seen @ Greater Astoria Historical Society, Astoria, Queens NY
I've written about a number of George Stevens movies here, but I haven't talked much about the man himself. Thanks to Mark Harris' book Five Came Back, we know Stevens was one of several prominent Hollywood directors who documented World War 2.
He chose to go to war. He enlisted after completing The More The Merrier in 1943 and considered himself retired from film at 38. The things he saw in battle changed him profoundly. His post-war films, as a result, were more somber and reflectful than his fluffier pre-war work. To quote Harris in Five:
...Stevens hoped, more than anything, to find a project that reflected his changed understanding of the world. "Our films should tell the truth and not pat us on the back," he said that year . Otherwise, he asked, "isn't there the slight chance that we might be revealing America as it is not? Would that be encouraging us in our delusions about ourselves?"
He had already begun to take a step in that direction in 1942 when he made The Talk of the Town. Cary Grant is a political activist framed for arson. During his trial, he escapes and hides out at childhood pal Jean Arthur's place, but she's renting it out for the summer to law professor Ronald Colman. Eventually, Grant and Arthur conspire to get Colman involved in Grant's case to clear his name, as well as to learn more about the world beyond his law books.
There's a very Capraesque quality to the story, in which themes of the dangers of demagoguery and mob justice abound in what's a romantic comedy at heart. Stevens and Capra were colleagues at Columbia, so perhaps that's unsurprising.
Stevens was notorious for his taciturn nature on the set, yet he also drove his actors to plumb the depths of their talent. A quote from him in Five sums it up: "I have often humbled actors, creating stories that will bring a kind of humility out of them, rather than letting them come forth on the screen in their established aura." That explains Grant's Oscar-nominated performance in Penny Serenade. In Talk, he's cast again in an unexpected role, that of a political agitator, verbally jousting with Colman at first before befriending him. Arthur is once again at her lovable, scatterbrained best, but over a decade later, Stevens would get a gentle, touching dramatic performance out of her in Shane.
I saw Talk with Sandi last Saturday at the Greater Astoria Historical Society, an organization devoted to chronicling and preserving the long history of Astoria and the surrounding neighborhoods. They also show old movies from time to time. Their offices include a gallery filled with photos, assorted memorabilia and artifacts from the area. Astoria was settled in 1659, so there's plenty of history to explore. I know the Society mostly through my friend Rich, who's a staff member. He was there briefly. We talked for a bit. I've gone on guided tours led by him through parts of Astoria.
Lately, Sandi has been paying attention to the treatment of servants in old Hollywood movies. Rex Ingram, the head demon in Cabin in the Sky, plays Colman's valet, whom Colman almost treats as an equal, asking him advice on women and such. Ingram gets strangely emotional when, at one point, Colman shaves his beard, which Grant and Arthur mock as a sign of fuddy-duddy-ness and intellectual intransigence. Stevens gives Ingram a long close-up, in fact. Sandi was unsure whether or not his tears were meant as comedy. Was he sad or happy for Colman? I was unsure myself. I would've guessed it was meant as humor, but it didn't seem to play that way. Odd moment.
Afterwards, we met and had coffee with the only other person to attend the screening (who stayed, anyway), an old Romanian woman named Cleopatra, if you can believe that. She was nice. She's into fitness. She practices yoga and tai chi. I went back with Sandi to her place, we had dinner and watched Doctor Who.