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