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The Jimmy Stewart Story

In 1955 Lookmagazine declared Jimmy Stewart the most popular movie star on the planet. He starred in three films that year, all directed by Anthony Mann—The Far Country, Strategic Air Command, and The Man from Laramie—and the year before had enjoyed particular success in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Although his roles in these films ranged from that of a voyeuristic photographer glued to the activities of his Greenwich Village neighbors to a vengeful horseman subjected to a series of vividly depicted brutalities, his image for most people remained that of a man deeply amiable and unaffectedly sincere; toward women bashful and courteous; among his fellow citizens modest to a fault and reliable in any kind of fix: someone in short that you would be pleased to find living next door.

As a small boy at the time, even without having seen many of his movies, I could sense the tremendous affection he elicited. He was a surrogate family member in a way more common then than now. Indeed, with his co-star June Allyson, who played his wife in four films, he established a model for what would later seem the ideal American couple, 1950s style: decent but not stern, fun-loving but not reckless, materially comfortable but utterly unpretentious. However closely he may have been associated with emblems of national power in movies like Strategic Air Command and The FBI Story, he himself seemed benignly unthreatening.

The hesitant drawl, the hand gestures that substituted for words that wouldn’t always come, the slightly awkward carriage as he tried to find space for himself in interiors that were always a little too small for his tall and narrow frame, and, beyond these identifying traits, the catch in the voice at moments of intimate communication, the glistening of eyes on the edge of tears: these were so familiar as to enable one to evoke effortlessly not just an image but a three-dimensional being known through and through. If as a teenager I attempted to imitate him at parties, it was partly because it seemed deceptively easy, but also because to impersonate Stewart was to become him for a few moments, and that felt quite satisfying, as one’s own shyness and awkwardness were redeemed by Stewart’s heroic versions of the same traits.

He had preserved into middle age just enough of the boyishness and naive enthusiasm that animated his pre-war performances in films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and The Philadelphia Story (1940) to keep that earlier impression alive for his longtime fans. It was only gradually that one registered just how completely the war years, when he was a bomber pilot, had altered him, within and without. Yet despite how much he may have changed, some part of him managed still to embody the ideal of the small-town boy, the sort of man that every Boy Scout supposedly aspired to become. In his birthplace—and even the name of Indiana, Pennsylvania, has the perfect American hometown ring—there is a statue of him outside the courthouse and a Jimmy Stewart Museum on the site of his father’s hardware store, dedicated to preserving his legacy as actor, family man, and war hero.

Such is the myth in its blandest formulation. But here the myth is close enough to the reality to create a problem for biographers in search of lively gossip and high drama. The scandal of Stewart’s life is the absence of scandal. Marc Eliot, in his extensively researched follow-up to his recent biography of Cary Grant, ends up, for example, devoting quite a lot of space to other people’s sex lives in order to add the requisite Hollywood coloring to his life of Stewart. There is an almost comical flavor to his account of the young actor, newly imported from Broadway by MGM, being pursued by Ginger Rogers, Norma Shearer, and Marlene Dietrich with, apparently, only moderate success. (Rogers, Eliot claims, was Stewart’s first lover; she had also been the object of his youthful admiration in the early talkie Campus Sweethearts.) A Boy Scout in Gomorrah, surrounded by roisterers like Clark Gable and Gary Cooper, Stewart evidently was often content to spend his offscreen time building model airplanes, flying kites with his closest friend, Henry Fonda, or reading Flash Gordon comic strips. The most outrageous anecdote retailed here involves Stewart being pressured by the studio to frequent MGM’s private brothel (maintained so that Louis B. Mayer could exercise some measure of control over his contract stars’ sex lives) in order to verify his heterosexuality.

Eliot reads in this chaste standoffishness the lingering aftereffects of Stewart’s Presbyterian upbringing. The actor, born in 1908, does seem to have imbibed pretty thoroughly the moral outlook of a family that valued hard work and patriotic service above all else. Both his grandfathers fought in the Civil War, and both went successfully into business thereafter. Stewart’s father, Alexander, served in turn in the Spanish-American War and in World War I, and ran the family hardware store until his death in 1962. Marc Eliot casts Alexander Stewart as the dominant figure in his son’s life, a rather stern but idolized father who at least initially professed only the most grudging interest in Stewart’s stardom and was more concerned that Jimmy should honor the family tradition by serving in the military, as he eventually did.

The peculiar emotional intensity of Stewart’s acting, his ability to expose raw feeling in a way that seems unmediated, takes on a different significance if seen as the performance of someone for whom acting will always be an act of rebellion against a powerful and demanding father who placed no value on it. The odd mixture of defiance and shame that comes through sometimes might well be the mark of someone torn in opposite ways. In his father’s fulmination, recollected by his son years later—“No Stewart has ever gone into show business!”—we catch an echo of an earlier American horror of the theatrical, a near-biblical sense of taboo attaching to theatrical representation and, by association, to the presumed moral laxness of “show people.” No doubt Stewart carried a good deal of the nineteenth century around with him, and that he seems at home in the small-town Wild West of, say, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is not just acting.

The show business part of the story as Eliot tells it has a remarkable simplicity. It’s as if he just drifted into it, or perhaps that’s the way he preferred to reimagine it in later tellings. Little Jimmy sat listening to his mother Bessie play the piano, learned the accordion, formed a theater company to produce in the basement at age eight a play called To Hell with the Kaiser. Working a summer job as a projectionist, he became infatuated with movies. By getting to know the director Joshua Logan in his sophomore year at Princeton—where Stewart was majoring in electrical engineering with a view toward a career in architecture—he made the crucial connection that would lead him to summer stock (where he formed lifelong bonds with Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan), and from there to Broadway (where he finally drew some attention with a role in Sidney Howard’s Yellow Jack) and to Hollywood. He had no formal training; according to Eliot, his most meaningful acting lessons came from Margaret Sullavan, who taught him to adapt his stagy technique to the movies, and from George Cukor, who got him to discard the mannerisms he had begun to rely on. Cukor’s lesson must have stuck, because although Stewart had a full stock of mannerisms to draw on as needed, at his best he knew perfectly well how to let them all drop away.

Clearly he loved acting, loved the theater, loved the movies, yet as an actor he lacks entirely the self-satisfied bravado of the guilt-free ham. It’s as if in the heart of his playacting some residual drama of self-denial is still going on. This translates as modesty, circumspection, gravity, control. He does not so much plunge as slip into acting, and the sense of freedom he finds there is always visibly tentative. His famous stammering pauses create an anxious space in which the scene’s progression is held at bay while he plays for time, defending himself against being rushed into anything.

He had few peers at miming discomfort, whether physical or moral. That flair for discomfort sees him through a role for which he was clearly miscast, the Nietzschean professor in Hitchcock’s Rope. There are moments in the film when we almost seem to see him as the young, uncertain summer stock actor, with Hitchcock’s one-reel-take technique doubtless accentuating the stage jitters. Stewart holds things together by force of will, but the tension that comes from his not being quite right for the part or the milieu is real enough to get him across an arid stretch of rhetoric—for a moment he seems almost the high school thespian mouthing words in which he has no real stake—to reach at the end of it a persuasive moment of shock and disgust that makes the whole scene seem real.

Reading a biography of Stewart it is impossible to avoid the impression that he did not especially want his life to be read. Marc Eliot leads us through the paces of his career, and we are able to imagine them with a certain vividness because we have always those mannerisms and that unforgettable voice so close by, almost inhabiting us, so that Stewart himself seems to step in to help out his biographer by animating what would otherwise be a succession of anecdotes, statistics, and plot summaries. Yet the heart is elsewhere, never quite visible. However busy the public life Stewart led—as actor, as reserve air force officer (ultimately promoted to brigadier general), as enthusiastic campaigner for Barry Goldwater and his close friend Ronald Reagan—everything important seems to happen offstage. Certainly Stewart himself offered little in the way of verbal self-revelation.

His privacy is not so much that of the man who wants to hide or to lead a secret life undisturbed, but of the true loner, the man at home in his privacy: at home even if depressed. Eliot suggests that Stewart underwent “a recurring series of isolating, dispiriting depressions,” although he cannot tell us much about the genesis or aftermath of these crises. The scenes of slightly melancholy bachelor life sketched in the beginning of Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder seem of a piece with some phases of Stewart’s own life, and he brings remarkable understated expressiveness to the simple actions of a man inhabiting a house where he has lived alone for a long time.

Stewart married relatively late in life, certainly by Hollywood standards—he met Gloria McLean, the divorced mother of two sons by the notorious socialite Ned McLean, at forty at a dinner party at Gary Cooper’s house, and they were married a year later. Twin daughters were born in 1951. The marriage was also unusual by Hollywood standards in that it endured. The tragedy of Stewart’s later life was the death of his stepson, a marine, in Vietnam in 1968.

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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