Stewart, Jimmy: Western Genre

In contrast to both John Wayne and Gary Cooper, who began their careers in the Western genre, Jimmy Stewart appeared in Westerns rather late in his career.

He played a small part in the musical Western “Rose Marie,” and a bigger one in the Western comedy, “Destry Rides Again,” which was more of a Marlene Dietrich star vehicle.

Stewart made no Westerns in the 1940s, during which he was mobilized into the War effort.  He received his first (and only) Best Actor Oscar, for Cukor’s comedy, “The Philadelphia Story” (1940), while in uniform.

However, in the 1950, Stewart made seven important Westerns, the best of which were directed by Anthony Mann. These Westerns opened up a new career avenue for Stewart, changing his previous screen image, as the innocent idealistic hero in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and It’s a Wonderful Life,” into a more complex, mature, and conflicted screen persona.

In his most memorable Westerns, Stewart’s heroes are cynical, and at times even opportunistic. In Delmer Daves’s “Broken Arrow” (1950), the film credited with changing the image of the Native Americans on the screen, Stewart’s cavalry scout is a self-appointed go-between the white men and the Apache. He manages to achieve a racial reconciliation and peace, but at a heavy price, losing his Indian wife.

Stewart’s protagonists are often obsessed with pursuing private quests of revenge. In Anthony Mann’s “Winchester 73,” he maintains his familiar mannerisms of drawling and fumbling his words, but his frontiersman is actually single-mindedly committed to avenge his father’s death. In another notable Western, “The Man from Laramie” (1955), Stewart’s wandering cowman seeks revenge on those who killed his brother.

More significantly, unlike his comedies and biopictures, in which he is the epitome of the ideal husband-father, in his Westerns Stewart plays loners, usually men who lost their women in tragic circumstances.

Jimmy Stewart-John Wayne Westerns

In “The Shootist” (1976), which turned out to be his last picture, John Wayne teamed for the second time with Jimmy Stewart in a Western; the first was in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (See my essays about this film). Wayne plays an aging gunfighter dying of cancer, and Stewart is his doctor, burdened with the task of conveying to him the bad news.

At the center of the movie is Wayne’s relationship with a widowed landlady (Lauren Bacall) and her son (Ron Howard). There were many advantages in casting Wayne as John Bernard Books, for director Don Siegel wanted to show the progression of the gunfighter from his early glorious days to his tragic death. What better than using old clips from Wayne’s own Westerns, Stagecoach,” Red River,” and Hondo.” The movie thus became a self-conscious invocation of the Wayne screen legend and a tribute to his career. It looked as if “The Shootist” had been consciously designed as an epitaph, though Wayne had intentions at the time to continue making movies.

There were many parallels between the film’s narrative and Wayne’s real life. John Bernard Books is dying of cancer, a theme that was unpalatable and unmentionable to many actors, but not to Wayne. Moreover, the conversation between Wayne and the physician that Jimmy Stewart, a Republican peer and pal in real life, bears personal notes. It’s Stewart who tells Wayne the grim truth about cancer, even hinting about suicide as a way of avoiding pain. Upset by the news, Wayne protests, “You told me I was strong as an ox.” To which Stewart simply replies, “even oxen die.”