Thursday, October 30, 2014

Jimmy, We Hardly Knew Ye

I'm a big fan of Jimmy Stewart so when I saw a new biography of him at the library--Michael Munn's Jimmy Stewart: The Truth Behind The Legend--I checked it out.

It's quite a career.  After appearing on Broadway in a number of shows, he signed a contract with MGM in the mid-30s.  He learned his craft doing supporting work in a fair number of films--often interesting ones like Wife vs. Secretary, Born To Dance and After The Thin Man. But from the start you could see he had something.  He wasn't shockingly handsome, like Gary Cooper or Cary Grant, or impossibly masculine, like Clark Gable, but he managed to be both an average guy and someone special at the same time.  A pretty good trick.

In a few years he was a lead, doing fine work in titles like Vivacious Lady, The Shopworn Angel, You Can't Take It With You, Made For Each Other and It's A Wonderful World.  By the late 30s he was a major star, and I think in this period he made his greatest films--Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Destry Rides Again, the unsurpassable The Shop Around The Corner and The Philadelphia Story (for which he won an Oscar).

The came the war and, like so many Stewart men before him, he enlisted, even as Louis B. Mayer begged him to stick around.  He flew many mission and rose high in the ranks.  When he returned to movies four years later there were plenty of new stars and it wasn't clear if there was still a place for him. Yet somehow he managed to do more challenging work than any other big name from the pre-war era. (He also became, with the help of agent Lew Wasserman, the first actor to demand a percentage of his films, changing Hollywood forever.)

To begin with, there was It's A Wonderful Life.  Done with his early favorite director Frank Capra, it's probably his best performance.  But though it's now a classic, it flopped in 1946. For a few years he had trouble finding his footing--he even went back to Broadway to take over the lead in the hit comedy Harvey.  There was also his first collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock--the experimental Rope--which didn't work.  Still, this was a new Stewart, and he was starting to show a darker side on screen than we'd seen before.

Then with Winchester '73 he started his famous series of Westerns with director Anthony Mann.  The films revolutionized the genre and revitalized his career.  Others in the series include Bend Of The RiverThe Naked Spur and The Far Country. Mann also directed him in other movies, such as The Glenn Miller Story and Strategic Air Command. Unfortunately they had a falling out and never worked again after The Man From Laramie in 1955. (On the other hand, he became good friends with Henry Fonda again around this time after falling out during the HUAC era--Stewart was Right, Fonda was Left.)

Stewart also worked with other major directors, above all Hitchcock.  Though Rope had been an unpleasant experience, the next film--equally experimental--was Rear Window, much more satisfying and a hit.  Then they made The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo, the latter a flop but today well-regarded (or I'd say insanely well-regarded, since it's recently been voted the greatest film of all time and I don't even think it's that good).

There was also Call Northside 777 with Henry Hathaway, The Greatest Show On Earth (winner of the Best Picture Oscar for some reason) with Cecil B. DeMille, The Spirit Of St. Louis (a huge flop about Lindbergh that some now like) with Billy Wilder, Anatomy Of A Murder with Otto Preminger and The Flight Of The Phoenix with Robert Aldrich.  Then there were three films he made with John Ford, including The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In addition, he made hits like The Stratton Story, Broken Arrow and Harvey.  But starting around the 60s, Stewart was getting older and found himself passed over for top roles.  Some of the films he made then did alright, and it's always nice to see him on screen, but he wasn't quite the star he'd been.  By the 70s he started working regularly in TV and in the 80s and 90s was mostly retired from show business.

That's the story, and Munn gets it across, and that's about the best you can say for the book.  He puts the basic facts out there, and has some inside information, but the book is poorly written--or should I say compiled, since he relies on so many lengthy quotes that it's closer to an oral history.

Munn is a British writer who's done quite a few actors' biographies, though his reputation is not of the highest order--he allegedly fills his books with rumors, though I couldn't say.  At least it's true as a young man on the entertainment beat he got to know Stewart and his wife Gloria in the 70s, so he had many lengthy interviews to refer to.

This book came out in America recently but it was released over there in 2006.  You might think the British angle wouldn't matter, but it shows up every now and then in odd ways.  For instance, Munn mentions more than once that Stewart was sort of racist.  He doesn't actually prove it so much as have people suggest it, but his discussion seems lacking.  Perhaps the charge of racism doesn't sting so much in Britain, so he can bring it up casually, rather than doing the proper research to say something more definitive.

And then you get those different spellings.  You may not think it would make much difference, but when a great flier like Jimmy Stewart is taking his first trip in an "aeroplane" it feels weird. And when someone is talking about how African-Americans used to be referred to as "coloureds" it's weird squared.  Then there's Munn quoting Stewart saying that John Ford lost interest in movies and instead "liked to talk about his days in the navy, or about sport." I guess I should be lucky that when Munn talks about Stewart's weaknesses as a schoolboy he doesn't quote Stewart as saying "I was never good at maths."

There are other potentially British-flavored moments, such as when Munn feels it necessary to note that Stewart's college Princeton is highly prestigious.  And sometimes there are mistakes, such as when Ed Sullivan is spelled "Sullavan"--an error an American entertainment writer probably wouldn't make.  Though in general there's poor editing--at one point Stewart's character in Harvey, Elwood P. Dowd, is given the first name "Howard."

Munn starts with a bit of family history, and Stewart's early days, which are interesting (and I assume correct).  Turns out Jimmy was a lady killer even before he was famous.  There was just something that drew them in--almost seemed like he couldn't help it.  In his early acting days, he worked closely with best friend Henry Fonda, Joshua Logan and Margaret Sullavan.  He fell in love with Sullavan and she with him, but they never married.  Munn theorizes she put her career first and knew a marriage wouldn't work out (and it didn't with future husbands).  She was the great love of his life (with the possible exception of his wife Gloria), and she haunts the book, all the way up to her death--a likely suicide, in 1960.  She would go on to marry Fonda, and soon after divorce him.  Munn believes Stewart wouldn't marry her after that because it would have hurt their friendship.  In any case, Sullavan was the first of the group to make it in Hollywood, and she'd go on to star in four films with Stewart, helping him out in his early days.

Stewart never thought much about acting as a career in his early days. He studied to be an architect.  But he was an entertaining sort of guy--who could play the accordion, which somehow helped--and he backed into it. Even back then, in his smallest roles, he had a presence.  He and Fonda roomed together in New York trying to make it on Broadway. Once again, the women were all over them.  And then when Stewart became a star, he had affairs with several of his leading ladies, including Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers and Marlene Dietrich.  He didn't settle down until he was in his forties, marrying beautiful socialite Gloria Hatrick.  She had two boys from a previous marriage whom he helped raise (one died in Vietnam) and she bore him two daughters as well.

Munn's "truth behind the legend" is often the least interesting part of the book--much of it deals with Jimmy's secret work with the FBI.  Stewart hated gangsters like Bugsy Siegel, wanting them run out of Hollywood, and as a patriotic American who'd fought bravely in the war, was happy to work with J. Edgar Hoover and vice versa.  But Hoover was fighting against communists, and left organized crime alone. Munn's theory (presented as fact) was that the mafia had proof of Hoover's homosexuality, so the FBI looked the other way when it came to the mob.  Perhaps this is true, but then Munn also implies that the Mafia was involved in the deaths of Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy, so I'm not sure if he can be trusted.

Another "truth" behind the legend is that Stewart could get tremendously angry.  Usually he was good-natured, but when pushed too far he could get volcanic.  I believe this, since anyone who's seen his post-War movies knows the dark and bitter side he could show. Yet another "truth" I already knew was that Stewart worked hard at making his character seem artless.  He believed acting was a craft, something one should always be working on.  Many called him a natural actor, and believed he was just playing himself.  He had natural talent, yes, and rarely played outside a certain zone (didn't do accents, for example), but that "natural" style was developed through years of hard work.

If I had read other books on Stewart, I'd tell you which ones to check out.  But my advice, if you want to know about him, is to try someone else before you try Michael Munn's book.  It's not terrible, but I have to believe there's something better out there.


Anonymous Lawrence King said...

Why do you (or Munn?) believe that Rope was a failure? I know very little about film, and have only seen half a dozen Hitchcock movies, but I liked it quite a bit.

I agree that Vertigo is overrated.

When you mention that Stewart "worked hard at making his character seem artless", I immediately thought of Bruce Springsteen's early albums, with his raw, from the heart singing style and the LP photograph of Springsteen looking like he just walked in from a streetfight, when in fact he spent months re-recording his songs and re-shooting his photos.

12:05 PM, October 30, 2014  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Rope was a failure because it got bad reviews and didn't make money. It's an interesting experiment, and has fans today, but I still don't think it's that highly regarded.

12:45 PM, October 30, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bruce Springsteen the star is a highly artificial invention of many hands. I'm surprised how gullible rock critics were to buy it, but after a while they had as much invested in his success as Bruce did.

5:15 PM, October 30, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Invented authenticity is as important as if not better than actual authenticity. Its all about the mind of the consumer.

7:43 AM, November 02, 2014  
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