During World War Two: George Stevens

christmas 1944 george stevens bastogne
World War II In Color

For the next five months, we’re going to do a series within a series, because one big aspect of Hollywood’s response to the Second World War is all the major and not so major industry professionals who went into uniform. Four of Hollywood’s top directors served in the Army and one in the Navy, and each one of them came back changed forever. Since their stories are so significant to the war and Hollywood, each of them will get his own space. Here we go…

Prior to his war service, George Stevens was an adventurous director, but he was also a bit of a troll, and an intelligently naïve one at that. Later in his life he said of 1939’s Gunga Din, for instance, a film that took considerable liberties with combat experience, “Another year, and I would have been too smart to do it.”

The Scott Rollins Film And TV Trivia Blog

Stevens was born in Oakland, California on December 18, 1904 and started young in showbusiness, making his acting debut on the stage at the age of five. By the time he was a teenager he was a stage manager, and when he came to Hollywood he started out as a cinematographer for Hal Roach Studios, earning his first film credit in 1923 for a short called Roughest Africa. He would also shoot Harry Langdon comedies, low-budget westerns and several Our Gang shorts.

To say that Stevens learned quickly and showed a lot of promise is an understatement. Among other things, he’s credited with pioneering the use of panchromatic film instead of orthochromatic so blue eyes would no longer show up white. Stan Laurel was the first star to benefit from this new innovation.

Stan Laurel in Steven’s first film credit, Roughest Africa. (Lord Heath)

Stevens’s directorial debut was the 1930 short, Ladies Last, about a group of frat boys who boycott the sorority formal because they don’t want to wear tuxes. The girls don’t get mad. They get even. The film might be a little crude-looking compared to Stevens’s later work, but either way it’s a beautiful twenty minutes of trolling and schtick (Watch the film here).

One of Stevens’s first big breakthrough features is 1935’s Alice Adams with Katharine Hepburn, which is a fine piece of work, but where he really seemed to hit his stride was in the 1936 Fred and Ginger gem, Swing TimeThat movie is a fun, frothy delight that hit the spot in the Depression-weary late thirties, with numbers that were somehow both simple and magical. Stevens looked on movies as adventures, which was why he didn’t stick to one style early in his career, and each type gave him a new experience.


This took on added meaning when America entered the Second World War. Stevens made one of the first dedicated wartime films, Woman of the Yearwhich not only featured a highly intelligent woman of the world and the sports columnist who helps bring her down to earth, but was the first movie Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy made together.

Stevens made his feelings about the war clear from one of the first scenes of the movie, in which Spencer Tracy’s character, Sam Craig, hears Katharine Hepburn as Tess Harding talking about abolishing baseball and he strongly disagrees: “We’re concerned with what we like to call our American way of life. Baseball and the things it represents are part of that way of life. What’s the sense of abolishing the thing you’re trying to protect?”


At first Stevens hesitated about how he would contribute to the war effort because he was almost forty and too old to be drafted or to enlist, but he joined the Signal Corps and set off for overseas, where, among other assignments, Stevens filmed the Normandy Invasion and the Battle of the Bulge. The last film he made before shipping out was The More the Merrier, which is not only a bitingly funny commentary on the quirks and foibles of wartime overcrowding, but included quite a bit of envelope-pushing, including a steamy love scene and one shot of Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea’s characters seemingly lying in a double bed, a big no-no according to the Hayes Office.

Stevens, whose work chronicling the war was always in earnest (and in the case of the Normandy landing, the only color footage in existence), has the distinction of filming the Dachau concentration camp when it was liberated by the Americans. He knew from the beginning that the footage wasn’t just to make a case against the Nazis, but to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt the large-scale horror of the Holocaust.


Everything had to be documented in heartbreaking detail. Stevens’s crew were so overcome by what they saw that they put down their equipment and started nursing the prisoners themselves while Stevens kept filming. His experience as a cinematographer enabled him to show up the grisly reality of the camp as much as possible, and he got as physically close to everything as he could.

When Stevens came back to Hollywood, he wasn’t the naïve troll of the pre-war days. Comedies gave way to dramas, and it’s no accident that his first film after returning is the quiet and comforting I Remember Mama, starring Irene Dunne and Philip Dorne, about a Norwegian American family living in San Francisco. It must have felt like a warm blanket for Stevens, as many of the scenes took place around the dining room table, where Irene Dunne sat in her shawl and apron, looking ready to give a hug to anyone who needed it.

Stevens with Otto Frank and Millie Perkins on the set of The Diary of Anne Frank.

Stevens was haunted by his experiences at Dachau. While in pre-production for The Diary of Anne Frank he returned to the camp and walked through it, remembering that time. Only once did he try to watch the footage he took of the camp, but could only make it through about a minute of it before shutting it off and returning it to the vault and never touching it again.

The Fifth So Bad It’s Good Blogathon is coming up on Friday. Thanks for reading, all…

Swing Time (DVD and Blu-ray), Woman of the Year (DVD and Blu-ray), The More the Merrier (DVD), I Remember Mama (DVD), and The Diary of Anne Frank (DVD and Blu-ray) are available to own from Amazon.

~Purchases made via Amazon Affiliate links found on this site help support Taking Up Room at no extra cost to you.~

If you’re enjoying what you see on Taking Up Room, please look for additional content on Substack, where you’ll find both free and subscriber-only articles. I publish every Wednesday and Saturday.


Five Came Back. Directed by Laurent Bouzereau. Narrated by Meryl Streep. Netflix, 2017.

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