It's Christmastime, and many families and/or movie buffs will be sitting down to watch 'It's a Wonderful Life' (1946), starring James Stewart. Or perhaps they will watch the even better, but lesser known Christmas movie 'The Shop Around the Corner' (1940), also starring Stewart. He's a Christmas kind of guy, heartwarming and charming. Members of my generation may remember seeing him on television in the late 1980s hawking his poetry book, with their almost ludicrously sweet little poems. Almost anyone these days can do an imitation of him with that indelible, homey, aw-shucks voice.
A case could be made for James, a.k.a. "Jimmy," Stewart (1908-1997) as the greatest male screen actor of the 20th century, although I'd also consider Cary Grant for that honor. What's that, you say? What about more accomplished actors like Laurence Olivier or Marlon Brando? Jimmy Stewart was always "just" Jimmy Stewart, wasn't he? Anyone who reads my stuff knows about my personal theory about this. For me, it's far more valuable for an actor to bring his personality to a role, to create a consistent screen persona, than it is for an actor to merely "disappear" into one role after another. If an actor totally disappears into a role, what is left of his personality to make him unique?
Of course, this is not to disparage the extraordinary accomplishments of Olivier or Brando, but I wanted to use them to illustrate why Stewart makes the grade. Stewart began inauspiciously, and there seemed to be no place for the thin, gangly actor. He worked faithfully for about 5 years before he achieved a measure of success in Frank Capra's 'You Can't Take It With You' (1938), and that led to Stewart's lead role in 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' (1939). It's difficult to overestimate just how crucial this was for Stewart's career and for Stewart. It hammered home the actor's image once and for all; he was, indeed, the meek that could inherit the earth.
Viewers and Oscar voters were so grateful for the way he stood up to crooked politicians in that film that they remembered him a year later and awarded him an Oscar for 'The Philadelphia Story' (1940), even though he had lost for 'Mr. Smith,' and even though his co-star Cary Grant was not nominated. The same year, Stewart made 'The Shop Around the Corner,' which showed the first hints of worry, darkness and despair that the actor was capable of.
At around this time, Stewart made a move that would change him forever. After the start of WWII, he enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps. He served throughout the entire war and did not return to movies until 1946. Despite the fact that he was now an honest-to-goodness hero, the movie going public did what the movie going public is wont to do from time to time: they forgot all about him. Capra's aforementioned 'It's a Wonderful Life' was a flop, as was Hitchcock's amazing 'Rope' (1948), and a handful of other films.
In 1950, his luck turned around. He appeared in three hits, and it was the first time in his career that he cracked the list of the year's ten biggest movie stars. Delmer Daves' 'Broken Arrow' (1950) was arguably the first Western to take a sympathetic view of American Indian characters (sorry, Kevin Costner). And many fans still love 'Harvey' for its story of a friendship with a giant, invisible rabbit. But it was Anthony Mann's 'Winchester '73' that marked the real turning point. In it, Stewart plays Lin McAdam, a grimy, gangly looking cowboy who wins the title rifle in a shooting contest, but immediately loses it to a bandit. He chases the rifle through hill and dale, but it turns out that there's also a personal vendetta involved.
In the moment that Stewart confronts his prey, he reveals a pent-up, twitching, burning fury that had hardly been seen on the American screen, let alone by this "meek" hero. Director Mann was eager to exploit this darkness further, and since their films made money, the studios were only too happy to comply. They made eight films together throughout the fifties, five of them Westerns, and all of them worth seeing (the biopic 'The Glenn Miller Story' is the only oddball of the bunch).
At the same time, Alfred Hitchcock liked what he saw in this new Stewart, and they teamed up for three more films, 'Rear Window' (1954), 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' (1956) and 'Vertigo' (1958). The latter is widely considered one of the ten greatest films ever made, and it's partly thanks to Stewart selling the unstoppable, obsessive nature of his detective character. You can read it everywhere from his eyes to his fingertips; he simply cannot stop doing what he is doing to poor Kim Novak.
Before the 1950s ran out, Otto Preminger cast him in 'Anatomy of a Murder' (1959) as the aw-shucks lawyer who would rather be fishing. But Stewart's easygoing presence did not soften up a cold, hard courtroom drama, which brought words like "rape" and "panties" to American screens for the first time. It's hard to imagine the reaction of the little old ladies who must have gone to see this movie based on their love for 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' and seeing their sweet star involved in such "filth."
Stewart met one more great director at this point, John Ford, who cast him in one more great film, 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance' (1962). Stewart was required to play an aged Senator, and then, in flashback, a greenhorn lawyer who stumbles into a small Western town and encounters the savage Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). Stewart was in his mid-50s and handles both roles admirably, but again, it's a rather dark, unsympathetic role; the sympathy goes to John Wayne's character Tom Doniphon. (I'd explain further, but I don't want to spoil the movie.) Ford also cast Stewart in 'Two Rode Together' (1961), a Western long missing from American video shelves, and in a small throwaway sequence in 'Cheyenne Autumn' (1964) -- as Wyatt Earp.
That was a good solid ten or twelve years of exceptional work, and Stewart seemed to slow down and relax after that, with the exception of Robert Aldrich's tough action movie 'The Flight of the Phoenix' (1965). After that, he played small parts in 'The Shootist' (1976), and 'The Big Sleep' (1978), and then in things like 'Airport '77' and 'The Magic of Lassie.' In late interviews, he appeared humble and grateful. He never had any intention of becoming the greatest male screen actor of the 20th century. He was still a nice guy, and the kind of guy who would stand up for the rights of an entire country. (Just imagine what he could do in a situation like this year's 'Inside Job.')
But take that thread of darkness, anger, and obsession that he showed, and then go back to 'It's a Wonderful Life.' People remember the happy, tear-jerking ending with Stewart wishing everyone (and everything) a "Merry Christmas," and perhaps the happy-go-lucky Stewart at the beginning of the film, the one who's ready to shake the dust of this crummy little town off his feet. But consider him as the film goes on, and as his income dwindles and as his family grows larger. Look how his character grows physically more shadowy, as if light simply could not reach his pores. Then watch him during the "fantasy" sequences with Clarence the angel. Watch how he quivers with ultimate despair, how painfully his tears come, and how we believe -- to the bottom of our hearts -- that George Bailey has absolutely reached the depths at which he would hurl himself from the bridge into the icy waters below.
That kind of anguish is not easy to deal with in real life, much less achieve in a fictional movie. What pushes Stewart's performance to an extraordinary level, however, is that we know who he is. We understand that, in film after film, he is a (mostly) nice guy, who tries. He spends every day trying to make things better. He doesn't have a thick skin. He can only take so much. He succumbs to his obsessions and his fears and desires. But he never quite sinks as low as he does in 'It's a Wonderful Life.' His pain practically adds harsh colors to the picture. But the remarkable thing is that, because we know him, he doesn't chase us away. I think that if Brando or Olivier tried a similar scene, the audience would respond with "what terrific acting!" But since we know Stewart, we all want to help. We lean into the screen, trying to reach out to him.
Stewart passed away in 1997, but he left something of himself -- his true self -- in all those movies. His best films happened in a relatively short period, but he made more great films that most other actors, and I doubt he could have had a much better career even if the cards had fallen differently. And, here in December, it becomes clear that no other actor who ever shouted "Merry Christmas" in front of a camera did it more convincingly.