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The Jimmy Stewart Story

Of all the unwritten spaces in Stewart’s life, the most immense is his own participation in World War II. The war is the central fact that divides his career into two very distinct parts. After initially being relegated to the sidelines because of the army’s reluctance to risk the bad publicity of a movie star’s death in combat, he ultimately flew twenty bombing missions over Germany (between December 1943 and June 1944) as a captain in the army air corps, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for the raid on Brunswick in February 1944. He did not speak publicly of his experiences and after the war and, with a single exception (Daniel Mann’s 1960 World War II drama The Mountain Road), he refused to appear in war movies. (Strategic Air Command was about aeronautics, not combat.)

At the time Stewart was drafted in 1941, he had already (in a mere eight years) appeared in twenty-nine features. After a slow start with MGM, which had shown little sense of how best to use him, he achieved real stardom in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You (1938) and, decisively, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), where his emotional meltdown at the climax of his one-man filibuster against a corrupt Senate finally gave some idea of his abilities. Working with Ernst Lubitsch (the marvelous romantic comedy The Shop Around the Corner, 1940), Frank Borzage (the anti-Nazi melodrama The Mortal Storm, 1940), and George Cukor (the film of Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story, which earned Stewart his only Oscar), he established himself firmly as a leading man. But as Eliot observes, if he had died in the war “he would have likely been remembered as one of those extremely conventional actors who played off their natural personalities to achieve a familiar screen persona that touched audiences’ hearts.” I would question this because of the enduring appeal of his work for Capra, Lubitsch, and Cukor. Yet, undoubtedly, to revisit the pre-war Stewart in light of his later career is to be startled by a fresh-faced charm, almost eerily unmarked by experience, which was never to be seen again.

In the body of his work after the war, at least up until 1962, we find his real biography. His biographers—or perhaps they should be called portraitists—were the directors who in different ways brought out previously hidden layers of his personality, revealing Stewart as an actor whose gifts had hardly been tapped. Few actors have been more astute in their choice of collaborators. Working with Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life), Otto Preminger (Anatomy of a Murder), John Ford (Two Rode Together, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), Anthony Mann (eight films, including such great westerns as Bend of the River and The Naked Spur), and, crucially, Alfred Hitchcock (Rope, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo), Stewart made himself into a presence much richer and stranger than his early work would have suggested. Whatever he did not or could not articulate offscreen, he found actorly ways to show in the best of his postwar films, whose makers seem to have found in him an instrument spurring them to particularly daring and emphatically expressive work.

Repeated showings of It’s a Wonderful Life, the first film that Stewart made after returning from the war, may have blunted its effect somewhat. The parable of the man driven by failure and despair to wish he had never been born and who is granted a (hellish) vision of the world as it would have been without him has by now become another overfamiliar Christmas ornament. In the perspective of Stewart’s career, it’s a film that looks both ways. It was his last collaboration with Capra and a film whose narrative of a frustrated small-town life could almost be an account of what Stewart’s life might have become if he had never left his hometown. But as it progresses, following preliminary phases of youthful playfulness, shy romance, and idealistic determination, all echoing his earlier work, his performance moves into previously unsuspected levels of irritation, rage, despair, and fear that are like the revelation of a new actor.

He seems to have wanted to show the range of what he could do as an actor by making his performance an encapsulation of the varieties of human feeling, in the same way that Capra’s conception sought to encapsulate human life within the limits of a parable. By the time Stewart’s George Bailey arrives, in the parallel world of his vision, at the harrowing moment (almost medieval in its deep chill) where Bailey is rejected by the mother who never gave birth to him, he has successfully dismantled not only his character but all the audience expectations on which that character was predicated. He has gone on a nightmare journey on behalf of that audience—an unlikely shaman voyaging to the reverse side of the everyday, suffering sacrificially in some neon-lit nether realm—and all the tears of reconciliation that follow cannot quite erase the terror of the voyage. Perhaps it takes an actor as grounded in the ordinary as Jimmy Stewart to fully register how it would feel to know that one had never existed.

Stewart’s postwar persona was solidified in the five westerns he made with Anthony Mann. Mann, a great and still underrated filmmaker, had already attracted attention with a string of violent chiaroscuro crime melodramas when he worked with Stewart on Winchester 73, the film that successfully remodeled the star’s image into that of a man of action, marked by deep-seated anger and capable of implacable vengeance: a Mr. Smith who had gone to the desert and emerged from it toughened and full of grievances. Violence was omnipresent in Mann’s films, with Stewart often on the receiving end, knocked senseless and despoiled, abandoned on a mountainside, or (in a notorious episode of The Man from Laramie) shot point blank in the palm of the hand by a psychotic rancher.

But if that scene is famous, it is because of the way in which Stewart makes physical pain an emblem of moral agony, as if the whole force of the existence of evil were being brought to bear on his palm as he tried to make sense of it. The physicality of Stewart’s acting made him a natural for films in which language was secondary to movement, gesture, and the direct contact of the characters with the usually rugged terrain. The Naked Spur, perhaps the best of these, was a sort of chamber drama unfolding with peculiar intimacy and unrelenting pressure amid the labyrinthine pathways, caverns, and whirlpools of the Rockies. Stewart spends the entire movie standing his ground, fending off needling, insinuations, and physical attacks from the likes of Robert Ryan as an outlaw captured by Stewart for a bounty, and Ralph Meeker as an army deserter eager to share the bounty. He holds his emotions in check for ninety minutes and then lets them all out in a sudden moral reversal when, as he loads Ryan’s corpse on the back of a horse to take it in for the bounty, he insists to Janet Leigh as she begs him not to, “I’m takin’ him back, I swear it, I’m gonna sell him for money”—and abruptly bursts into tears as he realizes he is incapable of being a bounty hunter. It takes only a second or two of screen time and is the sort of scene that only Jimmy Stewart could play persuasively.

In this same period he was also incarnating, with a certain regularity, characters intended to put a human face on American power, technology, and patriotic effort. With seeming inevitability he played Glenn Miller (The Glenn Miller Story) and (despite being several decades too old for the part) the young Charles Lindbergh (The Spirit of St. Louis); in Strategic Air Command and The FBI Story he provided a voice for the purposes of Curtis LeMay and J. Edgar Hoover. Dutiful as these turns were—some of his scenes in The FBI Story seem more public service announcement than movie—Stewart had no difficulty making the transition from grizzled trail hand to dedicated technician or white-collar professional. If at one extreme he could play a man driven by raw emotion, he was equally plausible as a man focused on the sort of dry details that movies rarely have much time for: Glenn Miller studying the Schillinger method of musical composition, based on mathematics, in order to produce “Moonlight Serenade,” more basement hobbyist than romantic rhapsodist; Lindbergh working out weight distribution and periscopic vision for his transatlantic flight; the absent-minded scientist in No Highway in the Sky (one of his more caricatural performances) evolving his theory of metal fatigue; the country lawyer in Anatomy of a Murder combing the shelves of a legal library looking for a precedent.

Hitchcock found a way to combine these two sides of Stewart in Rear Window, where to feed his growing obsession with what the neighbors are up to, he draws on the technical expertise of a professional photographer, analyzing visual evidence, experimenting with different lenses, as a last resort using flashbulbs as defensive weapons. In Rear Window Hitchcock gives us the “dry” version of Stewart as never before: sardonic, evasive, wily. The charm is still there but its underlying defensiveness is more apparent. Stewart’s performance is all the more remarkable for being limited to a wheelchair. The actor finds endless ways to find motion within his immobility, and again we see his gift for turning the expression of physical discomfort into a psychological statement. His body restrained, Stewart accentuates the grasping movements of hands as they seize instruments to augment the power of the eyes.

In building a film around the act of staring, Hitchcock could not have found an actor more appropriate than Stewart, whose gaze is his ultimate and fundamental expressive device. In film after film his blindingly direct stare had already expressed frustrated longing, vengeful determination, troubled realization, suicidal despair. In Rear Window Hitchcock wants to test the limits of that gaze by giving it a whole field of human activity to spy on, until the film becomes a documentary on James Stewart’s various ways of reacting to what he sees. Although Hitchcock once likened the movie to the Lev Kuleshov experiment in montage in which an unchanging close-up of a face seems to assume different expressions depending on what it is shown to be looking at, Stewart’s reactions are in fact delicately personalized, as shades of lust, pity, and morbid curiosity take their turn with him.1

But there is no question that Hitchcock is conducting a kind of experiment with Stewart, an experiment that he pushed to another level in Vertigo (1958) by putting the actor’s gaze at the center of the movie through the long sequences in which he follows Kim Novak in his car around San Francisco. Throughout the film Hitchcock seemed intent on taking Stewart apart even more completely than George Bailey’s nightmare vision in It’s a Wonderful Life had managed to do. As “Scottie” Ferguson, the police detective sidelined by crippling acrophobia after he blames himself for a colleague’s death in a fall, Stewart is a wounded man right from the outset, and what follows is merely the baroquely elaborated convolution of his further undoing.2 The more fully we have experienced Stewart’s warmth and vivacity in other roles—the more terrifying are the ways Hitchcock finds to deprive him of them. He had mimed near breakdowns before, in Wonderful Life and Naked Spur for instance, but here for once, in the central scene in the mental hospital, was the full-fledged breakdown: a catatonic depression so absolute that there is almost nothing left of the Jimmy Stewart we know but what looks like the beginning of a smile, or at least the faintest impulse toward what would be a smile if it did not lapse back into hopelessness before getting there.

And then, in the film’s second movement, Hitchcock brings him to life once more as he meets his lost love again in a slightly different form. Stewart attempts to remake Kim Novak in the image of the dead Madeleine, smiling with satisfaction (and with something of a mad glint in his eye) as she approaches the desired image, arguing testily with a shop assistant who deviates from his fetishistic program; if these scenes succeed so well in expressing the terror of obsessive desire, it is because this is Jimmy Stewart. If it happened to a stranger we might be repelled or at best morbidly curious; but if it can happen even to Jimmy Stewart then we are ourselves caught up in his fate. No one understood as well as Hitchcock the force of Stewart’s emotional openness, or managed to lead it—in the final raging scene of Vertigo as Scottie drags Judy up the steps of the tower, where Stewart’s hoarsely plaintive voice, frantic gaze, and hurtling movements attain operatic intensity—into so sublimely despairing an impasse. Small wonder if in later years Stewart found it more comfortable to coast in comedies like Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation. He could hardly surpass what he had already done.

  1. 1

    Let’s take a close-up of Stewart looking out of the window at a little dog that’s being lowered in a basket. Back to Stewart, who has a kindly smile. But if in the place of the little dog you show a half-naked girl exercising in front of her open window, and you go back to a smiling Stewart again, this time he’s seen as a dirty old man!”—François Truffaut, Hitchcock (Simon and Schuster, 1967), p. 159.

  2. 2

    Asked by an old acquaintance to keep an eye on his beautiful, haunted, possibly insane wife, he falls in love with her; he is prevented by his vertigo from saving her from a suicidal fall from a tower, and suffers a mental collapse; and after his partial recovery he encounters a woman who closely resembles her although she is superficially a different sort (the vulgar shopgirl Judy rather than the dazzling socialite Madeleine); he tries to make her over into the exact image of the other woman, only to realize finally that she is in fact the same woman, that he has been the enabler of a complicated murder plot, and that the “Madeleine” he loved never really existed—at which moment of realization the woman falls to her death from the same tower.

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