A True Screen Hero
For a child in the early 1950s, a first screen hero might be Gene Autry, far more than any other Saturday matinee screen hero. Then Gene retired, and the child aged, adapting John Wayne as a "favorite movie star" while Marlon Brando might be a "favorite actor". However, James Stewart became a constantly affecting presence, and today he is more fondly recalled by more peole than any other screen actor. Of AFI's top 100 movies, he starred in five, the highest number, equaled only by Robert de Niro. However dumb the material, Stewart gave the film credibility and integrity. With his legacy of screen performances and combat service during WWII, he created a life that most of us only dream about, a wonderful life. He married one woman and remained with her 45 years until she died in 1994. He was a man true to himself and God, I believe. Princeton educated as an architect, classmate Joshua Logan induced him into summer theatre as an accordionist in 1932. Going to Broadway with one show, he had Henry Fonda as roomate. A few plays later, he went to Hollywood. From bit parts in 1934, he progressed to co star over nearly 20 forgetable films like Born to Dance and The Last Gangster, most notable being his only bad guy role in After the Thin Man.
Then Frank Capra cast him in his Oscar winning You Can't Take It with You in 1938 and the next year made him a star with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Stewart was 31. In 1940, he received his only Best Actor Oscar for George Cukor's The Philadelphia Story, as the 2nd male lead, many feeling that he was being awarded for Mr. Smith. Other notable films during this period were George Marshall's Destry Rides Again (39) and Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner (40).
Up for the draft, he enlisted into the military in March, 1941, and was assigned to the Air Corps. Fighting off attempts to keep him a PR figure, Pvt. Stewart studied and became an officer. Having logged over 400 flying hours as a civilian, he flew 20 WWII combat missions over Europe as command pilot, was promoted to Squadron Leader and left the service as Colonel. Later he was promoted to Brigadier General, the highest rank ever achieved by a screen star.
He returned to Hollywood and decided to go without a studio contract. In 1946 he made It's a Wonderful Life for Capra, his personal favorite role. Though Oscar-nominated, it was so forgotten that RKO allowed the copyright to expire. Thus it was widely shown on TV in the early 1970s and rapidly became the greatest Chistmas film ever made. Ironically Stewart's career as a leading actor was now over.
He made Magic Town for William A. Wellman in 1947, then Call Northside 777 for Henry Hathaway the next year. Also in 1948, Alfred Hitchcock cast him in Rope, the first of 4 films he made for the master director. 1949 saw him in Sam Wood's The Stratton Story.
1950 was a pivotal year when Stewart played his first hard-bitten hero in Anthony Mann's Winchester '73, followed by Delmer Dave's Indian-stereotype-breaking Broken Arrow and Henry Koster's Harvey, his personal 2nd favorite film role, which he also performed onstage.
That he could portray both the gentle, idealistic, whimsical Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey, which gained his 4th Oscar nomination, while simultaneously playing alienated, revengeful Western characters is a tribute to his wonderful versatility. Previously this darker nature had only been touched in It's a Wonderful Life, which is one of the facets that makes this film so endearingly great. As a bit player at Universal, Clint Eastwood visited the set of one of the Anthony Mann westerns and later said that Stewart's portrayal of rage stunned him.
Overall, the 1950s were the apex of Stewart's film career. In 1952, he negotiated a precedent-setting contract with Universal that gave him a share of the film's profits, a model that quickly became the standard for top stars. In Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth, he acted entirely in clown make-up, yet his voice was unmistakeable and affecting. Then came two more Mann westerns, Bend of the River (52) and The Naked Spur (53), the latter their finest collaboration. Weekly, his radio show The Six Shooter with his distinctive narration seemed an extension of the wandering hero he'd created in Broken Arrow.
Thunder Bay (53), The Glenn Miller Story (54), The Far Country, Stategic Air Command and The Man from Laramie (all 55) completed his work with Mann.
Roles for other directors varied widely: Richard Thorpe's Carbine Williams (52), Billy Wilder's The Spirit of St. Louis and James Neilson's Night Passage (57), Richard Quine's Bell, Book and Candle (58), Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder (5th & final Oscar nomination) and Mervyn LeRoy's The FBI Story (59).
For Hitchcock, he did Rear Window (54), The Man Who Knew Too Much (56), then Vertigo in 1958, which was even more overlooked than It's a Wonderful Life had been and took nearly as long to become widely accepted for the film masterwork it is.
In the early 1960s, he made three films with John Ford: Two Rode Together (61) and the classic myth-shattering The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (62), receiving top poster billing over John Wayne, while Wayne got the top spot in the film's credits. Then he played Wyatt Earp in Ford's final western Cheyenne Autumn, offering the only humorous interlude in this tragic saga of the American Indians. Beyond three so-so comedies for Henry Koster, Stewart did his best work in Andrew V. McLaglen's Shenandoah (65) and Bandelaro (68), Robert Aldrich's Flight of the Phoenix (66) and two films with old friend Henry Fonda: Vincent McEveety's Firecreek (68) and Gene Kelly's Cheynne Social Club (70).
His final good starring role was in 1971 as the one-eyed justice seeker in McLaglen's Fool's Parade. He was 63. He did the Hawkins TV show in 1973-74 before concluding his career with a series of supporting roles, the most impressive being John Wayne's final film The Shootist by Don Siegel in 1976, after 42 years in film.
Whatever part he played, James Stewart never looked like he was acting, just being himself. His character might seem misguided, but he could never play a killer or bad person. My daughter Aliana doesn't believe he was capable of telling someone, "I'll kill you...." Yet his very sensitivity and innate kindness made him all the more convincing when portraying anger or seeking revenge. After his WWII experience, a lot of biographical data surfaced: the love of flying as Lindsburg, the same with a military focus in Stategic Air Command, the accordian in Night Passage, more probably that I'm unaware of. Yet even more peculiarly interesting is.... how does one reconcile the persona of a man who was the highest ranking actor in military history with his personal favorite roles of George Bailey and Elwood P. Dowd whose best friend is an 6-foot tall invisible rabbit? "Well, I've wrestled with reality for 35 years, and I'm happy to say I finally won out over it."
Today, only Tom Hanks through his choice of various dramatic and whimsical roles comes close to echoing the spirit that Stewart personified, in much the way that DeNiro has become this era's Brando, and Clint Eastwood, John Wayne. Yet all six of these actors are distinctly different, thank God, because each was or is true to his own being, simply having the integrity to be his own self. God bless you, Jimmy, now and forever, and everyone else. --Simón Cherpitel - 2001
1908 - 1997
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