Robert Stevenson (director)

Robert Edward Stevenson[1] (31 March 1905 – 30 April 1986) was an English film writer and director.

Robert Stevenson
Born(1905-03-31)31 March 1905
Died30 April 1986(1986-04-30) (aged 81)
OccupationDirector, screenwriter and actor
Years active1928–1985
Cecilie L Leslie
(m. 1929; div. 1934)

Anna Lee
(m. 1934; div. 1944)

Frances Holyoke Howard
(m. 1944; div. 19??)
Ursula Henderson
(m. 1963)
Children3, including Venetia Stevenson

After directing a number of British films, including King Solomon's Mines (1937), he was given a contract by David O. Selznick and moved to Hollywood in the 1940s. He ended up directing 19 films for the Walt Disney Company in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, becoming the most commercially successful director in the history of film. Stevenson is best remembered for directing the Julie Andrews musical Mary Poppins (1964), for which Andrews won the Academy Award for Best Actress and Stevenson was nominated for Best Director.[2] With Disney, he also directed the first two Herbie films, The Love Bug (1968) and Herbie Rides Again (1974), as well as Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971). Three of his films featured English actor David Tomlinson.


Having attended Shrewsbury School, Stevenson won a scholarship to study at St John's College, Cambridge.[1] There he won the John Bernard Seely Prize for Aeronautics, and in 1927 graduated with a first-class MA (Cantab) degree in the Mechanical Sciences Tripos (engineering). He was also president of the university's Liberal Club, editor of the student Granta magazine, and while conducting postgraduate research in psychology he was elected president of the prestigious Cambridge Union Society.[3] On leaving Cambridge his parents gave him six weeks to find a job, and he went to work for Michael Balcon as an assistant.[4]


British films

Stevenson started to write scripts, providing the story of Balaclava (1928). He also worked on the scripts for Greek Street (1930), The Ringer (1931), Night in Montmartre (1931), The Calendar (1931), Michael and Mary (1931) with Edna Best and Herbert Marshall and Sunshine Susie (1931) with Jack Hulbert, Lord Babs (1932), The Faithful Heart (1932) with Best and Marshall, and Love on Wheels (1932) with Hulbert.

Stevenson's debut feature film as director was a Jack HulbertCicely Courtneidge musical, Happy Ever After (1932), a co-production shot in Germany and produced by Eric Pommer. He also wrote the British-German co productions F.P.1 (1933) and Early to Bed (1933).

Stevenson went on to write and direct Falling for You (1933) with Hulbert and Courtneidge, and did some uncredited direction on The Camels Are Coming (1934) with Hulbert. On that film he met Anna Lee, who became his wife in 1935.[5] He was a producer on Little Friend (1934).

Stevenson worked as writer on Thunder in the East (1934) and The Only Girl (1934) with Charles Boyer.

Stevenson received acclaim for Tudor Rose (1936), a film of the Lady Jane Grey story which Stevenson wrote and directed. He directed The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936) with Boris Karloff and Anna Lee, then another with Hulbert, Jack of All Trades (1936).

Stevenson wrote Windbag the Sailor (1936) for Will Hay and Paradise for Two (1937) for Hulbert.

Stevenson directed the action adventure movie King Solomon's Mines (1937) with Lee, Cedric Hardwicke and Paul Robeson. He did a science fiction film with Lee, Non-Stop New York (1937).[5]

Stevenson went to Gainbsorough to do Owd Bob (1938) with Will Fyffe, The Ware Case (1938) with Clive Brook, Young Man's Fancy (1939) with Lee, and Return to Yesterday (1940) with Brook and Lee. He worked on the script for most of the latter films.

Hollywood films

Stevenson received an offer to go to Hollywood to work for David O. Selznick along with Alfred Hitchcock.[6] Selznick only made the occasional film, but he would frequently sign talent to term contracts and loan them out to other studios. He loaned Stevenson to RKO he directed Tom Brown's School Days (1940). He went to Universal to direct a new version of Back Street (1941) with Charles Boyer then went back to RKO for Joan of Paris (1942) with Michèle Morgan, a big hit.

Stevenson wrote and directed an adaptation of Jane Eyre (1943) for Selznick starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine. He was also one of several directors on Forever and a Day (1943).

Stevenson directed Hedy Lamarr in Dishonored Lady (1947) and Dick Powell in To the Ends of the Earth (1948).

RKO under Howard Hughes

He returned to RKO, now under the control of Howard Hughes, to make I Married a Communist (1949). He followed it with Walk Softly, Stranger (1950) with Joseph Cotten, My Forbidden Past (1951) with Robert Mitchum and Ava Gardner, and The Las Vegas Story (1952) with Jane Russell and Victor Mature. He also did some uncredited directing on Macao (1952).


Stevenson went into directing television and directed 6 episodes of the first season of Gunsmoke during which it first went to the top of the TV ratings.[7] He directed over 100 TV episodes in five years[7] including: The Ford Television Theatre, Your Jeweler's Showcase, Footlights Theater, Jane Wyman Presents The Fireside Theatre, Cavalcade of America, Schlitz Playhouse, The Star and the Story, Star Stage, The 20th Century-Fox Hour, The Joseph Cotten Show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Christophers.

Walt Disney

Stevenson went to work for the Disney Company in 1956 for six weeks and ending up making 19 films in 20 years.[7] His early credits were Johnny Tremain (1957), a story set in the American Revolution, and Old Yeller (1957), a boy and his dog tale. In 2019, Old Yeller was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[8]

Stevenson did episodes of Disney's Zorro, then directed a film about Ireland, Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959), and an adaptation of Kidnapped (1960). He had a huge commercial success with the comedy The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and the adventure film In Search of the Castaways (1962). Son of Flubber (1963) was a popular sequel to The Absent-Minded Professor, and The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964), a teen comedy, was an unexpected hit, leading to a sequel, The Monkey's Uncle (1965).

None did as well at the box office as Mary Poppins (1964), which was a sensation, becoming the studio's box office champion with domestic rentals of $45,000,000 [9] and winning five Oscars.

Also popular was the Hayley Mills comedy That Darn Cat! (1965). Stevenson and Disney focused on comedies: The Gnome-Mobile (1967) with Walter Brennan, Blackbeard's Ghost (1968) with Peter Ustinov and Dean Jones, and The Love Bug (1968) with Jones, which was a huge hit.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) was an attempt to repeat the success of Mary Poppins. Stevenson directed Herbie Rides Again (1974) with Ken Berry and Helen Hayes, and the adventure story The Island at the Top of the World (1974). One of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing (1975), with Hayes and Ustinov, was a comedy. Stevenson's last feature was The Shaggy D.A. (1976) with Dean Jones.

In July 1977, Variety noted that his track record at Disney made him "the most commercially successful director in the history of films." At the end of 1976, he had 16 films on Variety's list of all-time domestic rental films, more than any other director at the time, with the second most successful having only 12. The Shaggy D.A. was to become his 17th, all being Disney films. The total US and Canadian rentals for these 17 pictures was $188,000,000, which Variety said translated into roughly $250 million in world rentals or an estimated world box office gross of $750 million.[10]

Personal life

Stevenson divorced his first wife Cecilie and married English actress Anna Lee in 1934. They lived on London's Bankside for five years, moving to Hollywood in 1939, where he remained for many years. They had two daughters, Venetia and Caroline, before divorcing in March 1944.

During World War II he became an American citizen and served with Frank Capra in the U.S. Army Signal Corps.[7]

He married Frances Holyoke Howard on 8 October 1944; they later divorced. They had one son, Hugh Howard Stevenson. Robert Stevenson's widow, Ursula Henderson, appeared as herself in the documentary Locked in the Tower: The Men behind Jane Eyre in 2007.


Year Film Notes
1928 Balaclava Screenwriter
1930 Greek Street Screenwriter
1931 The Ringer Screenwriter
Night in Montmartre Screenwriter
The Calendar Screenwriter
Michael and Mary Screenwriter
Sunshine Susie Screenwriter
1932 Lord Babs Screenwriter
The Faithful Heart Screenwriter
Love on Wheels Screenwriter
Happy Ever After Directorial debut for Stevenson.
The only German film he directed.
1933 Falling For You His directorial debut in the United Kingdom
F.P.1 Screenwriter only
Early to Bed Screenwriter only
The Only Girl Screenwriter only
1934 The Camels Are Coming Producer, Uncredited co-director
Little Friend Producer only
The Battle Screenwriter only
1936 Tudor Rose
The Man Who Changed His Mind
Jack of All Trades
Windbag the Sailor Screenwriter only
1937 King Solomon's Mines
Non-Stop New York
Paradise for Two Screenwriter only
1938 Owd Bob
The Ware Case
1939 Young Man's Fancy
1940 Return to Yesterday Stevenson's last United Kingdom film.
Tom Brown's School Days Stevenson's USA directorial debut.
1941 Back Street Remake of the 1932 Universal Pictures film of the same name, Stevenson's only film for Universal Pictures.
1942 Joan of Paris Nominated for the Academy Award for original music score, Stevenson's first film for RKO Radio Pictures
1943 Forever and a Day The only film from RKO with a record breaking 22 directors, writers, and producers. Last film for RKO.
Jane Eyre His only film he directed for 20th Century Fox
1944 Know Your Ally: Britain Documentary Short (uncredited), Produced for the United States War Department and the United States Signal Corps.
1946 American Creed Short
1947 Dishonored Lady Stevenson's only film for United Artists.
1948 To the Ends of the Earth Stevenson's only film for Columbia Pictures.
1949 I Married a Communist (aka, The Woman on Pier 13) Stevenson's first film for RKO since 1943
1950 Walk Softly, Stranger Filming completed in 1948 but not released until 1950.
1951 My Forbidden Past
1952 The Las Vegas Story
Macao (uncredited), Stevenson's final film for RKO.
The Ford Television Theatre TV series (3 episodes: 1952–1953), Stevenson's Television Directorial debut, sponsored by Ford.
1953 Cavalcade of America TV series (8 episodes: 1953–1955)
General Electric Theater TV series (2 episodes: 1953–1956), Sponsored by General Electric.
1955 Atomic Energy as a Force for Good (short)
The Star and the Story TV series (3 episodes: 1955–1956)
The 20th Century-Fox Hour TV series (2 episodes: 1955–1956)
Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series (7 episodes: 1955–1959)
Gunsmoke TV series (6 episodes)
1957 The Christophers TV series (1 episode: "Sentence Deferred")
Johnny Tremain This marks the return of Robert Stevenson as director in movies since 1952 and his first of in a series of Disney Movies from 1957 to 1976. Based on the award-winning novel from 1944 by Esther Forbes
Old Yeller One of Stevenson's most successfully directed films which led to a sequel, Savage Sam (1963). Based on the award-winning book by Fred Gipson.
Disneyland TV series (26 episodes: 1957–1982)
Zorro TV series (3 episodes); his final TV series he directed.
1959 Darby O'Gill and the Little People
1960 Kidnapped
1961 The Absent-Minded Professor Nominated – DGA Award – Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures,Colourised in 1986 for home video release, one of the few Disney black and white films made after 1941.
Was remade as a 1988 television series and a 1997 remake, Flubber.
Was released in widescreen and was restored to Black and white for the 2003 DVD release, and then released on a two disc DVD set with its sequel film, Son of Flubber, in 2008.
1962 In Search of the Castaways
1963 Son of Flubber Originally filmed in Black and white, and was one of the last few black and white Disney films made after 1941. However, it was colourised for the 1997 VHS release, but was restored for its 2008 two disc DVD release, along with the original 1961 film, The Absent-Minded Professor.
1964 The Misadventures of Merlin Jones Followed by the 1965 sequel, The Monkey's Uncle
Mary Poppins Nominated – Academy Award for Best Director
Blue Ribbon Award – Best Foreign Film
Nominated – DGA Award – Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures
1965 The Monkey's Uncle Sequel to 1964's The Misadventures of Merlin Jones
That Darn Cat! Led to a 1997 remake, That Darn Cat
1967 The Gnome-Mobile
1968 Blackbeard's Ghost Was released in Japan in 1976 and Australia in 1980.
The Love Bug One of two Love Bug films directed by Stevenson.
1971 Bedknobs and Broomsticks Sant Jordi Award for Best Children's Film
1974 Herbie Rides Again The first film to use the name, "Herbie", for the Herbie the Love Bug franchise.
The Island at the Top of the World
1975 One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing
1976 The Shaggy D.A. Sequel to 1959's The Shaggy Dog.
Was Stevenson's final film for Disney, and his final film in general.
1985 The Walt Disney Comedy and Magic Revue (video short) (archive footage)


  1. Ryall, Tom, "Stevenson, Robert Edward (1905–1986)" Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, online edition, May 2014. Retrieved 6 July 2018. (subscription required)
  2. John Wakeman, World Film Directors, Volume One, 1890–1945. New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, (1987), pp1057-1063.
  3. "STEVENSON, Robert". Who's Who. 2018 (online ed.). A & C Black, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing plc. (subscription or UK public library membership required) (subscription required)
  4. "English Star Marries Producer". The News. XXIV (3, 610). Adelaide. 14 February 1935. p. 12. Retrieved 4 December 2017 via National Library of Australia.
  5. "ARE THEY WISE?". The Telegraph (SECOND ed.). Brisbane. 14 August 1937. p. 22. Retrieved 4 December 2017 via National Library of Australia.
  6. "Studio Notes". The West Australian. 55 (16, 624). 13 October 1939. p. 2. Retrieved 4 December 2017 via National Library of Australia.
  7. "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious". Daily Variety. 25 October 1977. p. 31.
  8. Chow, Andrew R. (11 December 2019). "See the 25 New Additions to the National Film Registry, From Purple Rain to Clerks". Time. New York, NY. Retrieved 11 December 2019.
  9. "All-Time Top Film Rentals". Archived from the original on 7 October 1999.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link) Variety. 1998. Accessed October 7, 1999
  10. "Stevenson preps his 20th Disney film in 21 years" Daily Variety. 14 July 1977 p.1
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