Monday, October 27, 2008

A Dedicated Man: An Appreciation of James Stewart


"James Stewart, the most complete actor-personality in the American cinema"
—Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema

For many years I took James Stewart (1908-1997) for granted. I never thought of him as an exceptional actor, as one of the great self-manufactured screen personalities like Cary Grant or one of the great emoters like Marlon Brando. He always struck me as a regular guy who appeared to be playing himself in every role. In the last few years, though, I have revised my opinion of him as an actor. This new appreciation came about partly from seeing him in pictures I hadn't seen before and partly from rewatching some of his performances I had seen years earlier but dismissed as unexceptional. I suddenly saw sides of him that I had never noticed before and subtleties that had previously escaped me. My present view of Stewart is that he is one of the great American actors, second only to Cary Grant in my own pantheon of the great actors of the studio era.

When Andrew Sarris referred to Stewart as an "actor-personality," he got it exactly right. Stewart was that rare breed of screen actor who in every role seems to be both the character he is playing and himself. Every character seemed a new incarnation of a familiar personality. On reflection, I think it is this combination of familiarity and continuity of personality that blinded me for so long to the true artistry of his acting. When he projected a heightened emotional state, it didn't seem like acting at all, but like the wholly natural outgrowth of a familiar and normally staid personality pushed to its limits.

That personality, the one we automatically think of when we think of James Stewart, is one of comfortable ordinariness. If ever there was a screen personification of the American Everyman, it was James Stewart. He suggested none of the uniqueness or quirkiness of Cary Grant or the barely contained passion of Marlon Brando. His personality was always exactly life-sized, never larger than life. His screen presence was closer to that of Spencer Tracy, Joel McCrea, or his lifelong friend Henry Fonda—all, like Stewart, masters of understatement and invisible technique. Just watch one of Stewart's performances with the sound off and observe how subtly yet clearly his body language and especially his facial expressions register his emotions.

But the screen personality known as James Stewart did have one individual trait that persisted from movie to movie. Call it steadfastness, tenacity, constancy, perseverance, loyalty, or even stubbornness—these are all aspects of the quality that Stewart consistently projected and around which he fashioned each performance. Although modified to suit the needs of the role, this quality was the constant that set him apart from the truly ordinary man, that gave him the quiet individuality it took me so long to recognize and appreciate.

In his early romantic roles, Stewart's devotion is to someone he loves. In You Can't Take It with You (1938), the breakthrough role that made him a star just three years after his first credited part, his allegiance is to Jean Arthur. Despite her unconventional family and the disapproval of his stern and narrow-minded father, a banker and industrialist, he remains true to Arthur, even sacrificing his career and inheritance (in the middle of the Great Depression). In The Mortal Storm (1940), one of four films he made with his friend Margaret Sullavan, he risks his life to help Sullavan escape from Nazi Germany. Later in his career, in the whimsical Harvey (1950) he never loses faith in the existence of his imaginary friend, a 6-foot tall rabbit. And in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), as another ordinary man, a dentist from Indiana, he must use his wits and rise to heroism to rescue his kidnapped son from terrorists.

In many movies Stewart's commitment is to a principle or ideal. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) it is to the ideals of democracy and honesty in government. In Destry Rides Again (1939), in which he plays the inexperienced sheriff of a lawless Wild West town, it is to the notion that law enforcement can be practiced without the use of firearms. In Call Northside 777 (1948), as a reporter, it is to his belief that an imprisoned killer is innocent. In Anatomy of a Murder (1959), in which he plays a criminal lawyer, it is to the legal principles of presumption of innocence and that every accused person is entitled to the most effective representation. In John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) it is again to the rule of law, non-violence, and the ideals of American democracy. In The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) it is to his unshakable faith that if he can keep the crew of the crashed plane united in their purpose, they will somehow overcome all obstacles and get that plane in the air again.

From 1941 to 1945 Stewart left pictures and served in the U.S. Army. An aviation enthusiast, he had earned his pilot's license in 1935 and even had a commercial pilot's license. During World War II he flew many combat missions over Europe. When Stewart returned to making movies after the war, he seemed different. The boyish charm that had been a big part of his screen presence was still there but seemed somehow muted, with an undercurrent of sadness that hadn't been there before. And he looked different. The skinny boy now looked looked older and a bit worn. He had been absent from the screen for only five years, but when he returned he looked closer to fifteen years older.

Stewart's first movie after the war was Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Surprisingly, Stewart was not Capra's first choice to play George Bailey in the film; Cary Grant was. Today it's hard to imagine anyone but Stewart in the role. This is a part that required him to play a tormented and disappointed man, a man shattered by self-doubt who has given up all hope. Considering the upbeat and optimistic streak that runs through Stewart's prewar performances, it is perhaps understandable that Capra did not immediately think of him for the part. Possibly Capra eventually realized that the role would not be too much of a stretch for the actor who in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington played a man so committed to his principles that in the end he drives himself to physical exhaustion and comes close to a nervous breakdown.

Contrary to what one might have expected from Stewart's prewar performances, his depiction of George Bailey's despair is almost overpowering in its intensity. And when Bailey is saved at the end, his sense of joy and relief is almost tangible. It's enough to persuade even the most obdurate cynic to accept the movie's simple premise that every human life, no matter how ordinary, has meaning and value. And it's hard to believe that any actor but James Stewart could have communicated such a premise with so much conviction.

It's a Wonderful Life liberated the dark side of the American Everyman by showing that the adherence to a belief that typified Stewart's characters, in this case his unswerving belief in his own worthlessness, could when taken to extremes result in destructive obsession. But it was not by any means the last that moviegoers would see of this side of James Stewart. His dark side was most fully mined in Stewart's collaborations with two great directors in the 1950's.

Between 1950 and 1955 Stewart made several Westerns directed by Anthony Mann. Considering the series of stark low-budget films noirs that Mann made in the late 1940's, it is not surprising that his Westerns of the 1950's would have darker overtones and greater emphasis on character psychology than the typical studio Western of the time. In The Far Country (1954) Stewart plays a character motivated solely by self-interest. He lets nothing stand in the way of his goal of making a fortune in the Gold Rush-era Yukon and returning to the U.S. with his loyal pal to buy a ranch. He refuses to intervene as a sadistic and power-crazed local boss terrorizes and exploits the inhabitants of the mining village where he has staked his claim. It is only after his friend is killed and their gold stolen that he takes action and defeats the villains. In The Man from Laramie (1955) Stewart plays a man consumed with finding those responsible for his brother's death. He endures extreme physical suffering and eschews all intimate human contact in his relentless pursuit of revenge.

Perhaps the greatest of the Stewart-Mann collaborations is The Naked Spur (1953). Here he plays a man obsessed with capturing a dangerous outlaw, not out of any sense of justice, but strictly to claim the reward money that will allow him to buy back the farm he lost through betrayal by a woman while fighting in the Civil War. He is a man driven by a compulsive pursuit that he believes will correct the injustices of the past and restore what he has lost, and his obsession causes the death not only of the outlaw but also of every other person in his party except for the outlaw's girl friend. It is only the promise of her love that in the end breaks the hold his anger and disappointment have over him and allows him to escape his past and move on to a new future.

The other director who used the darker implications of Stewart's dedication to purpose to its full advantage was Alfred Hitchcock. Rope (1948) first hinted at the dark themes that Stewart's covertly obsessive persona was capable of catalyzing. In this movie Stewart plays a rather smug teacher who purports to believe in the Nietzschean proposition that laws and morality are mere human inventions and that some people are above them, even the ultimate prohibition against murder. For him this is strictly an intellectual proposition. He never imagines that two of his former pupils, taking his teachings literally, will put them into practice by murdering an unpopular former schoolmate. His smugness becomes horror as he gradually sees the destruction his adherence to a wrong-headed concept has inspired.

Hitchcock took the dark component of Stewart's screen persona even further in Rear Window (1954). In this movie Stewart's character, a news photographer temporarily confined to a wheelchair with a broken leg, idly begins spying on his neighbors. What begins as an amusing pastime quickly takes over his life and becomes an obsession. Without professional constraints, Stewart's desultory curiosity grows into full-blown and dangerous voyeurism that places himself and his fiancée at considerable risk from a ruthless murderer.

But it was in Vertigo (1958) that Hitchcock gave Stewart's embodiment of all-consuming obsession its ultimate expression. What begins as a scheme to exploit former detective Scottie Ferguson's (Stewart) fear of heights in order to disguise a murder as suicide grows out of control when Scottie falls in love with the woman he has been hired to follow, Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak). The long sequence in which he tails her around San Francisco in his DeSoto—without dialogue, filled with swooping camera moves, Bernard Herrmann's alternately pensive and majestic music, shots of the most picturesque locations in San Francisco, and close-ups of Stewart's reactions as he spies on her, and ending with Stewart pulling her from the Bay at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge—is one of the great sequences in modern movies. But it would be far less effective without Stewart's wordless reactions conveying the transformation of professional detachment to romantic curiosity and finally helpless love. This is the intersection of brilliant, showy filmmaking with subtle, expertly calibrated acting.

Believing that Madeleine has died as a result of his paralyzing phobia, Scottie is overwhelmed by feelings of guilt and loss. When by chance he encounters her doppelganger, he loses all control as he obsessively molds her into the image of his lost love. This is the closest Stewart ever came to playing a villain (save for 1936's After the Thin Man), and Hitchcock is merciless in his treatment of Stewart's obsessiveness. In Vertigo there is no final reprieve by the acceptance of love, no saving change of heart, no last-minute pulling back from the abyss for Stewart. His obsessiveness results both in his losing his beloved again and in his own psychological destruction. To see the very quality that made Stewart the All-American Everyman become so distorted that he is transformed into an agent of destruction is a devastating thing to watch.

After Vertigo Stewart seemed to regain some of the easygoing charm that had been so much a part of his early work, while still retaining the gravitas that his screen persona had acquired in the postwar roles. That same year he starred again with Kim Novak in Bell, Book, and Candle, a delightful light comedy that is in a different world altogether from Vertigo. The very next year he gave what is my favorite performance of his career in Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder (1959), in a role that achieved the perfect equilibrium between the two sides of his screen personality. His Paul Biegler is completely focused on the task at hand—defending a soldier on trial for murder—yet he never allows the case to skew his perspective on life. At the end of the movie he is able to let go of the case and simply go fishing.

When I think of James Stewart, that is the way I like to picture him: balancing serious dedication to a purpose with an innate sense of enjoyment of life, and keeping each in its proper proportion.


I don't think Stewart ever gave a bad performance, and his presence makes any movie worth watching. But here are my ten favorite performances by James Stewart:
  1. Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
  2. Vertigo (1958)
  3. It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
  4. Rear Window (1954)
  5. The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
  6. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
  7. The Philadelphia Story (1940)
  8. Destry Rides Again (1939)
  9. The Naked Spur (1953)
  10. Harvey (1950)

3 comments:

Tina said...

I think Jimmy Stewart was such a charismatic actor. My personal favorite that he appeared in is Rear Window. Harvey is nearing the top of my list as well. I actually just read a post about Harvey. I think you'll enjoy it, so I'll share!
http://www.petermanseye.com/interesting-times/entertainment/365-an-american-classic
Cheers!

R. D. Finch said...

Tina, thanks for your comment. I'll be sure to check out the post on "Harvey." I recently watched it again. What a delightfully whimsical movie, and Stewart is great in it.

The Kid In The Front Row said...

I'm really glad to see Anatomy Of A Murder top your list. An incredible film with a (typically) perfect performancy from Jimmy Stewart.

For me, Stewart was a far greater actor than Cary Grant. When you look up at screen and James Stewart is there, not only do you see him but you see yourself. He carries our thoughts and fears and hopes onto the screen like nobody else ever has, or probably ever will.

Aghh, I miss him. I wish he was still making movies today.