An unjustly overlooked figure in the annals of film history, Stephen Roberts directed a dozen films during his five years as a feature filmmaker. Modest in scale, his films nonetheless reveal a director of warmth, grace and skill.
The young Roberts served as a pilot in WWI and, after his discharge, continued his airborne activities as a stunt pilot. Engagements at county fairs ended abruptly when an accident curtailed his flying career, and he drifted into film work as a stuntman and double. A brief apprenticeship with Thomas Ince quickly led to his becoming a director of comedy shorts by the early 1920s. Feature work did not begin until 1932, though, when Roberts' aviation background led Paramount to assign him a bland Richard Arlen vehicle, "Sky Bride" (1932). The film's routine storyline hardly impressed the critics, but Roberts received some praise for his handling of a suspenseful child rescue scene.
Most of Roberts' films fall squarely into the category of programmers, in between "A" and "B" films in length and cost. Roberts began to find his way with "Lady and Gent" (1932), a warm seriocomic duet for the rough diamond pair of Wynne Gibson and George Bancroft, and "The Night of June 13" (1932), a superior courtroom drama boasting a top-flight cast. The charming period comedy "One Sunday Afternoon" (1933), showing Gary Cooper moving firmly into homespun roles, was later improved upon by Raoul Walsh's 1941 remake, "The Strawberry Blonde", but Roberts struck pay dirt with "The Story of Temple Drake" (1933). An admittedly toned down adaptation of William Faulkner's vivid descent into Southern debauchery, "Sanctuary", the film was maturely powerful, highly atmospheric, and extremely well-acted, with Miriam Hopkins splendid as a thrill-seeking heiress who falls in with some especially unsavory criminal yokels.
Roberts may have gained respect for managing to adapt a seemingly "unfilmable" novel, but "Temple Drake" caused controversy; it was one of the films directly responsible for the stronger enforcement of the Production Code. He left Paramount after "The Trumpet Blows" (1934), with George Raft and Adolphe Menjou miscast as a bullfighter and a Mexican bandit, and he signed with RKO. His first film there, though small, was another gem. "Romance in Manhattan" (1934) proved a beguiling invasion of Frank Capra territory, with Ginger Rogers and Francis Lederer wonderful as a chorine and the naive immigrant she befriends.
A one-shot at 20th Century-Fox, "The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo" (1935), a very slender but sleek jaunt with Ronald Colman, continued the modest career upswing, and Roberts consolidated his gains with two back-to-back hits. Both "Star of Midnight" (1935), starring Rogers and William Powell, and "The Ex-Mrs. Bradford" (1936), teaming Powell with Jean Arthur, were unabashed imitations of the immensely successful 1934 comedy-mystery "The Thin Man". Powell was near his peak giving variations on his savvy sleuth Nick Charles, his female co-stars blithely held up their end of the banter, and the mystery plots were suitably tangy.
Roberts was almost a big-budget "A" league director and even the minor, if decent, Ann Harding sudser "The Lady Consents" (1936) did not stem his progress. He was also starting to become a critics' pet at the time of his abrupt death at age 40 in 1936.