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Stevenson, Robert (1905-1986)

Director, Writer, Producer

Main image of Stevenson, Robert (1905-1986)

Robert Stevenson was born in Buxton, Derbyshire on 31 March 1905. After studying mechanical sciences and psychology at Cambridge, where he also edited the literary journal Granta, he began his career in a newsreel agency. In 1930 he entered the film industry as a writer and general assistant for Gainsborough, where his first script assignment was a musical, Greek Street (d. Sinclair Hill, 1930). For the next five years he co-wrote a variety of films, from two musical comedies with Jack Hulbert, Sunshine Susie (d. Victor Saville, 1931) and Love on Wheels (d. Saville, 1932), to the Edgar Wallace thriller The Ringer (d. Walter Forde, 1932). Together with Hulbert he co-directed Falling for You (1933) and Jack of all Trades (1936). One of production chief Michael Balcon's favoured protégés, Stevenson also broadened his experience with the foreign ventures of Gaumont-British, working in France as dialogue director on La Bataille (d. Nicolas Farkas/Viktor Tourjansky, 1933), and in Berlin's UFA studios, where he supervised English-language versions of German films and joined Paul Martin in co-directing Happy Ever After (1932), the English edition of Martin's Lillian Harvey musical Ein Blonder Traum.

From 1936, Stevenson directed nine modestly budgeted but high-quality films in England, the first and best of which was Tudor Rose (1936), a sturdy but moving historical drama based on the life of Lady Jane Grey, with Nova Pilbeam fresh and poignant as the young pawn trapped in Tudor political manoeuvrings. Others made for Gaumont-British included the spirited pot-boiler The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936), with Boris Karloff as a mad doctor; a lively account of H. Rider Haggard's African adventure King Solomon's Mines (1937), with Cedric Hardwicke, Roland Young and Paul Robeson pausing for song; and Non-Stop New York (1937), a droll, sharply characterised thriller largely set on a transatlantic plane. All three films also starred Stevenson's wife of the time, the glamorous Anna Lee.

When Michael Balcon became head of production at Ealing he recruited Stevenson to direct The Ware Case (1938), a strong courtroom drama adapted from a popular play, starring Clive Brook; and Young Man's Fancy (1939), a mordant romantic comedy about a young lord (Griffith Jones) who rejects a society heiress for a human cannonball (Anna Lee). He also made Return to Yesterday (1939), a piquant and touching drama about the provincial theatre, for Balcon, but as the war clouds gathered, Stevenson, a pacifist, left Britain to take up a contract with David O. Selznick.

At first, his work in Hollywood was just as diverse as in England, ranging between the romantic melodrama of Back Street (1941), a visually ambitious and powerful adaptation of Jane Eyre (1944) with Orson Welles, and To the Ends of the Earth (1948), a clever thriller with atmospheric photography. In 1956, after a period in television, he settled at Disney, where he remained, busy and productive, until his retirement in 1976. Although he returned to Britain for only two more films - Disney's Kidnapped (US/UK, 1960) and In Search of the Castaways (US, 1962) - his nostalgia for his home country is discernible in several other Disney entertainments, including the highly successful Mary Poppins (US, 1964) and Bedknobs and Broomsticks (US, 1971). He died in Santa Barbara, California, on 30 April 1986.

McFarlane, Brian, An Autobiography of British Cinema (London: Methuen, 1997)
McFarlane, Brian, 'Jack of All Trades: Robert Stevenson', in Jeffrey Richards (ed.), The Unknown 30s: An Alternative History of the British Cinema 1929-39 (London: I.B. Tauris, 1998)
Nolan, Jack, Edmund, 'Films on TV', Films in Review, Aug/Sept. 1969, pp. 432-434
Roberts, John, 'Robert Stevenson', Films of the Golden Age, Spring 1997, pp. 35-9

Margaret Butler, Directors in British and Irish Cinema

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of King Solomon's Mines (1937)King Solomon's Mines (1937)

Empire adventure about the hunt for legendary African diamond mines

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Wonderful early 'mad scientist' film, with Boris Karloff

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