May 20, 1903 – James Stewart:
“You have to develop a style that suits you and pursue it, not just develop a bag of tricks.“
The summer of 1997 was a tough one. The passing of Diana, Princess of Wales was probably the most shocking, but for film fans the summer was especially rough. Within two days two giants were lost: Robert Mitchum and James Stewart. Mitchum died July 1 at 79 years old, Stewart on July 2 at 89.
It was in the era of cartoons and double features that I was introduced to Stewart. The first Stewart film I remember seeing was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) at a drive-in theatre with my parental units. Everybody has a favorite Jimmy Stewart movie. For most people it’s probably It’s A Wonderful Life. But not me. At eight years old, I loved musicals and cowboy movies, and in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, John Wayne plays the tough guy who faces down tougher guys with Woody Strode‘s character as his backup. There is Lee Marvin in his most sadistic role as Liberty Valance. But what really made the film work is Stewart as the mild-mannered Ransom Stoddard, a lawyer from the East who tries to bring some sense of law and civility to the West, where men settle their disputes with guns.
Stewart’s performance was so powerful that he made The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance a James Stewart film, instead of a John Wayne film or even a John Ford (who directed) film. In the early 1960s, Wayne was still a Hollywood big star and Ford still a major director. I was especially taken by the scene where Stewart’s character rises to his feet and, that Stewart voice crackling in its highest pitch, shouts to Wayne’s character: “I’m a lawyer!”
Stewart made 92 films and did 12 Broadway plays. His work brought him every major award and consistent acclaim and popularity for more than half a century. He was the last of the male stars whose careers certified the studio star system as it operated virtually from the beginning of the sound era. Actors like Stewart, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, and Cary Grant were larger than life, and because the fusion of the performers’ public and private personalities created something bigger than the sum of the two parts.
He was a lanky actor with unruly hair, an ungainly stride, a boyish grin and an engaging manner. The Stewart way of speaking: laconic, with a hesitant, nasal drawl is instantly recognizable. His early screen image, like his personal life, epitomized a Middle-American ideal. After viewing It’s A Wonderful Life, President Harry S. Truman told the press:
“If Bess and I had a son, we’d want him to be just like Jimmy Stewart.”
As Stewart aged, his performances became more subtle and complicated: troubled, querulous protagonists, and roles in conflict with his accepted image.
Stewart was a great behavioral actor who absorbed each role into his own physicality, shaping the mannerisms, the voice and even the intelligence to coincide with those of his own personality.
I love him so much young and spry in You Can’t Take It With You (1938); as a naive young senator in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939), the part that earned him major stardom; the forthright reporter redeeming a headstrong Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story (1940) and a relentless defense attorney in Anatomy Of A Murder (1959).
Stewart was perfect for playing folk heroes such as a gun-shy marshal who tamed a town and Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again (1939); Monty Stratton, the Chicago White Sox pitcher who returned to the mound after losing a leg, in The Stratton Story (1949); and the beloved big-band leader in The Glenn Miller Story (1954).
Alfred Hitchcock used him best, going against type in Rope (1948) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) with real chemistry opposite the late Doris Day, and especially as a voyeur photographer in Rear Window (1954) and a retired detective entranced by two forms of Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958), my favorite Hitchcock.
A self-effacing actor, he wrote:
“I don’t act, I react. I am an inarticulate man who tries, without having all the answers, but for some reason, somehow, I make it. If you can do a part and not have the acting show.“
He reveals a quality that at first seems out of sync with his stammering personality. He was debonair, with a sly sense of humor and lightness of touch, even confined to a wheelchair with one leg in a cast in Rear Window. He is debonair even when grappling with terrible guilt and a sense of loss in Vertigo. He could even dance and sing as proved in Born To Dance (1936) with Eleanor Powell.
Stewart is best seen on the screen in full figure, all of lean six-foot four-inches of the man captured in a single frame. He acts with his whole body. The slight stoop and the way his wrinkled jacket hangs from his shoulders are a big part to his performance in Harvey (1950). It is one of his best and most unsettling performances, playing the gently eccentric drinker Elwood P. Dowd whose companion is the title character, a giant, invisible rabbit. Stewart played the film role in 1950 after appearing in the play on Broadway in 1947, then played the role again in a triumphant 1970 revival in New York City and London opposite Helen Hayes.
On television he starred in a special version of Harvey, and in two of his own series in the early 1970s, first as a college professor in The Jimmy Stewart Show (1971-73) a bucolic sitcom, and Hawkins (1975-77) as a shrewd country lawyer.
Stewart received the American Film Institute‘s eighth Life-Achievement Award in 1980, a Kennedy Center Honor in 1983, a special 1984 Academy Award, the 1985 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, and a 1990 tribute by the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Receiving the honorary Oscar to a standing ovation, Stewart singled out for special thanks to Frank Capra and his other directors:… “who so generously and brilliantly guided me through the no man’s land of my own good intentions”.
He won an Academy Award for The Philadelphia Story with other Oscar nominations for: Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, It’s A Wonderful Life, Harvey and Anatomy Of A Murder. Plus, a Tony Award and Screen Actors Guild Award.
During World War II he was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses and four Air Medals, as well as the French Croix de Guerre. Determined to become a combat pilot, he first logged 300 hours of flying because at 33-years-old, he was too old to be an aviation cadet. He put on 10 pounds to meet the Army’s minimum weight requirement for his tall, thin frame. He did not like those Nazis and led 20 bombing missions over Germany.
Returning from war in late 1945, Stewart insisted that his military exploits not be publicized. He avoided studio contracts and freelanced, earning increasingly high salaries and becoming a pioneer of the percentage deal, under which he reportedly received up to half the profits of his movies.
In 1959, the Senate approved his promotion to Brigadier General, making him the highest-ranking showbiz figure in the American military. He retired from the Air Force Reserve in 1968.
At Princeton, he joined the Triangle Club, rising quickly from accordionist to leading roles in musicals. He graduated in 1932 with a bachelor’s degree in architecture. The Depression offered little demand for architects, so with an invitation from a college friend, Joshua Logan, he join the University Players on Cape Cod. The summer stock company included Henry Fonda, who was to become a lifelong friend even though Stewart was a conservative Republican and Fonda a fervently liberal Democrat.
Stewart and Henry Fonda had been roommates in their early theatre days, and when Fonda moved to Hollywood in 1934, he was again a roommate with Stewart in an apartment in Brentwood, and the two gained reputations as playboys. After a long time as Hollywood’s most eligible bachelor, Stewart was married, at 41 years old, to model Gloria Hatrick McLean, a model. They lived for decades in a Tudor-style house in the flats of Beverly Hills.
As for that friendship with Fonda, Stewart said in 1983, that it endured because ”…for 50 years ago we agreed not to discuss politics.”
Jane Fonda has written that they did have a falling out in the early 1970s, although she did not know whether it was because of their political differences. There is a brief, funny reference to their political differences in character in their film The Cheyenne Social Club (1970).
An astute businessman, Stewart became a multimillionaire, with real estate, oil wells, a charter-plane company and membership on major corporate boards.
Stewart was an advocate of protecting and preserving classic American movies against computerized coloring or re-editing for television. In 1988, he testified before Congress on behalf of a bill that later established a national panel to designate major films for conspicuous labeling to alert the public that they had been colored or otherwise altered.
When Stewart took that final bow, President William Jefferson Clinton commented that America had lost a “national treasure … a great actor, a gentleman and a patriot“. Over 3,000 mourners, mostly celebrities, attended Stewart’s memorial service, which included full military honors.