George Stevens Jr. — son of the legendary Hollywood director and himself an award-winning writer-producer-director who founded the American Film Institute — is perhaps most proud of a small documentary that took an act of Congress to release and hasn’t been seen for decades.
“The U.S. Information Agency was charged with telling America’s story abroad,” recalls Stevens, who a half-century ago worked for USIA with famed newsman Edward R. Murrow during President John F. Kennedy’s administration.
“It was a landmark of my life working for Ed Murrow and John Kennedy during those thousand days,” says Stevens, who since the 1970s has co-produced the Kennedy Center Honors. “President Kennedy inspired one to aim high and take risks. When you succeeded, and he recognized your efforts, it was thrilling.”
Stevens’ job documenting the JFK years created a permanent record of the events that began Nov. 22, 1963, the day Kennedy was slain in Dallas.
High-quality 35mm color footage of the Kennedy administration and assassination became the basis for John F. Kennedy: Years of Lightning, Day of Drums, a 90-minute documentary Stevens produced in 1964. But there was a major hitch: To avoid the appearance of creating political propaganda, USIA footage could not by law be viewed domestically.
“USIA films were prohibited from being screened in the United States so no administration could favor itself before the American people,” Stevens says.
A special act of Congress allowed the film to be released and it had a brief theatrical run in 1966. About 15 years ago, it appeared one time on PBS. To commemorate this week’s 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, Warner Home Video has released the film on DVD ($12).
Now 82, Stevens has had a celebrated career, including dozens of Emmy nominations and wins, and last year an honorary lifetime achievement Oscar.
For decades, he has guarded the legacy of his father, George Stevens, director of 1950s movie classics including A Place in the Sun starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift (1951), Shane with Alan Ladd (1953) and Giant co-starring Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean (1956).
“I call it my filial piety role watching out for my father’s films,” says Stevens, whose dad began as Laurel & Hardy’s cameraman in the 1920s. “He was a storyteller. He wanted to control every aspect, take responsibility for every aspect of his films.”
“He learned from Stan Laurel that comedy can be graceful and human,” Stevens says. “He never cottoned to the term ‘screwball comedy.’ He didn’t like doing the screwy stuff. He thought comedy came out from human characters.”
Warner this month released Giant on Blu-ray, along with Dean’s two other films, East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause.
“Jimmy Dean came on in East of Eden and was quickly anointed as the most promising actor of his time,” recalls Stevens, who worked as a production assistant on Giant.
The elder Stevens won two Oscars, one each for Giant and A Place in the Sun, and was nominated for Shane and Diary of Anne Frank (1959).
“The most important thing I learned from him was respect for the audience. He didn’t want to talk down to the audience,” Stevens says. “We went to the Academy Awards the year of A Place in the Sun. Coming home, the Oscar was on the seat between us. He thought I was a little too excited. He said, ‘You know, we’ll have a better idea what kind of film this is in 20 or 25 years.’ He meant the test of time.”