It’s a combination that the voters are still instinctively looking for today, and which they may find this year in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Hurt Locker,” a direct descendant of “Best Years” in more ways than one. (Out of print, but copies are available on the Internet )

    That this film continues to be unavailable is yet another of the great scandals of film distribution these days. I have heard rumors of a planned Criterion release, however.

    Other Wyler films I would recommend would include “The Shakedown,” “Hell’s Heroes,” “A House Divided,” “Counselor at Law,” “The Good Fairy” and, of course (hello, Nicolas!) “Dodsworth.” I think my problem is less with Wyler’s evident technical mastery than the pernicious influence of Samuel Goldwyn, whose determinedly conformist, middle-brow tastes brought out the worst in Wyler’s own. Once he escapes Goldwyn he does fine with “The Heiress,” “Carrie” and “Roman Holiday” (though I’d rather see the Cukor versions of all of those), but “Ben Hur” remains my personal definition of unwatchability.

    And please, folks, do not believe a word in “Hollywood Babylon”! There may be some accurate information in it, but if there is, it’s only a coincidence. Many of the stories don’t stand up to the simplest bullshit test: why would Gary Cooper work in gay porn films, for example, when his father was one of the richest men in Montana? David Stenn has a simple, elegant refutation of Anger’s ridiculous “Clara Bow taking on the entire USC football team” story in his excellent Bow biography. And yet the story lives on, as something everyone “knows,” like “Fatty Arbuckle was a rapist” or “Cary Grant and Randolph Scott were lovers.” People seem to need and want to believe these “feet of clay” stories, and there is always an Anger or a Higham ready to supply them. More recently, several major news outlets gave credence to “Secret Historian” Samuel Steward’s claim that, as a 17 year old living in Columbus, Ohio, he’d had sex with Rudolph Valentino, as plainly preposterous as that seems. Thomas Gladysz took that one out easily in a Huffington Post article.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘please, folks, do not believe a word in “Hollywood Babylon”!’

    Also, HOLLWOOD BABYLON II is not true. 10 or 15 years ago Anger admitted to Japanese reporter that he made up story because no more rumours. Story about Hitchcock and George Zucco was not true.

  • Robert Garrick

    Dave, I had no idea you’d turned around on “Best Years.”

    “Hollywood Babylon” is certainly nonsense–that should be obvious–but it’s entertaining nonsense. It was even more entertaining when the book was relatively unavailable. If you go to the Wikipedia page on the book, you’ll find Anger’s quote (through Kenneth Brownlow) that his research method was “mental telepathy, mostly.”

    I’m sure there are people out there who took the book seriously, but from the start its writing style seemed to bespeak more a delirious acid trip than actual factual information.

  • Robert Regan

    To those who had read Dorothy Parker’s story Little Curtis, Mommie Dearest sounded awfully familiar when it appeared.

  • Patrick Henry

    My sister-in-law gave me Darwin Porter’s biography of Bogart as a present two Christmases ago. I read about the first third of it and tossed it but, boy, it’s something else. It seemed in large part fiction, with most of the (invented) dialogue between Bogart and various contemporaries stemming from the dubious assumption that when one Hollywood celebrity encounters another for the first time they unhesitatingly inform each other (sometimes boastfully, sometimes “to let you know where I’m at,” sometimes for no apparent season) about their sex life, sexual preferences, etc.

    The book has Bogart, upon his arrival in Hollywood meeting Spencer Tracy, who takes him to a brothel where he was serviced by Glenda Farrell, who (the author asserts) was then working there under the name “Dawn Night.” This offended me more than anything else in the book. Glenda Farrell was not a starry-eyed young thing who went to Hollywood hoping for a movie career and eking out a living however while waiting for her “big break.” She was a successful Broadway actress recruited who came to L.A. with a WB contract to recreate a role she done on the New York stage, so the likelihood that she was ever a prostitute is slight to nil.

  • Gregg Rickman

    I am very much with Dave on Kenneth Anger. There was a good, vigorous discussion of him previously on this site (the Ishiro Honda thread of August 15 2009). Robert, I wrote on that thread in some detail as to why “Hollywood Babylon” should be treated not as “entertaining nonsense” but as pernicious, for its toxic effect on the reputations of various innocent individuals, and on scholarship (I particularly cited Henry Jenkins’ approving use of Anger’s slanders on Lupe Velez).

  • Vivian

    For me, when you figure out it’s nonsense it’s no longer entertaining anyway.

  • Robert Garrick

    How do we feel about movies like Oliver Stone’s “Nixon,” or Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood,” or Michael Curtiz’s “Night and Day”? Are they obviously meant to be fiction, or do their authors intend for them to be seen as fundamentally true, though with artistic license taken?

    The Anger books do track historical events, but they’re so floridly written that it seemed obvious to me, even as a kid, that they were not scholarship. Are the Anger books more irresponsible than the Oliver Stone film? Anger, of course, is taken quite seriously as an artist. He’s not just some guy trying to make a quick buck. Whatever he’s up to, it’s a little more interesting than what Charles Higham was up to when he wrote that book on Errol Flynn.

    I am indeed troubled by books like the Higham/Flynn, and by books like the interview volumes published by Boze Hadleigh (and there are lots of other examples). Serious scholars do take them seriously; you see them cited in film histories and in biographies. If you want to be troubled by something, be troubled by that. Nobody is citing “Hollywood Babylon.” Maybe those Hadleigh interviews are real, but until we see some evidence, like a recording, I’m going to assume otherwise.

  • Barry Putterman

    I would imagine that as long as public figures continue to sculpt positive images of themselves, a proportion of which is manufactured out of whole cloth; there will always be an equal and opposite force sculpting negative images of them, a proportion of which is manufactured out of whole cloth.

    Some of this stuff rates pretty high on the implausability meter. That Humphrey Bogart met up with Spencer Tracy soon after he arrived in Hollywood makes perfect sense since they both starred in UP THE RIVER. That they then encountered Glenda Farrell in a bordello is a bit hard to swallow (not the bordello part, but the Glenda Farrell part).

    Personally, I am more interested in what Bogart and Tracy might have done on the set of UP THE RIVER than in a bordello. But what the hey, that’s the kind of a hairpin I am.

    Nevertheless, it must be very difficult to authenticate what they might have done at either location. Everybody has their own individual versions of events, and lord knows that implausable things do happen.

    We do have some historians and biographers in the discussion here, and it would interesting to know how they go about seperating the chaff from the wheat.

  • “The Anger books do track historical events”

    Robert, the George Zucco story that Junko refers to above has Zucco escaping from a mental hospital and crying out that Great Cthulhu is after him (I’ve forgotten what the bogus Hitchcock story involved.) Anger made the story up. He said as much. Now, one has to as, what historical events are being tracked, and what events were fiction?

    “Are the Anger books more irresponsible than the Oliver Stone film?”

    Yes. There is an entire Nixon Library for historians to consult, but George Zucco (and Lupe Velez) have no library dedicated to them, no reams of transcripts from witnesses deposed under oath, no army of scholars studying Zucco the man and Zucco the actor the way they study Nixon the man and Nixon the President. In other words, the fabrications about the people in the “Hollywood Babylon” books are not likely to be challenged and may lead to harmful effects on future scholarship as Gregg showed with his citation of Jenkins on Lupe Velez.

    “Anger, of course, is taken quite seriously as an artist. He’s not just some guy trying to make a quick buck.”

    In my opinion the “Hollywood Babylon” books are the equivalent of Orson Welles’ wine commercials, work done by a serious artist who needed to raise money to pay for his art or to pay back taxes or just to pay the rent. The art doesn’t transfer to the funds raising.

  • Robert Garrick

    Well, personally I would like to see a George Zucco Library.

  • David Cohen

    Joe, my characterizaton of MOMMIE DEAREST was largely from the movie. You are correct in writing that that isn’t exactly fair.

  • Brian Dauth

    Interestingly, some of my favorite Wyler films come from about the same time as my favorite Stevens films:

    THE HEIRESS (1949); DETECTIVE STORY (1951) & CARRIE (1952)


    Wyler remains interesting for me through THE DESPERATE HOURS, and there are also the earlier favorites DEAD END and COUNSELLOR-AT-LAW. Maybe it has something to do with making a movie from a pre-existing play.

  • Johan Andreasson

    I’d like to say a couple of good words for BEN-HUR. When I watched it fairly recently on blu-ray, the experience was a bit different from when I last saw it. My memory of the film was that it was very stiff, with long boring stretches between a few spectacular action sequences, but on the second viewing I thought it was a lot better, and actually not all that different from Wyler’s other films. Mostly it’s well directed and well acted scenes with characters that are believable on a normal human scale. It’s not as exciting as a Cecil B. DeMille Biblical epic, which has the double advantage that DeMille at the same time believed passionately in the religious message and was an absolutely shameless showman, but Wyler handles the material skillfully and actually seems to be having some fun with it.

  • Alex

    BEN HUR has always seemed to me a vigorous entertainment, surely about as good as the best DeMille sound spectacles, through the chariot race and the death of Massala, a vapid nothing after that — a initially strong film that falls apart like Mickiewicz’s CLEOPARTA. The chariot race and the death of Massala provide excessively strong and pre-mature climaxes fo0r the rest of the film to bare.

    Indeed, the chariot race exacerbates basic narrative problems with the film that derive from its source. Ben Hur — novel as well as film- is intellectually incoherent — if commercially unpredictable– narrative hybrid of revenge narrative and Christian salvation narrative. Of course, vindictive sinner might within a coherent Christian narrative — be saved –but Ben Hur exploits the revenge appeal to the reader/viewer much more compellingly than the spiritual one. So the basic narrative sags and become inconsistent with what has proceeded in the wake of the death of Massala.

    Not that a film with a soporific last hour is robustly regarded as good, but a fine film that collapses fails in a particular way. Indeed, the film may not fail at all for a particular sort of pious viewer, though I don’t think this set of viewers includes cinephiles.

    Not that the film through the death of Massala has quite achieved closure in terms of the development of protagonist Ben Hur.

    Not that I think BEN HUR is very good even through Massala’s death: Wyler films from “The Shakedown” through Heroes,” through “Carrie” generally are on an altogether higher plateau — better acted, better scripted, better staged and photographed (sharper!) than they are after “Carrie.” Perhaps the transition to color (and spectacle) drew Wyler away from and diluted his former strengths with a tight and t5ightly integrated mastery of ensemble performance, mise-en-scene and cinematography.

    ON THE “The Shakedown” through Heroes,” through “Carrie” stretch:

    David K. and Brian Dauth,

    Have any reasons to share for not liking “The Letter” and “Jezebel

  • Gregg Rickman

    Barry and X – Excellent responses, thanks. I’ve seen at least three of Anger’s films, and of course I recognize his importance. I went back and reread Jenkins’ article ( “Harmful effects on future scholarship” indeed; Jenkins’ essay concludes by incorporating Anger’s grotesque depiction (providence unknown) of Valez’s death as true and correct. But the piece could very well be the same if Jenkins had never heard of Kenneth Anger, in its seamless mixing, as if there is no difference, of rumor, fact, rumored fact, movie scenarios, material from “Tijuana Bibles,” et cetera. When he writes for example of Valez’s “promiscuity” I’m not sure if he’s talking about her image as created by popular culture or her actual behavior (and her actual behavior as verified by what?).

    Henry Jenkins is the Rush Limbaugh of media studies. More generally speaking, his work tracks with what passes as “cultural studies” today, producing papers that weigh equally fact, rumor, movies, fan magazines, internet postings…. It’s an empty box.

  • Barry Putterman

    Gregg, possibly I am misremembering, but isn’t Henry Jenkins the fellow who wrote “What Made Pistachio Nuts?” And weren’t you taking that book rather seriously in a long ago thread?

  • Gregg Rickman

    Barry, yes, as I acknowledged in my 2009 posting on Anger, Jenkins is a respected scholar in several fields, including silent and especially early sound comedy. “Pistachio Nuts” is a major work in the field, and in fact he draws upon his earlier work on “unruly women” in his Velez piece (in some of its better passages, when he’s actually talking about movies as such). That neither excuses or justifies what I’ve objected to in the Velez piece.

    I’ve cited Jenkins here a few times, once in our May 2011 discussion of vaudeville on film, and again in a hilarious thread we had about his website’s paralleling silent comedy chase sequences and video games. He has no less than three areas where he’s specialized — screen comedy, fan reception of cult tv shows, and contemporary media like video games. He has a lively website. He’s big at USC. I don’t know him personally; we did meet and have a pleasant conversation of about 10 minutes approximately two decades ago, which I doubt he’d recall. In short, there’s no personal animus here — although I doubt that I’ll be getting USC’s newly endowed chair in silent film studies.

    This is a bit off topic, but for a good laugh check out the thread Nitrateville had when USC announced that position. They titled it “USC Launches a Professor of Silent Films” and the upshot of the discussion was a “vote for the time honored process where a silent film comedian falls out a window onto the end of a ladder, launching the professor into a window on the other side of the alley.”