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M.J. Daugherty Written by M.J. Daugherty
Nov. 14, 2005 | 9:23 PM

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by M.J. Daugherty

For every mega-star director like Hitchcock or Spielberg, there are countless other equally gifted directors who never get the credit their work deserves.  This month, I?ve chosen to feature one of these overlooked talents, Robert Stevenson.  You probably won?t see his name in the annals of film history, despite the fact that he was nominated for an Academy Award, was the highest paid director in Hollywood at the peak of his success, and churned out a remarkable run of hits that continue to earn money to this day.  Unfortunately, because they were not ?important? films, their real importance is often dismissed.

Unless you were raised in a cave, you have probably seen at least one of Robert Stevenson?s movies.  In fact, if you?re like me, you?ve seen most of them, and can even quote more than one line of dialogue.  As the director behind most of Disney?s live action hits of the 1960s and 70s, his movies influenced the cultural lexicon of several generations.  If you don?t believe me, go ask any child what ?supercalifragilistic? means.  Mary Poppins, the film that earned Stevenson an Academy Award nomination, continues to reach new audiences over forty years after its original release.  That, my friends, is staying power. 

Mary Poppins, like many of Stevenson?s films, has withstood the test of time because reaches audiences on several different levels at once.  Not many directors have the ability to combine tongue-in-cheek humor, heartfelt drama and social commentary into a coherent movie, but Robert Stevenson managed to do it time and time again.  Perhaps the most beautiful aspect of his directing, however, was his respect for straightforward storytelling.  His style was nearly invisible, but there is no mistaking it.  His work was marked by a distinct sense of balance.  Even the special effects sections are done so well that they never overwhelm the rest of the film.  Those who knew Stevenson often described him as ?unassuming,? and the same word can be applied to his directing style.  Unfortunately, this same quality meant that Stevenson?s work was taken for granted even during his own lifetime.

Stevenson began his career in England at the start of the sound era, when he became interested in films as a result of his studies in psychology at Cambridge.  By the end of the ?30s, he had directed a string of popular films, including the Boris Karloff ?mad scientist? movie The Man Who Changed His Mind, and the first feature adaptation of King Solomon?s Mines starring Paul Robeson.  When David O. Selznick brought Stevenson to America in 1939 for a three picture deal, it should have been his ticket to international success, but fate (or Hollywood) had other plans.  At the same time, Selznick had also signed another young British director named Alfred Hitchcock.  Selznick?s first project for Hitchcock was Rebecca (1940), which went on to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, and firmly set its director on the road to cinematic greatness.  Selznick?s first project for Robert Stevenson was?nothing.  For some reason, Selznick didn?t assign him to a picture for another five years, during which time Stevenson found work on several small productions to keep busy.   

Selznick finally got around to honoring Stevenson?s contract in 1944, with a Rebecca inspired adaptation of Jane Eyre starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine.  Again, Stevenson stood on the brink of success, and again he ended up burned by Hollywood politics.  As a stipulation of his contract, Orson Welles agreed to star only if he received co-producer credit, and by all accounts, he used that power to take over the production.  Although the movie was a moderate success, it wasn?t the smash hit that Selznick had hoped for, and Robert Stevenson found himself relegated to ?B movies? for the next decade. 

Fortunately, that?s not where the story ends.  In the mid-1950s, Robert Stevenson?s career got a fresh start from the new medium of television, which had a need for talented directors.  Ironically, it was Alfred Hitchcock who provided the first boost to his career, hiring Stevenson to direct seven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  In 1957, Stevenson came to the attention of another powerful visionary, Walt Disney, who put him to work directing an episode of Zorro.  Disney liked what he saw, and gave Stevenson a chance to prove himself further with the high profile movie for television, Johnny Tremain.  Although the project went hugely over budget, audiences ate it up, and Stevenson became Disney?s favorite director.   

Stevenson stayed with Disney?s studio for the next twenty years, despite many offers from other companies.  Not only was he loyal, he had seen enough of the old studio system to know a good thing when he saw it.  Walt Disney treated Stevenson with respect, paid him well, and kept him busy as part of his team of top talents, often pairing him with writers Don DaGradi and Bill Walsh.  His credits during this period read like a run down of classic Disney movies: Old Yeller, Darby O?Gill and the Little People (one of my personal favorites, which features a lovely singing performance by a young Sean Connery), The Absent Minded Professor, Mary Poppins, That Darn Cat, The Love Bug, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, to name only a few. 

However, all good things must eventually come to an end, and after Walt Disney?s death in 1965, the studio seemed to lose its direction, and more than a little of its magic.  Bedknobs and Broomsticks was altered dramatically before its release to focus the story more on the children (an incredible fully restored version correcting this mistake can be found on the 30th Anniversary DVD, which I highly recommend checking out).  Recognizing that the face of the film industry had changed significantly, Stevenson retired from directing in 1976, after making his last picture for Disney, a forgettable sequel to the Shaggy Dog.  Fortunately, he left behind a rich legacy of solid movie making just waiting to be rediscovered.

If you haven?t watched one of Robert Stevenson?s movies since you were a kid, it?s high time you paid them another visit.  I guarantee you?ll be shocked by how much you missed the first time.  Don?t be fooled by the cheeky humor and generally optimistic outlook on life.  Robert Stevenson?s movies dealt with very grown-up issues including war, class struggle, poverty, and dysfunctional family relationships, and when he chose to, he could break even the most cynical of hearts.  It is straightforward storytelling marked by intelligence, soul, and a belief that real magic comes not from witches, leprechauns or flying nannies, but from our own capacity to love one another.  Frankly, that?s a lesson a lot of grown-ups could stand to learn too. 

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