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The Independent (04/Jul/1997) - Obituary: James Stewart



Obituary: James Stewart

In view of how secure a fixture he was destined to become in the American cinema, it is now perhaps difficult to understand what an awkward proposition James Stewart represented to casting directors at the beginning of his career in the 1930s. He was tall, gangling and lackadaisical, possessed of a slow and almost caricaturally drawling delivery that sounded as though, before finally emerging, his voice had to make a complete tour of the inside of his mouth; there was even a suspicion of a wisp or two of straw in his chronically unkempt hair.

If such types were common enough as supporting performers in westerns and rural melodramas, they had generally been denied access to true stardom. Stewart nevertheless became and remained a star, achieving prominence in a wide variety of genres. Moreover, in a career spanning over four decades, he appeared to age as naturally and reassuringly as a member of one's own family.

Although his original country-boy bashfulness and tendency to say "Shucks !" a lot - Stewart was born in the small town of Indiana, Pennsylvania, the son of a hardware store owner - were soon smoothed out in the sophisticated comedies and thrillers in which he was later to make a reputation, they never entirely disappeared. When, in consequence, he was allowed to reveal hitherto unsuspected depths of character, and his candid blue eyes were invested with an unaccustomed steeliness (notably, under such directors as Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann), the contrast between the psychological intensity of which he proved capable and the casual behavioural charm which came so naturally to him seemed all the more disturbing.

Stewart won his sole Oscar as a cynical newspaper reporter at first contemptuous of, then bewitched by, the antics of the patrician set in George Cukor's The Philadelphia Story (1940). Yet his most memorable work resulted from close collaborations with a trio of very different film-makers: Frank Capra, Mann and Hitchcock.

As a director, Capra could fairly be described as Stewart's equivalent behind the camera: he was folksy, shrewd and basically conservative. In the first of their three films together, a 1938 adaptation of the Kaufman and Hart farce You Can't Take It With You, Stewart played a minor but pivotal role as the scion of a wealthy, stultifyingly pompous family who is about to marry into a household of eccentrics. It was not until Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939), however, that their ideally matched talents properly cohered.

As a country-lawyer Candide confronted with the rapacious chicanery of politicians on the make, as an individual coming to the rescue of the system rather than vice versa (invariably the case with Capra's ultimately reactionary brand of sentimental populism), he embodied to perfection the "common-man" ideology of one of the American cinema's great naive communicators. (Ironically, at the height of the Watergate debacle, Stewart, now an ageing, superpatriotic movie star, once more went to Washington to offer the embattled President Nixon his disheartening and somewhat ill-timed support.) And in It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Capra's masterpiece, he was emblematically cast as a small-town businessman discovering, on the brink of suicide, just how essential he - and, by implication, his type - had always been to the defence and preservation of the American Way of Life.

With Anthony Mann, Stewart's participation was instrumental in a cycle of surprisingly complex and resonant westerns, from Winchester 73 in 1950 to The Man From Laramie in 1955. In these he played an obsessive, almost Chandlerian loner, except that it was not mean, dark city streets that he stalked but some of the most spectacular, and spectacularly filmed, landscapes of the American hinterland. The partnership proved less successful - although, in strictly commercial terms, even more popular - when it strayed from Hollywood's most elemental genre into the musical biography (The Glenn Miller Story, 1954) and the militaristic melodrama (Strategic Air Command, 1955). Stewart himself, it is worth noting, had led more than a thousand plane strikes over Germany in the Second World War, winning both the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

But it was Hitchcock who most keenly explored the possibility of a troubled psyche lurking just beneath Stewart's easy-going surface, and the four films which they made together figure among the best of both artists. In the first, Rope (1948), based on Patrick Hamilton's stage drama about a pair of motiveless young "thrill" murderers, the subtlety and intelligence of Stewart's performance were heightened by the director's virtuoso "10-minute take" technique, which virtually dispensed with editing. Rear Window (1954) found Stewart, as a photojournalist confined with a broken leg to a wheelchair ("an American in plaster-of-Paris", as someone once wisecracked), acting out the spectator's own voyeuristic fantasies through his fascination with the multiplicity of "screens" offered him by the courtyard windows that are all he can see from his apartment.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) was a more conventional chase thriller, in which it might be said that Stewart played a Capra character marooned in a Hitchcock movie. Vertigo (1958), on the other hand, remains one of the finest, most nightmarishly magical of all American films, and Stewart gave an unforgettable performance as a mentally unbalanced ex-policeman lured, not once but twice, to his doom by a frosty and near- somnambulistic Kim Novak.

In the Sixties he made three variously memorable John Ford westerns, Two Rode Together (1961), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964). But, with one stand-out exception, his late appearances represented not much more than a postscript to an exceptionally distinguished filmography. That exception, though - his portrait of a crafty, laconic, deceptively bumbling small-town lawyer in Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder (1959) - offered not merely a distillation of the screen persona he had built up over the years but a nostalgic reprise of the unassuming but unshakeable moral values of the original Mr Smith in Washington.

From the pulsating jazz of Duke Ellington and the jazzy credit titles designed by Saul Bass, Anatomy of a Murder proclaimed its modernity, writes Adrian Turner. No ordinary courtroom drama this, for it delves into a case of rape and murder and offers a pair of freshly laundered, though torn, ladies' panties as visible evidence.

In 1959, this was hot stuff, as was medical testimony about spermatogenesis, contraception and sexual climax. In view of this, the judge warns everyone in the courtroom (and the cinema, too) that any snickering will not be tolerated, After all, a man's life is at stake.

In the thick of things is James Stewart at his most Jimmy Stoowartish. As the small-town defence lawyer Paul Biegler - Polly to his friends - Stewart roots the film in integrity and when he gingerly handles the panties and talks of sperm no one snickers. Perhaps not even Gregory Peck could have carried that off as well. However, Stewart did receive letters from fans saying he should not have accepted such a grubby role.

The part might have been specifically written for him. But it wasn't. The novel by Robert Traver - the nom de plume of John Voelker, a retired judge - was an immediate best-seller, the Presumed Innocent of its day. Always on the lookout for risque material, the producer-director Otto Preminger snapped up the screen rights, filmed it entirely on location and had the edited film ready only three weeks after shooting ended.

Preminger was a big-game hunter who stalked the Major Themes of Our Time (justice in Anatomy of a Murder, democracy in Advise and Consent, drug addiction in The Man with the Golden Arm, Israeli nationalism in Exodus, the Catholic Church in The Cardinal) and turned them all into gripping melodramas, notable for their visual flourishes and their performances as much as their thematic "daring".

Stewart's character is single, wedded only to the law and to fishing. There is no proof of emotional repression, though Stewart hints at a past that remains forever a locked room - why, for example, did he resign as a District Attorney? He has a secretary (Eve Arden) who ribs him about her pay-checks (he spends all the legal fees on fishing tackle) and a soused sidekick. But, as with many of his roles, he is a loner.

He also brings with him the idealism of Mr Smith Goes To Washington, the small-town innocence of It's a Wonderful Life, the daydreamer of Harvey, the gullibility of The Philadelphia Story, the vulnerability of Rear Window.

Stewart brought a simple quality to his pictures. Audiences trusted him, they liked his lanky, drawling character and his awkwardness with women. In Anatomy of a Murder he finds himself both repelled by and attracted to Lee Remick, the flirtatious and apparent rape victim whose jealous soldier husband, Ben Gazzara, goes out and shoots the rapist, the manager of the local bar. Remick wears tight sweaters, slacks and no girdle. She is the very image of the post-Kinsey American woman - not a fantasy figure like Monroe, but palpably real. Stewart has first to get rape on the agenda for the trial and then avoid the inevitable accusaton that Remick was asking for it anyway (the movie surely provided the inspiration for the Jodie Foster picture The Accused).

If Remick represents the new open sexuality of America, George C. Scott (in his first major role) represents another kind of "progress". Scott is the big-city District Attorney sent to demolish the country hick Stewart. Their verbal sparring - Scott's slick, reptilian eloquence versus Stewart's dogged, hokey tenacity - provides one of the film's greatest pleasures as well as supporting its underlying theme.

Beneath the film's plot - its duplicities and patented "shock" witness whose revelation makes Scott nearly faint with wounded pride - is a parable about the wider morality of America. The actor clearly enjoying himself as the witty judge is Joseph P. Welch, a celebrated Boston lawyer who was an outspoken opponent of the McCarthy witch hunts. Preminger called him "the American conscience" and offered him the part after Spencer Tracy and Burl Ives turned it down. Welch's presence, albeit a rather subtle one, conveys the idea that the movie is about tearing down the veils of secrecy, persecution and prurience at the end of the post-war, Eisenhower era. And it was Preminger, of course, who broke the blacklist with his next picture by putting the writer Dalton Trumbo's name on the credits of Exodus.

Stewart's presence in this context is crucial. He has stood up for old- fashioned virtues, even as he swims in a virtual cesspool. His level-headed reasoning, his appeal to common humanity, his love of fishing, all correspond to the cosy, comforting image that we have of him. No wonder he wins the case, even if his defence of temporary insanity, or irresistible impulse, is tentative at best and that Gazzara is as sane as the next man. But afterwards, as he goes to collect his fee, he finds that Gazzara and Remick have flown - another case of irresistible impulse. All that is left is a garbage can with a broken shoe hanging on the rim.

Stewart has gone one way and America is headed in another. It was his last really major performance.

James Maitland Stewart, actor: born Indiana, Pennsylvania 20 May 1908; married 1949 Gloria McLean (died 1994; two daughters, one stepson, and one stepson deceased); died Beverly Hills, California 2 July 1997.