Movie Stars: Stewart, Jimmy–What Hitchcock Saw in the All-American Boy Scout

There is a direct, even linear relationship between Jimmy Stewart, his directors in the various decades of his career, and his resulting screen persona, which kept evolving and changing.

Stewart’s career was molded by Frank Capra in the 1930s and 1940s, Anthony Mann and Hitchcock in 1950s (the best decade of the actor’s career), John Ford in the 1960s, and Andrew McLaglen (the least significant and talented helmer of the five)  in the 1970s.

As various scholars and critics have shown, Hitchcock was able to tap a vein of acting talent in Stewart that could reflect the psychological anxieties besetting post WWII Americans.

On the one hand, the chosen vehicles were those of the all-American boy, thrown out of balance and laced in crisis situations, but that at the end, the star image would remain positive and would stay untainted by these sordid roles.

Despite the customary talk about the director as auteur who taps a vein in the actor, driving and using him like a vehicle, these comments obscure how Vertigo and the other Hitchcock films might have been personal statements for the actor as well as the director.

Stewart not only allowed but participated actively in plumbing the depth of his well-constructed and evolving persona.

Hitchcock alone could not have moved Stewart to the resentful desperation of Dr. Ben McKenna in The Man Who Knew Too Much, or the emotional hysteria of Scottie Fergusson in Vertigo

The theoretical question remains how the beloved Stewart and the militaristic, all-American Stewart keep body, soul and persona together when the body is so fragile and vulnerable and the soul of a character’s unexamined life is so often brought into the foreground of a Stewart film to suffer the consequences of a lack of self-knowledge.

In the 1950s, Stewart demonstrated a remarkable ability to walk the tightrope between normality and difference, consistency and change in a successful and durable movie star career, without letting the tensions and anxieties erode too much his ultimately likable screen persona as a positive and upbeat American hero.