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The Ottawa Citizen (23/Apr/1990) - Jimmy Stewart: An average guy is paid tribute



Jimmy Stewart: An average guy is paid tribute

A director who worked with him just after he arrived in Hollywood in 1935 once described him as "unusually usual."

Even with a pair of Oscars on his mantel and after a distinguished career of more than 70 films in which he played everything from idealistic young swains to ruthless bounty hunters, James Stewart still likes to cast himself in the role of the average guy who owes everything he has to hard work and lucky breaks.

"It's been an amazing 50 years, and so much of it has been pure good fortune," he drawled as he sat in the garden of his Tudor-style home here one sunny afternoon a few days ago. "I've been in the right place at the right time."

In fact, he said, had his friend Joshua Logan not persuaded him to give the University Players a try back when both were students at Princeton, "I'd have gone back to Indiana, Pa., and gotten into my father's hardware store" and probably lived no less wonderful a life.

Instead, Jimmy Stewart came West, signed a three-month contract with the old M-G-M studios in 1935 and more than fulfilled the prediction of a comedian named Ted Healy who, Stewart recalled, told him early on that "it's a screwy business" but "it's possible you just could make it out here."

Tonight in New York, the Film Society of Lincoln Centre is to pay tribute to the actor, who at nearly 82 years of age is now the last of the major male stars of the golden era of pre-Second World War Hollywood.

But in typical fashion, Stewart sees his success in films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and The Philadelphia Story more as a triumph of persistence than of sheer talent.

"The main thing was that you were busy all the time when you were working at a studio," he said. "People today don't realize that you didn't sit around and wait for somebody to call you and send you a script you liked. You went to work every morning at 8 and left at 6:30 and you had big parts in little pictures and little parts in big pictures. You were working all of the time, learning your craft by working, by tackling different things."

"I've always been absolutely 100 per cent for the studio system," he continued.

Stewart's artisan's attitude extended even to the way he regarded his instantly recognizable voice, with all its hemming and hawing and elongated vowels and octave shifts, a voice that has been imitated in hundreds of comedy acts and advertisements.

"I never thought about it, not even in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," he said. In the moving scenes of Jefferson Smith's filibuster in the Senate, Stewart explained, his almost hysterical hoarseness was achieved not by tapping into deep wells of emotion, but simply by having a physician apply a mercury solution to inflame and irritate his vocal cords.

"I'm sure the Method people wouldn't have approved of it, but I was in trouble," he recalled.

With the same enthusiasm, Stewart also recalled the hours spent off the set, particularly those in the company of his buddy Henry Fonda, a New Deal Democrat who could not fathom Stewart's life-long conservative Republicanism.

They roomed with Burgess Meredith on Manhattan's West Side when they were all young stage actors on Broadway. When Stewart and Fonda went to Hollywood, they lived for a time in a rented house next door to Greta Garbo, trying unsuccessfully to find a way to meet her.

Often the two went out together on double dates. He recalled that one night Fonda was with Barbara Stanwyck and he was with Lucille Ball.

Still, for all his fondness for those days at M-G-M, Stewart was one of the people who helped break the studio system by becoming a freelance star when he returned from the Second World War, during which he served as a flight instructor and bomber pilot and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Croix de Guerre.

In addition, he was shortly thereafter perhaps the first of Hollywood's big names to accept a percentage of the gross earnings of a film, rather than a salary, as payment for his services.

In that changing Hollywood, Stewart found it easy to reinvent himself by playing darker and more complicated characters. Throughout the '50s, perhaps the period of his greatest popularity, he played cowboys, some of them of dubious character, in a series of memorable westerns directed by Anthony Mann, as well as mature men of experience in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window and Vertigo.

"I've always thought acting is a job you work at and learn, and I don't think you ever stop learning how to act," he said. "The very idea of changing my whole thing from the sort of shy, fumbling fellow to the western was just my work.

What is sometimes forgotten, though, is that when Stewart first returned from the war, he endured something of a professional dry spell.

When work did come it was in the form of It's a Wonderful Life. That movie is now one of the most popular of all time, but when it was first released, it lost money at the box office, and Stewart and Frank Capra, the director, feared it would derail their careers.

"It was sort of a bad time for all of us," he continued. "It broke Frank's company, Liberty Films, and he and Willie Wyler and George Stevens had to sell their assets to Paramount.

These days, Stewart said, he still sees an occasional script, but most of the roles call for "a crotchety old grandfather" and he would prefer something that recognizes his age but would not force him to play what he regards as stereotypes. In addition he uses a hearing aid and in recent years has had a heart condition and a bout with skin cancer. He'll be 82 in a couple of weeks.