WASHINGTON — Yvonne Stevens, an actress who appeared in silent-film comedies and melodramas and was the first wife of Academy Award-winning director George Stevens, died of a heart ailment May 27 at her home in Hollywood.
She was 104.
Mrs. Stevens was a “bathing beauty’’ for slapstick comedy innovator Mack Sennett in the 1920s and had supporting roles in a handful of films under the name Yvonne Howell.
They included the drama “Fashions for Women’’ (1927), helmed by the pioneering female director Dorothy Arzner; and the western “Somewhere in Sonora’’ (1927), opposite the popular cowboy star Ken Maynard.
While making the second film “in one of Mexico’s canyons,’’ as it was reported at the time, Maynard rescued Mrs. Stevens and another actress from a runaway horse-drawn wagon.
Obeying the director, the two women were driving the buckboard when the horses apparently were frightened by action on the set.
The horses sped off, turning a planned make-believe runaway into a real one as the buckboard headed down a narrow canyon path “alongside of which was a yawning chasm several thousand feet deep.’’
Maynard, the article noted, was a gifted stuntman. He leapt atop his horse, Tarzan, caught up to the speeding wagon, grabbed the reins and brought it under control.
The account noted, “50 members of the company testify to its happening.’’
Mrs. Stevens was born Julia Rose Shevlin in Chicago on July 31, 1905.
She settled in California with her mother, Alice Howell, a vaudevillian who appeared in many comedy shorts.
In 1928, Yvonne Howell met George Stevens, then a novice cameraman, at comedian Oliver Hardy’s house.
They married in 1930 and divorced in the late 1940s. He died in 1975.
George Stevens won Oscars for “A Place in the Sun’’ (1951) and “Giant’’ (1956) and was one of Hollywood’s most versatile directors, with credits ranging from the Fred Astaire musical “Swing Time’’ (1936) to the Holocaust drama “The Diary of Anne Frank’’ (1959).
Their son, George Stevens Jr., is founding director of the American Film Institute and cofounder and producer of the Kennedy Center Honors.
In addition to their son, of Washington, Mrs. Stevens leaves three grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
After her film career ended, Mrs. Stevens was a nurse’s aide at Army hospitals in Southern California during World War II and later served as a volunteer tutor.