Jimmy Stewart: Everybody's All-American
by Debbie Papio, September 13, 1997
Baseball, hotdogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. It was a slogan that
summed up the basics of an All-American picture. Yet a deep and profound
piece is missing from this picture. James Maitland Stewart is that piece.
He is as All-American as you can possibly get. Jimmy Stewart will go down
in history as being one of the greatest and most beloved actors in the
movie industry. Loved for his "aw shucks" lanky mannerisms and
his down to earth honesty, Stewart represented everything that was good
and right in this world. Even on those rare occasions when he was playing
a bad guy, you couldn't stay mad at him. He just had this compelling way
of drawing his audience in with his adorable stutter and kindly blue eyes.
Stewart's history in Hollywood is rich. Best friends with Henry
Fonda and loved by all of his peers, he was by no means considered
the most talented actor but he commanded great respect from everyone. Some
leading ladies, including gorgeous cool blondes like Grace
Kelly and Kim Novak, claim that he was the sexiest leading man they'd
ever worked with.
Certainly, Stewart didn't possess the intense dark looks of Tyrone
Power or the debonair manner of Cary Grant
but what was so overwhelmingly sexual about him was his honesty and integrity.
Although shy by nature, Stewart was a very attractive man who held a lot
of appeal. It wasn't so much a physical thing. He was awkward at times
and quiet and comfortable and that is what everyone loved about him. He
was like Hollywood's version of Abe Lincoln. He was dependable and he could
be everyone's buddy. And he was, even for those people who were never lucky
enough to meet him. Everyone could relate to him on one level or another.
Even through his acting, it wasn't hard to see that Jimmy Stewart the man
was as "everyday" as some of the characters that he's played.
A very versatile actor, he's done it all--comedy, romance, westerns,
suspense, mystery and adventure. He's played a clown, a senator, doctor,
shopkeeper, a cowboy and a whole slew of other characters. Many of those
characters are trademarks of Stewart's, what he is best known for and what
he will always be remembered for. John Wayne
is the all-time great cowboy and Charlton
Heston will always best be remembered for his amazing portrayals in
religious epics such as The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur.
Stewart's best remembered characters cannot be categorized into one specific
type. They are a wide range of individuals from all walks of life.
He has starred in his fair share of westerns, such as The Shootist
and Destry Rides Again. He has also portrayed many famous personalities,
such as musician Glenn Miller and baseball player Monty Stratton. But he
will mostly be remembered for his portrayal as the everyday man. What follows
are descriptions are some of my favorite Stewart characterizations.
As the lovable drunk Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey, Stewart's best
friend is a six foot invisible rabbit. Everyone thinks that Dowd is completely
off his rocker but we as the audience are truly led to believe that Harvey
does exist. Dowd is such an innocent buffoon that you can't believe that
he could possibly be insane in any way. We know Harvey exists. And we want
to believe that he does because Stewart makes it that way. He so utterly
charming and polite as Dowd, even if he is a drunk. At the end of the movie,
Harvey is as real and as lovable as Dowd himself.
As L.B. Jeffries, the peeping tom who gets involved with murder,
mayhem and Grace Kelly
in the classic Rear Window, Stewart finds that he has too much time
on his hands. Laid up in a stuffy apartment while recovering from an injury,
"Jeff" spends his days and nights staring out at the back window
at the courtyard. As a photographer who is constantly on the go from one
assignment to the next, Jeff hates being cooped up in the hot, steamy apartment.
At first he is bored out of his mind but then one of his neighbors commits murder, or at least Jeff swears he does, and the rest of the movie takes
us on an adventure that's more thrilling than any of his photography assignments.
Is it Jeff's overworked imagination that leads him to believe that somebody
on the other side of the courtyard offend his wife? Is it his boredom that
makes him imagine things? While Kelly provides the love interest, Thelma
Ritter provides comic relief and Raymond Burr provides the knives and
saws. While Stewart's acting is physically limiting in this movie (he is
wheelchair bound), this is one of his finest roles and one of Alfred
Hitchcock's best films. Stewart proves that even in a wheelchair, you
can't keep a good man down.
One of Stewart's most breathtaking performances is as Senator Jefferson
Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to
Washington. As his portrayal of a young, naive senator who takes
on corrupt politicians, Stewart is phenomenal in this film. His filibuster
scene is one of the greatest on celluloid, a fiery performance that shows
the passionate and pissed off side to James Stewart. It's a scene as remarkable
as the parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments, albeit in
a different manner. Stewart sticks up for the "little guy" in
this movie and he wins. He shows us that no matter what kind of power other
people think they have over you, you can beat them. You just have to stick
to your morals and your beliefs and he has taught us that lesson throughout
his entire career.
James Stewart will best be remembered as George Bailey, the lost
soul who thinks about taking his own life on Christmas Eve. It's
a Wonderful Life is Frank
Capra's best film and while it never received good reviews when it
first came out, it is now one of the most beloved and watched movies ever.
Some people have claimed that this movie saved them when they had thoughts
of suicide themselves. This movie is one reason why Stewart is considered
to be a national treasure.
George is saved from suicide by his guardian angel Clarence who is
sent down from Heaven on that snowy Christmas Eve. George contemplates
jumping off of a bridge but Clarence jumps in first knowing that George
will save him. Clarence is a clumsy and bumbling guardian angel, no doubt,
but he finally earns his wings when George realizes what a mistake he would
have made. George realizes how big of a hole there would be in the world
if he would have never been born. Clarence shows how the lives of the people
that George loves the most would be changed and that despite his financial
woes, life goes on. And it does. This movie teaches all of us a valuable
lesson and that is no matter how overwhelming life can be sometimes, there
is still someone there who will always love us and care about us. We can
always turn to somebody and pray to our guardian angel at the same time.
If there is one movie that James Stewart will definitively be associated
with, It's a Wonderful Life
James Stewart truly had a wonderful life. A great actor, a war hero,
a loving husband and devoted father, he had it all. And although I have
never met him, I've considered him to be one of my closest friends.
My father gave me an appreciation for the classic movies that is
deep and passionate. Stewart has been my favorite actor for as long as
I can remember. He has always been my idol, the one person in the world
I wish I could have sat down to have dinner with, just to be in the presence
of his greatness. I started corresponding with him several years ago when
my grandmother was able to obtain his home address for me. When he wrote
back to me, sending a beautiful autographed 8"x10" photograph
and a very nice letter, I was so overjoyed with happiness that I broke
down into tears. I called every single person in the world that I knew.
I could not believe that this legend, this larger than life hero to me
had actually taken the time to lick a stamp for me. And so pushing my luck,
I kept up a correspondence with him for years, sending him a birthday card
every year and cards at every holiday. At first he'd personally write back
himself but then as he became ill, his secretary was kind enough to reply
to me for him. When his wife Gloria died, I sent a sympathy card. And I
wish I could have been there to comfort him, to hug him and tell him how
sorry I was for his loss. James Stewart had it all but everyone knew the
deep love and devotion that he had for his wife. Nothing really mattered
to him as much as she did.
On the day that I found out that James Stewart had died, I'd been
writing at my computer and had not yet heard of the sad news. My mother
called from her job to tell me and my sister had taken the phone call.
When my sister came to tell me, I broke down into tears. My sister cried
with me too because she understood my pain and devastation. I cried the
whole day and the day after that as well. And I'm certain that I was hardly
alone in my tears. I felt as if I had lost a dear, close friend. And my
dream of one day meeting him had died with him. My family cried with me
because they had admired him too but they had cried for me because he had
meant so much to me. My friends all called me to express their sympathies
to me. It was as if Jimmy Stewart had really been a close friend of the
family. Everyone in my world knew what he had meant to me and I know that
there are so many people out there who feel this same way about him.
James Stewart is an American icon, a Hollywood legend who was more
than just a talented actor. He was our friend, our father, our grandfather.
He made us laugh and he made us cry. He gave us so much and we are eternally
grateful that we have our memories of him to treasure forever. If there
is any one person in this world who showed class and dignity throughout
his entire life, it is James Maitland Stewart. He's had a wonderful life
and he helped to make all our lives a little more wonderful as well. And perhaps
someday, I will realize my dream and finally get to meet him. Until
then, I know that he is happy in Heaven, reunited with his wife Gloria.
And perhaps, maybe he is being a guardian angel to us all.
© 1997 Debbie Papio
(Send your comments on this article to the author, Debbie
Papio, at Deb.Mush@worldnet.att.net.