Jimmy Stewart, Rest In Peace
(July 2, 1997) Early this afternoon, I got the news that someone very dear to me had passed away. I went home, eased into my favorite chair, and thought about Jimmy Stewart. I thought about what he'd always meant to me, and what he'd always seemed to stand for, and what he'd given me over the years. And I realized that, in one moment, I'd lost a role model, a father figure, and an old pal.
This was a man that had made me believe that lost causes were the only things worth fighting for, just as his Jefferson Smith had believed in 1939. He had been a welcome guest in my home every Christmas, when his George Bailey helped me remember that, no matter what, life is indeed rich as long as you've got friends. Thanks to his Elwood P. Dowd, I learned how to accept people, whether they're a little bit off-center or not, and, sometimes, even if they're a six-foot tall invisible rabbit named Harvey.
There will never be another Jimmy Stewart. He was one of us, an Everyman. He didn't "use film to send a message," he never commanded Willis or Stallone money, and he was never "a writer-director-producer who also acted." He was simply an actor, one of the select few that could make us see everything through his eyes. He could be a cowboy, a senator, or a defense attorney in the blink of an eye. His characters never jumped off the screen and screamed "look at me" the way most do now. Rather, he took the opposite approach. He played the understatement. He could be talking to himself and saying volumes. His rage was usually a quiet, smoldering fire instead of a wild inferno. You could hear his internal turmoil without a word.
As I relaxed in that chair, I wondered what movie could best capture Stewart in my mind. It's a Wonderful Life, maybe, for the idealism. Harvey, The Philadelphia Story, or even The Cheyenne Social Club showed the playful side of the man. Anatomy of a Murder and Vertigo showed his inner power. He was brave enough to show a dark side in The Flight of the Phoenix, a man afraid of failure, but angry and spiteful. There were fifty others that flew into my mind, examples of his versatility, his art. I remembered Rope, Rear Window, Liberty Valance, Destry, Glenn Miller, Broken Arrow, The Man Who Knew Too Much, so many scenes, so many memories....
There were, though, two performances, that have always stood out in my mind. He played Charles Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis, a biographical film of the famous pilot. It's a good film, and it has good performances all around, but there comes the point of the film when Lindy made the flight across the Atlantic. At that point of the film, it becomes something special. Stewart, as Lindbergh, is sitting in his plane, making the journey. The scene is maybe twenty minutes or so, but during that twenty minutes, Stewart doesn't speak a word. Lindbergh's voice is heard, but only as a voiceover, as Lindy thinks to himself. Stewart reacts visually to every word, but doesn't speak onscreen. Watching Stewart react to his own words is a thing of mastery.
The other performance is, as you might guess, in Mr Smith Goes to Washington. I point out one scene above all others as the stuff of genius. There is a scene where Stewart, as Smith, is meeting the very lovely daughter of Senator Paine (Claude Rains). It's obvious that Smith is completely flustered by this woman. When she crosses to him, the director, Frank Capra, drops the camera's eye down about two feet. Instead of focusing on the actors' faces, Capra zeroes in on Stewart's hands as they hold a hat. There is incidental dialogue as Miss Paine flirts with the naive Smith, but nothing worth really hearing. Watch Stewart's hands, though. His Smith fumbles so nervously with that poor felt fedora, it almost becomes a part of his body. He drops it, he twists it, he flips it. It quivers with Smith's nervous voice and shaky hands. That hat becomes Stewart, and Stewart becomes that hat, twisting and falling and trying desperately to make it all hang together.
That is acting, anyway you slice it.
There are people who like to play the Question Game; you know, "Who would you trade places with for a day?" -- that sort of thing. I wish somebody would ask me this one: Who would you most like to sit on a front porch and talk to? I know what my answer would be.
Me and Jimmy Stewart, sitting on that porch, sipping a bit of iced tea. Maybe he'd tell me stories about the old MGM days, or tell me about his friendship with Henry Fonda, or maybe he'd just read his poetry to me all afternoon. Anything would be fine with me.
He was a fine man, and he will be missed, by myself and every other film fan out there. He was the exception when he should have been the rule. Rest in peace, Jimmy Stewart.
Get "reel" soon,
For more on Jimmy Stewart and his glorious career, see the Jimmy Stewart Museum.
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