Jimmy Stewart; Hollywood didn't invent him
Beverly Hills, California — Even from behind you know who he is, the tall man as loosely hung together as a Calder mobile, with the voice that twangs like a guitar. He greets the maitre d' by name -- "Hello, Ray, how arem yuh?" Just the way Jefferson Smith would-a done it, or Mike Connors in "Philadelphia Story" or Elwood P. Dowd. And then he moves off into the oak-beamed shadows of the restaurant, slow as a snow-topped, 6'3" glacier. The heads still turn, (although discreetly, because this is star-proof Beverly Hills), as Jimmy Stewart meanders by.
In John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," a newspaper editor says of the senator Jimmy Stewart plays: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
At this point, after 45 years as a movie actor, they're printing the legend of Jimmy Stewart. The legend will be honored on Feb. 28 over nationwide television when Stewart receives the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award. Ford was the first to win the award, which has also gone to James Cagney , Orson Welles, William Wyler, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, and Alfred Hitchcock.
Folded up, sitting down at a table, James Maitland Stewart is still tall. Tall in the saddle, as they say in the westerns he's done so many of. And shy. Shy as the cowboy confronting the schoolmarm for the first time. It doesn't seem possible that he's made a living being looked at and listened to in more than 80 films, including "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Anatomy of a Murder," "The Philadelphia Story" (for which he won an Oscar), "Rear Window," "Cheyenne Autumn" and his favorite, "It's a Wonderful Life."
Here he is talking about "Wonderful Life," the Frank Capra film in which he plays an unselfish idealist named George Bailey.Bailey, who runs a small town building and loan company, thinks of suicide when his company is threatened with folding, but is saved by a vision of what a shanty-town his hometown would be if he'd never lived. The film is Stewart's favorite, but not because it is essentially optimistic, dealing with the triumph of goodness over adversity. Nope.
"I think it was because it was from the very beginning . . . what the motion picture in its truest form is: It's not from a book; it's not from a play; it's not from an actual happening; it's not from history. It's about an idea, as simple an idea as: you're not born to be a failure.
"Really when you talk about the picture, that's what it's all about. And this is a true movie. You're taking not a book, not a play, not anything. You're taking a tiny idea -- not a tiny idea, a very important idea -- but you're taking an idea . . . and developing a whole movie, and I thought Frank Capra did it very well. . . ."
The explanation is full of some of the famous Stewart pauses, which are so big you could fly a jumbo jet through them. The actor, who was an Air Force colonel in World War II, has a way of circling around a thought, then swooping down, taxiing across it, and finally making a landing on it.
He's been the ultimate flying hero of course, Lucky Lindy, in the Lindbergh film "The Spirit of St. Louis." He's also played a series of other heroes who are desperately good, almost reeking with integrity, idealism, and trustworthiness. He played Senator Jefferson Smith, for instance, in Capra's film, the earnest, honest, bumbling freshman who goes to Washington believing "the only causes worth fighting for are lost causes" -- and wins.
When he talks about his two favorite scenes, they're in Capra movies. In an interview with writer-director Peter Bogdanovich he once said that as an actor "you're giving people little tiny pieces of time they never forget." He explains now that often, they're not whole scenes, "they're just looks. They're just short pieces of time that you can't, you can't really put your finger on it. But I know that it happened, because people -- when they come up to you and talk to you about it, they usually don't know the picture or who was in it, or where it was, or where they saw it. But they'll they'll they'll even say, 'You're in this room, and you were just leavin', and so and so said so and so and you turnedm and that lookm you gave.' The look took a second, a couple of seconds.
"One of them was in. 'It's a Wonderful Life. There's one place where I'm in a bar and everything's gone wrong I've just been knocked down by a big guy [ because] I yelled at his wife over the phone for some reason, and everything seemed wrong. I just looked up and started a little prayer of some kind, which sort of set off the whole thing, the try at suicide . . . [When a dowdy angel appeared and showed him how awful life would have been in that town if he'd never lived], and I looked to God for help."
The second was in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." "Out at the Lincoln Memorial, Jean Arthur [who plays the wisecracking secretary in love with him] found me there. And there was one little look that was there. Well, I didn't know what to do. They were going to try and impeach me, but Lincoln was there so I thought I'd go out. It was almost like reverence, really, for Lincoln. I'm just sitting there in front of the statue. It's hard to describe . . . ."
The man who directed both those films, Frank Capra says of Stewart. "What he has so wonderfully is the ability to act what he's saying as though he'd just thought of it making it seem in the present, as though it's coming out of him now. And that's the acme of directing.
"There are actors and actors. The first kind, the majority of actors, go in and get paid for it and do it. Then there are a few who give great performances , notable performances. And then there's another level, above the great performances. That is the level at which there is no acting at all. That's the highest level. Jimmy Stewart is one of the very few actors who have achieved that level. He's tops."
Capra's favorite Stewart scene is the marriage proposal in 'Wonderful Life," in which George Bailey's heart triumphs over his intellect.
Capra says that Stewart was a director's dream to work with, a man virtually without the usual star temperament, the kind who never expected caviar in his dressing room or a Rolls Royce at his disposal. "This man never demanded a thing . . . . He was just glad to be an actor. . . . He was just one of the guys, and never found anything wrong with anything."
Well practically anything about a fifth of the way through the interview. Jimmy Stewart says softly, "Whhhyyy this poor thing can't swim! Why don't we get another one?" He is looking down with concern into his water glass where a bug is submerged. It may be a mosquito, no one is sure.
"Whatever it is it's dead," says Stewart, beckoning the waiter over quietly. No fuss, no scene. Then it's time to order.
"Yuh know about sand dabs?" he asks solicitously of the Easterner. No, she doesn't. He sets off to right the wrong. "This [restaurant] is not only the best place to get sand dabs but this area, the Los Angeles area is the only place in the wurrld that this fish is off Catalina, and there is no other place in the wurrld."
We decide to have sand dabs. He orders his with baby carrots and boiled potatoes. When the tender little fish arrive with a variation of tartar sauce he spoons some on my plate. "Put this on the side and every once in a while give a little dip."
Then he gest talking about his next film
"A Tale of Africa." "I'm playing an old, and this is the reason I have this awful, seedy, this . . .," he scratches his new beard, ". . . an old gold miner."
He looks different now from his salad days, when he dazzled Dietrich in "Destry Rides Again," or Hepburn in "The Philadelphia Story." Different, but still a good-looking man, with a face on which the years have etched no meanness. His hair is white; his eyes behind horn-rimmed glasses are the color of blue spruce. His skin is faintly ruddy, perhaps in the reflected light of his pale pink shirt. With it he wears a tie with a tiny pattern in dark red, black and white, a black, white and brown checked jacket, and black trousers. His hands on the tablecloth look like the hands of a boy: tentative, small-boned , small-fingered for such a large man.
He goes on talking about the film, explain it's a Japanese production and he took on the role because in the picture "you get the wildlife conservation idea through the back door . . ., conservation of the habitat of the wildlife" in Africa. So he and his wife, Gloria, who is active in the World Wildlife and East African Wildlife Federation took off for several weeks of shooting southeast of Nairobi in Kenya.
Stewart has bagged a lot of film trophies as an actor: In addition to his Oscar, there are five Academy Award nominations, two New York Film Critics best actor awards, two from the Venice Film Festival, and France's "Victoire" trophy for best actor. In naming him this year, former AFI president George Stevens said, "For 45 years, Jimmy Stewart has brought American characters to life on motion picture screens around the world. He is meticulous and versatile actor whose work has most certainly fulfilled our criteria of having 'stood the test of time.'"
Is he going to be embarrassed that night, standing up there in front of a camera that's focusing not on a role, but on Jimmy Stewart himself?
"Nooo, I don't feel embarrassment. I don't feel, uh -- I feel honored completely, because I, uh, sincerely feel that, uh, some of my peers decided to give me a pat on the back, and I'm very grateful to them for that. I have no -- I don't know how to explain it. I suppose it's just, you know, this age thing -- when you've been around and been so closem to the business. I feel that I am a part of the business of motion pictures."
So it pleases you?
There's been a lot of ink split over Jimmy Stewart's engaging drawl, his inarticulateness, his long pauses. He does have a way of drawing a sentence out as though he were pulling taffy with the words. Is there a difference between that slow exterior Jimmy Stewart and the interior one? Is his mind really racing like a greyhound?
He answers obliquely: "Well, I think the main difference is: I'm a worrier. I worry. I worry, and I, uh -- maybe this has increased with age. I don't know . . .. When my wife, Gloria, is there, she says it before I can get it out. I-I-I worry. I worry about everything.m And it's a sort of a natural habit, which I take as a matter of course, and it doesn't affect my . . . ."
Then when you are talking, he is asked, are you worrying about the effect of the words?
"I think probably in a way this would be true. I think it also has to do with stagefright, which I have very badly. And it's not a pleasant thing at all. It's a restricting thing . . . ."
Henry Fonda, who has been one of Stewart's best friends for 50 years, protests, "He's not more of a worrier than I am, or most people are. Worry is the occupational disease in this business, worrying about whether this might be the last job or whether you're going to get work again or when."
Fonda, who shares Stewart's love of jazz and films, says his pal is "a great story teller . . . . He really knows how to embroider a story."
That legendary one, for instance, about how, when bachelors, Stewart and Fonda shared a house in L.A, Stewart talked Fonda into digging a tunnel between their house and that of their beautiful but aloof neighbor, Greta Garbo.
"It ain't true," drawls Fonda. "It's Jimmy's story, and he likes to tell it. we really just sat around and . . ., talked a lot about it, but we never did it."
Fonda is asked which of the characters Stewart has played is most like the man himself.
"I suppose the role in 'You Can't Take It With You' [the bashful suitor in Kaufman's comedy about a wacky family] or George Bailey in 'It's a Wonderful Life.'"
If Jimmy Stewart sometimes seems like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life , it's because his own roots are deep in the small town of Indiana, Penn., where his father ran a family hardware store founded in 1853. Growing up on as a boy on Vinegar Hill, he wrote, produced, and starred in his own one-act plays, and made his stage debut at 15 in a school production of "The Frog Prince" as a spear carrier. And he hung around the local movie theater doing odd jobs and acting as projectionist to see movies free.
When he went to Mercersburg Academy to prep for Princeton he was planning at first to be a civil engineer, but later decided to be an architect. He took his accordion with him to Princeton and, after graduation, to Cape Cod, when Princeton friend Josh Logan asked him up for the summer.
One of the legends is that he took a job playing the accordian in a tea room there, but played so unappetizingly that the producer of a play at a Falmouth stock company asked him to try acting instead. Stewart went from playing a constable in "Sister Carrie" to a chauffeur in "Goodbye Again." When the summer ended and Stewart was slated to go off to graduate school to get his masters, the producer took the play to Broadway and invited Stewart along.
"I went home and told my family," remembers Stewart, "and they didn't know how to take it, but they took it very well, bless their hearts. My father didn't like it at all -- till the day he died he didn't like it . . . . But he said, 'If you want to do that, that's all right . . . .'
He talks about how his father and mother nevertheless faithfully followed all his performances. "When I got the Academy Award he [his father] called me up and said, 'Wha'd they give yuh? They give yuh a plaque, or what was it?' 'Noooo ,' I said, 'It's sort of a statue.' And he said, 'Well, you better send it back, and I'll put it in may hardware store window.' Which I did, and it was there 20 years."
In the years that followed, his major work was done under four different directors who recognized "the fascinating paradoxes and contradictions" of his nature, as critic John Belton points out in "Closeups: The Movie Star Book." Belton says, "His roles for Capra alternate between idealistic, Jeffersonian, agrarian reformers and bitter, disillusioned cynics; for [Anthony] Mann, between members of families or groups and lonely outsiders; for Hitchcock, between a conventional sightseer and romantic voyeur; for Ford, between comically corrupt, mercenary marshalls and earnest, crusading young lawyers."
Stewart himself believes that World War II marked a turning point in his career; he started as leader of a bomber wing, rose to Air Force colonel, and won the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, and Croix de Guerre.
"The war had a tremendous effect on me. It really turned my thinking around. I think it was maturity. I had never experienced the total responsibility I did in the war, . . . never experienced the realization that it was up to me physically to make a thing work, to survive. The thing I prayed for was not my life, but that I wouldn't make a mistake."
Students of Stewart's film suggest that the darker side of his acting can be traced back to that war experience.
It was four years after the war that he met Gloria Hattrick McLean at a dinner party given by the Gary Coopers. Mrs. McLean, divorced from Ned McLean (of the Hope Diamond family) had two young sons. "I didn't get married till I was 41 years old, and in a year and a half I had four kids." He grins. The family included the Stewarts' new twin daughters, Kelly and Judy, and Mrs. Stewart's sons Ronald (later killed in action in Vietnam) and Michael. Stewart was delighted with twins. "Having two together . . . there's no loneliness, because they have each other."
Speaking of their 30-year marriage, Stewart explains, he "met the right girl. She was absolutely a beautiful girl, and funny, and a great sense of humor, and warmth, and devotion to the kids, and had just about everything you could think of . . . ." He credits their long, happy marriage to "mutual something -- mutual respect and admiration."
A woman who was a family friend says he calls Gloria "the gurrrl," and that her motor runs at a much faster pace than his.Another longtime friend, Hollywood producer William Frye, calls him "a considerate, dear, easy-going guy, but a disciplined one." The Jimmy Stewart you see on the screen is the Jimmy Stewart you see across the dinner table, the woman friend says, "a real, plain American guy from Indiana, Pennsylvania."
But in his own mind, there is a Jimmy Stewart persona that he can play on the screen or not. In a scence from "Take Her, She's Mine," for instance, where he's playing an educator seeing his daughter off at a plane, he finds himself besieged by autograph hunters who mistake him for Jimmy Stewart. For one delicious moment he does a spoof of Stewartisms, then slips back into character.
One of his favorite roles was the lawyer in "Anatomy of a Murder," which he likes because "I would say it's in an off-Jimmy-Stewart path. Believe me, I don't mindm the Jimmy Stewarts . . . . This is . . . I have this . . ." -- he shrugs; there is no word for it -- "so I don't mind it, but in an off-Jimmy-Stewart path I liked that, and it had a lot to do with Otto Preminger, who directed it."
Stewart has worked, of course, with some of the director kings, like Hitchcock, who is notorious for lines like this: "The chief requisite for an actor is the ability to do nothing well, which is by no means as easy as it sounds. He should be willing to be utilized and wholly integrated into the picture by the director and the camera . . . ."
As Stewart talks about his reaction to that, there is a hint of the lack of ego and the openness to direction that have made him a star. Not just in Hitchcock films like "Vertigo," "Rear Window," and "The Man Who Knew Too Much," but other directors' films, too.
"I agree with everything he [Hitchcock] said. I think probably as far as the actual making of the pictures, he was the most exciting of any, because -- he and John Ford had a lot in common -- you were never sure what was going to happen next . . . ."
What happens next, as Jimmy Stewart is talking, is that one of a line of soignee beauties parading by, modeling fashions from a Beverly Hills shop stops at the table. She also stops conversation all around us. Jimmy Stewart, gazing appreciatively at her blue and black satin chemise, finally stammers, "it . . . it . . . ought to have a belt on it, . . . or somethin.'" From time to time, as more models twirl by, the conversation stops dead, while Stewart gives them the sort of total concentration he gave a baseball in "The Stratton Story" or a trombone in "The Glenn Miller Story." Then the interview resumes with a "Wwwwhere were we?"
WE were talking about directors: "You never, in a Hitchcock or Ford picture," he continues, "you never get the feeling you're sitting around waiting for something to happen, or arguing with somebody about the script. There's none of that. Hitchcock and Ford and a lot of the others came completely prepared as far as the basic mechanics of the picture were concerned, and the mood they wanted to get from every scene. This makes [people] lots of times say, 'Well, he doesn't do anything. He just goes off and says, 'Roll'em! . . . He never tells you anything,' you know. But I would say that's part of the greatness. The director in my opinion is the top fella; he's the head pigeon."
Didn't Stewart, as an actor, resent that kind of control?
"I loved . . . I . . . I loved every minute of bein' on the boat . . . . I've always sort a questioned [he says questioned as though he had a mouthful of hubbard squash] the actor who has a big part in a picture, who requests, and, if that isn't brought about, then demands that he personally be in all story conferences, all decisions about this take, that take, all decisions about how this character should go and everything. Now this I don't agree with. I don't have too many ponderous arguments against it. Maybe I'm only sticking up for the old fashioned way of making pictures. We had, we had fights then, too. This wasn't . . . an attempt to come into a picture and take over his role and play the picture his way, regardless of everybody else. [That] is a selfish, unfair, unprofessional way to do this business."
Finally, Jimmy Stewart segues, as they say in Variety, into what his credo is after 45 years in films.
"Credo? I don't know exactly what credo means . . . . I really don't know how to spell it," he confides. "But I . . . at this point in time, I look at everyday -- I look at the next day -- as a gift. I look at every new day as . . . uh, it's pennies from heaven . . . . I've had so many blessings, I've had so much good fortune in my life. At this point in time I can do nothing but be just . . . grateful."