Nice Guy's Finish 

Jimmy Stewart and the human experience

Jimmy Stewart and the human experience

I am not sure Jimmy Stewart ever stammered. All the Jimmy Stewart impersonators would have us think he did, because it made their job easier to pretend that way. But I have gone back and watched a slew of Jimmy Stewart movies now, and I am convinced all the imitators, all the mimics, all the impersonators were wrong.

I will concede that, once in a while, and only if he chose to, Jimmy Stewart could stumble, but that is not at all the same thing as stammering. He would come barreling headlong down the length of a sentence and find himself teetering vertiginously over a precipice, as if his entire rickety windmill of a body might send itself hurdling, arms-first forward, into disaster, into a Main Line Philadelphia swimming pool, into an ice-floed river, into Jean Arthur’s glistening eyes. Then, when the sheer, breathless, mad tumble of the moment seemed as if it had no safety strap for anyone to hold on to, Jimmy Stewart would catch himself. He would pull himself back up. He would give a tug at his necktie, and the right word would come.

What’s more, when that right word came, we would be listening. We would be on the edge of our seats, leaning forward, praying for him just as we prayed for Roy Rogers in a Saturday-morning serial, just the way we prayed when a rum-crazed pirate took a swipe at Errol Flynn, just as we prayed when a 500-pound lion pulled back on its haunches and prepared to lunge into Johnny Weismuller’s size 17 neck. But, while most of us had never ridden a horse named Trigger or seen a doubloon or smelled the hot stink of a man-eating lion, we all had known Jimmy Stewart’s terror.

We had been in his little moment, infinitesimal to the rest of the world—the moment when we should have exchanged giving for grabbing, when we should have let the other guy have the girl—and we had never, not once, done the right thing. At such moments, Jimmy Stewart would get very quiet, as if he were sharing a world-changing secret. He would tell Jean Arthur about the magic that turns the grass green, and our lives, which seemed so much like his life, would be saved.

He was, in short, a very great actor. Too much has been said about the naturalness of his presence; too much has been said about the way he always seemed to be playing himself. There was nothing natural, or even naturalistic, at all about the way he could build a long speech, like his grand, Sandburg-like paean in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—the one that begins, “Liberty’s too precious a thing to be buried in books,” and goes on to talk about the summer wind “leaning” on the prairie grass. This was 1939, and Jimmy Stewart was all of 31, just seven years out of an architecture program at Princeton. I doubt he had ever seen a prairie, just as I doubt he had ever seen an 8-foot-tall rabbit by the time he had made Harvey in 1950.

Of course, Jimmy Stewart came into a world in which people wanted to believe in things. They could accept, at least for a couple of hours, that a perfectly sane young man could have a best friend who was a giant rabbit. They could believe in bumfuddling, still-wingless angels. They could believe in a family named Sycamore who made fireworks in their townhouse basement. They might have their cynical doubts about politicians, but it did not surprise them that, even in Mr. Smith’s graft-corrupted Washington, there were no fences around the White House. What mattered to them was ideals—at least that was what mattered to them when they went to the movies. When Jimmy Stewart teared up—and he did tear up, more than perhaps any other matinee idol of his generation—it never had anything to do with a dying Greta Garbo. It was most often for the sake of a seemingly broken dream.

In that way, Jimmy Stewart was a pre-World War II phenomenon, just as Robert Mitchum, who died one day before him, was completely postwar. Mitchum, a creation of the noir-ish late ’40s and the distrustful ’50s, was all sex and danger and ill-defined menace. Jimmy Stewart, tailored for the desperately hopeful, we’re-all-in-this-together Depression years, was all easy-going, lanky-legged goodness.

Later, when audiences went to see him in The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, or Rear Window, not even Hitchcock could get that near-hokey but still sophisticated goodness out of their minds. That had to be, after all, why Hitchcock cast him. Jimmy Stewart’s mere presence in a Hitchcock movie seemed to be a red herring. In such off-kilter surroundings, his straightforward elegance suggested the canniest sort of non sequitur.

It is that elegance of Jimmy Stewart’s that we seem to have forgotten now. We remember him as the half-bumpkin, lovable loser George Bailey of It’s a Wonderful Life, but we forget that he played society boys as often as he played normal Joes. We forget that he partnered with Eleanor Powell in Born to Dance, that Cole Porter let him introduce “Easy to Love,” and that he did not make a fool of himself. That elegance stuck with him long after he had quit even trying to be a song-and-dance man. Always, even though he was sparing of gesture, his limbs seemed as flexible as rapier blades. His clothes hung on him easily. When he wanted to, he could move with the grace of Astaire.

Jimmy Stewart knew when to keep such beauty to himself. When he needed to, he kept his eloquent hands in his pockets. When he wanted to let us see George Bailey’s weary desperation, his feet grew leaden and one leg tripped mean-spiritedly over the other. When he wanted us to see Jefferson Smith’s nervousness in the presence of a senator’s prick-teasing daughter, his crumpled felt fedora would start playing a cruel game of catch with itself.

None of this was the work of a man who ever stammered. It was the work of a man who was willing to let us see him stumble. But then, Jimmy Stewart existed in a world in which stumbling was not taken for a mortal sin. In his world, the only damnation would have come if he had not gotten up again, if he had not jumbled his way on through the sentence, if he had not stuck with it until it came out right. He convinced us all that, more often than not, the fumbling guy can rise to the occasion. That is why we always called him Jimmy.

What we forget is that he was a great artist. That’s why, in the movie posters, they always called him James.

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