Stewart, Jimmy: Screen Image–Social Background, Acting Talent, Charm, Sex Appeal

On April 23, 1990, Jimmy Stewart was honored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center for his distinguished screen career.

He is also the recipient of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Awards and the American Film Institute.  Stewart was undoubtedly the last of the great American stars who began their careers during the Depression.

Stewart has contributed his talents, skills and charisma to every medium: stage, radio, film, and television.  He is one of the few actors to have been nominated for five Academy (Oscar) Awards.  Stewart received the 1940 Best Actor Oscar for his performance in the American classic ”The Philadelphia Story, co-starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn.

Stewart was cited twice as Best Actor by the New York Film Critics Circle, for his roles in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939, and for Anatomy of a Murder in 1959.

Stewart’s screen career has spanned over 50 years, during which he was not only a movie star, but a genuine American folk hero.   Only a few movie stars could be described as great  American heroes.  Stewart occupies a special position among them.  Along with Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, and John Wayne, Stewart has defined the best of the American Way of Life for generations of filmgoers.

Stewart’s social background was most appropriate to the legend he created.  He was born and reared in the small town of Indiana, Pennsylvania.  Small towns have been important in American culture, especially during the Depression, when these actors became popular, because of the strong belief in the virtues of rural life.

At the center of the myth of small-town America, was the heroic, self-reliant farmer, the mainstay of America.  The farmer embodied the Puritan ethos of honesty, hard work, and decent righteous living.

If Henry Fonda epitomized farmers, Stewart was at his best when cast as a small-town lawyer, or small-town reporter, establishing himself as an all-American hero in his films with Frank Capra, the director of “the American Dream.”  He usually played smallªtown people who found pleasure and fulfillment in unglamorous, ordinary existence.

His Jefferson Smith in Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, is a naive Wisconsin Senator, committed to fighting graft and corruption.  And his young sheriff in Destry Rides Again, Thomas Jefferson Destry, looks soft and easy-going, but is actually hard as nails when he has to fight.

In Capra’s ultimate American movie, ”It’s a Wonderful Life, their first collaboration after a lengthy military service, Stewart is cast as the simple but honest George Bailey who, all his life, has been dreaming of breaking away from his small-town and doing “big things,” only to realize how meaningful that life is to him.

Jimmy Stewart’s face and unique voice are highly recognizable all over the world because of his long©enduring popularity.  Furthermore, most of his films are available on video, which provides a unique opportunity for younger generations of viewers to get familiar with this all©American icon.

Sex Appeal and Sexual Image

Two actresses were important in the formation of Jimmy Stewart’s sexual screen persona: Margaret Sullavan in the 1930s and June Allyson in the 1950s.

Stewart co-starred with Sullavan in four romantic movies, such as The Shopworn Girl and The Mortal Storm, in both of which she dies in his arms.

But it was June Allyson who had more lasting importance on his image in their three films together, The Stratton Story, The Glenn Miller Story, and Strategic Air Command.  In these and other movies, Stewart plays the wife-inspired husband and the ideal father, monogamous and domestic.

Unlike Clark Gable and other male stars, Stewart does not flirt with married women (except in ”Vertigo•), and unlike

John Wayne, his heroes manage to reconcile a viable professional career with

a happy domestic life.  Stewart provided the model for the American male in

the l950s in his dual roles as husband©father.       Stewart has worked with the best filmmakers in Hollywood, though three

directors played pivotal roles in shaping his career and screen image.  Early‰

on in his career, Stewart worked with Frank Capra.  Their three films, ”You

Can’t Take It with You•, ”Mr. Smith Goes to Washington•, and ”It’s a Wonderful

Life•, defined forever the Stewart screen persona.  Anthony Mann directed the

largest number of his films, nine, making Stewart a major Western star, along

with Wayne and Cooper.  Two of the nine movies were popular biopictures: ”The

Glenn Miller Story• and ”Strategic Air Command•, the life story of Lt. Colonel

Robert Holland.  And later in his career he worked with Alfred Hitchcock, the

Master of Suspense, who used him to great effect in four movies, including

”Rear Window• and ”Vertigo•, films that brought completely different aspects of

his image than the Capra or Mann films.  Furthermore, these Hitchcock movies

were such blockbusters that they contributed to Stewart’s box©office

popularity and prolonged his career. ÜhÜŒ In contrast to both Wayne and Cooper, Jimmy Stewart appeared in Westerns

rather late in his career.  After a small part in the musical Western ”Rose

Marie•, and a major role in the Western comedy, ”Destry Rides Again•, Stewart

made no westerns in the l940s.  In the l950, he made 7 important Westerns,

the best of which were directed by Anthony Mann.  These Westerns opened up a

new career for him, changing his previous 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 and interesting persona.  In his most memorable Westerns,

Stewart’s heroes are cynical, at times even opportunistic.  In Delmer Daves’s

”Broken Arrow• (l950), the film which changed the Indian image on the American

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.  Ü4Ü
Stewart’s protagonists are often obsessed with pursuing private quests of

revenge.  In Mann’s ”Winchester 73•, he maintains his familiar mannerisms of

drawling and fumbling his words, but his frontiersman is actually

singlemindedly committed to avenge his father’s death.  In another notable

Western, ”The Man from Laramie• (l955), his 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, men who lost their women in tragic

circumstances. Ü$Ü
Happy endings, however, including triumphant survival against all odds,

were integral to the image of most Hollywood stars during the Golden Age.

The great male stars died before the cameras either before their public

images took shape or very late in their careers when it no longer mattered.

Take Clark Gable, for example, who died in only four of his 67 movies, with

two of these screen deaths occuring during the first year of his career©©a

bootlegger gangster in ”Dance, Fools, Dance•, and an underworld leader in ”A

Free Soul•.  Gable also died romantically in Myrna Loy’s arms in ”Parnell•,

another uncharacteristic movie  which miscast him as a nineteenth©century

Irish politician.  His fourth reel death was in a war movie, ”Run Silent, Run Deep,” one of his last pictures, in which he dies on duty, as a captain of a U.S. submarine during the Second World War.

Significantly, when these on screen deaths occur, as in Jimmy Stewart’s pictures, they are most revealing in their insights about male heroism in the American cinema.  In a typical Stewart movie, it is usually his girl or his wife who dies–not him.

In three of his Westerns he loses his woman in tragic circumstances, as in ”Destry Rides Again,” in which Marlene Dietrich’s saloon owner is shot in the back while trying to save his life.  Even more tragic is his wife’s (Debra Paget) death in ”The Broken Arrow,” paying a high price in the achievement of peace between the whites and the Indians.  Stewart’s

frequent screen lady, Margaret Sullavan, often found her death in his arms,

as in ”The Mortal Storm•, an anti©War picture, in which both are shot as they

cross the border to safety but she dies.  Stewart’s rare screen deaths are

either heroic, as in the war drama ”Malaya•, or accidental, as in the

biopicture ”The Glenn Miller story•, dying in an air©crash.