Classic movie site with rare images, original ads, and behind-the-scenes photos, with informative and insightful commentary. We like to have fun with movies!
Archive and Links
Search Index Here

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

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 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 was a near-bottomless well 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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Happy 100th! And "past prime" or not, Ford's Liberty Valance remains one of my favorite movies, as well as one of my favorite James Stewart movies. I think the typical viewer tends to be underwhelmed by Stewart's performance because they expect to find him struggling with his "dark side" when, in fact, Wayne has the juicier role. Stewart does quite well in his role as a whining, idealistic, opportunistic and self-absorbed lawmaker.

12:08 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

Happy birthday! Stewart is one of my all time favorite actors and his best films are among my favorites.

Here are a ton of posters of many of his films:

6:27 PM  
Blogger Vanwall said...

He was always Jimmy to me, never James - couldn't take him seriously with the stiffer sobriquet. As a kid, I was bombarded with "It's a Life" as some kind of affirmation of American Life, whatever the hell that was, and altho I preferred Potter-ville or whatever the evil burg was in that film, I couldn't and still can't watch it, and it took a long time to watch Jimmy in anything, period. It tainted my view of Stewart for years, until I watched "Winchester 73" on a rainy day in eighth grade, and the scene where he grinds Duryea's face into the bar redeemed him in my pantheon - here was the naked psychosis that seemed to lurk behind his character's eyes laid bare by a man known for his moderate screen persona in such a forceful manner, that I could never take him as just a treacly player again. I gave him another chance, and found in "Harvey", "Rear Window", and "Vertigo" a totally different actor, never mind the weak and boring performances from so many other of his films - he had the chops, even if his politics sucked. It's funny that so many of his films were losers during that time - I suppose we see more in the cold light of hindsight than folks back then allowed for.

I try to separate actor's performances from their films, such as Charles Coburn, Adolph Menjou, and the rest of the one-eyed jacks, which are often at cross-purposes with their stated beliefs so often, I have come to see their entire lives as make-believe for their own satisfaction, 'cause they seem to take the bucks often enough for a role. Stewart was much the same, I suppose, and it's nice to be able to pick & choose which films to watch - imagine if you had one or two theaters in town, and they decided for you - box office or not, they would shape your view of things more than they should've been allowed to. When I started watching films, they were all the kind of syrupy happy dreck that sold a lot of family butts-in-seats, and when things started to change to more varied fare, it was like having filet mignon after a wasted youth being fed with pabulum. Jimmy Stewart's kind of film.

11:44 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

When he died, a rep from the AFI said that "Jimmy just played Jimmy" in all his movies. It was up to Leonard Maltin to set her straight, ticking off his roles in "Vertigo," "Winchester '73,"
"Rope" and "It's a Wonderful Life" as just four utterly different portrayals. Stewart is far, far better and more versatile than any of the recent wannabes (cough Tom Hanks cough!)

7:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

He played the lead character in some of my favorite films. He lucked out since his films in the 50's were as great as the ones he made in the 30's. He was so easy to like onscreen. It came as quite a shock when I discovered not only his politics, but his views on race. He was pretty much of his time so to speak. But onscreen he was the perfect American.

(I dare you to post this)

8:39 AM  
Blogger The Siren said...

Amen on the Jimmy bit! you'll notice on the tribute at my place I didn't use the nickname. If I had met this towering acting genius in person I doubt very much I'd have called him Jimmy, and I can't even manage it in an essay long past his passing.

3:45 PM  
Blogger J.A. Morris said...

"Stewart complained of what scripts he got being nothing but retreads of that 1946 classic"

I remember catching him on 'Larry King' back in the late 1980s. He complained that the only roles he was offered were grandfathers suffering from dementia of some form. On another episode(or maybe the same, I can't recall) he and his political opposite Burt Lancaster appeared on King's show together to complain about colorization of classic films.

5:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John, still, say what you will, what a remarkable career! And, you're still overlooking such real Metro gems as "Philadelphia Story" & "Shop Around the Corner"(ANY actor would sell his aged-mother into bondage for even one of these roles!) Supposedly, when Tyrone Power, free of his Fox-contract. agreed to a one-shot at Universal, called "Mississippi Gambler", he told Edie Goetz, "I want the Jimmy Stewart Treatment" -- which meant, the same piece of the action!A dear old friend from Beverly High, stationed in the Air Force was doing an armed-forces radio show out of Berlin (this would be, the 70's I think) and had Stewart on one morning as guest. He played the transcript for me, and there really wasn't much, as I recall, to relate here, except my friend, named Gage Mace, was a brilliant impressionist and among his reportoire, was of course, Stewart. And, he did it for the man on the broadcast. A pause. "Yah, yah, you're good-- you're pretty good", Stewart said, "But not as good as Rich Little!" Finally , for your commentator "Vanwall": I know that my late dad needs no introduction to you John, but for the benefit of the rest: My father, Stuart working as a televsion writer at a small-lot in Hollywood called Ziv, was doing many assignments on a series called "Favorite Story". Adolphe Menjou hosted, and occasionally starred. One morning, Pop was invited down to the set to watch them shoot a script he had written, featuring Menjou. The director, either Eddie Davis, or Lewis Allen, introduces my father to Menjou. (Dad is maybe, like 32,then). 'This is Stuart Jerome", the director says to Menjou,"Who wrote this week's script." Dad extends his hand, "How do you do, Mr. Menjou". Ignoring it, Menjou yells,"They just found 15 of them at Paramount!" Not quite sure that he understood him, my father asks, "15 -- what?" "COMMUNISTS!", blasts Menjou, stalking-off. The Ziv lot was a tiny studio on Santa Monica Blvd., which had really been my playground when I was a child. Dad wrote for most of the series there, and my mother occasionally had an acting-part in one of Dad's shows. So it was really a "family-affair" out there. Practically everyone who came to our house, and my parents saw socially, were from the Ziv lot. Located right across (and actually next-door) to the Goldwyn Studio, I passed by it's former-location just the other day, on my way to the Hollywood DMV. It's long-gone,just a memory, no-doubt like those 15 Communists at Paramount! R.J.

8:37 AM  
Blogger Vanwall said...

r.j. -

I've heard anecdotes like that about Menjou many times, and it's sad to see such a vitriolic approach to life; that said, when he's in "Paths of Glory", he surely realized his role was written as a huge criticism of his kind of thinking - mammon seemd to sooth his feelings about what roles to take, obviously. And don't get me started on the other side of the one-eyed jacks like June Allyson - do as I say, not as I do, that's the celebrity way. Stewart may have hewn closer to shore of his real life beliefs, but my guess is it's like Neville St. Clair - "It was acting!"

That's fascinating about Ziv Studios - has anyone done a history of it? They made some of my favorite shows as a kid - "Sea Hunt" and "Cisco Kid" being staples on our TV, and of course, "Superman" with George Reeves. They had a myserious something that my brother and I liked, I guess.

11:40 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

RJ, thanks for more of those priceless first-person anecdotes. Adolphe Menjou --- wow. Did you know that Clark Gable wrote the forward for Menjou's autobiobraphy, published, I think, in 1949?

Fascinating how the comments here are addressing Jim's politics, as I expected they might.

RJ, I didn't mention those two big Metro pics mainly because I was doing this piece as a single post and not going to two parts with it (maybe I should have!). At some point later, I'm sure I'll be revisiting individual JS features. There's at least two dozen worthy of a dedicated post.

12:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear John and "vanwall" -- Thanks for the nice feed-back. Oh, yeah, Dad had several - encounters with Adolphe M. afterward (he was, after-all one of the principal-writers on the series) and said the man was impossible! You just couldn't talk with him! By way of contrast, Mom told me, some years-later, about meeting Robert Taylor at a party-held at a producer named Arold Laven's house, and how absolutely-charming he was -- but then, how else would-one expect Robert Taylor to behave? (And thanks to your in-depth reportage, John, on an earlier blog, I am now fully-confident that if Bob and I had crossed-paths, politics would not have been an issue -- we would have gotten-down to the IMPORTANT stuff -- good java and fine tobacco! Oh yeah, Mr. Taylor knew what the real stuff of life was about!)But about Menjou -- from time-to-time in later years, Dad would join me in the middle of the night when I was off into 30's movieland on late-night, and if it were, say, "Stage Door", he would always say something to the effect, "Funny, I wish now I had talked with Menjou about ---, but you just couldn't hold a rational conversation with him. I can believe it! I also remember clearly asking Dad one-time about "Paths of Glory" , and if Menjou realized that he was virtually being asked to play himself. His answer was something to the effect that he MIGHT have, but it was doubtful, he probably looked-on it as just another job. I think my fathers' answer is pretty-likely, and I strongly doubt if Kirk Douglas or Stanley ever huddled with Menjou about the duality of the role! THEY knew what they were doing, and what they wanted and that was probably enough! And, as always, Menjou delivered! He's sensational in it, and whenever he and Kirk are on-screen together, their scenes just crackle! One day, Dad, the dirctor (again, Dad thought Eddie Davis) and Menjou were all going-on location for a shoot.(For Ziv, this might have meant like a radius of two-miles either-way) when they had to stop at a gas-station. Menjou is sitting in the middle of the car, waiting. Dad said he is sans his trademark-moustache for the episode. Old Jewish couple pass the car -- man stops his wife and points: "Look-it, Ma--it's Charlie Chaplin!" Dad said, thank god Menjou didn't hear them! Best always, R.J.

3:34 PM  
Blogger Vanwall said...

r.j. -
You got it right about Menjou's performance in "Paths of Glory" - as a bonus it also had the brilliant scarred man, George Macready, (the other most dapper man in Hollywood along with Menjou,) and his performance was crackling as well, much better than in "Gilda", IMHO. I bet he saw his role for what it was. Thanks for the insights from your Dad!

This film was a good example of the changes that had occurred in film. The level of acting in that film could never have been reached by Jimmy Stewart, I think - he needed a certain amount of a flattened unreality around him to make things work, and this film was a warts and all production.

1:28 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home
  • December 2005
  • January 2006
  • February 2006
  • March 2006
  • April 2006
  • May 2006
  • June 2006
  • July 2006
  • August 2006
  • September 2006
  • October 2006
  • November 2006
  • December 2006
  • January 2007
  • February 2007
  • March 2007
  • April 2007
  • May 2007
  • June 2007
  • July 2007
  • August 2007
  • September 2007
  • October 2007
  • November 2007
  • December 2007
  • January 2008
  • February 2008
  • March 2008
  • April 2008
  • May 2008
  • June 2008
  • July 2008
  • August 2008
  • September 2008
  • October 2008
  • November 2008
  • December 2008
  • January 2009
  • February 2009
  • March 2009
  • April 2009
  • May 2009
  • June 2009
  • July 2009
  • August 2009
  • September 2009
  • October 2009
  • November 2009
  • December 2009
  • January 2010
  • February 2010
  • March 2010
  • April 2010
  • May 2010
  • June 2010
  • July 2010
  • August 2010
  • September 2010
  • October 2010
  • November 2010
  • December 2010
  • January 2011
  • February 2011
  • March 2011
  • April 2011
  • May 2011
  • June 2011
  • July 2011
  • August 2011
  • September 2011
  • October 2011
  • November 2011
  • December 2011
  • January 2012
  • February 2012
  • March 2012
  • April 2012
  • May 2012
  • June 2012
  • July 2012
  • August 2012
  • September 2012
  • October 2012
  • November 2012
  • December 2012
  • January 2013
  • February 2013
  • March 2013
  • April 2013
  • May 2013
  • June 2013
  • July 2013
  • August 2013
  • September 2013
  • October 2013
  • November 2013
  • December 2013
  • January 2014
  • February 2014
  • March 2014
  • April 2014
  • May 2014
  • June 2014
  • July 2014
  • August 2014
  • September 2014
  • October 2014
  • November 2014
  • December 2014
  • January 2015
  • February 2015
  • March 2015
  • April 2015
  • May 2015
  • June 2015
  • July 2015
  • August 2015
  • September 2015
  • October 2015
  • November 2015
  • December 2015
  • January 2016
  • February 2016
  • March 2016
  • April 2016
  • May 2016
  • June 2016
  • July 2016
  • August 2016
  • September 2016
  • October 2016
  • November 2016
  • December 2016
  • January 2017
  • February 2017
  • March 2017
  • April 2017
  • May 2017
  • June 2017
  • July 2017
  • August 2017
  • September 2017
  • October 2017
  • November 2017
  • December 2017
  • January 2018
  • February 2018
  • March 2018
  • April 2018
  • May 2018
  • June 2018
  • July 2018
  • August 2018
  • September 2018
  • October 2018
  • November 2018
  • December 2018
  • January 2019
  • February 2019
  • March 2019
  • April 2019
  • May 2019
  • June 2019
  • July 2019
  • August 2019
  • September 2019
  • October 2019
  • November 2019
  • December 2019
  • January 2020
  • February 2020
  • March 2020
  • April 2020
  • May 2020
  • June 2020
  • July 2020
  • August 2020
  • September 2020
  • October 2020
  • November 2020
  • December 2020
  • January 2021
  • February 2021
  • March 2021
  • April 2021
  • May 2021
  • June 2021
  • July 2021
  • August 2021
  • September 2021
  • October 2021
  • November 2021
  • December 2021
  • January 2022
  • February 2022
  • March 2022
  • April 2022
  • May 2022
  • June 2022
  • July 2022
  • August 2022
  • September 2022
  • October 2022
  • November 2022
  • December 2022
  • January 2023
  • February 2023
  • March 2023
  • April 2023
  • May 2023
  • June 2023
  • July 2023
  • August 2023
  • September 2023
  • October 2023
  • November 2023
  • December 2023
  • January 2024
  • February 2024
  • March 2024
  • April 2024
  • May 2024
  • June 2024
  • July 2024