Hindsight: The Smith Rafael looks back at 100 years of James Stewart, and screens 'Rear Window' June 15. (Photo courtesy California Film Institute)

Jimmy Stewart at 100

Dennis Harvey May 22, 2008

When the late 1960s brought about radical change on many fronts to a hitherto somewhat fossilized—and suddenly bejeezus-scared—Hollywood, many observed that an entirely new breed of movie star was emerging. Instead of the glamazons and broad-shouldered he-men that dominated before, we now had stars as quirky, flawed and non-glam as Dustin Hoffman, Sandy Dennis, Mia Farrow, Elliott Gould, Glenda Jackson, Gene Hackman, Gene Wilder, Donald Sutherland, George Segal and so forth. They were actual leading men and women, not just the character actors, comedy relief or stage-exiled talents they might have been just years before.

Yet old-school Hollywood wasn’t all that beholden to conventional standards of beauty and masculinity as trend-sniffing media then found it convenient to ascribe. Consider James Stewart—beloved American icon, pop-culture father figure, one of those few longterm screen successes of whom nary a word of private scandal or public skepticism was breathed.

Stewart was, and is, loved. Yet for all his lasting wholesome appeal, he was still an oddity: Gangly, stammering, Pennsylvania-drawling. He was tall, sure, but not particularly attractive by the standards of the 1930s studio era that spawned him. Preferred hunks then were dapper (William Powell, Cary Grant), rakish (Clark Gable), high-testosterone cocky (Cagney, George Raft) or simply gorgeous (Gary Cooper, Robert Taylor, Tyrone Power etc.).

James Stewart’s appeal was entirely different: He was, as one writer then put it, "unusually usual." He was the courteous boyfriend, the upstanding dad, the kindly doctor next door. His screen persona was a little shy, trustworthy and endearing, not at all "bad" even when he was behaving brashly. You knew he’d get the girl in the end—or be a good sport about letting the other guy have her. As if he were everybody’s best friend, even the public called him "Jimmy."

The actor (who died in 1997) was born a century ago, an anniversary being celebrated by the Rafael Film Center with "James Stewart—American Icon." This series, running through June 22, includes some of the star’s familiar greatest hits: Two romantic comedy classics from 1940, The Shop Around the Corner and The Philadelphia Story (for which he won his Oscar); Hitchcock’s 1950s masterpieces Vertigo and Rear Window; and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, one of several made by Frank Capra, who found Stewart his perfect screen hero. There’s also Harvey, named after the harmless but slightly crazy protagonist’s giant-invisible-rabbit friend; Otto Preminger’s 1959 courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder; and several Westerns by Stewart’s main collaborators in that genre, John Ford (The Man Who shot Liberty Valance, Two Rode Together) and Anthony Mann (The Man From Laramie, Winchester 73).

A Pennsylvanian with no original ambition of being an actor—he apparently showed considerable promise as an architect—Stewart, while studying at Princeton, met the future legendary stage director (and occasional not-so-hot film director) Joshua Logan, joining the latter’s University Players, a company included Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan, two people who remain important in Stewart’s life for some time. All of them tried their luck on Broadway, with some success, then one after another they answered the siren song of Hollywood. Stewart was the last to go and, at first, the least eagerly received. A gangling 6’3" bantamweight, he seemed simply peculiar, hardly star material. MGM, which had signed him to a contract on the basis of his Broadway buzz, wasn’t sure what to do with him.

His fortunes rose when Sullavan, who’d become a major screen luminary, insisted he be cast as her leading man in Next Time We Love (1936). The movie was forgettable, but the experience boosted his confidence. So did enjoying a heady Hollywood lifestyle alongside former flatmate Fonda, both of whom played the field quite a bit—between marriages (five!) for the latter, before marriage (his one-and-only) for the former. Stewart’s own conquests included such heady names as Ginger Rogers and Norma Shearer. (In later years he was reportedly dismayed that lifelong best friend Fonda got all the credit for being a playboy while he was considered squeaky-clean.)

Soon he’d hit his stride in a series of hits under Capra’s direction, several more starring opposite Sullavan, and "taming" saloon chanteuse Marlene Dietrich in the comedy western Destry Rides Again. (Fate being fickle however, the same year he also made Ice Follies of 1939—a movie even Joan Crawford was said to look back on with horror.) An Oscar for The Philadelphia Story in 1940 put him on top. But when the war started he was eager to drop it all and sign up, his distinguished Air Force service making him perhaps the most highly decorated of all Hollywood enlistees. (This despite the fact that, at a ridiculously slim 138 pounds, he was officially too underweight to serve.)

After the war, he reunited with Capra, who had started his own ill-fated production company, Liberty Films. Their first project was none other than 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life, which put Stewart’s patented aw-shucks-ing nice guy through the wringer en route to confirming that title sentiment. Say what you will, that cornball movie still reduces stony hearts to tears faster than peeling an onion with your eyelids. Yet incredibly, it was a financial disaster at the time, gaining classic status only via umpteen later TV showings. The postwar mood sought tarter flavors at the cinema. As he adjusted to that Stewart, largely abandoned comedy for thrillers, dramas and Westerns which proved he could explore the dark night of the soul as well as the next actor.

Among them were docudrama-style noir Call Northside 777 (1948), 1950’s Broken Arrow, and a long run of Anthony Mann "oaters" that were considered nothing special at the time, but are now appreciated as among the most psychologically complex and taut exercises in the Western genre. (After director and star fell in 1957, Stewart did several more for the more sentimentally inclined John Ford.) Amidst a quartet for Hitchcock, Vertigo and Rear Window allowed him to memorably etch characters primarily out of paranoia, obsession and good intentions gone awry.

The old, endearing Stewart didn’t entirely vacate the premises, scoring successes as a literal sad-eyed clown in DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, in Broadway-transferred whimsy Bell Book and Candle, and biographical dramas The Stratton Story (baseball) and The Glenn Miller Story (big band music). Curiously, the bio-pic that was his dream project—starring as Charles Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis, directed by Billy Wilder—was a total flop despite rave reviews.

In the ’60s both his movies and his performances grew less inspired, and a couple 1970s stabs at TV series went belly-up after just a few episodes each. By the time of Airport ‘77 and The Magic of Lassie, it wasn’t clear why he continued to bother; nor were his very few appearances after 1980 at all discriminating—reflecting mostly his unwillingness to appear in anything featuring sex, violence, or cussin’. (His swan song, bizarrely, was a 1992 voice guest shot on the Disney cartoon series Goof Troop. That’s right, acting opposite Goofy.) After wife of 46 years Gloria passed on in 1995, he was reportedly inconsolable and retreated entirely.

What’s not to like? A few things, actually. Though Stewart was involved with several noble causes, the staunch Republican happily supported the anti-Communist witch hunt that swept Hollywood in the late 1940s, as well as the Vietnam War, J. Edgar Hoover, Nixon and Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater after the latter had voted against the Civil Rights Act. (However, his defenders say there is no direct evidence he was racist himself.) He and liberal Democrat Fonda apparently once came to blows over McCarthyism, preserving their friendship thereafter by never discussing politics again.

But the lingering impression will always be of the small-town blunderbuss who, as Stewart put it himself, was "the inarticulate man who tries. I don’t really have all the answers, but for some reason, somehow, I make it….I suppose people can relate to being me, while they dream about being John Wayne." Well, maybe in a shootout—but in everyday life, probably most folks would rather the gent next door be Jimmy Stewart.