James Stewart's Hundredth
I always thought it diminished James Stewart a little when they called him "Jimmy". He spent a long career cultivating audiences for both incarnations. The simple equation of a bashful 30’s boy becoming the hardened postwar man is manageable enough for most viewers, but closer examination of his output finds James and Jimmy playing musical chairs throughout nearly sixty years he worked. There was considerable flexibility within the Stewart persona and he made all of the variations pay. Other leading men of the era seem tighter bound by images more confining than his. Having felled the ogre of typecasting in the late forties (studios would have been as happy to let him go on playing guileless Jimmy), JS warded off monotony for another decade to enjoy the biggest and most varied run any actor had during that period. There were near-bottomless wells of tricks James and Jimmy could draw from, and since the actor never allowed himself to be trapped in either posture, he could enjoy benefits of both longer than most players traveling along narrower gauges. The fun of encountering the unexpected starts early with Stewart and gets more so as you observe him adding the layers. Within confines of youth, he’d do much. Halting speech and a gangly frame in Wife vs. Secretary and After The Thin Man suggest a bleak future in character support --- a more presentable Walter Brennan maybe? Stewart averted that by means of sensual appeal just beneath the surface of just-folks he portrayed. His was a new line in aw-shucks seducers who seemed not a threat. Love scenes with Carole Lombard, Marlene Dietrich, Lana Turner, Hedy Lamarr and others are surprising for heat they still generate. Early Stewart in a clinch has not the off-putting modern effect of caveman tactics practiced by screen lovers who wear less well. Lest a woman feel safer with Jimmy, however, there is Winning Your Wings, a how-to manual he narrates for potential recruits in the Army Air Force. Here is randy Stewart unmasked, a part noteworthy for cocksuredness he displays re that most universal obsession. John Huston directed the 1942 Warners short. Both he and Stewart knew from plenty what guys really expected once they donned uniforms, and lest any forget, Jim puts the Army’s most inviting proposition right on the line. What you’re gonna see next isn’t considered part of the regular training course, says Lieutenant Stewart, photographed close and from just below so as to take us into his confidence, but you’re a chump if you don’t include it in your curriculum. A flyer’s arrival at a canteen dance gets a phenomenal (Stewart’s word) reaction from unbilled Dolores Moran. You find out the effect those shiny little wings have on a gal, intones narrator JS as she’s off in immediate pursuit. Stewart was an able instructor here, being himself a noted swordsman about town. Kirk Douglas told a story in his autobio of JS stealing his date at a Hollywood party, something for which he never forgave the older man.
The serious business of wartime enlistment was a gamble for actors moving up. Career momentum might be lost for those three or more years off the screen. Stewart was remarkable for having joined twelve months before Pearl Harbor, with no promise of renewed stardom once his hitch was up. For every Gable or Tyrone Power who regained strides, there was a Ronald Reagan or George Montgomery for whom brass rings once attainable were now out of reach. John Wayne recognized the hazard and stayed home lest progress be impeded. Stewart’s war record was outstanding. We’ll probably never know the full extent of his military accomplishment, so reticent was he to trade upon it once the war ended. Like Audie Murphy, JS largely avoided combat subjects in movies he did afterward. Missteps once home included Magic Town and The Jackpot, the sorts of Jimmy pics that might not have worked even when such Capra-esque things were popular. The one that turned things around was Call Northside 777, a still compelling semi-documentary with accent-on-the James Stewart crusading on behalf of framed convict Richard Conte. Here in his first entrance is the new man, approaching managing editor Lee J. Cobb’s desk not in the open and friendly manner of Jimmy, but with attitude now at the least suspicious and just short of outright cynicism, suiting ideally the mood of his 1947 audience (Northside realized profits of $857,000). The clincher would be Winchester ’73, Anthony Mann’s 1950 western generally credited for introducing Stewart the hard guy. Most of that turned on the impact of JS bashing Dan Duryea’s face into a bar counter and going near bestial on him. Beyond that transcendence, Winchester was novel mainly for putting Stewart on horseback and placing another genre at his profitable disposal. You’d like to think his screen neurosis flowed from horrors he’d witnessed overseas (there was hearing damage sustained in those bombers), for how could such intensity come of mere actor’s artifice? At the least, it went against grains of patron expectation and gave them one more reason to seek out further Stewart offerings. Elements of surprise were cunningly mixed with vehicles harking back to the old Jimmy (You Gotta Stay Happy, Harvey). To these would be added a cash cow he’d milk through most of the fifties … romantic biopics. Legs blown off (The Stratton Story --- $1.2 million profit), prison sojourns (Carbine Williams --- $643,000 profit), and a plane crash demise (The Glenn Miller Story and $7.6 million in domestic rentals) dampened not the can-do American spirit of real lives he would enact. Unbroken success at this made Lindbergh seem doable despite age disparity between actor and subject. The Spirit Of St. Louis would be first to show cracks in the structure, and based on reports of his behavior during production, maybe Stewart sensed trouble even before exhibitors did.
He was noted for wily ways at percentage splits, and Winchester ’73 to this day takes pride of place in most histories as first of those to divide bounty between star and studio. While it possibly led in terms of press recognition for such a split, and there was considerable ink on the subject in 1950, such arrangements in reality went back almost as far as movies themselves. Marie Dressler had a large piece of Tillie’s Punctured Romance in 1914. The Marx Brothers, Maurice Chevalier, Fredric March, Jack Benny, Abbott and Costello --- all were in on receipt counting at one time or another, and these were long before Stewart’s Winchester ’73 deal. Percentages would become a matter of course for most free-lancing names in the fifties. Between Mann westerns, Hitchcock thrillers, and biopics, JS put not a foot wrong in that peak period up to 1957. The decline, easier to identify in hindsight, began that year. Stewart’s semi-hysterical outbursts and abandonment of Paris locations during filming of The Spirit Of St. Louis have only recently been explored in bios of Billy Wilder, and actress Maureen O’Hara writes of Stewart temperament we always figured he was well above. His was a treasured (offscreen) image that allowed for little human frailty. The showdown with Anthony Mann (below on location with Stewart during The Man From Laramie) and its resulting spilt between star and director is a drama yet to be fully delved, but it exacted a toll upon both men’s careers. The Lindbergh disaster ended Stewart’s run at playing real-life heroes, and within a year, even Hitchcock pondered the actor’s age as possible basis for Vertigo’s disappointing $2.8 million in domestic rentals. A mature and self-consciously responsible Stewart carried establishment banners in 1959's The FBI Story. The outsider and frequent malcontent of Mann westerns now displayed a badge upholding American institutions just before opening bell on a decade bent upon dismantling them. Stewart also lowered the veil between himself and conservative politics, going public in defense of standards under siege. Being a gentler presence than friend John Wayne kept him out of culture warring crosshairs, but Stewart quotes on draft dodging and Communist infiltration were/are no less incendiary to opponents, some of whom have renewed said ideological battles on websites commemorating his hundredth year.
With Mann westerns, biopics, and Hitchcock off the table, there was but aging Jimmy to sustain what was left of Stewart in features. He was beleaguered Dad in a trio you could put under a big umbrella called Kids Today --- Parts One, Two, and Three. These were Mr. Hobbs Takes A Vacation, Take Her, She’s Mine, and Dear Brigitte --- each for Fox and all showing a loss at the end of their run. Past prime John Ford would have been a bigger help had he called ten or twenty years earlier. Their sixties collaborations found Stewart straining at effect that had come easier when he was on top. John Wayne took second billing on posters for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but his was otherwise the dominant presence in scenes they played together. There would be a final western success featuring Stewart. Shenandoah was back at Universal, and a surprising $7.8 million in domestic rentals suggested a comeback, though hopes for that were cruelly dashed by the under-performance of The Rare Breed (a plunging $1.9 million domestic), one of those Entertainment For The Entire Family westerns destined to bore viewers from 1966 on. Stewart was meantime wrapping his military service (with a rank of Brigadier General) as observer on a B-52 bombing raid over North Viet Nam (!). A final feature with him in the lead, Fool’s Parade, was released in 1971. That left twenty-six years to serve as elder statesman and cameo specialist in a Hollywood now comparing younger flashes-in-the-pan with Stewart. A public domain It’s A Wonderful Life surged back in the mid-seventies and would, for many of that generation, define Stewart’s entire career; remarkable indeed for a picture obscure and even hard to see until suddenly everyone was watching it. Stewart complained of what scripts he got being nothing but retreads of that 1946 classic. He was exceedingly good to fans, always willing to mail back signed stills on request, but the sort of book length interviews you’d like to have read don’t seem to have taken place (unless I’ve missed them). There was an audio commentary Stewart did for a laser disc of Winchester ’73 that was ported over for the DVD, one of the few times he regarded a backlog piece in such welcome detail. Martin Scorsese found the actor appropriately polite, but curt, when they met (twice). Maybe Stewart foresaw probing questions this most devoted of cineastes might ask and decided to clam up straightaway. Goodness knows by then he’d developed radar for such eager approaches.