Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Centennial Tributes: James Stewart

By Josh R
Jimmy Stewart created the impression of being the most self-effacing of movie stars. Skinny and gawky in his youth, and given to stammer with slack-jawed embarrassment when flustered, his charmingly abashed quality immediately endeared him to audiences of the 1930s — in black and white, you could still see him blushing.

Never a fantasy figure like Cary Grant or Gary Cooper, he quickly established himself as America’s boy-next-door, the kind for whom pronouncements like “I didn’t knew they grew them that way anymore” were presumably intended; even decked out in a white tie and tails, the bottom of his shoes were still caked with the soil of the heartland, roots he never tried to shake off no matter how many tremors he produced in the gilt-edged, glittering cocktail shaker of Hollywood. He retained his sense of modesty in the face of uncommon success, and never gave way to pretension; he was, in terms of both his approach to acting and his philosophy of life, a man of the people.

It would be easy to write him off as being too lovable for words, if not for the unexpected, frequently harrowing shades of anger, bitterness and genuine madness that informed his performances for Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Mann and, on one glorious occasion, the director with whose work he is most closely identified, Frank Capra. For if Stewart’s early persona never conveyed as much of a whiff of danger, his career is one with a decisive turning point. Patriotic to a fault, both onscreen and off, he was among the first Hollywood stars to enlist for active duty in WWII, and served in the air force with great distinction. What effect the war experience had on Stewart the man is not entirely clear — just as he was not given to boastfulness, nor was he particularly inclined to discuss his inner demons — but in terms of his work, it had a clearly felt impact. Beginning with It’s a Wonderful Life, audiences were treated to intriguing glimpses of the dark undercurrents of anxiety and despair that can prey on such unassuming, wholesome specimens of non-threatening All-American manhood; the sense of internal conflict barely hinted at in the pre-war years was suddenly made explicit.

Tellingly born in the town of Indiana in the state of Pennsylvania — even with his Keystone State stubbornness, there was always an air of corn-fed Midwestern sincerity about him — he grew up in the idyllic, small town America of picket fences, porch swings and potted geraniums. His father owned the local hardware store; when Jimmy won his Oscar, he sent it home to Pop to proudly display in the storefront window. He might easily have traveled the same path as his alter ego, George Bailey — the younger Stewart was likewise expected to assume responsibility for the family business when he came of age. Circumstances were kinder to Jimmy than they would proove to be for George; rather than toe the line and settle into a life of diminished expectations among the white steeples and striped awnings of Main Street, he set out for Princeton, with the aim of becoming an architect. After falling in with The University Players, a collection of Ivy Leaguers with theatrical aspirations, his set his sights on the New York stage. Some very modest success on Broadway led to interest on the part of Hollywood talent scouts; encouraged by his friend Henry Fonda to make a screen test, he was signed to a seven year contract by MGM.

Too sensitive and awkward for a traditional leading man, and too delicately handsome to fit into the mold of a character actor, his first two years in Hollywood were something of mishmash. He played a disturbed youth in Rose Marie and a baddie in After the Thin Man — neither assignment fit him comfortably — before settling into the role of the sensitive, sentimental male ingénue, the masculine equivalent of the delicate flowers suffering so nobly in three-hankie weepies. His first good lead came in Next Time We Love opposite Margaret Sullavan, with whom he shared a chemistry remarkable for its artless delicacy. The two had reportedly carried a torch for one another going back to their University Players years; The Shopworn Angel and The Mortal Storm provided further evidence of the extent to which the flame endured. Bolstered by his successful outings with Sullavan, his progress was swift, if incremental. 1938 revealed his aptitude for comedy, with a highly enjoyable pairing with Ginger Rogers in Vivacious Lady and the first of his three collaborations with Capra, You Can’t Take It With You. Through comedy, he grew in confidence, and seemed more distinctive a presence as a result (truth be told, he could seem a bit one-note playing delicate and doomed). The true breakthrough came in so spectacular a fashion that it seemed right off the pages of a Hollywood script.

1939 is often cited as the greatest year in the history of motion pictures, producing a bumper crop of classics. Certainly, no actor reaped more of the benefit of that yield than Stewart — he appeared in no less than five films, two of which would proove to be among his very best. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was Capra at his corniest, but such was the conviction the actor brought to his portrayal of a naïve scoutmaster thrown into the shark-invested waters of professional politics that the corn actually managed to pop in the midst of so much soggy high-mindedness, wrapped as it was in a tear-stained blanket of red, white and blue. For doing the seemingly impossible — namely bringing a sense of dramatic fire to a character intended as the living embodiment of wide-eyed idealism — he received the first of his five Academy Award nominations. It’s a Wonderful World and Made for Each Other were pleasant outings with Claudette Colbert and Carole Lombard, but George Marshall’s Destry Rides Again revealed qualities that Capra and others hadn’t been canny enough to recognize. There was no earthly reason why he and Marlene Dietrich should have complemented each other to the extent that they did — on paper, it made about as much sense as casting Mickey Rooney opposite Garbo. The wholesomely appealing Stewart had registered with female moviegoers as the kind of man they’d like to marry, as opposed to one they fantasized about going to bed with; attractive though he was, it had been said that he lacked something in terms of virility. Being trapped in close quarters with the heavy-lidded Teutonic siren rectified the situation — Dietrich’s decadent sensuality worked on Stewart’s libido like a tonic, just as his laconic charm chipped away at her smirking self-containment and coaxed warmth and vulnerability out of its manicured shell. As the deputy spouting folksy truisms while trying to maintain the peace in a rambunctious western town, he was as nice as ever, but sexy too; in the scene where he backs Marlene’s naughty saloon floozy into a corner and wipes the make-up off her face, the heat generated by the two actors practically burned holes through the celluloid. In the era when Gable was king, Destry was one of the few films to acknowledge that while shady ladies may initially be drawn to the tough-talking manly men, it’s the sensitive types with quiet assurance who can really get them hot and bothered.

1940 was another banner year for Stewart — within a two-year period, he had participated in four classic films. The Oscar he received as a tabloid reporter covering a society wedding in The Philadelphia Story was really a compensatory gesture for his having lost the year before for Mr. Smith — nevertheless, he did outstanding work for George Cukor, and played well opposite Katharine Hepburn, even if their romantic chemistry was never entirely convincing (both seemed much more at home in their scenes with Cary Grant). More importantly, The Philadelphia Story was the first film to give him a character with a bit of an edge. The part of the cynical, smart-allecky Macauley Connor, a frustrated fiction writer with a chip on his shoulder, allowed Stewart to distance himself from the “aw shucks” bashfulness and diffident naiveté that had been his stock in trade, and showed that he was willing and able to take on roles with more complexity. Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner, while not really a step forward toward that end, was a romantic comedy with an old-world charm and a glorious reunion with Margaret Sullavan. Both actors gave much more spirited performances than they had when working within the constraints of melodrama, and as a result, their chemistry seemed more potent than ever. As if to proove he could be fallible, no amount of diligent effort could save No Time for Comedy, adapted from a stage hit about a conflicted playwright and his actress muse. Since 1940 was such a good year for Stewart and co-star Rosalind Russell otherwise, both emerged from the wreckage unscathed.

The 1940s might have proceeded along much the same lines — an innocuous string of romantic comedies, pausing for the occasional instance of inspirational flag-waving — if not for a little dust-up in the Pacific Ocean involving the bombing of an American naval base. The war put the film career on hold for half a decade, and the James Stewart to emerge in the aftermath was an older, sadder and wiser figure, comprehending of the darkness lurking just beneath the surface of the homespun American Dream perpetuated by Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post covers and Hollywood fictions. The charm was still there, to be sure, but coupled with a hard-earned awareness — not just of mortality, but a feeling that good and evil existed in closer proximity than the callow youth of the 1930s might have been given to suppose. It’s a Wonderful Life is frequently mistaken for a misty-eyed yuletide classic, with about as much bite to it as the average cup of eggnog. In truth, Capra’s definitive work is spiked with stronger stuff than cinnamon and nutmeg; there’s a bitter aftertaste that comes with the tacit admission that in every hometown hero lives a frustrated, disappointed loner trapped in a life of quiet desperation. Stewart’s George Bailey is an American everyman, immediately identifiable and admirable to a fault, but with a dark streak of resentment over the compromises he’s had to make, and a stinging contempt for the circumscribed, small-town life that a lifetime of selfless, conscientious behavior has seemingly condemned him to. This being Capra, George’s journey ends on an uplifting note, but the scenes that linger in memory the longest are the ones in which the character’s pain and anger are brought into sharp focus. Consider the moment when George takes out his frustration on his wife and children, followed by the look of remorse and self-loathing that flickers across his stricken features once he sees their frightened eyes peering back at him — it may be the bravest single piece of acting Stewart ever attempted, and ultimately, all the more heart-wrenching for its startling lack of sentimentality.

The postwar Stewart took a more intrepid approach to his career; he was a free agent now, pursuing projects that challenged his established persona and spoke directly to his affinity for characters faced with tough moral choices. There would be occasional returns to folksy, homespun sincerity — in Harvey, he was just credulous enough to make you believe there actually was an eight-foot white rabbit hovering in the margins of the frame — but for the most part, he seemed increasingly content working in a darker vein. Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Far Country and The Man from Laramie — five fine, tough-minded westerns for Anthony Mann — contemplated the degree of self-imposed isolation that comes with the territory of rugged individualism. In each of those films, Stewart seemed to be a man searching, not only for outlaws on the run or wayward herds of cattle, but for deliverance from the suspicion that mankind was fundamentally corrupt and cruel. Darker still were his exercises for Hitchcock, which veered even further away from the norm into the realm of genuine disturbance. Stewart didn’t shy away from acting out Hitch’s perversions — in Rear Window, he indulged in voyeurism, while in Vertigo, he was obsessed with Kim Novak and more than a little bit crazy. More than any other project he’d ever worked on, Vertigo allowed Stewart to bring his darker impulses to the forefront — as if George Bailey’s paranoia had finally caught up to him. As a reflection of how unwilling audiences were to conceive of anything base or impure in their All-American boy, The Glenn Miller Story was his most commercially successful film of the period — Stewart could still do bland nobility as well as anyone, but he was much more interesting when traveling a different course.

After Vertigo, the quality of the films went downward. Anatomy of a Murder was considered rather shocking at the time, but looks fairly quaint from a modern standpoint. Nevertheless, it had some enjoyably tacky Otto Preminger flourishes, and allowed the actor the chance to hint at some undercurrents of depravity. The younger Stewart would have stared in bug-eyed, wholesome disbelief at the vulpine Lee Remick as if he’d just been struck by cupid’s arrow; the worldly veteran appreciatively took in her supple proportions as if he’d secretly imagined what it would be like to violate her in the manner of her supposed attacker. The Man who Shot Liberty Valance was an acceptable entry from John Ford, while the sprawling mediocrity of How the West Was Won could find no better use for him than a very unconvincing courtship of Carroll Baker, an actress meant for more lurid things than a little house on the prairie. The Flight of the Pheonix was fine if formulaic, while a succession of increasingly dull westerns rounded out what had, at its best, been an unusually unpredictable career. He did a bit of TV work in the '80s, but seemed mainly content to make occasional appearances on talk shows or The Oscars, charming viewers with his well-rehearsed stammering fits and misty recollections of the old days.

Few stars, male or female, have ever inspired as affectionate a response as that accorded Jimmy Stewart. In a way, he represented the best of our selves — an idealized version of the good, moral American boy trying his best to make the world a better place. At the same time, he never shied away from revealing the extent to which the pressures of living up to that image of decency and goodness can unnerve a man and breed self-doubt; perhaps Stewart himself felt that pressure more keenly than most. Whether or not that was the case, as an actor, he never lost sight of his characters’ humanity, or felt the need to portray them on anything other than a human scale — it’s part of the reason audiences identified with him so strongly. Movie stars can often feel like a separate breed, a world apart from mere mortals. Jimmy Stewart was one of us.

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Great roundup for one of my favorites. For me, Stewart is encapsulated by the distance between, say, The Shop Around the Corner and The Man From Laramie, two of his finest performances. The gulf between these two performances, which both represent Stewart at his peak, is tremendous and indicative of the startling range and versatility he could wring from his aw-shucks demeanor. But even in his supposedly more "normal" and sentimental roles, he could have an edge, as he does in Shop with his sarcastic wit and the condescending way he treats Sullivan at first.

I do have to register a strong word on behalf of Anatomy of a Murder, which, quite apart from its vastly diminished shock value, remains a classic of the cinema, largely in thanks to Stewart's powerhouse performance. He's hilarious, quick, and yet surprisingly poignant as the rundown lawyer pulling himself back up from rock bottom. It's also a strikingly ambiguous treatise on justice, and Preminger does a fantastic job of making the courtroom space seem dynamic and exciting through his signature sweeping camera.
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