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…
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