Tuesday, October 31, 2017

James Stewart

Stardust: TCM’s November Star of the Month

By Ed Garea

I'd like people to remember me as someone who was good at his job and seemed to mean what he said.”

Over the years Jimmy Stewart became one of America's most loved actors. Noted for his unique drawl and down-to-earth persona, he became part of the nation’s popular culture in his later years. Several of his films were rightly recognized as classics, and his voice and mannerisms were imitated by countless mimics and comedians. Ironically, Stewart became his own best parody through his frequent appearances on The Tonight Show, where he read his homespun poetry and spun yarns recalling his life and career. 

The folksy persona he projected gave us the illusion that he was always that way, but in actuality there were two Jimmy Stewarts. The pre-War Stewart was folksy and innocent, the star of such fare as Born to DanceMr. Smith Goes to Washington and You Can’t Take It With You. A bomber pilot in World War II, he came back a different man, suffering from PTSD. The postwar Stewart was serious and somber, with an outlook that was reflected in his choice of roles. It took many years and a solid marriage to a loving and supportive wife for him to return to the humble and folksy man we saw in later years. 

Born James Maitland Stewart on May 20, 1908, in Indiana, Pennsylvania, he was the eldest of three children born to Alexander Maitland and Elizabeth Ruth (nee Jackson) Stewart. The only son, he was expected one day to inherit the family business – a hardware store that had been in the family for three generations. But young Jimmy also had an artistic side. His mother was an excellent pianist and Jimmy inherited her talents, teaching himself the accordion and becoming quite accomplished at it. His dream, however, was to become a flyer. He spent many of his after-school hours in his basement, occupied with building model airplanes, mechanical drawing and chemistry. 

His dream was to attend the Naval Academy and specialize in aviation, but his father instead sent him to Princeton, where he graduated with a B.A. in architecture. In his spare time Stewart became involved with the school’s music and drama clubs. After he graduated in 1932, his acting and musical talents earned him an invitation to the University Players, an intercollegiate summer stock company on Cape Cod directed by such notables as Joshua Logan and Bretaigne Windust. It was there he met lifelong friends Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan (who were married at the time) and Myron McCormick. He tried his luck on Broadway, but later noted that from 1932 to 1934 he had worked a total of three months, as every play he was cast in folded soon after. Landing a part in the play, Divided By Three, he was spotted by MGM talent scout Bill Grady. Fonda, who had come to Hollywood earlier in 1934, encouraged Stewart to take a screen test, after which he was signed as a contract player at $350 a week. 

His first film was The Murder Man (1935). Starring Spencer Tracy, it opened to dismal reviews and poor box office. In 1936, however, he began to get better parts, gaining notice as Jean Harlow’s boyfriend in Wife vs. Secretary, and for his strong dramatic part in After the Thin Man. Also that year he signed with powerhouse agent Leland Hayward, who decided his client’s best route to stardom was in being loaned out to other studios. 

The strategy paid off when he was loaned out to Columbia to star in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You in 1938. Capra was so impressed with Stewart that he cast him as the star of his next film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), replacing original star Gary Cooper as the idealistic political neophyte. Also that year Stewart starred with Marlene Dietrich and Brian Donlevy in Universal’s hit Western parody, Destry Rides Again

Returning to MGM, he co-starred with Margaret Sullavan in two 1940 classics, The Shop Around The Corner, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, and the anti-Nazi drama, The Mortal Storm. Also that year, his performance as fast-talking reporter Macaulay Connor in the Cary Grant-Katharine Hepburn vehicle, The Philadelphia Story (1940), won him the Best Actor Oscar (which he gave to his father, who displayed it in a case inside the front door of his hardware store).

Stewart became the first major American movie star to wear a military uniform in World War II when he enlisted as a private in the Army on March 22, 1941. As a licensed commercial pilot and college graduate, he applied for an Air Corps commission and Service Pilot rating, receiving both as a second lieutenant. Originally assigned to recruiting duties, he applied for and was granted advanced training on multi-engine aircraft as well as the rank of captain. However, to his disappointment, he was still assigned to recruiting and training duties. He appealed to his commander, who recommended him to the commander of the 445th Bombardment Group.   

After several weeks of training, Stewart flew his first combat mission on December 13, 1943, to bomb the U-Boat base at Kiel, Germany. In 1944, Stewart was promoted to major, and on March 30, 1944, he became group operations officer of the 453rd Bombardment Group, a new B-24 unit that had just lost both its commander and operations officer. He would lead the group on 20 bombing missions over Germany, hitting targets in Bremen, Frankfurt and Berlin. His service resulted in a cascade of decorations: the Air Medal, a succession of oak leaf clusters, six battle stars and the Croix de Guerre with Palm. In addition he was twice awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, one for piloting the lead plane in a spectacular raid on key aircraft factories in Brunswick, Germany. 

He was promoted to full colonel on March 29, 1945, becoming one of the few Americans to rise from private to colonel during the Second World War. After the official establishment of the Air Force as an independent service in 1947, he joined the newly formed United States Air Force Reserve, where he remained until retiring as a major general on May 31, 1968.

Upon his return from the war in late 1945, Stewart insisted that his military exploits not be publicized. He avoided war films, making only the rather staid Strategic Air Command in 1955. The only hint that he was an active participant in the war came in an episode of the 1974 TV documentary series The World at War titled “Whirlwind: Bombing Germany – September 1939-April 1944,” commenting on a mission of October 14, 1943, against Schweinfurt, Germany, where American forces suffered heavy losses while doing minimal damage. In the episode, he was identified only as "James Stewart, Squadron Commander” at his request.

After the war Stewart took time off to reflect on his career. Upon returning to Hollywood in 1945 he decided not to renew his MGM contract. He also invested in Leland Hayward’s newly formed Southwest Airlines, figuring to fall back on a career in aviation if his film career faltered. His first postwar film was Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, released in 1946. Now considered one of the classics of cinema, it opened to mixed reviews and poor box office. After starring in a few more ill-received films, Stewart decided to return to the stage, filling in twice for vacationing Frank Fay on Broadway as Elwood P. Dodd, a wealthy eccentric whose best friend is a six-foot invisible rabbit, in Mary Coyle Chase’s Harvey. The play ran for three more years and Stewart reprised the role in the 1950 film adaptation, breaking his string of box office flops. 

The 1950s were also significant for Stewart for his collaborations with directors Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock. With Mann he helped redefine the classic western with films like Winchester ‘73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954), and The Man From Laramie (1955). 

Stewart’s collaboration with Hitchcock began with Rope in 1949, a box office failure. Their second collaboration, Rear Window (1954), was a hit, as was The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Hitchcock’s remake of his 1934 thriller. However, their 1958 film, Vertigo, opened to mixed reviews and poor box office though it's now considered one of the greatest films of all-time. Hitchcock blamed his star for the film’s failure, noting that Stewart looked too old to be romancing Kim Novak. As a consequence, Hitchcock replaced Stewart with Cary Grant (who was four years older, but photographed much younger) for North By Northwest (1959), a role Stewart coveted.

Other notable films of the '50s include Delmar Daves’ Broken Arrow (1950), Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), Anthony Mann’s The Glen Miller Story (1954), Billy Wilder’s The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), and Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959), which saw him awarded The New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor, and his fifth and final nomination for the Oscar as Best Actor.

In the early ‘60s he teamed with John Ford for three Westerns: Two Rode Together (1962, with Richard Widmark), the classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, with John Wayne), and Cheyenne Autumn (1964, again with Widmark). Though Stewart also appeared in the multi-episodic How the West Was Won (1963) he did not appear in the segment Ford directed. In 1965 he starred in the Civil War-era Shenandoah and the family Western, The Rare Breed (1966) with Maureen O’Hara. Both were critical and commercial successes. His next, and final, film of any importance was The Shootist (1976), playing Dr. Hostetler, who gives John Wayne’s character his terminal cancer diagnosis.

During this period Stewart also began to transition to television. In the ‘50s he and wife Gloria guested on The Jack Benny Program, playing themselves. The running gag during their appearances was that Jack thought they were all good friends, while the Stewarts studiously tried to avoid him. He played a college professor in the NBC domestic comedy The Jimmy Stewart Show in 1971, but the show failed to find an audience and folded after a year. In 1973 he starred in Hawkins for CBS as a small-town lawyer in West Virginia whose laid-back manner often fooled his adversaries into underestimating his ability as an attorney. Although he won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Dramatic TV Series, the show failed to gain a wide audience and was canceled after one season.

A revival of Harvey on Broadway in 1970 led to a 1972 TV-movie with Stewart again as Dodds. Another notable made-for-HBO movie was Right of Way (1973), in which he and Bette Davis starred as an elderly couple who, when they learn Bette is ill, make a joint suicide pact. His final role was as the voice of Sheriff Wylie Burp in the 1991 animated film An American Tail: Fievel Goes West.

On the personal side, Stewart married former model Gloria Hatrick McLean in 1949. Their marriage lasted until her death from lung cancer in 1994. Stewart adopted her two sons, Michael and Ronald, and with Gloria he had twin daughters, Judy and Kelly, on May 7, 1951.     

In February 1997, he was hospitalized for an irregular heartbeat. On June 25, a blood clot formed in his right leg, leading to a pulmonary embolism a week later. On July 2, 1997, surrounded by his children, Stewart died at the age of 89 at his home in Beverly Hills, California. His final words to his family were "I'm going to be with Gloria now.”

TCM is showing Stewart’s films on November 1, 8, 15, 22 and 29. Of these 54 films the following are our recommendations.     

 November 1 

6:00 am – THE MURDER MAN (RKO, 1935): Spencer Tracy, Lionel Atwill & Virginia Bruce. Tracy is a hotshot reporter specializing in murder cases. His latest investigation leads to the trial, conviction and a sentence of death. But Tracy is noticeably bothered by this case. His girlfriend, columnist Virginia Bruce, doesn’t understand why until she begins typing out his recorded dictation. Stewart has a small role as “Shorty,” Tracy’s fellow reporter. An actor’s first film is always a must see, and this case is no different.

9:15 am – WIFE VS. SECRETARY (MGM, 1936): Clark Gable, Myrna Loy & Jean Harlow. An executive’s wife believes her husband's relationship with his secretary is more than professional. Stewart acquits himself well as Harlow’s boyfriend. 

8:00 pm – JAMES STEWART: A WONDERFUL LIFE (MGM/WNET, 1987): A retrospective on the life and career of actor James Stewart, with clips from many of his films and interviews with people who have worked with him.

9:45 pm – MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (Columbia, 1938): James Stewart, Jean Arthur. Stewart is in top form as a naive young man who is appointed to fill out a Senate term and winds up turning the Senate upside down. One of his best.

12:15 am – DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (Universal, 1939): Marlene Dietrich, James Stewart. A deputy sworn not to shoot again takes on a corrupt town boss and a sultry saloon singer. Even though Dietrich gets top billing, it’s Stewart’s film. He is perfect for the role. Dietrich’s role as bar singer Frenchie, which revitalized her career, was the inspiration for Madeline’s Kahn’s Lili Von Schtupp in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles.

2:00 am – AFTER THE THIN MAN (MGM, 1936): William Powell, Myrna Loy, & James Stewart. Nick investigates the case of a missing man and later a murder that is connected to Nora’s family. A good early performance from Stewart, who turns out to be the film’s villain. 

November 8

6:30 am – NAVY BLUE AND GOLD (MGM, 1937): Robert Young, James Stewart, Tom Brown, & Lionel Barrymore. Three Midshipmen buddies adjust to life and football at the Naval Academy. It’s a real can of corn, but fun to watch.

8:15 am – BORN TO DANCE (MGM, 1936): Eleanor Powell, James Stewart. Stewart sings! Entertaining nonsense about a sailor who meets a girl at the Lonely Hearts Club and falls in love. As a singer, Stewart sounds like a tomcat in heat. One of his worst, and therefore, worth a look and a laugh. Truly cringeworthy.

5:30 pm – YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (Columbia, 1938): James Stewart, Jean Arthur. Capra’s adaptation of the Kaufman-Hart play about a man from a staid family engaged to a woman from an eccentric family. Interestingly, none of the remakes were as funny or captured the chemistry that existed between Arthur and Stewart.

8:00 pm – THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (WB, 1940): James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan. Bickering co-workers Stewart and Sullavan do not know that they are secret romantic pen pals. Probably Lubitsch’s best film and one that can be seen numerous times without getting tired. The performances are perfect, as is the direction.

10:00 pm – THE MORTAL STORM (MGM, 1940): James Stewart, Frank Morgan & Margaret Sullavan. An uncompromising look at what occurs in a small town in Germany when the Nazis come to power. MGM finally stands up to Nazi Germany and the results are terrific.

12:00 am – THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (MGM, 1940): Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn & James Stewart. Society lady Hepburn finds herself being wooed by ex-husband Grant and tabloid reporter Stewart. Stewart won the Oscar for this, and it’s easy to see why. He walks away with the picture.

2:00 am – CALL NORTHSIDE 777 (20th Century Fox, 1948): James Stewart, Richard Conte, & Lee J. Cobb. Convinced an inmate is innocent, reporter Stewart re-opens a ten-year old murder case. Excellent docudrama from Henry Hathaway.

November 15

11:45 am – NO TIME FOR COMEDY (WB, 1940): James Stewart, Rosalind Russell. A playwright’s wife convinces him to give up comedy for tragedy with the usual comedic results. Nice give and take between Stewart and Russell. 

6:00 pm – ROPE (WB, 1948): James Stewart, John Dall, & Farley Granger. Two wealthy young men attempt the perfect crime by murdering a friend. Based on the famous Leopold-Loeb murder case, two pretentious college students kill a friend for the thrill of it, with the suspense coming as they invite friends and family to their apartment afterward – with the body hidden on the premises. Stewart, one of the dinner guests, is their former college mentor. His views on superior human beings formed the theoretical basis for their murder. He gives an excellent performance, controlling the party with his intellect and cynical humor, but later comes to reflect on his own opinions with more than a bit of guilt. It was Hitchcock’s first color film and was shot in ten-minute takes to provide a seamless flow of movement; an interesting experiment that the director never attempted again. 

8:00 pm – VERTIGO (Paramount, 1958): James Stewart, Kim Novak. Hitchcock’s masterpiece about a detective who falls for a mysterious woman he’s been hired to tail. A critical and commercial flop when released in 1958, it has gathered acclaim over the years and today is not only seen as the director’s best film, but some rank it over Citizen Kane as the greatest film ever made. Judge for yourselves. 

10:30 pm – ANATOMY OF A MURDER (Columbia, 1959): James Stewart, Ben Gazzara, & Lee Remick. A small town lawyer defends a military man who avenged an attack on his wife. Director Otto Preminger loved to push the envelope and like some of his other efforts, the film’s more serious and compelling aspects were overwhelmed by the production’s publicity, which played up and sensationalized the more unsavory aspects of the film’s rape/murder trial. 

November 22

4:00 pm – CARBINE WILLIAMS (MGM, 1952): James Stewart, Jean Hagen. Stewart is excellent in this true story of the bootlegger who fought for his freedom by inventing a new rifle. Stewart turns in a convincing performance as the inventor of the famous rifle in this simple and unpretentious film which examines his problems with the law and his simple family life.

6:00 pm – SHENANDOAH (Universal, 1965): James Stewart, Doug McClure. Stewart is a Virginia farmer who fights to keep his family together during the Civil War in this folksy, sentimental and well-acted drama. Directed in a forthright manner by Andrew McLaglen (son of Victor), who keeps things simple and moving. Released during the Vietnam War, it’s anti-war message caught on with the public and in 1974 it became a long-running Broadway musical. 

10:15 pm – HARVEY (Universal, 1950): James Stewart, Wallace Ford & Victoria Horne. A wealthy eccentric prefers the company of an invisible six-foot rabbit to his family. A comic tour de force from Stewart as amiable drunk Elwood P. Dowd, who is convinced that an imaginary white rabbit pal named Harvey is following him around. It’s a slight plot that wears noticeably thin near the end, but watch it for Stewart,

2:15 am – REAR WINDOW (Paramount, 1954): James Stewart, Grace Kelly. A superior exercise in dark suspense with Stewart as an incapacitated photojournalist who, out of boredom, begins spying on his neighbors and taking photos of them. Hitchcock makes the most of a simple plot line: an experienced journalist’s suspicions that a murder has been committed even though he lacks the corpse or even any witnesses to it. As much of a romance as a thriller, Hitchcock employs Grace Kelly very effectively as Stewart’s model girlfriend who is frustrated because she can’t talk him into marriage, but who helps him uncover the murderer. What helps the film gain momentum is the strong chemistry between Stewart and Kelly and the perfect casting of Raymond Burr as the killer.

November 29

The evening is dedicated to Stewarts Westerns, shot under the direction of John Ford and Anthony Mann. The actor turned to the Western genre after his return from World War II, and as he matured, the shy, modest innocents he played in the prewar years gave way to tougher, more worldly characters. They were troubled and petulant people torn between firmness and vulnerability, mirroring Stewart’s own adaptation to postwar life. Westerns were the perfect medium to express these feelings, and the ones directed by Ford and Mann allowed Stewart to express the full range of his characters.

In interviews he said his favorite movies were Westerns “because they're told against the background of a very dramatic period in our history.” Westerns also “give people a feeling of hope, an affirmative statement of living.’’     

Stewart's starring role in Winchester '73 marked a major turning point in Hollywood. Universal was negotiating with Stewart to appear both in that film and Harvey, but his $230,000 asking price was deemed too rich by the studio. In response Stewart’s agent, Lew Wasserman brokered an alternate deal: Stewart would star in both films for no pay. Instead he was to be given a percentage of the profits and approval of both cast and director. The deal proved to be a slam dunk for Stewart, as he wound up taking home about $600,000 for Winchester '73 alone. Other Hollywood stars were quick to capitalize on this new way of doing business, further undermining the already crumbling studio system and speeding its demise.

5:45 pm – THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (Paramount, 1962): James Stewart, Lee Marvin & John Wayne. John Ford’s Western about the visit of a popular senator to the town where he first made his fame by shooting the area’s deadly villain, Liberty Valance (played by Lee Marvin). The events in the film are seen through an interview Stewart grants to as young reporter, and as the film goes on, we see that Stewart’s heroism is not really the stuff of heroic legend, as he himself confesses to the young scribe.

8:00 pm – WINCHESTER ’73 (Universal, 1953): James Stewart, Dan Duryea, & Shelley Winters. Stewart wins a Winchester rifle in a shooting contest, but the prize is stolen by runner-up Duryea.  The movie follows Stewart as he combs the West in search of his stolen rifle. It’s a simple plot supported and enhanced by great characterization.

9:45 pm – BEND OF THE RIVER (Universal, 1952): James Stewart, Arthur Kennedy & Rock Hudson. Two men with questionable pasts (Stewart and Kennedy) lead a wagon train into the Oregon Territory. After Kennedy double-crosses him for quick profits, Stewart is forced to fight back. One of Mann and Stewart’s best efforts, a great combination of action and characterization.

11:30 pm – THE FAR COUNTRY (Universal, 1955): James Stewart, Ruth Roman & Walter Brennan. Stewart is a cynical adventurer who gets in on the Klondike gold rush, but his hard-bitten outlook and ignorance of the growing lawlessness in the area lead to events that cause him to think twice.

1:30 pm – THE NAKED SPUR (MGM, 1953): James Stewart, Robert Ryan, & Janet Leigh. Anthony Mann directed this tense drama about cold bounty hunter Stewart bringing murderer Ryan back to civilization. Interestingly, Stewart’s character is a Civil War veteran trying to raise money to get back the ranch he lost while fighting in the war. A message hidden in the movie is how Stewart is haunted by demons emanating from the psychological trauma he suffered from the war, demons that changed his character – very much like the demons he was haunted by after returning from Europe in 1945, now known as PTSD.

3:30 am – TWO RODE TOGETHER (Columbia, 1961): James Stewart, Richard Widmark. In this terrific John Ford Western, cynical and corrupt marshal Stewart is pressured by Army Lieutenant Widmark to assist in the negotiations with the Comanches for the release of a group of settlers who have spent years as hostages. However, just two are released, and their reintegration into white society proves difficult.

1 comment:

  1. You're missing a good bet by not including "No Highway in the Sky", an excellent drama highlighted with sly humor, more accomplished than "Bombers B-52" at conveying Stewart's love of aviation, adapted from Nevil Shute's novel regarding challenges to metallurgy with the advent of jet engines.