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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Postwar Stewart Still In Small Towns

Magic Town (1947) Is Capra's In All But Name

Couple of recent conversations where James Stewart came up. A woman I know, in her late 30's, said she and her boyfriend watched Rear Window, and then Vertigo, on TCM. The movies were OK, she said, but Stewart's voice began to get on her nerves. First time I'd heard a comment like this, and it surprised me. Does Stewart grate upon modern ears? Someone else observed that his acting wouldn't be compatible to current films, or even ones made in a last forty years, which really gives pause. Makes me wonder then --- does Stewart's style belong to a past because performance technique is different, or because people are different from a sort he knew and dealt with? Stewart struck a fully congenial note with audiences for most of his run, a peak surely hit in the 50's, followed by slope through the 60/70's when we changed rather than him. It would be worth taking poll among those born during late decades, assuming they know or have seen Stewart at all. Outside of It's A Wonderful Life, I'm in doubt they would, or have. In event introduction were made, to one of the Hitchcocks or a western perhaps, how would young viewers react?

We could apply the same question to other lead men of Stewart's era: Clark Gable, Tyrone Power, Gary Cooper. I take for granted that Bogart and Cary Grant still play to young eyes and ears, but do they? Have all old stars passed beyond gone, to foreign, to peculiar? I won't forget a time in 1979 when I saw Bright Leaf with a then-g.f. A scene with Cooper and Lauren Bacall made her squirm: This is just strange, she said. I knew it wasn't only the scene that bothered her, but the way these actors acted, and interacted. You can lead folks to old films, but you can't make them drink, this getting more so with each year that passes. For evermore relic title called out for insensitivity, as in wrong-then, wrong-now, we'll not be long before all of the canon is put into category better left alone.

So much for dire fate of oldies and on to Magic Town, which had TCM "premiere" a short while back and was indeed event for having been gone from home screens a long while. I had not seen it at all, so was curious about this most Capra-like of films not directed by Capra. In fact, William Wellman stood helm. He later said it "stank," in fact challenged anyone to find anything good about it. I like Wellman a lot, but he must have been an exhausting old man to interview. "Wild Bill" would recall "throwing up" after seeing what studio meat-cutters did to Buffalo Bill, Lafayette Escadrille, whatever finished job he was unhappy with. He would speak of intent to put one mogul or other "in the hospital" should he encounter them on backlots. Wellman was honest enough to know where fault for flops was his. Said by the director to be done as "a favor," Wellman maintained that Frank Capra should have directed Magic Town. Pic was effort by writer Robert Riskin to break from Capra yolk and see one of his scripts through minus the Master's (and credit hogger) Touch. Riskin had a love/hate thing going with Capra. They wouldn't work together again after prewar successes, which were many.

Riskin died early and young (1955, at age 58), and so left Capra, Wellman, widow Fay Wray, others, to tell the tale on Magic Town. The movie is Capra repainted, its small town a Bedford Falls of but months after It's A Wonderful Life. You'd think people might embrace this as welcome encore for George Bailey in bucolic circumstance, but Magic Town has been forgot, or dismissed by few who've seen it. Stewart isn't noble or benign here, but an almost confidence man out to exploit rurals who represent an ideal cross-section of America, this to aid him in doing opinion surveys. The concept was odd, even interesting, more so perhaps to 40's folk who knew or read much about Gallup polls that predicted what we'd buy, read, or yes, go to see at theatres. Selznick relied heavily on Gallup. You could argue for considerable credit to Gallup for success of Duel In The Sun. What Magic Town showed me was how darker shading was at play for most all of Stewart performing after WWII. He is "Jimmy" here only in sense of third act reform and clinch with lead lady Jane Wyman. The switch Winchester '73 was credited for could be seen from several years off. I read how Stewart, back from service, looked at prewar Born To Dance (1936) and knew he could never go back to such a persona. Magic Town shows him applying that lesson.


Blogger lmshah said...

I'm sure James Stewart and many actors of the period grate on modern young ears, he doesn't speak through his nose, or use the words "like" and "you know" several times in every sentence, he doesn't babble incessantly about little of consequence without taking breaths. I know this is the reason I cannot listen to modern excuses for broadcasters or most "podcasters", who sound like valley girls gossiping at their high-school lunches whether male or female to me. The actors of Stewart's generation had good voices and sounded like adults. There seem to be fewer and fewer adults around today.

Didn't know MAGIC TOWN was considered a rarity, it was a mainstay on one of our local television stations and I've had it in the collection for decades, but it hasn't been frequently revived at Casa Del Ricardo. I think Wellman was right, he just didn't have the touch for Capra material, Wellman was okay with macho melodrama and human emotion in face of peril (he was the one who made John Wayne cry in ISLAND IN THE SKY don't forget), but unlike Raoul Walsh, who could turn around and make something like THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE a thing of beauty full of lovely character touches and humane interaction, I just don't think Wellman was willing to go there in either his pictures or himself.

The problem with MAGIC TOWN is just that bit of cynical bitterness that seeps through from Riskin, which Capra would have probably buffed and polished to make it a bit more palatable (people seem to forget the really dark moments that are in so many Capra films, partially because he usually shoots them in such beautiful atmosphere when delivering them). Wellman was just not that sort of director any more than, say, Mitchell Leisen would be making action and war movies. I give credit to Wellman for seeing that in himself and admitting it, even if he protesteth a wee too much. Gentility was never his strong point.


3:45 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Most folks watch films old or new with little or no critical attitude (which is fine by me). Stewart speaks in a unique manner, yes. It is a given that both then and now there were and are a few who don't like him.

I have had people in audiences I have addressed attack myself personally and then when they find the audience is actually interested in what I have to offer dismiss them as idiots.

When I first began doing this I was jarred by the rudeness of their attacks. Now I take it in stride.

Back in the 1970s one fellow at a screening of DRACULA laughed at every word that Bela Lugosi spoke. Why? Because, he said, vampires don't really exist. I told him that in reality they do, perhaps not in the manner of DRACULA but they do. I added that for the sake of the story most folks agree to accept that vampires DO exist. Then I gave him his money back and sent him on his way. He left muttering what a jerk I was.

I get a much younger crowd than do most who screen what we call old movies. I call them young movies because they come from the youth of the cinema. Many of our new films are arthritic. Now I want to see this.

6:55 AM  
Blogger Mark Mayerson said...

Kind of an odd way to celebrate Wellman, picking a film that was compromised by the studio and then a film that Wellman himself disliked. Are there any more entries in the pipeline on Wellman that are more positive?

7:03 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

"I call them young movies because they come from the youth of the cinema."

I really like your idea here, Reg. Sounds like something TCM should utilize instead of "Let's Movie!"

7:27 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

You know how I like to celebrate runts in a litter, Mark. And others have written more nimbly on the famous titles than I ever could. Besides, I really like ACROSS THE WIDE MISSOURI, and enjoy MAGIC TOWN as well. Guess that's my way of saying that there is nothing of Wellman that is without interest. Next in the pipeline, by the way, is CALL OF THE WILD for Monday, wherein Walt Disney and NIKKI, THE WILD DOG OF THE NORTH also get a look-in.

7:33 AM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

Comments like that about Stewart's voice makes Stinky despair for humanity.

Stinky really likes Wellman, and finds the "misfires" of the 30s and 40s much more interesting than the bloated commercial successes of the 50s. The High and the Mighty takes so long to get off the ground, literally and figuratively, it's a wonder it was made by the same man who made those fast-paced 30s films.

Stinky also has a soft spot for Westward the Women, a film started by Capra.

12:38 PM  
Blogger Mikeymort said...

My mother, born in 1933, had an issue with Stewart (and other actors of his generation) in that they seemed to be too old to be romancing the likes of Kim Novak and Grace Kelly. Alfred Hitchcock himself complained that Stewart was looking too old by the time they made Vertigo. I always felt that in Vertigo he seemed like a creepy old man obsessed with a woman out of his league (and age range). Stewart was more effective when not playing romantic leads such as his role in The Flight of the Phoenix.

2:35 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

I don't know about a modern problem with Stewart's voice, that's a new one on me. But as for his acting style, I think he fits in just fine. His "style" is much more modern than that of many actors (MOST actors) from decades past. In movies in which Stewart got to Act, with that capital A, such as MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and, especially, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, there's an intensity and a naturalism that should work -- that should shine -- in any time period.

4:33 PM  
Blogger brickadoodle said...

Jane Wyman's antiseptic on-screen personality has always made me break out in hives.

4:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find contemporary responses to classic film (and classic film stars) often inexplicable.
I cannot tell you how many people react to great films with a dismissive, “oh, it’s camp.” (This nearly came to blows when some joker dismissed the original 1933 King Kong because … you know, it’s old and campy.) I think, to the contemporary mind, “camp” is anything more than 15 minutes old.

Just last week I was at a party where a 30-year-old told me, emphatically, that he liked the new Planet of the Apes films, but would NEVER see the original, because “the thought of some old actors in masks is just so tacky; why see a science fiction film without CGI?” I was gob-smacked.

Part of this is just the way things are in a post-1969 world. Some of us here (I’m 55) can remember – well or barely – the world before the many social upheavals of the 1960s. Not so many contemporary movie-goers can do the same, most of whom were born in the 1980s or 1990s. A pre-1969 world is as alien to them as Mars.

All of the toxic components of our culture are rooted in the 60s. Now, we are uninterested in romance, in adults, in subtly, in any music other than the cheapest and loudest; we have only sneering sense of superiority and ‘social awareness.’

Go to most any genre film screened at Film Forum. The number of wretches who come simply to laugh or denigrate is equal to (or outnumbers) serious cineastes. We cannot approach the pre-1960s world with anything other than irony.

I think, oddly enough, that this is because our cultural past serves as a … rebuke to contemporary viewers. I think it’s impossible to see our pre-Sixties world and not wonder … what the hell happened? Better to sneer; sneering asks nothing of one.

4:53 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I kick those who come to laugh out. I have a reputation for it. An audience is like a garden. Weed it or lose it.

A reporter interviewing me said, "I heard from a Cineplex projectionist you kick people out of your movies who talk during them."

I said, "I don't think people go to the ballet, the symphony, the theater or the movies to listen to people in the audience talk."

She said, "I never thought of that."

People, especially the media, are too ready and too willing to accent the negative instead of look for the reason. I have set house records for my attendances. People like knowing in advance their right to enjoy a performance will not be infringed upon.

One big reason why movie attendance has plummeted is that why go to to place where we can't enjoy the experience.

6:15 AM  
Blogger MikeD said...

My two daughters, both hovering around thirty, have made watching IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE a Christmas tradition. And the younger one a few years ago, after watching his Capra and Hitchcock films (although VERTIGO disturbed her), declared that Jimmy Stewart was her favorite actor.

8:26 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

Obscure Wellman's

9:05 AM  
Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

I'm 61 and can reasonably recall the pre-1969 world, but only in the last five years can I fully sense a concern that pre-1969 is a truly endangered species of time for current and future generations. What I casually accept as no big deal, since I understand the cinematic eras going back to Edison, current young people have much more to adjust to before they apparently find an older movie worth their time. But has it always been this way? I just think the disparity is more than ever now. I'd like to think the one common ground, as we approach a century beyond the 1920s, is that everyone of all ages can agree on the timelessness of Buster Keaton. :)

8:04 PM  
Blogger Realist said...

I will have to check out "Magic Town." My take on Steward is that he could not go back to "gosh jee wiz" roles of per-war, but still had not found himself during the "Magic Town" or "Wonderful Life" period. An example of this transformation period is "Call Northside 777" (1948) where Steward is supposed to playing a cynical reporter doubting the innocents of man convicted of murder. I love the film, but I feel Steward is still too weak to carry the role of the hard-boiled reporter I think director Henry Hathaway was trying to give viewers. I found myself wanting Steward's city editor, Lee J. Cobb, to do the Steward role instead. By the time "The Naked Spur” was released (1953), Steward had made a solid transition to the tortured hero we loved. Just my two cents.

3:08 AM  
Blogger lmshah said...

Buster Keaton is no more timeless than anything else, no matter how many young and middle aged women seem to lust after him. One of my classic dumb-millennial moments was a few years ago after a showing of STEAMBOAT BILL JR where one of the youngsters came up to me and asked "why didn't he get out of the way of the falling building?". Moments like these I have to control myself from grabbing the source of such bon-mots and start slapping them repeatedly while shouting "Breathe Stupid! You Forgot to Breathe!".


6:46 AM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

Actors used to have distinctive voices -- hence there was an impressionist on every nightclub/TV variety bill (there was even a syndicated show when I was a kid, THE COPYCATS, which was an entire CAST of impressionists, but they were all doing Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Streisand, the Gabors, Mae West, Garland, E.G. Robinson, Crosby, Sinatra, and, yes, Stewart -- all stars of "the past" even then).

The reason impressionist have disappeared is because there's nobody among the current crop of actors who is distinctive enough to do an impression of. Summon up Tom Cruise's voice, or Ryan Gosling's, or Reese Whitherspoon's, or, well, you get the idea. (Just nail an all-purpose "vocal fry" and you'll have an accurate impression of ALL the Kardashians.)

As to pre-1969 being "camp," I have an otherwise reasonable brother-in-law who won't watch B&W -- what's worse, he passed his prejudice along to my niece and nephew, who eschew everything from THE GOLD RUSH to CASABLANCA to I LOVE LUCY; what they're missing out on is tragic. (I had to give away that THE WIZARD OF OZ would transform to color to get them to sit through the first 20 minutes, amid much griping.)

And in the early '80's my then boyfriend insisted that his best friend, whom he very much wanted me to like, accompany us to Ron Havers' restoration of the 1954 A STAR IS BORN (at least it was color and 'Scope). Afterward I asked him how he liked it, and he replied, "I didn't -- it was too good. There was nothing to make fun of." I proceeded to dump BOTH of them.

4:42 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Bear in mind that Buster Keaton's silent features were out-grossed by his sound ones which was the main reason he was unable to exercise creative control over his work at MGM. Money wise his producers seemed to know what they were ding. In the industry that has to by necessity the rule. Few who "love his silent films" from my experience, will today watch his sound films. I watch them all but my love goes out to his silent work.

8:24 AM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

1)B&W movies are slow and boring
2)All silent films were jerky and too fast
3)Old movie stars had funny voices and could only play themselves
4)The production code stopped any ideas in movies,so everything was all sweetness and light with a happy ending
5)Technicolor is too bright and unreal
6)The stories take too long to start
7)The movies are too long
8)The movies are too short
9)The special effects are bad
10)Nobody wants to see these anymore

4:49 AM  
Blogger iarla said...

Old souls like old movies. Its texture and depth and layers. I think it requires a different emotional headset, sometimes. I would say though, that older films featuring 'Stars' - as opposed to 'Actors' - stand a better chance, today. Veronica Lake - a stylised 40's emblem, now appears more natural and modern in style, today, than, say, Greer Garson. Some stars haven't dated as much as others - Stanwyck can seem refreshing and modern, especially in comedy.

6:22 AM  
Blogger Matthew Clark said...

If you're a fan of Jimmy's voice check out the radio show he did for a while back in 1953 called The Six Shouter, which you can find at the Internet Archive.

2:07 AM  
Blogger Lionel Braithwaite said...

My gosh, are you all going to keep beating up on the younger generation? Especially when they'll be the ones taking care of you in your twilight years?

Something to think about:

11:13 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I wouldn't like to think that any of us are "beating up" on the younger generation, more a matter of observing their attitudes and reaction to older films and personalities, a continually fascinating thing to watch as our movie favorites retreat further into the past.

6:06 AM  

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