George Stevens Jr. and printing the legend:

Review of George Stevens Jr., My Place in the Sun: Life in the Golden Age of Hollywood and Washington, Lexington: University of Kentucky 2022

Kevin Brianton, Senior Adjunct Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

According to Hollywood legend, in 1950, veteran ultraconservative director Cecil B. DeMille fought to oust Joseph Mankiewicz as head of the Screen Directors Guild over Mankiewicz’s unwillingness to impose a mandatory anti-communist loyalty oath for members. The dispute that split the guild came to climax at a meeting in October 1950, at the height of the blacklist’s reign of terror in Hollywood. After hours of contentious debate, George Stevens and then John Fordsupposedly stepped forward and condemned DeMille, leading to his fall from power.

In 2016, I wrote Hollywood Divided: The Screen Directors Guild Meeting and The Impact of the Blacklist, which disputed a great deal of the conventional wisdom about the meeting.[1]It built on the work of Robert Birchard that the story of the meeting was inaccurate and overstated. Most of the errors were derived from a series of inaccurate interviews by one of the participants, Joseph Mankiewicz. In Mankiewicz’s account, Ford is praised as the destroyer of DeMille with his famous speech that began: “My name is John Ford. I make westerns.” The myth has defined the reputations of Ford, DeMille, and Mankiewicz.

George Stevens Jr. used one of the Mankiewicz interviews for his excellent documentary on his father, George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey. The documentary has been influential, and many historians have repeated its claims and quoted from it. Mankiewicz praises George Stevens as a fine man who took on DeMille. The account accuses DeMille of misdeeds, yet most of the interview’s content is highly debatable. The errors became evident after a court stenographer’s transcript of the meeting surfaced, which demolished most of Mankiewicz’s claims.

George Stevens Jr. recently returned to his father’s role in his memoir My Place in the Sun, published by the University of Kentucky Press. The account provides an insight into recent American history. Overall, the book is an entertaining recollection of growing up in the shadow of a tremendous film director and looks at Stevens Jr.’s own fascinating life in film, politics, and media. George Stevens Jr. has had an intriguing life, and almost every page has something of interest.

Concerning the meeting, the book repeats a raft of simple errors and exaggerations that have created one of Hollywood’s most enduring legends. In this case, Stevens made a conscious decision to recite the popular version. He writes: ‘Mankiewicz’s heroic story about John Ford has been repeated through the decades, but new research and writing tell a different story. Ford’s comments, were, in fact, more evenhanded toward DeMille, and he wrote to him the next day saying he was “a great gentleman.” But Ford made a film called The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with the newspaper editor’s famous line, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” So, I am printing the legend, with this alert to the reader.’

Liberty Valance being shot: George Stevens Jr uses a line from the film: The Man who Shot Liberty Valance to justify printing the legend. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

At least George Stevens Jr. is honest that his version of events may not be entirely accurate, and he has even warned the readers, but the approach leads to a flawed segment of the book. Stevens Jr.’s account is far more valuable when he does research, such as when he quotes a letter from DeMille to Stevens after the Academy gave the Irving Thalberg Award to DeMille in 1952. DeMille thanked Stevens for his support in gaining the award. George Stevens was his political opponent, but it did not extend into personal animosity on either side. The book would have been more substantial if Stevens Jr. had followed this path more closely. Stevens Jr. could have added that his father and John Ford almost certainly had a hand in Cecil B. DeMille winning the inaugural Screen Directors Guild D. W. Griffith Lifetime Achievement Award in 1952. This move was essentially a peace offering to calm residual tensions within the guild. Both John Ford and George Stevens would win the award in later years. The letter also shows that DeMille was also a courteous man, at least in his correspondence, when he thanked Stevens. More of this type of material would have built up a better book.

The fundamental problem with George Stevens Jr.’s approach is that ‘printing the legend’ actually does a disservice to his father. If anyone is to be singled out for having defeated DeMille at the SDG meeting, it should be George Stevens. Stevens was the hero of the meeting, and his integrity, honesty, and courage shine through the entire sad episode. It was Stevens who spent the week researching the background of the recall. Stevens directly confronted DeMille and accused him of undemocratic maneuvers in back rooms. Mankiewicz’s recall had been defeated before the meeting was called to order, but Stevens’ first speech, resigning from the Guild, opened the door for others to demand DeMille’s resignation. Ford had resisted this move, but it was Stevens’ second speech with its “little man” theme, arguing for a return to directors’ business that ended any hopes for DeMille’s survival. Stevens tore DeMille apart at the SDG meeting, not Ford. It is not surprising that Stevens got into his car after the meeting and drove deep into the night in triumph. In sharp contrast, Ford wrote a letter of condolence to DeMille on the day after the meeting. The myth gives undue credit to Ford and neglects the pivotal role of Stevens.

Stevens Jr. is entitled to restate the Hollywood legend. Yet the quote from a Ford film only provides a type of cover for this account. While John Ford may have directed a film with the line, “print the legend,” Ford never printed the legend in his films. Any viewer of the film knows exactly which man shot Liberty Valance.


[1] Kevin Brianton, Hollywood Divided: The 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting and the Impact of the Blacklist. United States: University Press of Kentucky, 2016.

The sad predictions of The Last Hurrah (1958)

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

Skeffington begins his last campaign in John Ford’s The Last Hurrah.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The recent United States election has certainly been a memorable one. As the dust settles, it is an absolute certainty that films and TV shows will be produced on the Presidency of Donald Trump – if they are not already in production. Whatever people think of Trump, it is undeniable that he generates interest in whatever he does – and will continue to do so for many years. The TV network Showtime has already shown The Comey Rule depicting the relationship between Trump and FBI director Comey. Based on Comey’s book A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, it focusses on their relationship, leading to his sacking by Trump. The political drama stars Jeff Daniels as Comey and Brendan Gleeson as President Donald Trump. Trump has such an over-the-top persona that actors will undoubtedly be queuing to do their interpretation of him. Brendan Gleeson has had the first serious crack, but the mini-series highlighted that political drama done well could be engaging and popular. [1]

In the TV series, the FBI is depicted as an organisation that has to constantly balance out political pressure, while investigating crimes. Founding FBI director J. Edgar Hoover would barely recognise what his successors at the FBI were even doing. Hoover highlighted the Bureau’s role in catching gangsters or identifying communists. The focus was on crime and treason. In the social media age, the FBI director’s working life seems consumed with emails from politicians’ computers, along with the antics of Russian social media trolls. As well as dealing with tweets from the President, the media dominates all communication, and Comey is even advised that he had been sacked by television.

The days of the FBI hunting criminals such as Dillinger are clearly over in The Comey Rule.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

While not predicting the future of media and politics, one film that certainly made some prescient observations about American politics was The Last Hurrah (1958). The film was adapted from the 1956 novel of the same name by Edwin O’Connor. The prestigious director John Ford and the actor Spencer Tracy joined forces to depict a long-term Irish-American mayor preparing for a final election campaign. Mayor Frank Skeffington and his campaign are followed by his nephew and journalist, Adam Caulfield, who covers American politics at close range.

Skeffington – a mayor of a New England city which appears to be Boston – delivers one of the novel’s finest political speeches when talking to his nephew about politics, saying it is the greatest spectator sport in the United States. Everyone knows ‘who is up and who is down’, according to Skeffington. He wants to run one more campaign the old-fashioned way, knowing his time is up, as Skeffington realises that radio and television were becoming the dominant force, reducing politics to a televised sport.[2]

The election contains a scathing vision of American politics with a dolt of a candidate opposing Skeffington. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times would call him “a farcical nitwit.” [3] Backed by the town’s moneyed interests, the only advantage he seems to have over Skeffington is the use of new technology, which in 1958 was television. The book was written after Democratic Presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson’s disastrous drive to solicit votes through speeches, where the more media-savvy President Dwight Eisenhower used advertising and television to promote his political profile.  Eisenhower slaughtered Stevenson in both the 1952 and 1956 campaigns. The Democrats would take note of the lessons of campaigning against Eisenhower, and use them to full effect when they worked for the future President John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election campaign.

While a supporter of Kennedy, John Ford was not a fan of television politics at which JFK would prove to be a superb practitioner. Ford was concerned with the rise of media politicians, and he could see that the days of Skeffington were numbered with their low-level corruption, but with a focus on distributing goods to their lower-income neighborhoods. The new politicians had a commitment to nothing. The film highlights the impact that television would make on American politics for the next 60 years. In more recent times, television has been supplanted largely by social media, of which US President Donald Trump has shown some mastery. In the 1950s, Adlai Stevenson could still attempt to campaign with beautifully written speeches.[4] Ford would never have imagined that a reality TV star could use the medium for a political base. It is inconceivable that Ford could not even envisage reality TV, but he understood that image was now as important as substance in the 1950s.

Ford’s film is lamenting for a political past where politicians were elected on character and policies. The warnings from 1958 in O’Connor’s novel and Ford’s film are clear for all to see. Ford seemed more comfortable with the political speeches of Abraham Lincoln, as shown by his sentimental depiction of his political campaigns in Young Mr Lincoln (1939). Lincoln commands through the use of language, logic, and force of personality. In Lincoln’s time, two hour speeches were recorded in full in newspapers and people rode or walked miles to hear them. Lincoln would later develop the precursor to the grab with the Gettysburg address, which was a ridiculously short speech by the standards of the time. Today, neither side would even bother with a speech of any length in the age of Twitter. Our society has election campaigns with all image and no substance, having reached the bottom of the slippery slide identified by O’Connor in 1956.

Ford seemed more comfortable with the political speeches of Abraham Lincoln, as shown by his sentimental depiction in Young Mr Lincoln, who commands through simple persuasion, logic, and force of personality – and the occasional use of his fists.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The film also has one remote link back to Trump. At the end of the film and the book, Skeffington lies dying, having lost the campaign, and one of his detractors says if he were alive, he would regret what he did in his political life. The comatose figure comes back to life and says: “Like hell, I would.” I cannot imagine Donald Trump saying anything else much different in similar circumstances. Despite the massive impact of television and social media, over the preceding seven decades, it seems politicians do not change all that much.


[1] Rick Porter, ‘The Comey Rule’ Draws Solid Initial Ratings for Showtime,’ Hollywood Reporter, 30 September 2020.

[2] The clip from The Last Hurrah (1958) can be seen at:

https://www.tcm.com/video/480786/last-hurrah-the-1958-spectator-sport

[3] Bosley Crowther, “Spencer Tracy in “The Last Hurrah;” Portrays Skeffington, John Ford directs,” The New York Times, 24 October 1958, accessed at https://www.nytimes.com/1958/10/24/archives/spencer-tracy-in-the-last-hurrah-portrays-skeffington-john-ford.html on 12 November 2020.

[4] Jill Lepore,  If Then: How One Data Company Invented the Future, London: John Murray, 2020 has an excellent discussion of the election and the links between advertising and politics.