Jimmy Stewart

One Hundred Years of Jimmy Stewart:

Last week we watched Angel and the Badman (and how did you like it?), and probably all of you know that last year was John Wayne's 100th birthday. Certainly I mentioned it here!

But this year is Jimmy Stewart's 100th birthday, and he was another of the greats. If not quite as thunderous a presence as John Wayne, yet Jimmy Stewart also points to something that is good and great about America. He was at his best when he was acting uncertain in the moment, yet certain of deeper things -- as in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, or Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

Hollywood didn't want that from him all the time, so it tasked him with other roles. He could do a fearsome persona on occasion. He had moments of that towards the end of Bend in the River; he tried to show it in Winchester 73; and in other films. But though he was a great actor, and capable of a great many things, I never saw him keep that sense of menace up through a whole performance. A tense scene he could do as well as anyone; but over the course of the film, you always felt that his characters were decent, kind, gentle men. Even the killers.

Mark Steyn wrote about him recently.

James Stewart was a nervous flyer. Commercial airlines made him jittery, he wouldn’t touch chartered flights, and, inveigled into a Cessna during bad weather on a publicity tour for It’s A Wonderful Life, he made the pilot turn around and take him back to the airport at Beaumont, Texas. Just a few months earlier, he had been in the Air Force; he had flown twenty bombing missions and won a Distinguished Flying Cross; he was a genuine war hero. Yet he remained a nervous flyer.

For Wonderful Life, Stewart had a clause written into his contract forbidding any publicity exploitation of his service record. Half a century on, I think we can be permitted to make a discreet connection between his acting and his flying - in and out of uniform. He played heroes, but they tended to be nervous heroes, men of exceptional courage who nevertheless, in defiance of the cliché, did know the meaning of the word “fear”.

And this:
At the start of the Second World War, Stewart had just achieved his career breakthrough, the defining role of Mr Smith. Yet he was one of the first Hollywood leading men to enlist, putting his career on hold for half a decade - which, in movie-star terms, means you may never have anything to come back to. After his death, one or two commentators sniffed about “his caustically right-wing views” and “his support for the Vietnam War”, but, unlike Alec Baldwin or Barbra Streisand, he never thought his status, either as an “artist” or as a bona fide war hero, entitled him to be heard on such matters.
He was a very good man.

Steyn recommends Destry Rides Again in his review, and it's one I've never seen. It's described online as "a hilarious satire" of the Western genre, which is remarkable considering the year it was made: 1939.

The Stewart version was also a remake of an earlier version, made in 1932.

Just goes to show you how much the Western is the oldest genre of the movies. At a time when what we think of as film was just starting to kick off and swim, the Westerns were already remaking their satires -- and satires require that the rules of the genre be well established, so that everybody gets the joke. In 1939, the year of The Wizard of Oz, Tom Mix had been five years retired from his career, which spanned three hundred thirty-six movies.

It certainly looks amusing.

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