On James Stewart

To be a young cineaste in, say, 1964 was to endure Jimmy Stewart’s aw-shucks drawl: as terrifying a feature as Julie Andrews’ teeth. But the canny actor who cultivated a gangly Everyman image for decades understood, as self-help books and other uniquely American addictions do not, how folksiness and malice co-exist, like a clownfish and sea anemone, without need of further comment. Growing up I knew Stewart as the voice of Campbell’s Soup commercials and for writing an awful book of poetry; I knew him as the friend of Ronnie Reagan; I remember the passing mention of his endorsement of Jesse Helms in the latter’s 1990 reelection campaign. The grandpa who would shoot a neighbor’s dog. At least Reagan would’ve hired someone to do the shooting.

These traits weren’t clear at the beginning of his career when the dewy glisten of his performances He broke through in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You (1938), but I prefer him in the string of small films he made with his best co-star Margaret Sullavan, gifted with the best speaking voice of any Old Hollywood actor: a gurgly, smoky marvel. She turned him on; the dew evaporated. The Shop Around the Corner you know, but seek The Shopworn Angel (1938), their first pairing, where he plays a Great War-era Texan soldier besotted with stage actress Sullavan. Soggy as hell — until the final scene, which will rewrite your notions about sogginess. And in The Mortal Storm (1940), one of the few films to name the Nazi menace, Frank Borzage coaxed out the first signs of unease.

He won his only competitive Academy Award for The Philadelphia Story, in which he was not miscast so much as the least interesting actor in a film where Cary Grant co-starred. He was coy and insufferable in Harvey (1950) and burdened with a dreadful toupee in The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance, one of those John Ford pictures whose place in the canon of American films remains one of those obduracies I have to endure. But starting in the early ’50s Stewart starred in a number of Anthony Mann-directed westerns (Winchester ’70, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur) that revealed a bitterness which prepared audiences for the fully formed middle-aged persona of the later Hitchcock films (he made a small mint from these films, thanks to a profit-sharing deal of which he was one of the first beneficiaries). By the time he played the acrophobic and necrophiliac PI in Vertigo his acting had taken on a startling economy: long stretches of the film are dominated by pained close-ups. But when he uncorks his rage he was frightening.

But the performance I treasure exposes the stuttering schoolboy shtick as just that. Playing a defense attorney hired by a man (Ben Gazzara) whom he knows is guilty of murder in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Stewart revels in the histrionics required to win over a jury. The more homespun the routine, the higher likelihood of success — he even plays with a fly fishing line in court. He’s as sleek and coldblooded as prosecutor George C. Scott. That’s my Jimmy.

1. Anatomy of a Murder
2. Vertigo
3. The Shop Around the Corner
4. Rear Window
5. It’s a Wonderful Life
6. The Naked Spur
7. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
8. Cheyenne Autumn
9.Winchester ’73
10. Destry Rides Again

5 thoughts on “On James Stewart

  1. Alfred, I read and rate a lot of your stuff, but “remains one of those obduracies I have to endure” is a pretty conceited phrase that I will… now have to endure.

    (Not even much of a Ford fan, by the way!)

  2. love these Friday retrospectives — i’ve started using them for my personal weekend film festivals!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: