Go to Jimmy Stewart's obituary.



A Wonderful Life

Jimmy Stewart Mixed Innocence and Anger and Became a Legend

By Paul Hendrickson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 3, 1997; Page B01

What we will remember about him always is the recoiling modesty, that winning stammer, but most of all his sense of utter naturalness. How many movie stars in history can that be said of? Watching him, and he was so compulsively watchable, you never got the idea he was playing a role. You never felt he was in a movie. The actor in him just disappeared.

Yesterday, a man born 89 years ago in a small Pennsylvania town, son of a hardware merchant, just disappeared. His name was James Stewart.

He was probably the most important American film actor since John Wayne. He died of cardiac arrest in a big Tudor house in Beverly Hills, Calif. The day before, Robert Mitchum, another Hollywood redwood, died a little farther up the coast, in Santa Barbara. Whether it is exactly true or not, the feeling this morning is that now they are all gone. The true postwar American movie legends, that is.

American movie legend -- it sounds so highfalutin. Let's call him instead the string bean of our dreams.

Was there ever an actor more lovingly impersonated? It was only a measure of how much he endeared himself to us. Who will ever sit around at parties 40 years from now doing impressions of Harrison Ford or Mel Gibson or even Robert Redford? The odds are good they'll still be doing Stewart. This is not to denigrate Ford or Gibson or Redford; only to say that Jimmy Stewart is of a different order of magnitude. Something beyond acting, something beyond cinema. Something that got into the core of our being.

How did he ever manage that trick of inspired averageness, even when he was playing uncommon men like Lindbergh and Glenn Miller?

He was about enduring American values. He was about decency.

But we stereotype him at our peril. Hitchcock, for one, sensed the hidden other depths. He put them brilliantly to use in three classic '50s films: "Rear Window" (where you saw a morbid Stewart curiosity bordering on voyeurism); "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (where you saw a very convincing vindictiveness); and "Vertigo" (where you got the not-quite-clear compulsions and eerie sexual obsession).

And yet that sense of everyday goodness overshadows it all. Here is a story about him: In 1982, on the 50th anniversary of his Princeton graduation class, he sent in his contribution to the big book that told what all the class members were doing. He gave his California phone number. You know, just in case anybody passing through town wanted to get in touch.

The death of his wife, Gloria Hatrick McLean, in early 1994, apparently hit him very hard. He seldom left home after that.

He won the Best Actor Academy Award in 1940 opposite Katharine Hepburn for "The Philadelphia Story." But it seems unarguable that the black-and-white masterpiece we will always link his name with first is "It's a Wonderful Life." It's the tale of George Bailey, small-town dreamer and good egg with a dark side. It's such a tired Christmas movie, but who can get enough of it? Somewhere in Heaven this morning, Clarence and Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart are whistling "Buffalo Gals, Won'tcha Come Out Tonight." Okay, okay, that's being sentimental.

Once, my children gave me my own copy of the movie. For weeks afterward, we'd sit in the den with the remote control and compulsively replay that scene in the first few minutes of the film when George rescues his kid brother, Harry, who fell through a hole in the ice at the town skating pond.

In 1991, when I told my sons I was going out to California to interview the real George Bailey for Life magazine, my then 3-year-old, John, told me to be sure and ask George if he was over his earache yet. Because, as everybody knows, when George jumped in to save Harry from drowning that afternoon, he caught a bad cold that messed up his hearing for life.

The maid let me in the front door. Probably I was still a little undone at how easy it was to get in -- there weren't any hedges or electronic gates or people coming out of sentry boxes.

The maid said, "They're on the patio," and I, in my anxiety and clunkiness, walked straight toward them, smack into the fine-mesh screen of a sliding glass door that led to a walled-off back yard where there was a lap pool. I knocked the thing right off its hinges.

"Great entrance," his wife said, coming over to pat my shoulder like a mom comforting a geeky son. "Don't worry, I've done it a couple of times myself."

He said nothing at first. He walked straight past me and picked up the kicked-out screen and began replacing it in the roller track. His bony arms were stretched to either side.

In that low, seriocomic voice, drawing out the words, he said, "You're . . . not . . . the . . . first." They were his opening words.

A couple minutes later, trying to break the ice, I asked him if he was over his earache yet. And he laughed. And we got along fine.

He said that George Bailey was his favorite role. "Maybe not for the right reasons," he said. "It could be a sentimental feeling. It's the first picture I did after returning from the war. Then, too, I guess I like the idea of it. You see, it didn't come from a book. It didn't come from a play. It came from one small statement: Nobody is born to be a failure."

I asked what he would do if they came to him right then with a part that had George Bailey's magic. His answer was incomparably sad, but clear-eyed. "It's over. It's over. No, it's over."

He was 83 years old. He had another six years to live. He had more hearing to lose, a wife to lose. The short-term memory was failing. In that moment he surveyed me with something like toughness.

"If they came to me? Right now? With that kind of part? No, it's still over. I think it's a time thing. I've run out. I've run out of acting ability. And I think it's just age. I'm sorry if people don't like it that way."

A Regular Joe
He was a real-life war hero. But do you link his name with war movies, as we indelibly and instantly do with, say, Wayne, who was not a war hero? Jimmy Stewart was earning $3,000 a week as a contract star in 1941 when he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He flew 20-odd missions in a B-24 "Liberator." He won the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, the French Croix de Guerre. He came out of the war as a colonel. Life magazine followed him home to Indiana, Pa., where he waved in his uniform from the courthouse.

His father had the J.M. Stewart hardware on Philadelphia street, a purveyor of horse brushes and railroad chalk and lye soap.

That was September 1945. It's one of the famous Life covers. He looked smashing. He was still a bachelor. Hedda Hopper, for one, kept wondering in her columns when he'd ever take a bride.

He used to say he could never quite remember when he met Gloria. He thinks they sat next to each other at a party at Gary Cooper's. He probably didn't say much.

He was about innocence -- though not entirely. The portrayal of Jefferson Smith in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" is one of his finest performances. Here he is arriving in Washington so wide-eyed, taking in all the sights from a taxi. But there is much anger in that movie, too, when Sen. Smith finally learns how much corruption had been everywhere around him.

Lest we forget, there's also a lot of working-stiff anger in the deceptively simple "It's a Wonderful Life."

So, too: You search Jimmy Stewart's idyllic childhood life in small-town Pennsylvania and you find the Boy Scout who built model airplanes and crystal radio sets and did magic tricks in the parlor for his sisters. But you also find a 10-year-old who had a mysteriously fierce temper who raged to kill the next-door neighbor's dog because that dog had killed his own dog, Bounce.

He was all the things we thought he was. And he was also more. Which is why he turned out to be such a powerful actor. He was using it all.

The truth is, the air of uncomplicated innocence was never quite right.

And yet what lingers, after spending an afternoon with him, is the memory of such a decidedly nice person.

Man of the People
Luck had to play a wonderful part in his life. At Princeton he ate in the right eating clubs and made friends with people named Joshua Logan and Leonard Firestone. After graduation ('32), he lucked into some summer stock on Cape Cod, and then it was just lucking on out to Hollywood. For a time he'd acted in Manhattan. Guess who his roommate was? Some striving young thespian named Henry Fonda. Out in California, they became roomies again.

Within three years, he had his first Oscar nomination, for "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," and then the next year he had the Academy Award itself. The mystery of success, of luck, the mystery of a passage from here to there. It is the mystery of all great leaps, though in Stewart's case you want to say he did it by just being himself.

Receiving the life achievement award of the American Film Institute in 1980, he said simply: "I give you James Stewart, a remarkably fortunate fellow."

On his 75th birthday, in 1983, he went back to Indiana, Pa., for a big do. It was covered extensively. Ronald Reagan was president then and sent jets flying over the old courthouse. There were parades and a key-to-the-city. There was the unveiling of a nine-foot statue. City officials showered tributes on him like rice at a wedding.

"Well," he said, clearing his throat, wagging his noggin, when it was finally his turn to say something, "this is, um, turning out to be, um, an extraordinary birthday, and I must say, I've, um, had my share of them."

Then he sat down next to his wife. He was wearing a plaid coat and a polka-dot tie.

The string bean of our dreams.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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