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STEVENSON, ROBERT
(1905–1986). British director.

SCIENCE FICTION, FANTASY, AND HORROR FILM CREDITS
Directed: The Man Who Lived Again [The Man Who Changed His Mind; The Brainsnatchers; Dr. Maniac] (1936); King Solomon's Mines (1937); Non-Stop New York (1937); "Don't Come Back Alive," "The Long Shot" (1955), "The Derelicts," "And So Died Riabouchinska," "There Was an Old Woman," "Mink" (1956), episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents; "Meet Mr. Kringle" (1955), episode of The Twentieth Century Fox Hour; Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959); The Absent-Minded Professor (1961); Son of Flubber (1963); The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1963); Mary Poppins (1964); The Monkey's Uncle (1965); That Darn Cat (1965); The Gnome-Mobile (1967); Blackbeard's Ghost (1968); The Love Bug (1969); Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971); Herbie Rides Again (1973); The Island at the Top of the World (1974); One of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing (and appeared in, uncredited) (1975); The Shaggy D.A. (1976); Bedknobs and Broomsticks: 25th Anniversary Edition (1996).

Wrote (with Peter MacFarlane): F.P.I. Doesn't Answer (English version) (Karl Hartl 1932).

 
To my knowledge, no one has ever described Robert Stevenson as a great film director—but, as others have noted, I've never been afraid to express a heterodox opinion, and here I go again ....

True, Stevenson will never impress those who would limit use of the phrase "great film director" to describe those who craft profound meditations on the human condition for a fit-though-few audience of erudite connoisseurs. However, one can also argue that a great film director is simply someone who can produce a certain type of film remarkably well. And in his heyday, Robert Stevenson did remarkably well at making entertaining movies for children and their parents. As evidence of his singular skill, note that decades after his peak period, filmmakers equipped with vastly superior resources and personnel remade three of his films—The Absent-Minded Professor (Flubber [1997]), That Darn Cat (That Darn Cat [1997]), and The Love Bug (Herbie: Fully Loaded [2005])—and absymally failed on each occasion. Emulating Robert Stevenson is harder than it looks.

Stevenson first established himself as a director in Great Britain, where his works included a nifty Boris KARLOFF horror film, The Man Who Lived Again, and a serviceable adaptation of H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines. He moved to Hollywood at about the same time as Alfred HITCHCOCK, but initially with far less success, as he helmed a series of pictures that projected no distinctive personality and attracted little attention. By the 1950s, he was apparently drifting into permanent obscurity as a director for television. But shrewd old Walt DISNEY must have sensed that he represented an underutilized talent and signed him up to direct some live-action Disney films. To say the least, Stevenson rose to the occasion.

His early triumphs were the gut-wrenching Old Yeller (1957), which remarkably did nothing to sentimentally soften its tragic ending, and Darby O'Gill and the Little People, a colorful fantasy about leprechauns with an unexpectedly powerful, and horrific, conclusion. If none of his subsequent films were quite that dark, that does not lessen their impact. Today, films like The Absent-Minded Professor and That Darn Cat hold up unusually well as briskly-paced, capably-executed adventures, and The Gnome-Mobile may someday be rediscovered and heralded as an underrated classic. But Stevenson's masterpiece, of course, is Mary Poppins, a film which may not recall The Seventh Seal but does achieve its own sort of perfection as a charming confection of well-managed musical setpieces. Of Stevenson's early films for Disney, only those that foregrounded the lamentable Tommy Kirk (The Misadventures of Merlin Jones and The Monkey's Uncle) are now unwatchable.

Disney's death in 1965 had a negative impact on all Disney productions, including Stevenson's films. There was still The Love Bug, which is about as good as a movie about a talking car can possibly be, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, which fitfully recaptured the magic of Mary Poppins. Generally, however, Stevenson in the 1970s found himself working on ill-conceived projects backed by uneven talent, and as he approached the age of seventy he undoubtedly was bringing less and less energy and enthusiasm to the set, no longer enjoying periodic visits from Walt to cheer him on or offer a good idea or two. Viewing the rough cut of The Shaggy D.A.—surely his worst film—probably convinced Stevenson that it was time to retire. After thirty years of hiring many other people to direct its family films, with varying degrees of success, the Disney studio still hasn't recruited a capable successor.

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