- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 16, 2003

“Shane” seems to have been popular from the moment it was previewed in 1953. It was an especially intoxicating movie experience if you happened to be close in age to the hero-worshipping juvenile hero, Joey Starrett, portrayed by 9-year-old Brandon de Wilde. Filmed in the summer of 1951, the movie exploited awesomely effective locations in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park.

Joey got two heroes in one memorably generous package: his stalwart homesteader dad, Joe, played by Van Heflin, and the mysterious gunfighter Shane, played by Alan Ladd, who emerges from the majestic landscape to protect the Starretts and their friends from intimidation. The villains were also impressive: despotic cattlemen of late-1880s vintage, Rufe and Morgan Ryker (Emile Meyer and John Dierkes), who become desperate enough to resort to an eerie hired gun, Jack Wilson, the debut film role for Jack Palance.

Painstaking on the set, director George Stevens tended to be even more painstaking in the editing room, so he devoted all of 1952 and part of the next year to polishing “Shane.” Paramount executives never expected the movie to emerge as either a classic or a box-office bonanza. In the commentary track for the DVD edition of the movie, Ivan Moffat, the associate producer, recalls that Paramount thought of Alan Ladd as a reliable draw up to a gross of about $2.6 million, nothing to sneeze at in the early 1950s but still second-tier. “Shane” elevated that by a factor of five or so and brought Academy Award prestige in its wake. Nominated in five categories, including best picture, direction and screenplay, it took a richly deserved prize for best color cinematography, presented to Loyal Griggs.

Mr. Moffat, now the oldest living survivor from the cast and crew of “Shane,” is joined in DVD reminiscence by the director’s son, George Stevens Jr., who had the jack-of-all-errands title of “company clerk” during the movie’s production. In the summer of 1951, he was between high school graduation and the start of his freshman year at Occidental College in Los Angeles. A Washington resident for the past 40 years, Mr. Stevens supervised film production at the bygone United States Information Agency from 1962 to 1967 and then became the first director of the American Film Institute, serving from 1967 to 1979.

Earlier this week, while preparing to introduce a one-week 50th anniversary revival of “Shane” at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre, Mr. Stevens recalled a classic in the making.

Mr. Stevens had reason to believe that he brought the material, a slim Western novel by Jack Schaefer, to his father’s attention. While still in high school, he had devoted a summer to being a reader. His first assignment was to “break down,” or prepare a summary of the characters and the plot of, Theodore Dreiser’s massive “An American Tragedy” for the updated version that George Stevens directed with Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters, retitled “A Place in the Sun” (1951).

During the same period, he was canvassing material sent by Paramount for George Stevens’ consideration. One of those items was “Shane,” which aroused the younger man’s immediate enthusiasm. “I went over to tell him about it right away,” Mr. Stevens says. “He and my mother had divorced, but we all lived in the same seven-unit apartment building. The apartments were kind of like town houses. He asked me to summarize the book for him, so I did, pacing around his bedroom as I talked. More recently I discovered that he was probably aware of the book before that. He didn’t let on. I got to vent all my enthusiasm, and I guess he had no intention of discouraging that. It was a wonderful fatherhood gesture, really. As far as I knew, I was the one who had discovered ‘Shane’ for him.”

Mr. Stevens was also along for the earliest scouting trips to Wyoming. “A lot of impressions flooded back when I was in Jackson Hole about five years ago,” he says. “There are very few remnants of the sets we constructed. A little bit of one homesteader cabin. But since it’s national park land, the sites haven’t been developed. It takes a little looking and driving around, but you can find them. I’m not aware that there’s an organized tour of any kind. Originally, we had scouted the area in a caravan of station wagons. No SUVs at that time. My father, the assistant director and the production designer were the key explorers. After a while all the scenery began to look the same to me, but my father was looking for things that would allow him to establish a very specific geography for the film.”

A pivotal location was a hillside that became the site of a homesteaders’ cemetery. Below it, a valley looked suitable for the stark Western town the filmmaker had in mind, with only a handful of buildings, dwarfed by the Grand Teton range behind them. In every scene in which the mountains were meant to be prominent, they were shot with telephoto lenses, which had the optical effect of enhancing their mass and proximity. On another nearby hill, the company planted a trio of trees that became a kind of distant portal to the town.

According to Mr. Stevens, his father was also keen on the visual novelty of a bare-bones town with stores on only one side of the street. “As a kid, at 17,” he explains, “my father cut his teeth as an assistant to a wonderful silent cameraman named Fred Jackman. They shot a series about a wild horse named Rex in Utah and Wyoming. He liked the spaciousness of those films. He said the only reason you see buildings on both sides of Western streets is to prevent people from being so aware of the back lot. Culver City might be visible if you didn’t dress both sides. We didn’t have that problem in Wyoming.”

****

WHAT: “Shane”

WHERE: AFI Silver Theatre

WHEN: Today through Thursday

RATING: No MPAA Rating (made in 1953, years before the advent of the rating system; occasional ominous episodes and graphic violence in a frontier Western setting)

CREDITS: Produced and directed by George Stevens. Screenplay by A.B. Guthrie Jr. and Jack Sher, based on the novel by Jack Schaefer. Cinematography by Loyal Griggs. Art direction by Hal Pereira and Walter Tyler. Editing by William Hornbeck and Tom McAdoo. Music by Victor Young.

RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: Four stars

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