Eric Stacey’s most demanding professional challenge was the four years he spent working on Gone with the Wind. But the Civil War epic was hardly the only battle the 1st AD fought over his four-decade career in Hollywood.
From the time ADs were admitted to the Guild in 1937, Stacey was a strong voice for his craft. He declined his own nomination for president of the Junior Guild (then the AD branch of the Guild) in favor of the incumbent, Harry Scott. As a founding member of the Junior Guild Council, he spearheaded a protest vote when the best assistant director category was dropped from the Academy Awards. In the minutes from a 1939 Guild meeting, Stacey is quoted as saying the move was “an attempt to lessen the importance of assistant directors in the industry.”
Stacey’s work on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1938 formed the basis for the Guild’s fight under the Wagner Act to include assistant directors and unit managers. He explained in a story in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner just how vital his job was. “We wanted to save money if we could, and so decided that if the Sacramento River could be made to appear like the Mississippi, we would use it in the river shots.” So Stacey oversaw all the river test footage, as well as footage shot in the more than 70 towns he and cameraman Virgil Miller visited along the Mississippi, Illinois, and Ohio rivers. Stacey, in fact, was a long way from home.
He was born in London in 1903, and armed with only a letter of reference from a job as a theater usher and an authentic British taxicab, he came to Hollywood in the 1920s, renting out his cab (and himself as an extra) to producers.
In 1929, Stacey was offered the choice of becoming a director of photography or an assistant director. As his son, Eric Stacey Jr. (a retired Guild AD himself), notes in a documentary he made about his father, A Hollywood Scrapbook, “Dad was fond of telling us that he chose to be an AD instead of a cameraman because back in those days it paid $5 a week more.”
David O. Selznick, for one, was thankful. Stacey spent a decade as 1st AD on Selznick-produced films, shepherding to completion Les Misérables (1935), A Star Is Born (1937), and Gone with the Wind (1939). Talking about the film that would define his father’s career, GWTW, Stacey Jr. says: “Dad and production manager Ray Klune were faced with endless creative changes, which drove many on the picture to near nervous breakdowns. Later, when there were as many as six units shooting at the same time, Dad directed several second unit scenes himself.”
Until the Academy stopped recognizing the contributions of ADs and UPMs in 1938, Stacey was nominated for an Oscar on three occasions. In 1940, Stacey became a UPM at Warner Bros. (but also maintained his Directors Guild membership), overseeing many of the studio’s 1940s-era classics.
Apparently, the good-humored Stacey was beloved by his colleagues from his first days as an AD. Stacey Jr. cites an excerpt about his father from The Hollywood Reporter dated Dec. 7, 1936, that reads: “Eric Stacey, assistant director on Selznick International’s A Star Is Born, was surprised Saturday when he walked onto the set to discover a party marking his 31st birthday had been pulled on him. Among the voices of cast and crew that collaborated on ‘Happy Birthday to You’ Janet Gaynor, Frederic March, and director William A. Wellman."