One of several Hollywood actors of the 1930s to emerge as "common man heroes" (Fonda, Cooper and Wayne were among the others), Jimmy Stewart always seemed to be a few shades closer to "common man" than "hero." Tall and gangly, shy, with a rural drawl and a nervous stutter, Stewart's persona was essentially that of a nice guy -- an earnest, well-meaning, perhaps easily distracted young man who was typically thrust into extraordinary circumstances, but who could tear his way through such circumstances with guts and an unshakeable sense of right.
Stewart, who was born on this day in 1908 in Indiana, Pennsylvania, was a small-town boy who studied architecture at Princeton. His appearance in a Princeton revue led classmate Josh Logan to convince Stewart to join the University Players in Falmouth, Massachusetts, where he met Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan. Stewart and roommate Fonda earned their keep on Broadway for a few years, and went to Hollywood in 1935.
Fonda's success was slightly earlier, as Stewart floundered through boy-ingénue roles, but Frank Capra snagged Stewart in 1938 for You Can't Take it With You, which turned out to be a mere tryout for Stewart's first tour-de-force, Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939, with Jean Arthur), the story of a boy scout leader tapped to be a U.S. senator, only to be framed on corruption charges. After winning an Oscar for performing slightly against type as a wise-cracking writer in The Philadelphia Story (1941, with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant), Stewart became the first Hollywood star to enlist in the military for what would become World War II -- before the attack on Pearl Harbor -- rising to the rank of Air Force colonel, flying over 1,000 combat missions and winning the Distinguished Flying Cross (he would ultimately earn the rank of brigadier general in the Air Force Reserves).
America had grown up after the war, and with it, so did Stewart's persona. His first film after the war, the classic It's a Wonderful Life (1946, again by Capra), the story of a common man driven to the mortal brink of desperation only to brought back through a spiritual epiphany, a whimsical but ultimately terrifying encounter with an angel, was like a diary of the transformation of Stewart's film identity; with rare exception after the war (notably Harvey, 1950), the quirky, bumbling Stewart gave way to Stewart the tough guy -- still a small town guy with small town values, clever and charming at times, but a man of action, not above being ruthless.
Hitchcock played upon the contrast between the young Stewart and the prickly Stewart of middle-age in Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Vertigo (1958); but films such as Anatomy of a Murder (1959, his fourth Oscar nomination), the Westerns Winchester '73 (1950), Broken Arrow (1950) and John Ford's Two Rode Together (1961) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), showed an almost irretrievably hard-bitten side of his persona, a side that knew through personal experience that war is hell.
Among the first stars to negotiate a portion of the profits from his productions, he eased slowly into retirement with a couple of TV series (The Jimmy Stewart Show, 1971-2; Hawkins, 1973-4) and occasional talk show appearances, having attained the status of one of the best loved actors from the golden age of Hollywood. He died July 2, 1997 in Los Angeles, California.
Labels: Classic Cinema