Ask a Librarian
Home / Margaret Herrick Library / Special Collections
George Cooper Stevens (1904-1975) was born in Oakland, California, the younger of two boys. His father, John Landers Stevens (1877-1940); and his mother, Georgie Cooper Stevens (circa 1882-1968), were stage actors. In addition, his father ran his own stock company in San Francisco. After completing one year of high school, Stevens worked for his father's company as both actor and stage manager. In 1921 his family moved to Los Angeles to look for work in the movies. Stevens found jobs as an extra and a stuntman, then was hired as an assistant cameraman to Floyd Jackman on "Heroes of the Street" (1922). He subsequently found work as an assistant on "Blazing Arrows" (1922) and "The Destroying Angel" (1923) and decided to become a full-time cameraman. By 1924 he was working for Hal Roach studios, where he assisted on "The King of Wild Horses" (1924) and co-shot such features as "The Battling Orioles" (1924) and "The Devil Horse" (1926). Roach then gave Stevens the opportunity to shoot comedy shorts, and the young cameraman worked on Charley Chase films, the "Our Gang" series, and most notably, Laurel and Hardy shorts. He photographed more than 20 Laurel and Hardy films, including "Two Tars" (1928) and "Big Business" (1929). He also helped write gags for many of these shorts. After directing the short "Ladies Last" (1930), Stevens became a full-time director for Roach. The studio terminated his contract in November 1931, and Stevens went to Universal, where he directed "Boys Will Be Boys" (1932) and "Should Crooners Marry" (1933), as well as his first feature, "The Cohens and Kellys in Trouble" (1933). In May 1933 he signed a contract with RKO to direct shorts and a feature.
Stevens became one of RKO's most versatile directors, specializing first in comedies and then in musicals, adventures, and dramas. He had a critical hit with "Alice Adams" (1935); directed the Astaire-Rogers film "Swing Time" (1936); and helmed "Gunga Din" (1939), one of RKO's biggest hits ever. Following contract problems with RKO in early 1939, Stevens decided to freelance. He signed a one-year deal with Columbia in May 1940 and did "Penny Serenade" (1941), "The Talk of the Town" (1942), and "The More the Merrier" (1943). He also directed at MGM after Katharine Hepburn requested his services for "Woman of the Year" (1942).
Stevens joined the U.S. Army in February 1943 and served as a major in the Signal Corps. He first covered combat in the North Africa campaign and then was stationed in England, where he shot footage of the plans being made for the D-Day invasion, which he covered from the deck of the HMS Belfast. He was then put in charge of the Special Coverage Motion Picture Unit, which landed in Europe after the invasion and covered, among other events, the liberation of Paris, the freeing of prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp, the taking of Hitler's Berchtesgaden headquarters, and the meeting of American and Russian forces at the Elbe River.
Having emerged from the war with a changed outlook and seeking the freedom to make films on topics he cared about, Stevens joined Frank Capra, William Wyler, and Samuel J. Briskin in establishing Liberty Films. After suffering financial problems, the partners (with Stevens dissenting) sold the company to Paramount Pictures in 1947. His move to Paramount turned out to be no more satisfying than his last year at RKO, with protracted disputes over story material. Eventually, Paramount agreed to let Stevens direct the film adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy." The result, "A Place in the Sun" (1951), was a critical and commercial success, and Stevens received his first Academy Award. His contract with Paramount was mutually terminated in March 1951, effective after the completion of "Shane." A free agent, Stevens was offered the chance to direct an epic about America's racial problems and fascination with wealth. "Giant" (1956) took almost three years to make and was one of his biggest hits. It earned him his second Academy Award.
In 1957, while working on "The Diary of Anne Frank" (1959), Stevens entered into contract negotiations to turn "The Greatest Story Ever Told" into a film. He had just begun preproduction for that film when, in September 1961, Fox backed out and turned ownership of the property over to Stevens. In 1962 he joined forces with United Artists and, in 1965, after many years of struggle, finally realized his dream of making the film.
After the release of "The Greatest Story Ever Told," Stevens turned his attention to other matters. In 1965 he filed suit against NBC and Paramount to stop the airing of "A Place in the Sun" on television with commercials. Attempting to establish a director's right to see his work shown in its original form, Stevens fought for the next year and a half for the benefit of all artists. In May 1967 a judge decided partly in Stevens's favor by ruling that Paramount could not cut the film. However, the judge allowed the network to insert commercials throughout the film.
Once his struggle with the television networks ended, Stevens was able to turn his attention back to filmmaking. His final picture was "The Only Game in Town" (1970). He continued to work on various projects until his sudden death from a heart attack on March 8, 1975. Stevens was a life member of the Academy and served on the Academy Board of Governors from December 1941 to October 1943, May 1948 to May 1950, and May 1952 to May 1962 (fourth vice president, 1941-1942; second vice president, 1942-1943), and was president, 1958-1959. The Academy presented Stevens with the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for 1953.
The George Stevens papers span the years 1925-1976 (bulk 1940s-1960s) and encompass 228 linear feet. The collection contains production files, story files, subject and personal files, and scrapbooks. The production files contain material on more than 100 features and short films. Virtually every feature directed by Stevens is represented, as are most of the short films he photographed. The 17-odd features range from "The Cohens and Kellys in Trouble" to "The Only Game in Town." There are voluminous script and production files for "The Diary of Anne Frank" (1959), "Giant" (1956), "A Place in the Sun" (1951), and "Shane." In addition to numerous script drafts, these files often contain in-depth coverage of accounting, casting, correspondence, locations, previews, production, publicity, and research. The nearly 2,000 files for "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965) document that production and include more than 100 files relating to script and story development. The files of executive producer Frank Davis account for more than 300 files. Less voluminous files exist for the 1930 RKO features, such as "Alice Adams" and "Gunga Din." More material exists for the 1940s features from "Penny Serenade" to "I Remember Mama." More than 100 short films are represented by script or continuity material. These include films photographed by Stevens in the late 1920s and early 1930s for Pathé, MGM, Universal, and RKO. Of particular interest is the screenplay for "Grin and Bear It" (1933), co-scripted by Stevens. The story files contain a variety of material, including original stories, screenplays, play scripts, synopses, summaries, story ideas, lists of stories, reviews, clippings, correspondence, and memos. The subject and personal files contain biographical material, contracts, correspondence, daily record books, financial records, material on film festivals, and real estate documents. Of interest is a small amount of material on Carl Sandburg collected by Stevens. Also included are files on organizations to which Stevens belonged, among them the Academy, American Film Institute, Motion Picture Industry Council, National Council on the Arts, and Screen Directors Guild. More than two dozen scrapbooks document Stevens's films and career.
Gift of George Stevens Jr., 1980-2006.